Monday, November 12, 2018

Fairy Tale Fandom Book Report: Muppets Meet the Classics: Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm


It’s time to play the music.  It’s time to light the lights.  It’s time to meet the Muppets in Muppet Fairy Tales tonight!

Oh, yeah!  This is my kind of book!  I’m a big Muppets fan going way back.  Way, way back!  How big?  Well, this is what my checkbook looks like.  I’m not going to show you the actual checks, but trust me they follow the same theme as the cover.
The book we’re talking about is the latest in the new Muppets Meet the Classics line of children’s books.  This one in particular is Muppets Meet the Classics: Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm by Erik Forrest Jackson.  Now, this is hardly the first time the Muppets have adapted fairy tales and it probably won’t be the last.  Some of the earliest Muppet productions I remember watching were Jim Henson’s The Frog Prince, Hey, Cinderella and The Muppet Musicians of Bremen.  They also tackled a few fairy tales, fables and myths in  a straight-to-video project called Muppet Classic Theater.  Heck, when there was a license for Muppet comics at Boom! Studios, Muppet Snow White was one of the miniseries produced.   But I suppose I’ll deal with those another time.
Now, while this is not the first time adapting (and lampooning) fairy tales, it is the first time they’ve gone quite this deep.  They’re focused on just one historic fairy tale collection this time and are adapting 18 stories both popular and obscure.  The thing is, is it possible to catch the trademark humor and warmth the Muppets are known for on the printed page?  Even some of the modern TV Muppets productions haven’t quite measured up.

The book is set up as a sort of performance by the Muppets.  Essentially, they know they’re in a book.  There are a prologue and an epilogue that deal with the times before and after said performance when the Muppets are preparing or winding down and can be themselves rather than their characters.  Sometimes they break the fourth wall during the tales.  Sometimes, stuff from one tale will bleed into another, usually in the form of a running gag.  Really, it’s just a very funny book.  Jackson captures the traditional Muppets humor very well.  Sometimes he’ll work the joke into fairy tale fiction staples like fanciful ways of saying time passed.  A regular fairy tale fantasy might describe the seasons passing.  In the book’s first story, it’s done like this: “Time passed.  The snow fell.  Britney Spears had another comeback, fell from favor yet again, and came back once more”.  The Muppets, being the big zany showbiz family that they are, are going to poke fun at show business.  The writer knows this.  The Muppet version of Rapunzel takes place in Las Vegas and their version of Dame Gothel (played by Miss Piggy) is a witch who works as a stage magician.  In their version of “The Fisherman and his Wife”, the greedy wife played once again by Miss Piggy wishes for a mansion but also starts wishing for a number of entertainment awards like the Oscars, Grammys and Emmys.  She even muses on the possibility of wishing for a Newberry Medal (given for excellence in children’s literature).  Kermit then responds that it’s not going to happen for this book.   All of it’s done with the typical lighthearted optimism the Muppets are known for.
A still from Jim Henson's The Frog Prince
Usually, around this point I’d talk about the writer’s choice of tales to adapt.  I do want to do that.  However, I also want to talk about the choice of Muppets he makes.  In terms of the stories, most of the more popular tales from the Brothers Grimm are here.  There are “Cinderella”, “The Frog King”, “Rapunzel”, “Little Red Cap”, “Snow Drop”, “Rumpelstiltskin”, “Hansel and Gretel”, etc.  And that’s fine.  The majority of people want to see the old favorites.  However, there are also a lot of less famous tales adapted here.  There’s “Simeli Mountain”, “The Cat and the Mouse Set Up House”, “The Giant with the Three Golden Hairs”, “The Mouse, the Bird and the Sausage”, “The Golden Goose” and others.  Probably my favorite of those adapted is “Faithful John” which gets adapted as “Faithful Sweetums”, with the Great Gonzo in the role of the prince and of course the towering but ultimately kind-hearted ogre Sweetums in the title role.  And that brings me to another thing.  A character like Sweetums usually plays background roles.  He’s around if the Muppets need a big, powerful, scary full-body Muppet but he’s not usually the star.  But Jackson doesn’t really let that stop him.  He digs deep into the Muppet cast and pulls out characters you might not expect and often gives them starring roles.  This is a very good thing.  Why?  Well, let’s just admit something here.  If you reduced the Muppets down to just their most prominent characters, you would only have one female character.  That character is the one, the only (thank goodness) Miss Piggy.  It’s been an issue before.  In both the original Muppet Babies cartoon and the new series, they had to create new female characters just to diversify the cast.  In the ‘80s it was Scooter’s twin sister Skeeter.  Today, it’s a character named Summer Penguin.  The stories collected by the Brothers Grimm have many, many prominent female roles in them.  Can you imagine if every princess, witch, peasant girl and crone in these stories had to be played by the same self-absorbed pig.  Yikes.  From the first story, you can tell that’s not going to be a problem.  It’s Jackson and the Muppets’ take on “Cinderella” (or “Ashputtel”) and while Miss Piggy does end up taking the role of the Wicked Stepmother, the Cinderella role goes to Camilla, Gonzo’s chicken paramour.  That’s not all, either.  Janice, the Electric Mayhem’s guitarist, plays both Snow Drop and Rapunzel (just a refresher: “Snow Drop” is another name for Snow White).  Also, one of the rats, Yolanda, plays the book’s Sleeping Beauty.  Sometimes they just gender-bend the roles, like having Fozzie play Little Red-Cap or having Andy and Randy Pig play the wicked stepsisters in “Cinderella”.  Piggy still has a lot of work, though.  She’s the princess in “The Frog Prince” as well as various villainesses and other assorted roles.  And that’s just a few of the Muppets you’ll see in this book.
The Muppet Musicians of Bremen
Overall, this book is just a load of fun.  It’s fun for fairy tale fans.  It’s fun for Muppet fans.  It’s fun for people who just like send ups of fairy tales (like Shrek or Fractured Fairy Tales).  I’d recommend reading it.  If they’re all like this one, I hope the Muppets Meet the Classics line has a whole lot of success.

