Sunday, August 29, 2021

Fantasy Literature Rewind: Howl's Moving Castle.

 

Howl's Moving Castle is a 1986 young adult fantasy novel by British writer Diana Wynne Jones.  Though, fans of movies, animation and especially anime may know it better as the title of a 2004 animated film from Studio Ghibli.
 

While I had seen the movie before, I've just read the book for the first time and am glad I did.
My first impression upon reading the book is that Diana Wynne Jones sure knows her way around fairy tales, seeing as she built the beginning of the book around a fairy tale trope that's not all that well-known to the public.  My second impression is that this is one of the most surprising, hard to predict fantasy novels I've read in a long time.

Howl's Moving Castle, first edition
 

The story is about a young woman named Sophie Hatter who lives in a fantasy world.  Sophie is the oldest of three sisters and curses herself for that, seemingly because of an old adage that the oldest child will always be a failure or at least succeed far less than younger siblings.  This, of course, stems from an old fairy tale trope in which the youngest sibling succeeds far in excess of their older siblings.  Usually coming down to the younger sibling being kinder and more innocent than their elders (there are a number of stories like this, but the first one that comes to my mind is "The Water of Life" from the Grimms' collection).  There are also a couple of inversions and reversions of the "wicked stepmother" trope regarding Sophie's stepmother Fannie.  Anyway, while Sophie's working at the hat shop, she receives a visit from The Witch of the Wastes who curses her, turning her into a 90-year-old woman in an instant.  Now, really being "elder" beyond her normal anxieties and unable to explain her ordeal because of conditions of the curse, she decides she has nothing to lose and goes off to seek her fortune.  She ends up at infamous Moving Castle of Wizard Howl.  Howl himself is an infamous figure, known for sweeping into towns and stealing girls' hearts.  What follows is a rather twisty, turny fantasy adventure that involves a turnip-headed scarecrow, a dog that used to be a human but can now only magically turn into other dogs, a couple of fire demons, a missing prince, some minor cases of mistaken identity, some poetry acting as a curse and a trip to Wales (yes, the country Wales from within the kingdom of Great Britain.  And yes, this is still an alternate world fantasy novel).

Howl's Moving Castle, recent edition

While I've praised the twistiness of the plot, probably one of the better qualities of the book is the main character of Sophie.  She's a wonderfully believably flawed protagonist.  Her story seems simple upon first blush.  She's a girl who accepts her fate and has to learn to be bolder and make her own destiny.  And that's fine to start with.  But from there, despite Sophie being a good person and bearing people no ill will, she's stubborn and nosy and often jumps to the wrong conclusions.  And while she seems to be working on these flaws, they don't just go away.  After all, change is rarely easy.  Sophie actually provides a good companion to the equally flawed Howl, who despite being a good man at heart is capricious, dramatic and rarely tells people the whole truth even when keeping things secret has few advantages.
 

The book, I think, was great.  The movie . . . well, it's okay.

Howl's Moving Castle, movie poster

This is actually a strange case.  Seeing as how most people agree that Studio Ghibli films are of the highest quality, and that those directed by Hayao Miyazaki are doubly so.  Folks who've seen the movie and haven't read the book for Howl's Moving Castle will likely agree with that sentiment.  And yet, the book just outpaces the movie in so many ways.  So much of it is pared down and simplified.  The characters have been changed, the story's been changed.  Even who the villain is has been changed.  Overall, it just feels like the book which was this unique gem of a thing was turned into . . . well, a Miyazaki-directed Studio Ghibli film.  It might seem a little hard to explain, but there are some tendencies among Ghibli film adaptations that have begun to stand out to me.  For one thing, they tend to amplify certain story elements that cause those elements to change the tone in very big ways.  Let's use another book and movie for an example.  In the book The Borrowers (which I've talked about here before) a young boy is staying with his aunt in the countryside while he recovers from some undefined illness.  There he makes friends with the borrower Arrietty Clock who helps him with his reading.  The Studio Ghibli adaptation The Secret World of Arrietty, has the boy staying in the countryside while he's awaiting a life-saving surgical procedure.  You see how that changes the tone of things (they also make the boy talk more like a 25-year-old than a child, but that's a discussion for another day).  They do the same thing here.  In the book and the movie there's a running plot thread about Howl constantly trying to avoid the king and some task he has for Howl.  In the book, the king is looking for Howl to go find his missing brother who went missing in the Wastes.  Howl doesn't want to do it because the Witch of the Wastes already has it out for him.  In the movie, the king wants Howl to join in fighting the giant steampunk war that he's waging against another kingdom.  And Howl doesn't want to for various reasons, including the fact that he sees the war as a mistake.  But yes, a STEAMPUNK WAR!  For this version of the fantasy realm has trains and airships and steam ships and stuff, which are seemingly not present in the book.  And the only reasons I can see that they added in a whole steam-powered war are to raise the stakes and maybe to play into Miyazaki's favorite theme of how modern, consumerist, mechanized lives are killing us and how we  need to turn back to spirituality and nature.  Only this time he's focused on mechanized warfare.  And granted, he's not necessarily wrong.  It's just that it's not what the book is about in any way, shape or form.
 

So, yes, the movie's good.  But the book is SO much better.  And the two are practically two entirely different experiences.  If you've only watched the movie and have never read the book, definitely give it a chance.  If you've read the book but never seen the movie . . . well, the movie ain't going to hurt you and it's still pretty good for what it is, but you might be disappointed that it isn't more like the book.  Diana Wynne-Jones has written two books that, while not really sequels to Howl's Moving Castle are set in the same fantasy world: Castle in the Air and House of Many Ways.  I might consider reading them if my existing to-be-read pile wasn't at the point of threatening to become an avalanche.  Anyway, next week we have a book adapted into a non-Miyazaki Studio Ghibli animated film.  So, stay tuned.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Fantasy Literature Rewind: Kiki's Delivery Service.

