Sunday, June 16, 2019

Hurston and Hoodoo, Mules and Men

Okay, so here’s the thing.  This post was supposed to be written in February.  The plan was to spend some time on African, African-American and Caribbean folklore for Black History Month.  I’ve done something like that before, but it turned out kind of sour because I failed to research ahead, so that while it was all black folklore, all the writers and folk tale collectors I drew from ended up being white folks (whoops).  However, as I started taking longer to read everything and productivity spiraled way down from a post a week to a post a month, this got pushed way back.

However, the show must go on!

Mules and Men is a 1935 autoethnographical folklore collection by African-American anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston.  The book covers two folklore collecting trips into the deep South.  One to Eatonville and Polk County in Florida and another to New Orleans.
It’s hard to describe Mules and Men, exactly.  At least, if you don’t already know what “autoethnographical” means.  The book doesn’t read like a traditional folk tale collection.  The book instead reads like the story of Hurston’s research trip punctuated with stories and songs as she heard them from the people she encountered.  It’s actually a rather smart thing to do, as it puts the stories, songs and traditions presented in the context of the social lives of African-American people of that specific region and time period.  The closest thing they had to that kind of context previously in written form was the fictional plantation context created by Joel Chandler Harris for the Uncle Remus books.  The lore itself is a bit varied.  There are some traditions, superstitions and songs.  There are also stories, which are often referred to as “lies”.  It’s interesting, isn’t it?  The people in this book essentially hang a big old lampshade on the untruths in their stories.  Yet, it doesn’t diminish those stories.  Anyway, there are some porquoi stories and stories that reference local events.  Possibly the standouts are stories about a slave named John, who is always getting the better of his master.
Zora Neale Hurston
Most of that was from the trips back to Hurston’s hometown and a lumber camp in Florida.  Hurston’s trip to New Orleans largely concerned voodoo and hoodoo (which may be the same thing, come to think of it).  A fair chunk of it featured Hurston studying under various practitioners and using the rituals to help paying customers.  Another fair chunk focused on stories about Marie Leveau, the legendary voodoo queen of New Orleans.
Marie Leveau, the so-called Voodoo Queen
You know, it’s been a while since I actually read the book and I feel like I’m not doing it justice.  I do know its strength is that it’s not just another folk tale collection.  It’s also like a series of cultural snapshots.  I will say that it’s definitely worth giving a read.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Fairy Tale Media Fix: Aladdin (2019)

[rubs lamp]  I wish I had a movie review.

That’s right, Disney’s stroll down memory lane continues with another remake/sequel/reimagining.  This time, director Guy Ritchie joins actors Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott and Will Smith for another take on its 1992 animated film Aladdin.

The story of “Aladdin; or The Wonderful Lamp” is a tale generally accepted to be part of the One Thousand and One Nights (or Arabian Nights).  However, its origins can be a little fuzzy.  The story doesn’t appear in the collection until the 19th Century in a translation by Antoine Galland.  For a while, many scholars believed that Galland invented the story himself and added it into the collection.  However, current information suggests that Galland first heard the tale from a Syrian storyteller named Youhenna Diyab when Diyab was visiting France.
The story follows the same basic plot as the 1992 movie.  A street urchin falls in love with a feisty princess.  He gets made to enter a magic treasure cave and retrieve a magic lamp by a crooked court official named Jafar.  The combination of magic and Aladdin’s low self-esteem cause him to lie to the princess.  Jafar gets hold of the lamp, everything goes to pot and Aladdin is forced to both tell the truth and save the day. 

There are a few changes.  Jasmine, who gets a new song as well, is more interested in ruling the country of Agrabah than simply evading an arranged marriage.  Jafar is still an ambitious snake-in-the-grass, but now his ambition isn’t just to rule Agrabah but to conquer the surrounding countries and create his own empire.  It’s also established that Jafar was once a street thief himself, making him something of a dark mirror to Aladdin.