You know, I could probably talk about Muppet fairy tale adaptations for a long time.  But alas, that is something for another time.  Like maybe next post.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Fairy Tale Media Fix: The Nutcracker and the Four Realms.


(Alternate Title: “A Hard Nut to Crack”)

[Enter to see the Fairy Tale Geek sitting on the couch eating walnuts.  He suddenly sees the reader appear on the scene]

What?

The Nutcracker?  I already did a post on the Nutcracker a couple Christmases back, remember?

Oh, you mean the new movie?  Well, it wasn’t good, if that helps.

More, huh?
Okay, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is a new live action Disney fantasy film released this year.  The film focuses on young Clara Stahlbaum who has just lost her mother for undisclosed reasons.  She is given a mechanical egg with no key as a posthumous Christmas gift from her mother and has to set about finding a way to open it.  Later, at a Christmas party thrown by her godfather Droselmeyer (who also happens to be the man who raised her mother), she finds her way into another world where the key is only for it to be taken by a mouse.  From there she discovers that her mother was once queen of this world and meets friends like the Sugarplum Fairy and the Nutcracker Soldier as well as running afoul of Mother Ginger, the ruler of the dark and creepy Fourth Realm.

As far as takes on public domain fantasy stories go, this one feels a little dated.  It feels more like something akin to the Tim Burton Alice in Wonderland or Snow White and the Huntsman from almost a decade back.  Most of the story is given over to giving Clara a coming of age narrative and turning her into a borderline action hero.  And while it’s not bad to have a female empowerment fantasy (perish the thought), I was hoping for a little more from it.  Also, like Alice and Snow White in those other movies, Clara’s importance is created in a rather convenient manner.  Only, instead of there being a prophecy with her as the Chosen One, she’s secretly the old queen’s daughter.  Every other character in this movie either gets swallowed up by the production or acts so over-the-top that it seems like they’re afraid they would be if they didn’t command as much attention as possible.  For example, the character of the Nutcracker himself is demoted to more or less the position of Clara’s sidekick and isn’t much more than that.  Meanwhile, the Sugar Plum Fairy portrayed by Keira Knightley chews the scenery so much you’d swear she thought it was actually made of gingerbread.
The tone kind of varies from moment to moment.  One minute it’s more of a bright alternate world fantasy, the next it’s more of a creepy pseudo-Tim Burton thing, the next they’re talking about magical machines that bring toys to life and it feels like something out of the Spy Kids franchise.