 


You know, maybe I’ve been picking on Disney a bit too much lately. I mean, it’s kind of the easy route. They’ve adapted a lot of fairy tales and books. A LOT. But they’re not the only adapters out there. Not by a long shot. So, for a little while, I think I’ll focus on the book adaptations of an animation studio that doesn’t fall under quite so much scrutiny. At least, not on this side of the Pacific.

So, that’s why I present to you a special sub-series titled: Fantasy Literature Rewind: The Ghibli Sequence. (Don’t read too much into the title, folks. I just thought it sounded cool). That’s right, folks! We’ll be focusing on the books adapted by that beloved icon of the anime film industry: Studio Ghibli. I’ve mentioned them before. They came up in my spotlight on The Borrowers and I reviewed their film The Tale of the Princess Kaguya.

But right now, we’ll be shining the spotlight on the inspiration for the Ghibli film that introduced a lot of global fans to Ghibli: Kiki’s Delivery Service.

Kiki’s Delivery Service the movie is adapted from Majo no Takkyubin (translated as Witch’s Express Home Delivery), a 1985 children’s book written by Japanese author Eiko Kadono. A book that has only been translated into English for the first time very recently. The concept was supposedly inspired by a picture the author’s daughter drew of a witch flying on a broomstick while listening to a radio. This inspired her to write a book about a twelve-year-old witch (Kadono’s daughter was twelve at the time) whose only magic power was flying. That way, the character would have to use her brain to sort out problems.


The book focuses on a young witch named Kiki as she leaves her old hometown where she lives with her witch mother and folklorist father (yes, really) to go to a town of her own to set herself up as the “resident witch”. They’re she’ll be expected to make her way using whatever magical skills she has. Kiki, though, doesn’t have many magical skills. She never took any interest in her mother’s business of making potions, and a lot of other types of magic have been lost to obscurity over the centuries. But what Kiki can do is fly. So, she packs up her black dresses and her cat Jiji and her radio and hops on her mother’s old broom and heads out to find a town near the ocean to settle down in.


The book is a largely episodic affair, covering how Kiki and Jiji moved to her new town and different adventures she has as she goes on her different deliveries. In one, she has to deliver a toy cat as a gift and loses it along the way (this one is in the movie). In another, she’s asked to retrieve or rather, steal, a part from a clock tower in another town (she doesn’t do it and finds another way). Another adventure has her delivering a love letter for a girl around her own age (she also loses that and has to compose a new love poem on the spot). One of my favorites is when she gets contracted by some musicians to retrieve their musical instruments from a moving train. Not everything happens while she’s working though. One chapter has her going to the beach only for her broom to get stolen by her future friend and possible love interest Tombo.


The episodic format kind of reminds me of the Mary Poppins books. Not a knock, mind you. Just like the Mary Poppins books, there are a lot of details that I really dig. Stuff like how a lot of witchy arts were lost over time. Or how Kiki’s father is a folklorist. Or the whole thing about why witches are accompanied by black cats. According to the book, when a witch has a baby girl they search for a black kitten born at about the same time. Then they are raised at the same time. As they grow, the girl and the cat learn to speak to each other in their own language. By the time the girl comes of age, the cat would become a trusted companion. But eventually, the witch would find a new companion to take that place. The cat would also find a new partner and then the two would part ways. As far as “losing magic equals adulthood/sexual awakening/falling in love” metaphors, which are a dime a dozen in children’s fantasy literature, it’s not bad. Most of those seem downright depressing when read in a certain mindset. This is one of the few that comes close to suggesting that finding a romantic partner is about as good as being able to talk to an animal.


The 1989 animated adaptation by Studio Ghibli is a good, charming, entertaining movie. A pretty good movie but maybe not a pretty good adaptation. But that’s to be expected from a movie that tries to adapt a book with an episodic story structure. While some elements definitely remain, most of the book is not included in order to give Kiki more of an A-to-B coming of age arc. The part that kind of sticks out to me in the movie is the part near the end where Kiki develops something akin to burnout and loses her ability to fly. Now, this part might have been in one of the sequels. I don’t know because they haven’t been translated into English. But it feels like it might have been an addition by the director. The director Hayao Miyazaki was a big name in anime movies before his retirement. To the point where the name “Miyazaki” often superceded the name “Studio Ghibli”. But another thing about him is that he loved themes about the dangers of the consumerist world and how it could damage nature and people’s spiritual health (note: in Japan where Shinto has influenced things for centuries, nature and spiritual health are pretty closely intertwined). Now, in a lot of his movies like Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke, the themes tend to manifest more as bigger ecological themes. But in a smaller, more intimate movie like Kiki’s Delivery Service it makes more sense that it’s not the larger natural world that’s damaged by Kiki’s flying delivery business but her spirit. Which, in the movie, leads her to go on a retreat of sorts to her artist friend’s cottage in the forest (note: my reading of this part of the plot was partly inspired by this video). The movie’s still good. Most people won’t argue with that. The animation and background scenery is downright dazzling. Personally, I prefer the version of the dub with songs by Sydney Forest, but that may be nostalgia talking.


And you know, this blog post might have ended there if I hadn’t found out that in 2014 that there was a live action adaptation of Kiki’s Delivery Service.


Yes, in 2014 Toei released a live action version of Kiki’s Delivery Service based on the first two books in the series. I have not seen this movie but everything I’ve read about it suggests that it draws from the books more. I even spotted some bits I recognized from the trailer. And while, like I said, I have not seen this movie, boy do I hate the way it’s been criticized. I read the comments under the trailers and I watched one video review and almost all the criticisms could be boiled down to “It wasn’t like the Miyazaki movie, so they shouldn’t have even tried”. Granted, there could have been problems and I could see where they could have cropped up. The girl does look a little too old to be playing Kiki. If they stuck too close to the episodic nature of the book, then it could easily have felt tedious. But the main criticism shouldn’t be “it’s not the anime”. The only fairly forgiving review I read was this one from Kotaku. And the biggest strength that had is that it emphasized the different journeys that Kiki went on. The animated one being more about Kiki learning about herself, while the live action one being about Kiki learning about the outside world.