The movie itself is entertaining.  Adapting the animated Aladdin to live action was always going to be a tricky task.  Largely because one of the intents of the 1992 movie, at least that I read, was to adapt an aesthetic and style that were like more broadly comedic cartoons like the Looney Tunes and Tom & Jerry.  That’s why they opted to stunt cast two famous comedians in the roles of Genie and Iago.  It kind of makes sense in retrospect, doesn’t it?  So, they had the unenviable task of adapting to live action one of Disney’s cartooniest cartoons.  They do about as well as they can.  Certain things are toned down while others remain as broad as ever.  Jafar’s parrot sidekick, for example, is significantly toned down from Gilbert Gottfried’s constant kvetching and insults to basically Alan Tudyk trying to just sound like an unusually intelligent parrot.  However, the Genie is still as out-there as ever.  I had kind of hoped that without Robin Williams in the role, maybe Genie wouldn’t dominate every scene he was in.  I underestimated how much of a ham Will Smith could be.  Mena Massoud turns in a good acting performance, though I’m not sure his singing was quite up to snuff.  Massoud has good comedic chemistry with Smith.  He also has good chemistry with Naomi Scott as Jasmine.  Of all the characters, Jasmine is probably the one who stands out most, seeing as Scott is the best singer of all of them and because the story seems most interested in expanding her conflict beyond what it was in her original animated incarnation.  As I said before, Jasmine now not only wants to choose her own husband, she also wants to succeed her father as Sultan (Wait.  Wouldn’t she actually be a Sultana?  Oh, well).  One performance I liked that I think others may be split on is Marwan Kenzari as Jafar.  The thing about Jafar in the 1992 film, is that he’s just such a cartoony villain.  He’s foppish and cackling and theatrical.  He feels like a cartoon villain in a similar mold as Skeletor and Cobra Commander.  However, Kenzari tries his level best to turn a cackling cartoon into a believable live action villain.  Jafar’s ambition seems believable if not justifiable.  Adding the new wrinkle that he was a lowly thief who climbed to the level of grand vizier but whose ambition has never quite sated is a nice touch.  They could have almost played on that more, seeing as one of the things they touched on with Aladdin and Genie is Aladdin getting too comfortable in his role as fake prince and Genie warning that wealth and power gained from wishes will never satisfy someone.
There’s one thing that disappointed me but will pretty much only disappoint someone like me.  One of my favorite things to do with these movies is to see the places where they went back to the text for more material.  And Aladdin just doesn’t.  Granted, it might have been hard to fit Aladdin’s mother back into the story and it might have been a bit silly to have Jafar walking around in disguise offering “new lamps for old”, but I still wish there was something.  The closest thing might be the way the story starts off being told by Will Smith as a mariner and an action sequence in which Iago is expanded to the size of a roc, but that’s only due to Aladdin’s nature as a “kitchen sink” movie.  I should probably explain.  A “kitchen sink” movie is one of those Disney movies where it seemed like they thought they wouldn’t be revisiting that material again, so they tried to include everything including the kitchen sink.  Hercules, Alice in Wonderland, The Black Cauldron and Return to Oz are all kitchen sink films to some degree.  I suppose the Mary Poppins films are as well.  But, Aladdin is one in regards to the Arabian Nights.  For example, there is no magic carpet in the story of “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp”.  The magic carpet is from the story of “Prince Ahmad and the Fairy Peri-Banu”.  At least the first part of it.  I’ve only reread the first part (hey, I’ve been busy!).  In Disney’s Aladdin, the carpet is basically slotted into the place the Djinni of the Ring is in the original tale.  So, including a maritime scene and transforming Iago into a giant monster bird could be seen as a nod to the story of “The Seven Voyages of Sinbad” (Note: the roc is a giant bird that Sinbad encounters on his voyages).  Though, it would still be a stretch.
To tell you the truth, the 2019 Aladdin is probably the one Disney remake that I can most call a pure remake.  Cinderella, The Jungle Book and even Beauty and the Beast can all be considered re-adaptations as well as remakes because they went back and got more material from the source story.  Yes, even Beauty and the Beast.  The fact that it added back one of the most iconic parts of the fairy tale gets it a pass.  Pete’s Dragon, Alice in Wonderland and Dumbo changed so much that they could be called re-imaginings.  And then Maleficent, Christopher Robin and Mary Poppins Returns are all different things entirely.  However, Aladdin is almost completely intent on telling the story from the 1992 animated feature again.  It changes things, but not enough to make all that much of a difference.