I think where the movie really goes off the rails is when they indulge in another more modern Disney-Pixar trope and have a plot twist as to who the real villain is.  I’m not going to reveal who it is, though click HERE if you want the spoiler in music form.  I will tell you that it’s not the Mouse King, the usual villain of the Nutcracker story.  The Mouse King in this version is this big mass of mice that take the form of a giant mouse and his role is decidedly different than it is in any other version of the Nutcracker.

I mean, there are some bright spots.  The ballet scene starring Misty Copeland is very good.  The focus on grief is interesting and does inform the performance of the surprise villain a little bit, though not enough to save that twist.  And, as usual, it’s fun to pick out the nods to the original works.  For example, the Nutcracker is named Capt. Phillip Hoffmann after the original book’s author E.T.A. Hoffmann.  Also, Clara’s mother is named Marie Stahlbaum, which was the name of the Clara character in Hoffmann’s book.  But that’s about it.

You know, maybe I’m on the wrong track, but I don’t really see much value in making Clara nee Marie into royalty.  In E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story, if I recall correctly, Marie was special because of the kindness she showed to the Nutcracker and because she had the fortitude and good aim to chuck her slipper at the Mouse King’s head.  I know it’s kind of a cliché to make a female character’s greatest trait kindness, but as I get older I start to think that kindness may be a trait that’s far greater for anyone than cleverness or any trait associated with derring-do.

And I find myself wondering once again how useful a radical new take on The Nutcracker and the Mouse King is when it’s never, at least to my knowledge, had a definitive movie adaptation in the first place.  I mean, sure, the ballet adaptation gets performed every year around Christmas.  Ballet isn’t for everyone, though.  Some people have trouble interpreting the dance they’re seeing into the story that’s supposed to be conveyed.  And some people don’t really go to the ballet and only know Tchaikovsky’s music.   

And while I would love a more faithful adaptation of The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, I’m realizing that it would probably be a very difficult story to adapt.  It has that whole “story of the hard nut” in the middle of it and a good chunk of the last third is just devoted to showing off the peculiarities of the Land of Sweets.  I’d still like to see them try, though.


 This is also a reminder that during Disney’s big live action fantasy trend, that while they’ve done pretty well with all their remakes and reimaginings of their own past movies, almost every time they have tried to do something outside that area it has failed to stick the landing.  So far, we’ve had Oz the Great and Powerful, Into the Woods, The BFG, A Wrinkle in Time and now The Nutcracker and the Four Realms.  Of all of them, I’d say Into the Woods was the best and you’d have a very different opinion if you asked a theater buff.  Oz the Great and Powerful I find watchable but very flawed.  A Wrinkle in Time is pretty much the best you could expect from an adaptation of a nearly unadaptable book (it carried the story okay, but it didn’t convey the interesting philosophical and scientific ideas that blew our minds in fifth grade very well).  The BFG was just “meh”.  And now we have this Nutcracker thing.  So, Walt Disney Pictures may have some trouble ahead once it runs out of adaptable stuff in its own back catalog.

Anyway, If you’re looking for some kind of Nutcracker fix this holiday season, you’re better off just going to see a local ballet performance.  Or better yet, read the original story by E.T.A. Hoffmann.  You can find it online HERE.
Anyway, care for a walnut?

Sunday, November 4, 2018

On the Subject of Hollywood, Public Domain Characters and Movies not Bombing.


Hey, guys!  I think it’s time to talk about movies again!