All that said, now I want to watch the live action adaptation. Just so I can form my own opinions about it. But I also want to see other adaptations of Kiki made (beyond both movies and this Cup Noodles ad, which is just an homage to the Miyazaki movie but with more of a romance anime vibe). Heck, with the episodic structure, a Kiki TV series would probably be an even better fit for her. You see, I’m cool with books remaining books. And I’m cool with books being adapted and reinterpreted by different artists and filmmakers. But what I’m really not cool with is a book getting adapted into one film or show and then having that form the basis of people’s view of it for all time. If a book is going to get adapted at least a few times so it can be seen from a number of different angles (hmm, I wonder how long copyright is in Japan). And I suppose I’d like to see the other Kiki books translated into English while I’m at it.


Anyway, next time, another book that was adapted by Miyazaki-sensei. At least, that’s the plan. Until then.

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Fairy Tale Media Fix: Grimm's Fairy Tale Classics.

 


Well, this was unexpected!  Great, but unexpected!

Through what was probably no small amount of effort, boutique DVD publisher Discotek Media has released the first season of the anime Grimm's Fairy Tale Classics on Standard Definition blu-ray.
A quick history lesson: this series is a an anime fairy tale anthology series that started as Gurimu Meisaku Gekijo or Grimm Masterpiece Theater and aired in its home country from Fall 1987 to Spring 1988 for 24 episodes.  It was then followed by Shin Gurimu Meisaku Gekijo or New Grimm Masterpiece Theater and aired between Fall 1988 and March 1989 for 23 episodes.  This series was then picked up by Saban Entertainment (Haim Saban being the guy responsible for turning Super Sentai into Power Rangers and someone who was always looking to create cheap content for kids' TV) brought both versions of the show over to the U.S., dubbed it into English, where it aired on Nickelodeon's preschool block Nick Jr. as Grimm's Fairy Tale Classics.
 

Which is where I would eventually find it.


You know, it's actually kind of hard for me to be objective about this show.  In some ways Grimm's Fairy Tale Classics provided an awakening of sorts.  If not to fairy tales in general then to just how deep the well of them actually went.  If you live in the United States like I do, you're probably aware of the three different levels of fairy tale knowledge.  First, there's all the ones that were made into Disney films.  I know Disney can be a sore subject for some, but they have a big influence that needs to be accounted for.  Then, there's the ones Disney adapted plus the other household name tales like "Rumpelstiltskin", "The Three Billy Goats Gruff" and "The Three Bears".  Then there's all that and everything else.  Grimm's Fairy Tale Classics with its episodes based on stories like "The Water of Life", "Mother Holle" and "Jorinda and Joringel" among others gave me a glimpse of that "everything else".  Heck, it even introduced me to one of my favorite protagonist archetypes in fairy tales: The Wandering Soldier.  You know, like in "How Six Men Got Far in the World", "Bearskin" or "The Shoes that were Danced to Pieces".  A decommisioned, possibly injured soldier with no purpose or direction shows up and gets involved in some kind of adventure, whether it's solving a mystery, cheating the devil or getting even with those who've mistreated him.  This archetype doesn't get used much in fairy tale media today.  (Hmm, considering how modern media often leans on fairy tales as a source of nostalgia or way of showing children what they want them to see, you don't suppose stories of wandering, directionless veterans might occasionally strilke a bad chord with people in post-Vietnam USA?).
 

And yet, very few of my online fairy tale colleagues seem to have heard of this show.  It probably didn't help that Nickelodeon buried it in its preschool block.  I was older than that when I found the show and it's probably not a very good choice of demographic anyway.  Many of the stories had scary scenes that could have upset the children ages 3-5 that Nick Jr. was aiming for.  And yet, Nickelodeon never seemed to doubt that a series of fairy tales must be a series for pre-schoolers.
 

Well, luckily, it did manage to build a cult following of anime and vintage Nickelodeon fans, which is probably what drove this series to get an official release in the first place.


The blu-ray itself is pretty good.  It's standard definition, so the picture quality isn't super great.  However, making an SD blu-ray apparently means there's enough room to put both the English dubbed versions and the Japanese version with English subtitles on it.  There are no special features but that's still a lot.  Since no masters of the English dubbed versions exist, the English dubbed episodes had to essentially be recreated from available sources (this isn't the first time something like that has happened.  The Voltron DVDs were created in much the same way).  I very much liked watching the Japanese version of this show.  It allows you to not only hear the original music and voices, but also see scenes that were cut for the English-language airing.  Also, just the way the show was done was different.  One thing with the English version of Grimm's Fairy Tale Classics is that the show had an ever-present narrator played by Theodore Lehmann.  The Japanese version only uses a narrator, played by Mitsuko Horie, when it really needs one to convey additional information to the audience.  Once, in the "Puss in Boots" episode, they even mix things up by having the narrator speak directly to the Miller's third son.  

One of the unusual side effects of this show coming out on blu-ray is that through the prompting of an online colleague, it made me think about my own biases as to how these lesser-known tales are told.  For example, the climax to the Grimm's Fairy Tale Classics version of "The Shoes That Were Danced to Pieces" ends with a chase scene.  And it never struck me that it would seem odd until someone pointed it out.  For the uninitiated, this story is commonly called "The Twelve Dancing Princesses" (an unfitting name for this show's version, which only has three princesses).  In the story as it's written down, twelve princesses disappear down a mysterious passageway wear they dance and dance with mysterious princes until a soldier with a cloak of invisibility disovers where they've been going and reveals it to their father the king.  In the Grimm's Fairy Tale Classics version, it's revealed that not only are the princesses entranced to dance with the princes, the princes themselves are monsters.  When this is revealed, the monsters chase the princesses and the soldier and they escape before almost getting sealed in the underground kingdom forever.  And that always felt like the most natural way to end things, and I always thought the way the fairy tale ended in the book was kind of abrupt.  I always felt that way because I first encountered the tale on this show, though.  It makes me wonder what other biases I've picked up from it.  I guess maybe I should cut the people whose fairy tale biases were formed by Disney movies just a tiny bit more slack.
 