So, that’s about it.  It’s a fun movie.  Some of the actors have good chemistry.  It’s a fun time if you want to take your kids to it (or you could go see it with your aunt like I did).  But don’t expect it to tickle your folklore bone all that much.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Four-Color Fairy Tales: Betty and Veronica Fairy Tales.

If you had told me a few years ago that I’d be writing about comics from this publisher, I would have been skeptical.  I mean, it’s not like they’re not a major comic book company in their own way.  It’s just that ever since I was a kid I always thought they looked a little dull and corny.  But I’m pretty sure I’m not the only person who felt that way about Archie Comics.

Archie Comics have, like many comic book publishers, been around since the late 1930s.  They used to be named MLJ and mostly published superheroes at the time, if you can believe it (characters like The Shield, The Web, The Comet and The Black Hood).  That is, until Archie Andrews debuted in 1941 and became the company’s most popular character.  From there, it was a future of mostly squeaky clean teen comedy.  I think most people (including myself) think of Archie Comics as the people who sell those digest-sized comics that you can buy in the checkout lane of the supermarket.  However, Archie has been having a bit of a moment lately.  A moment that’s managed to even catch my interest.  The cause seems to be the philosophy that their characters work in any genre.  The most obvious examples of this are the mystery drama Riverdale and the horror show The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.  However, there have also been horror comics about Jughead Jones, Veronica Lodge and Cheryl Blossom, a series that stars Betty and Veronica as leaders of a vigilante biker gang (yes, really) as well as some more mainstream relaunches that skew just a little older than usual (my personal recommendation is the Archie series written by Mark Waid).

This book, Betty and Veronica Fairy Tales, isn’t from any of those recent endeavors.  It’s total old-school Archie, complete with the Dan Decarlo art style.
The book consists of nine fairy tale and children’s literature adaptations as well as a two-parter that’s more of a mash-up.  All of them written by writer Dan Parent and illustrated by a number of different artists.  And as the cover suggests, most of them starring Betty and Veronica.  For the uninitiated Betty Cooper and Veronica Lodge are two high school girls from the small town of Riverdale.  Betty is a sweet, down-to-earth, girl next door type while Veronica is a confident (some would say arrogant) and self-assured rich girl.  Despite their differences, the two girls are best friends.  They’re also rivals in love for red-headed everyteen Archie Andrews.  Why are they both after Archie?  Honestly, I don’t know.  As much as I’ve come to like Archie, I’m pretty sure they both could do better.
Adaptations like this, where established characters are essentially cast as “actors” in the stories, aren’t anything new or unfamiliar.  As such, a few of the stories are about what you’d expect.  For example, “Snow White and the Riverdale Dwarves”, “Betty and the Beast” “Sleeping Betty” and “There’s No Place Like Riverdale”.  When it really gets interesting is in stories like “A Tale of Two Cinderellas”, “The Little Mermaids”, “The Story of the Rapunzels” and “Reggiestiltskin” in which they double the heroine role so they both can play it.  In those cases we get things like a version of “Cinderella” in which everyone gets turned into frogs in the end, a version of “Rapunzel” in which Rapunzel has a twin sister who goes looking for her and a version of “The Little Mermaid” in which both mermaids start pursuing other options after Prince Archie starts seeing someone else.  I actually appreciate them exercising that option, because it’s far too easy to cast Veronica as the villainess.  There’s also a version of Alice in Wonderland that does have Veronica as the Queen of Hearts, but is interesting because it goes off the rails in other ways.

Probably the story that stands out the most is the last one “What’s the Story?”.  This story highlights one of the more unusual aspects of Riverdale.  Apparently, there are paths through the local woods that walking along can cause fantastical things to happen.  There’s Memory Lane, which allows people to travel back in time.  The other is Storybook Lane which leads to a part of the woods called Storyland (I’m assuming it’s an old amusement park) and a statue that, under certain circumstances can get someone stuck in a fairy tale.  This is what happens to Archie and the rest of the town of Riverdale as everything gets turned into a fairy tale mash-up, and in a twist the real fairy tale characters end up in a world that’s far too mundane for their liking.  Most of the story is Archie going around kissing various girls to try and break the spell.  However, it is different from every other story.  It also reminds us that Archie Comics could be weird even before the “every genre” thing started (after all, there’s a teenage witch living in the next town over and Jughead was once a member of the Time Police).