[Audible groan heard from across the internet]

Okay.  Yeah, I get it.  For a fairy tale blogger I talk about movies a lot.  But it’s hard to have a blog about fairy tales and pop culture without talking about the biggest purveyors of pop in the world.  Besides, if I didn’t talk about movies and other forms of visual media, this would basically just be another book blog.

Now, what prompted this talk about movies?  Well, it wasn’t fairy tales, it was legends.  The legends of King Arthur and Robin Hood in particular.  And it was this video by Patrick H. Willems: Robin Hood, King Arthur, and Hollywood's Problem with Public Domain Properties.
Go ahead and watch it.  I’ll wait.

Anyway, what Willems is pointing out is that for the past decade or so, adaptations of traditional characters like King Arthur and Robin Hood haven’t been all that popular.  And he points out that the way they’re being adapted and how long the gap has been between adaptations might be an issue.
And you know, he might be right.  I didn’t see either of the last two King Arthur movies or the Russell Crowe Robin Hood movie.  They just looked unappealing.  And I wouldn’t have been able to pinpoint why they looked unappealing.  Now, keep in mind, as a storyteller and someone who did a 12 part series on famous legendary figures, I am probably as close to being in fandoms for Robin Hood and King Arthur as anyone is.  So, if I’m not interested, that’s a bad sign.  But here’s a thing about the recent Robin Hood and King Arthur movies: they didn’t really look all that much like Robin Hood or King Arthur movies.  At least, from the trailers and commercials I saw.  King Arthur: Legend of the Sword didn’t seem to emphasize much Arthurian legend in its advertising as much as it emphasized the new gritty street tough origin they gave to Arthur.  Advertisements for Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood emphasized the gritty tone and also cast in the role of Robin Hood, a character often described as “merry”, an actor known for frowning his way through most of the movies he stars in.

Overall, I think this brings up the question: “How beneficial is having a bold, radical take?”

Now, I’m not trying to say that creativity isn’t a good thing or that filmmakers should just repeat the work of others.  It’s just that for people who aren’t storytellers or fairy tale bloggers, these stories are well-known but not something they think about all the time.  So, when the chance comes to encounter these tales again, they may want to remind people of the things they loved about them in the first place.

With some radical takes, it’s even possible to just miss the point of the character in question.  Take Pan, for instance (a movie I actually did see in theaters, I regret to say).  

 It was supposed to be Warner Bros. attempt at creating an origin story for Peter Pan.  However, amid a whole number of bizarre story choices, their biggest mistake was their tired, clichéd concept for Peter.  According to Pan, Peter was a half-fairy “Chosen One” who was supposed to save Neverland.  It ignored almost all the subtext in J.M. Barrie’s story and even directly contradicted things stated about his back story.

We could actually look at Disney’s current fantasy movie initiative in regards to this.  Now, I have heard about a million explanations for why some of these movies do well.  That it’s just because of the Disney brand.  That it’s just because they’re remakes of already popular movies.  Or, in the case of the 2015 Cinderella movie, that it’s just because it came packaged with a Frozen short.  But what if those aren’t the reasons?  Let’s stick with Cinderella as an example.   

The 2015 Cinderella movie came out in 2015, naturally.  The last widely released Cinderella movie before that was a modern teen romance version entitled Another Cinderella Story in 2008 seven years before.  That movie was a sequel to another modern teen romance version A Cinderella Story in 2004.  Before that, you’d probably have to go back to 1998 and Ever After.  Mind you, this isn’t counting movies that go straight to DVD or television, which are certainly things that happen with fairy tale movies.  But when Disney’s decidedly traditional 2015 version of Cinderella came out, it ended up making 543.5 billion dollars on a 100 million dollar budget.  They made that money on a Cinderella movie that was just Cinderella.  Not “Present Day Cinderella”.  Not “Cinderella in Space”.  Not “Cinderella Warrior Princess”.  Just old-school Charles Perrault stuff.  And I remember people criticizing the film for not doing a bold new take, and explaining away its success because of branding and because it came with a Frozen short.  But maybe people were just ready for another traditional take.  Sure, fairy tale and movie bloggers who think about this stuff constantly may have been disappointed.  But regular people who haven’t thought about “Cinderella” in a long time were probably just thinking “Oh yeah, Cinderella!  I remember that!  I should take the kids to see it.”  Meanwhile, movies with less familiar takes on famous characters like Oz the Great andPowerful and Alice Through the Looking Glass underperform.