Well, anyway, I think folks should check it out.  However, I'm hardly the most impartial judge with this one.  If you can look past things like picture quality to things like storytelling, maybe check out one of the numerous bootleg episodes uploaded on YouTube to see if you like it.  If you do, the blu-ray is available from various online purveyors, including Amazon and www.rightstufanime.com.  The English-dubbed episodes can be watched for free on Retro Crush or free with Amazon Prime on Amazon Instant Video.  The blu-ray for the second season comes out at the end of August.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Fantasy Literature Rewind: The Hundred and One Dalmatians

 

So, you might be wondering how we got here.
 

Not here on the blog.  Here:

How did we get to a place where Walt Disney Studios, makers of family entertainment, are putting out a PG-13 movie about the puppy-skinningly psychotic villainess from 101 Dalmatians, Cruella DeVil?
Well, maybe we should go back to the roots of all this.  


The Hundred and One Dalmatians is a 1956 children's book by Dodie Smith.  It was originally serialized in the magazine Woman's Day under the title The Great Dog Robbery.  The story concerns a pair of married dalmatians named Pongo and Missis.  Their humans are Mr. and Mrs. Dearly, a financial whiz and his wife.  Also part of  the household are the servants Nanny Cook and Nanny Butler who originally served as nannies to their charges and then on a whim took up the jobs their surnames invoked.  The adventure starts when Missis gives birth to 15 puppies.  First, there are simply the challenges of taking care of such a large litter of puppies.  For example, they have to find another dog to play the role of wet nurse for some of them, which seems impossible until Mrs. Dearly stumbles on a liver-spotted dalmatian named Perdita who had recently been separated from her puppies and her husband Prince.  But then, things take a turn for even more sinister when the puppies are stolen by a rather devilish woman named Cruella DeVil who it is revealed wants to turn the puppies into fur coats.  Pongo and Missis's rescue of their puppies (as well as 82 more) involves employing an extensive network of dogs called the Twilight Barking, a trip across country, assistance from numerous unexpected quarters and some mild subterfuge.

But you're probably wondering about Cruella DeVil, aren't you?  She is a strange and scary individual in this book.  The funny thing is, what's communicated about her seems to mostly be rumor and possible hearsay meant to give her a supernatural air without it being proven.  Combine this with certain odd habits of hers, and it makes the name DeVil seem a lot more like Devil.  Earliest talk about the DeVil family seems to concern an ancestor who was probably Cruella's grandfather.  He had purchased an estate named Hill Hall, which this elder DeVil planned to tear down and rebuild as a house that resembled a cross between a castle and a cathedral.  Shortly after it had been built, rumors started to spread though.  Travellers would say they heard screams and wild laughter coming from the estate.  People would start to count their children carefully to make sure they were safe.  Some would even say that DeVil had a long tail.  It was around this time that Hill Hall would be rechristened Hell Hall.  It apparently got to the point where an angry mob with lighted torches went to Hell Hall to burn it down, only to be greeted by DeVil bursting through the gate on a coach-and-four, supposedly shooting blue forked lightning from his body.  As for Cruella herself, when we meet her in-story, she's driving a big, black-and-white striped car equipped with the loudest horn in all of England.  We're also informed by her old classmate Mrs. Dearly that everyone in school was afraid of her and that she was expelled for drinking ink.  Cruella is married to a furrier who isn't much of a character in the book, but who she apparently just wants for his furs.  Among Cruella's eccentricities, the one that lends credence to her being more devil than human is that she likes everything hot, whether in spice or environment.  She wears furs during all seasons, loves raging fires and loads up her food with pepper.  And even if she is human, she's anything but humane.  She talks plainly about how she drowns all the kittens of her pet white Persian cat.  She is, in the simplest terms: a real piece of work.
 

In terms of adaptation, Disney has gotten a surprising amount of mileage out of this property.  They've made one theatrical animated movie (trailer HERE), one straight-to-video animated movie (trailer HERE), two live action movies (trailers HERE and HERE), two animated TV shows (intros HERE and HERE) and now Cruella in addition to various toys, merchandise and other assorted bits and bobs.  The one adaptation most people go back to is the 1961 animated movie (possibly one of Disney's most contemporary adaptations.  The film premiered only 5 years after the book was published).  Unlike a lot of Disney adaptations, I don't really have any major issues with the animated movie.  It doesn't alter the tone drastically.  And most of the changes made to the text are a matter of condensing things.  The two nannies are reduced down to one.  The characters of Missis and Perdita are merged into one character, as are the pups Lucky and Cadpig.  Events are removed from the dogs' cross-country rescue mission.  Some names are changed.  Jasper and Saul Baddun become Jasper and Horace Baddun and the Dearlys become the Radcliffes (interesting note: both Cadpig and the surname Dearly are restored in 101 Dalmatians: The Series).  Overall, it's fine.  Though, I do like to make fun of the notion that Roger Radcliffe made so much money off of a hate song (depicted HERE played by the one and only Dr. John).  I'd still recommend reading the book, because there's just a lot more in it.  Though, do keep in mind that it is a relic of its era (there's one slightly racist encounter with Romani people).
 