There are a few other things that I like about the book.  There’s a sort of straight-forward, blunt edge to the comedy that’s amusing.  For example, a part in “Sleeping Betty” where someone straight-up tells the Wicked Fairy Veronica that the spell she’s casting on the princess is excessive.  Or the enchanted objects sarcastically calling out the Beast that jailing his potential sweetheart isn’t the best start to a relationship.  One other thing that stands out is that despite the generally kid-friendly quality of Archie Comics, they still have a little more edge than other fairy tale adapters [:cough:Disney:cough:].  And since this is a comedy about teenagers, they can be a little more honest about the fact that all that “fairest of them all” and “love at first sight” stuff comes down to physical attractiveness.  So, we have stuff like Evil Queen Veronica asking “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the hottest of them all?”  It’s a little refreshing, honestly.

Betty and Veronica Fairy Tales is a decent little book, though maybe not anything groundbreaking in terms of fairy tale adaptations.  But amusing in its way and a fun little read, especially if you’re an Archie Comics fan. 

Friday, March 15, 2019

The Elephant in the Room.

A few months ago.

[5:00 am, phone ringing off the hook]

FTG: [Wakes up, groggily answers ringing phone] Hello.

Chirpy PR Person: Hello!  Am I talking to Adam Hoffman, the administrator of Fairy Tale Fandom Dot Com, also known as the self-professed Fairy Tale Geek?

FTG: Yeah, that would be me.  I was trying to sleep.  Why are you calling me so early?

Chirpy PR Person: Oh, I’m sorry to wake you.  I didn’t think of what time it is over there.  Well, I’m a public relations agent representing a major Hollywood studio and boy do I have an offer for you.

FTG: Look, I don’t really think . . . Wait a minute.  Hollywood?  [Does some quick math]  It’s 5 am here.  If you’re in California, it should be 2 am there.

Chirpy PR Person: That late already?  I prefer to get an early start to my day.  The early bird gets the worm and all that.  But anyway, let’s talk Dumbo!

FTG: Wait, I know who you are!  You’re that PR lady who called Gypsy about the Tim Burton Dumbo movie!

Chirpy PR Person:  That’s right, and I am here to get you involved in promoting Disney and Tim Burton’s next big blockbuster film.  I know you’re not as picky as some people about the whole fairy tale thing.  So, a little PR from a blog like yours could be the cherry on top for this campaign.  I’ve been authorized by my agency and the studio to offer you the use of promotional images, press releases, quotes from the cast and the director and all sorts of other things.  So, what do you have planned for our big new movie and its big little star?

FTG: Nothing.

Chirpy PR Person: Nothing?  What do you mean, nothing?  I’ve read your blog.  You’ve done all sorts of stuff to tie into Disney movies before.  And it’s clear you’re not so hung up on what’s technically a fairy tale.

FTG: Not all of them.  And you are right.  I also do stuff based on classic children’s books and legends, however . . .

Chirpy PR Person: [Gasp] Is it because it’s a Disney original story?!

FTG: What?  No.  That’s barely even a thing.  90% of Disney movies are based on other works.

Chirpy PR Person: Oh, that can’t be true?  What about The Rescuers?

FTG: It was a children’s book by Margery Sharp.

Chirpy PR Person: Bambi?

FTG: A novel by Felix Salten.  One originally meant for adults, actually.

Chirpy PR Person: The Great Mouse Detective?

FTG: The Basil of Baker Street children’s book series by Eve Titus.

Chirpy PR Person: Big Hero Six?

FTG: It was a Marvel comic.

Chirpy PR Person: Really?  Then why didn’t Marvel Studios make that movie?

FTG: I don’t know.

Chirpy PR Person: Zootopia?

FTG: That one is.  Congratulations, you found one original.  Look, I’ll explain to you why I have no plans for Dumbo.  Then, it will all be clear.  But first, can I ask you one little question?

Chirpy PR Person: Shoot!

FTG: How many cups of coffee have you already had today?

Chirpy PR Person: Oh, about five or six.  Any more than that and I get jittery.

FTG: Of course.  Anyway, you ready?