But one of the reasons why the Mouse has managed to do so much with 101 Dalmatians is Cruella DeVil.  As far as villains go, she may not be complex or nuanced but she is compelling.  And that is the central appeal of the great "Disney Villains".  They may be a simplistic sort of evil, but it's very fun to watch them in all their dastardly glory.  With Cruella though, it goes all the way back to the source material.  When she's present in the story, she commands all the attention.  And that's probably why Disney made a movie about her.  Whether or not the movie delivers what fans expect (a devilishly evil diva who's fun to root against) is yet to be seen.


Before wrapping this up, I should probably talk about the one Hundred and One Dalmatians thing that Disney stayed well away from.  In 1967, a follow-up to The Hundred and One Dalmatians was published titled The Starlight Barking.  It starts with Pongo and Missis waking up to discover that the Dearlys and every other human or animal on the planet except dogs (and honorary dogs) are all asleep and cannot be awakened.  This leads them to discovering that they can do some things that they normally cannot do like opening doors, communicating long distances telepathically and telekinetically propelling themselves over the ground at high speeds (they refer to it as "swooshing").  This leads them to go to London where they meet with other dogs, including Cadpig who is now the Prime Minister's dog and Prime Minister in his stead, to discuss the problem and eventually meet its cause.  This book is, in all seriousness, a work of Cold War or Atomic age science fiction.  It hits all the beats.  Strange happenings, psychic powers, alien visitors, the threat of nuclear war and a hero having to make a hard choice.  And you know what?  I kind of dig it for what it is.  Sure, it may not be the sequel people expect for The Hundred and One Dalmatians, but it's perfectly fine when viewed as a diversion or unconventional offshoot of the original.  It even made me appreciate certain characters from the original a little more (In the first book, Missis could come across as a little dim-witted compared to Pongo aka "The Greatest Brain in all of Dogdom", but in the Starlight Barking she's depicted as intuitive and more adept at the metaphysical feats presented).  And I just bet writing this book helped Dodie Smith process some of the feelings she had about what was going on in the world.

So, here's hoping that Cruella remembers what made the original villainess so compelling.  And if not, well, we can always go back to the book.

Monday, April 26, 2021

A Handy Q&A Guide to 2020's Pinocchio.

 Hey everybody!  In the wake of last night's 2021 Academy Awards, there have been a number of questions about the recent Pinocchio movie that was released last year.  So, here we are with some answers.


Q) Did you know there was a new Pinocchio movie?  

A) Yes.  Like many people who are really into fairy tales here on the internet, I've been keeping my eye on this one for a while.  In fact, I own the blu-ray of it.

Q) Is this a Disney animated remake thing?

A) No, that one is coming, though.  It's set to be directed by Robert Zemeckis (oddly fitting because the motion capture stuff he does for movies like The Polar Express and Beowulf seem kind of like digital puppets).

Q) What is it?

A) It's an Italian production by director Matteo Garrone, who had previously made an R-rated movie adaptation of Giambattista Basile's fairy tale collection The Tale of Tales.  This new Pinocchio movie features Roberto Benigni playing the role of Geppetto among other fairly accomplished Italian actors.  

Q) You're sure this isn't a Disney thing?

A) Absolutely sure.


Q) Don't you find the Pinocchio in this movie kind of creepy?

A) Not really.  I understand this is "uncanny valley" territory for a lot of people, but I find making up a human to look like a wooden puppet a far better choice than using a special effect or visual effect to depict a living doll or puppet.  That can turn out especially creepy if done a certain way.  And it seems like the look of this movie was appealing to other people too, since the Oscars it was nominated for were Best Costume Design and Best Make-Up and Hairstyling.


Q) So, why did Roberto Benigni make two different Pinocchio movies?

A) Well, I can't speak for the man but it's probably because The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi is THE children's classic story from Italy with the most worldwide appeal.  This shouldn't be unfamiliar to Americans, as we also have only one big children's fantasy story with widespread appeal (L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, with diminishing returns for the sequel books).  You'll also notice that Benigni is in different roles in the two movies.  In the 2002 movie, Benigni is the director as  well as plays the part of Pinocchio himself (in fact, all of the children are played by adults.  It's weird, and not in the way Pinocchio usually is).  In the 2020 movie, he's just playing the role of Geppetto.  Approaching the same material from different angles can be rewarding.


Q) Should I watch this movie?

A) Okay, here's the thing: Most Americans known Pinocchio primarily from the Disney movie.  This isn't that movie.  This movie is primarily based on the original book by Carlo Collodi, which has a decidedly different tone than the Disney film.  Collodi's book and this movie can be much darker and deal with some bleaker truths.  It also just generally draws on a much more 19th Century European view of child-rearing that suggests that the job of parents is to "civilize" their children.  At the same time, Collodi also kind of subverts that impulse by showing Pinocchio becoming victims of characters much worse and more "uncivilized" than he is ("Why raise civilized children in an uncivilized world?").  Disney's childhood ethos, by comparison views childhood as a magical, nostalgic time full of wonder.  The movie and the book are also much weirder than Disney's movie.  I mean, sure, Disney's movie is kind of strange, but they ground it by limiting certain things.  Disney's Pinocchio is the only talking puppet, brought to life by magic.  Collodi's Pinocchio is one of many living puppets.  For Disney, the Fox and the Cat are the only talking animals.  For Collodi, there are many others ranging from snails to poodles to a judge who's a gorilla.  Disney's Pinocchio is swallowed by a whale, Collodi's is swallowed by a giant dogfish (a dogfish being a species of shark usually just a meter long).  It's like if Wonderland resembled 19th Century Tuscany.

So, if you're okay with all the weirdness and bleakness and want to see something that's decidedly un-Disney, give it a shot.  It can be a little slow and episodic at times, but I liked it.


Well, that's all!  I hope I was able to help out a few people!  See you next time!


Sunday, September 20, 2020

Fairy Tale Media Fix: Mulan (2020)

 

Well, they tried.  Sort of.

It’s been a while since I posted anything on here.  Especially considering all that’s happening in the world.  But I had been waiting for this specific movie and it had finally come albeit not in the form many of us had expected.


 

To make it clear, the original Disney’s Mulan has never really been my favorite Disney animated movie.  I like it, certainly.  It was never at the top of the list, though.  However, a few years ago I had developed a persistent curiosity toward the legend itself.  Then, when the Disney live action reimagining was announced, it caught my attention.  Mulan is one of a handful of properties that feels like a bit of a stretch for Disney.  Something outside their usual comfort zone and the storytelling traditions they’re used to.  So, how they handle it should be interesting to see.

The end result was  . . . eh.

The story this time around is that Mulan is a girl born with extremely strong chi.  This allows her to do some amazing things even at a young age.  Her parents worry over it, though, as it’s believed that girls shouldn’t have strong chi because that’s considered being a witch (at least in the world of the movie, but I’ll get to that later).

Time passes, Mulan grows up, and Mulan is made to go to the matchmaker with disastrous results.  Then the call goes out for young men to go to war.  The enemy is Bori Khan’s Rouran army and his shapeshifting magical ally Xianniang.  Mulan’s father is called to serve, but Mulan who is worried about his welfare steals his armor and sword and goes in his place.  She then becomes a soldier under the guise of Hua Jun where she meets her commanding officer Commander Tung as well as her fellow soldiers Ling, Chien-Po and Yao (her three soldier comrades from the 1998 Disney movie), Cri-Kee (the cricket sidekick made over into an unlucky human character) and Chen Honghui (a savvy young soldier who is suggested to have figured out Mulan’s secret, as well as her love interest in the absolute vaguest sense of the world).

That’s the set-up and it plays out reasonably well.  The movie was pitched to audiences as an action movie and some of the action scenes and set pieces are rather fun to watch.  The cast is really talented and they give this movie their all.  One thing that does strike me is that it sometimes feels like an oddly lonely movie compared to the animated version that preceded it.  Throughout the animated version, Mulan had Mushu and to a lesser extent Cri-Kee to talk to as confidants.  Mulan here has no one.  She keeps her secret from everyone else.  The closest she comes to talking with anyone is with Chen Honghui who she repeatedly pushes away.  You’d think that if they were at least going to keep the cricket around as a human that he might at least get to play the role of confidant/sidekick but no.  Heck, past versions from China just made it work by giving her a friend from back home that recognizes her and agrees to keep her secret or by just not emphasizing the conflict of her charade in favor of emphasizing her conflict with the enemy army.  The only explanation I can come up with here is that Disney was playing it up to later play into this whole thing about “her dishonesty clouding her chi”.

Mulan’s relative isolation isn’t the biggest problem here.  It’s the cultural stuff.


 

So, I’d like to make clear my feelings about the cultural aspects of the 1998 animated Mulan first.  The 1998 Mulan approaches the Chinese cultural stuff in Mulan like an American (specifically white American) elementary schooler would.  It’s all stuff about the Great Wall and why it was built, Chinese dragons, ancestor worship and lucky crickets.  There’s even the expected misstep of doing a joke about Chinese-American takeout food.  It’s not terrible taken that way and in a bubble.  However, as a film that was supposed to show internationally, it’s a weak sauce attempt.  Especially with things like making the dragon a silly, fire-breathing sidekick when Chinese dragons are almost uniformly wise, powerful water elementals and symbols of the emperor.  I’m honestly just glad they weren’t working from an American high school level for Chinese cultural references, or else we might have ended up with a joke about foot-binding (shudder!).  Now, in the live action version they’ve improved somewhat.  They’ve embraced more from the actual ballad.  They make Mulan more capable before enlisting like many versions of the legend do.  They also reference part of the ballad about two rabbits running side by side, albeit out of any useful context.  They also give Mulan the more common surname of Hua used in most versions of the story.  They even move on from the “easy mode” Chinese history stuff by foregoing the Huns and the Great Wall in favor of the enemy being the Rouran Khaganate.  But it kind of stops there and more problems show themselves.  For example, within the first half hour they confuse the legend of the Chinese Phoenix or Fenghuang with the Greek Phoenix.  There’s also just the way they handle the concept of chi.  The movie is pretty much insistent that women who have exceptionally strong chi are shunned and discriminated again because they’re seen as witches.  This is embodied in the character of Xianniang, who’s depicted as an exceptionally strong chi witch/warrior and meant as kind of cautionary figure for Mulan.  The thing is, chi and witchcraft traditions in China don’t really work that way.  Chi is supposed to be the life force that flows through everything.  Everyone has chi and no one is discriminated against for having “more chi” than anyone else.  Just the whole bit about stronger chi giving someone powers feels like they either confused it with The Force or took their interpretation from a Japanese or American cartoon from the ‘90s (it’s either Star Wars, Dragon Ball or the Double Dragon cartoon.  Take your pick).  And then there’s Xianniang as a “witch”.  The ins and outs of the cultural view of the supernatural and magic in Chinese tradition can be tricky for outsiders to completely get.  I’m not fully getting it myself.  But from what I’m seeing, there isn’t really a Chinese tradition of “witchcraft” exactly.  Especially as depicted in the movie.  There’s Gu or Jincan which is depicted as being like spell-casting, but is actually more about administering poison.  There is wu jiao which is a sort of Chinese shamanism.  More religious practice than witchcraft.  It’s far more likely that Xianniang would have been mistaken for or classified as a Huli jing, China’s version of the mythical fox spirit that exists in folklore throughout Asia.