Chirpy PR Person: I’m all ears.  Get it?

FTG: <Groan>  Look, the way I’ve been approaching this stuff with one exception is that I review the film if it’s a movie based on a fairy tale and I spotlight the book if it’s based on a literary work.  Now, the book that would become Dumbo is a special case.  So, get comfy because here comes a history lesson.  Okay?

Chirpy PR Person: Okay.

FTG: The original story of Dumbo, The Flying Elephant was written by a married couple from Syracuse, New York named Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl in 1938.  It originally appeared as a story for a gimmicky device called a Roll-a-Book.  A Roll-a-Book was like a scroll that was built into a box and you could turn the pages by turning a wheel .  The Roll-a-Book didn’t exactly take off and no known copies of this version of Dumbo are still in existence.  Follow me so far?

Chirpy PR Person: Yup.
FTG: The rights to the Roll-a-Book story were then sold to Disney by publisher Everett Whitmyre.  This was handy for Disney because they needed to make a cheap but profitable movie.  They were losing money because Pinocchio hadn’t made much money overseas because of World War 2 and Fantasia was expensive, had a very limited release and neither critics nor audiences knew what to make of it.  Luckily, this plan worked.  Still with me?

Chirpy PR Person: Uh-huh.

FTG: The thing is, the story isn’t so happy for Aberson and Pearl.  Despite newspapers in their hometown claiming they were headed for fame and fortune, it never happened.  The couple divorced after only a year of marriage.  Neither of them ever published another book, though Aberson kept writing into the ‘60s.  Dumbo, The Flying Elephant was only ever published as a regular book once, in a print run of no more than a thousand copies.  It has never been in print since.  That’s why I have nothing planned.  I can’t spotlight the book if I can’t get the book!  I can’t make something out of nothing!

Chirpy PR Person: So, the book is just gone?  That’s it?
FTG: Effectively, yes.  Near as I can tell, Disney owns all the rights to the story and they’ve never shown any interest in republishing it.  Some copies of that one thousand copy print run are out there and when they sell it’s for a fair chunk of change.  I know there’s a Disney historian named Jim Korkis who has a copy.  The story from his copy was pretty much transcribed onto the Jim Hill Media website.  There are some interesting details that differ from the Disney version.  Dumbo’s mother is named Mother Ella in the book.  Also, his friend is a robin named Red rather than a mouse named Timothy.  He’s also not a baby elephant so much as one that didn’t grow all the way.  Oh, and he gets the confidence to fly by talking to a owl psychiatrist!  As much as I’d like to trust what’s been transcribed, I still feel iffy about working from a second hand source like that.

Chirpy PR Person: So, that’s it?  Disney’s big circus spectacular directed by the one and only Tim Burton and you’re going to skip writing about it because you can’t find a children’s book!?

FTG: Yeah.  I’m going to skip it.  Just like I skipped Pete’s Dragon and The BFG and A Wrinkle in Time and how I’m probably going to skip Lion King.  I do look forward to watching Dumbo.  It looks interesting to say the least.

Chirpy PR Person: I still can’t believe a book can just disappear like that!

FTG: A lot of them do.  You know how many books fall into obscurity?  Thousands.  Maybe millions.  In the case of Aberson and Pearl, it might be fortunate that Disney got involved.  Their work will be remembered through the movie they made, even if they don’t want to publish the original again.  There is one other thing.  Syracuse University back in their hometown has worked to preserve their creation.  Their archives house some original illustrations from the book.  Though, they’re apparently really rough-looking things.  The characters are practically stick figures.

Chirpy PR Person: Hmm . . .
FTG: “Hmm”, what?

Chirpy PR Person: Well, you’re in New York State, right?

FTG: Yes, but I don’t like where you’re going with this.

Chirpy PR Person: And you have a car, right?

FTG: No!  I’m not driving halfway across the state for Dumbo!

Chirpy PR Person: But just hear me out!

FTG: No!

Chirpy PR Person: But-

FTG: Hanging up now! [hits end call]

[FTG collapses back onto his bed.]

FTG: Huh.  How the hell did she get my number?

Walt Disney’s new take on Dumbo hits theaters March 29.

Chirpy PR Person character created by Gypsy Thornton.