At first I thought that maybe it was just a case of an American studio not being able to get out of its own way.  But now I’m wondering if we were all a bit confused as to what the movie was supposed to be.  We had heard since early on that Mushu and the various songs were being removed to appeal more to audiences in China.  We assumed that this meant that the movie was going to be more serious and more culturally accurate.  However, it may be more because of how hard it would be to translate verbal humor and songs that convey the plot into Mandarin.  The question then becomes: what was this movie trying to be?  The best I can assume is that it was just Disney trying to make wuxia film.  On that front it’s fine, I guess.  But compared to actual Chinese wuxia movies, there’s really not much to it.  So, their desire for big box office numbers in China through this probably isn’t going to work.

Oh, well.

It’s not like there’s a shortage of Mulan movies out there.  We just need to indulge the world of online piracy to find some of them.


 

Yeah, I know I shouldn’t be condoning this sort of thing, but it’s a basic truth that finding foreign films and TV in the United States can be hard without a little bit of video buccaneering going on (just ask any American who got really into anime in the 1980s).

One option which can be attained legally in the United States is the movie Mulan: Rise of a Warrior from 2009.  It’s available on DVD in multiple regions and can be rented digitally on Amazon Instant Video.  Then there’s one of the earlier examples of Mulan on film, 1939’s Hua Mulan Joins the Army.  That film is available on the Modern Chinese Cultural Studies YouTube page.  This is a page that curated by the Deapartment of Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia. (Note: this isn’t the earliest version of Mulan in film.  There are silent movies from 1927 and 1928 that I can’t find anywhere).  Next in our timeline is Lady General Hua Mulan from 1964.  This movie is from famed Hong Kong studio Shaw Brothers Studios, best known  for their martial arts action films.  I should probably mention that this is also a Huangmei opera film.  Huangmei opera has a whole history that I can’t get into right now, but just think of the movie as a Chinese musical (in case anyone was still upset about there being no singing in their live action Mulan movie).  This movie is also up on YouTube, albeit in parts.  There’s a playlist that will allow you to watch the whole thing through, though.  And finally, even this year’s Matchless Mulan (sometimes called Peerless Mulan) is also up on YouTube in its entirety with English subtitles.  Now, these movies aren’t necessarily family-friendly, but war movies rarely are.  If you live elsewhere in the world and can access these films in more copyright-law friendly ways, I would encourage you to do that.  But if you can’t, then they are up on YouTube.

Happy watching.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Mountains and Rabbit Holes.


[Anaheim, daytime, outside the gates of Disneyland.  A small but not insignificant group of protestors has gathered]

Protestors: “DON’T CHANGE SPLASH MOUNTAIN!  DON’T CHANGE SPLASH MOUNTAIN!  DON’T CHANGE SPLASH MOUNTAIN!”

[The gate opens a little and a hand hastily pushes our resident Fairy Tale Geek out.  Gate closes and locks behind him]

FTG: [to unseen gate person] “Gee, thanks.” [brushes self off] 

                [To Protestors] “Hello, my name is Adam, sometimes known as the Fairy Tale Geek, and I’ve been commissioned by the Walt Disney Company to talk to you about the upcoming changes to your favorite ride.  First, I’d like to thank you all for being here while there are many, many, many, MANY more important protests you could have attended . . . “

Protestor 1: “Cut out the glad-handing!  Say what you need to say!

Protestors 2-26: “YEAH!”

FTG: “Well, it’s not as simple as all that.  Before we get talking, we need to go over some history . . . “
All Protestors: [GROOOAN!]

FTG: “This all starts with a man named Joel Chandler Harris.  Well, actually, it starts with folk tales being told in West Africa for hundreds of years . . . But let’s start with Harris instead.  Harris was a writer living in the American South, specifically Georgia, during the 19th Century.  When he was working at a newspaper located on a plantation, he struck up a friendship with some of the slaves living on the plantation and heard them tell stories about animal characters like Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox.  These stories were regional adaptations of African stories about the African Hare, who was often depicted as a trickster figure.  Because of certain quirks of his upbringing like his lack of a father and chronic shyness, Harris often felt like an outsider and would feel a kinship with the Black slaves even though their situations couldn’t be more different.  After the Civil War, he actually supported regional and racial reconciliation.”

Protestor 2: “So, he was anti-slavery?”

FTG: “Oh, hell no!  While slavery was still going on he was all for it, even though he considered himself a friend to slaves.  You’d be amazed what kind of contradictory things the human mind can reconcile.

Anyway, years later he would transcribe those stories that he heard in the slave cabins and build a framing sequence around them using a Black character named Remus that he developed when working at a different newspaper.  Originally, Remus was a comical figure, but as Uncle Remus he became a sort of homespun sage who passes wisdom on to the child of the plantation’s white owner.  The books were a huge hit and would remain so for years and years even into the early 20th Century and the Midwestern childhood of one Walter Elias Disney.”

Protestor 4: “What does any of this have to do with Splash Mountain?!”

FTG: “Well, I’m getting to the point where I explain the history of Song of the South.”

Protestor 13: “What’s Song of the South?”

FTG: “[SIGH] Well, anyway.  It’s safe to say Walt Disney was a fan of those stories.
So, in 1946 Walt Disney released a live action/animation hybrid film based on Harris’s Uncle Remus books titled Song of the South.  It featured young Bobby Driscoll as Johnny, the little boy from the stories and James Baskett as Uncle Remus.  It also featured various animated segments starring Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox and Brer Bear that were supposed to represent the stories Uncle Remus was telling Johnny.  The script had been written by Dalton Reymond, a White writer.  Disney then hired African-American writer and performer Clarence Muse to consult on the screenplay, but Muse left the project when Reymond refused to listen to any of his suggestions.  The movie itself met with mixed reviews even then.  Critics generally said it was boring, especially the live action parts.  Looked upon more favorably were the short animated segments and the song “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” (which you should know has a racist history all its ownthat I can’t explain right now).  Even then, there were concerns about racial stereotyping and depicting the reconstruction South in an overly positive way.  Heck, there were even protestors like yourselves.  One of the biggest things was that James Baskett wasn’t even allowed to attend the premiere because it was held in a Whites-only theater in Atlanta, Georgia.”
Protestor 13: “Ohhhhh . . . .”

FTG: “Moving on, decades after the movie was made and rereleased in theaters a number of times, we get to the late ‘80s.  And at this point in the ‘80s, imagineer Tony Baxter has a handful of problems.  One, the Bear Country part of the Disneyland park is seeing a lot less traffic.  Two, An attraction called America Sings was closing and a number of animatronics designed by the veteran animator Mark Davis were potentially headed for the scrap heap.  Three, newly minted CEO Michael Eisner had told Baxter to come up with some more thrilling rides that would attract a teen and young adult audience to the parks.  And four, attractions supervisor Dick Nunis kept pushing to include an old-fashioned log flume ride in the Disney Parks.  The answer to all these problems was Splash Mountain, which he thought of while stuck in traffic.  Splash Mountain was a log flume ride with a thrilling drop.  It could be placed in Bear Country which would be renamed Critter Country.  And because Mark Davis was the lead animator on Song of the South, they could recast the various animal characters from America Sings as sort of extras in the world of Brer Rabbit and company without the designs looking too out-of-place.  There were a couple of hiccups.  The ride was going to be called the “Zip-a-Dee River Run” but Michael Eisner asked them to change the name to “Splash Mountain” because he wanted to use the ride to promote the new Touchstone Pictures movie Splash.  He also wanted them to add a mermaid character too for that purpose, which Imagineering pushed back against.  But the attraction was very popular and two more opened at Walt Disney World and Disneyland Japan. 

Now, we look back at all this history and we see all these names.  Joel Chandler Harris, Walt Disney, Dalton Reymond, Tony Baxter, Mark Davis, Dick Nunis and Michael Eisner.  Who does it seem like was mostly left out in the evolution of this ride that depicts characters from African-American folk tales?”

Protestor 18: “Um . . . “

Protestor6: “Uh . . . “

FTG: “ . . . Black people.  All the names I just listed were of White guys.”

Protestor 2: “What about that Basket guy?”

FTG: “James Baskett?  Who wasn’t even allowed to view his own movie at the premiere?  There’s also Clarence Muse whose input was ignored.  I didn’t even mention the slaves that Harris got the stories from like Uncle George Terrell, Old Harbert and Aunt Crissy.  People don’t even credit them as the storytellers, always crediting ‘Uncle Remus’ who was created by Harris.

Look, I’m trying to point out that the retheming of Splash Mountain to The Princess and the Frog has the potential to be a good thing in a number of ways.  The Princess and the Frog is a good movie with memorable music.  The retheme will allow them to give the ride a facelift after thirty years, including replacing the America Sings animatronics which are old, actually dating back to 1976.  And, most important of all, by getting rid of one of the last parts of Song of the South’s legacy, we can try to put a cap on that specific era of pop culture.  Now, Black writers and artists can have a little more elbow room to reclaim their own folk stories and reinterpret them in a way that’s meaningful to them in the modern era.  Heck, while maybe it’s not ideal, a big company like Disney could even help bring those visions to a wider audience.

Actually, they kind of already are . . . “

Protestor 5: “What?”

FTG: “Oh, well, it's not a movie thing or a theme park thing.  There’s a book titled Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky that’s by an African-American writer, Kwame Mbalia.  It’s from the Rick Riordan Presents line.  You know, Rick Riordan from the Percy Jackson series . . . “

Protestor 12: “I LOVE THE PERCY JACKSON BOOKS!”

FTG: “Okay . . . .

Well, anyway, it’s about a young Black boy from Chicago who ends up going into the world of African and African-American tales.  Among them are Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox.  Guess who published the book.”

Protestor 9: “Uh . . . Disney?”

FTG: “BINGO!  Disney-Hyperion Press!”
Protestor 1: “AGGH!  You guys are forgetting why we’re here!  We still have concerns about the ride!  Like, the placement of it.  Sure, at Disneyland they can extend New Orleans Square, but won’t it be weird in Disney World to have a Princess and the Frog ride in Frontierland?!”

FTG: “No weirder than it already is.  The Brer Rabbit stories were African stories that were transplanted to Georgia.  None of them have anything to do with the American frontier.”

Protestor 1: “But it’s just that . . . it’s my favorite ride and . . . it’s going to change . . . “

FTG: “Yeah, it is.  And change can be tough to deal with.  I know that.  But it’s got to happen.  It’s what Walt Disney would have wanted too.  It may sound strange coming from a guy who built an entertainment empire on nostalgia, but he always said that Disneyland would never be finished.  That as long as there was imagination, that it would always be growing and changing.  And this is a change that can be made to close a chapter on a troubled past and hopefully create a better future.  After all I said, you know it’s a good idea.”

Protestor 1: [dejectedly] “Yeah, I guess.”

FTG: “So, since we’re all still here, this seems like a good opportunity!  Why don’t we all just have a frank discussion right here about the effects of cultural appropriation in adapting folk stories for family entertainment?”

[Protestors drop their signs and start walking away]

“Hey!  Where are you all going?”

[A man in a suit walks out of the gate and comes up to the Fairy Tale Geek]

FTG: “Okay, so I did what you hired me for. “

Man-in-Suit: “Very good.  The Walt Disney Company thanks you. “

FTG: “And my compensation?”

Man-in-Suit: “Right!  Right!  Keep an eye on your mailbox.  We’ll send you a check and maybe a Disneyland t-shirt or something!”

FTG: “We talked about this.  I told you I want tickets to the press screening of Mulan.”

Man-in-Suit: “Yeah . . . we’ll see.”

[Man-in-Suit walks back in the gate and locks it behind him.]

FTG: “Hmm!  ‘We’ll see’ probably means ‘not a snowball’s chance in Orlando’.  Oh, well.

[FTG walks away humming “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah”, silently cursing to himself that the song is so catchy]