It’s not to say a different take can’t be fun.  It depends on how it’s done.  For example, going by trailers alone, this upcoming King Arthur spin-off The Kid Who Would Be King looks like a lot of fun.

It may be a silly, kid-focused take with modern school children fighting the forces of evil.  However, the trailer shows more fun, recognizable Arthurian stuff than the trailer for last year’s King Arthur movie did.  Here we see the sword in the stone, Merlin, Morgana, Excalibur, the Lady of the Lake and even a tongue-in-cheek take on the famous round table.  King Arthur: Legend of the Sword’s trailer showed the sword in the stone and that’s it.

We’ve still got a ways to go through fairy tale and “public domain character” movies.  We’ve got a Nutcracker movie with seemingly no Mouse King up next (how many movie adaptations of Hoffmann’s story do we get?  Very few.  Would it kill us to have a definitive non-ballet take?).  And then a Robin Hood movie that looks for all the world like an episode of the CW’s Arrow.  But, the studios have long slates still in the works.  Maybe they’ll come up with some good, solid, interesting takes yet.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Outfoxed


You know, I’ve been on a bit of a Robin Hood kick lately, so I thought it was about time to tackle the Reynard the Fox stories.  And if you think that doesn’t make sense, then hold on a minute and I’ll explain.

The thing about being a pop culture buff on the internet is you sometimes find out what movies were going to be before they became what they are.  Now, we all know the Disney Robin Hood movie with anthropomorphic animals.  However, what few know is that Disney’s Robin Hood started out as many failed attempts at making movies based on popular European animal characters like Chanticleer the Rooster and Reynard the Fox.  You see, one of the early animation projects Walt and company considered doing was an adaptation of the French play Chanticleer, which is about a rooster named Chanticleer who is so vain that he actually thinks that his crowing causes the sun to come up.  The writers found it hard to make the character sympathetic, so Walt suggested they combine it with another project they had been having trouble with: Reynard the Fox.  The idea being Reynard would be the villain (notably, the book Reynard the Fox also has a rooster named Chanticleer in it, but that could be just a coincidence).  Despite this move, they still had a hard time getting the whole thing to work.  The proposed film never did get made or see the light of day.  The Chanticleer concept was eventually nicked by Don Bluth and reworked into a film called Rock-a-Doodle.  However, bits of design and character eventually leaked their way into the film version of Robin Hood.
It’s easy to tell who became who as well.  Reynard became Robin Hood.  Noble the Lion became Prince John.  Isengrim the Wolf became the Sherriff of Nottingham.  Grimbart the Badger became Friar Tuck.  And Chanticleer the Rooster became Allan a Dale.

And it was probably a good idea to scuttle plans for a Reynard the Fox animated film.  Because if they thought it was hard to make Chanticleer likable because he was cocky and vain, they would have had a hell of a time with Reynard himself.

I’ve read Reynard the Fox in a translation by James Simpson.  And this book is really something else.  The story is extremely violent and aunt-authority and the main character is an unrepentant liar who will do anything to get what he wants.

The character of Reynard has been around a long time.  Many of the stories were first created by multiple different authors during the Middle Ages.  The character himself was thought to have risen out of Alsatian folklore.  The Reynard stories were extremely popular and rather influential.  They spread throughout Dutch, French, German and English lands.

The Reynard stories are, first and foremost, satire.  Satire of courtly politics in particular.  The stories center to a large degree on various animals and their attempts to bring Reynard to the court of King Noble the Lion.  And Noble the Lion and his court are largely depicted as selfish, cowardly, foolish, brutish and insincere.  The animals who serve the Lion and who similarly act reverent to the bigger animals like the Wolf and Bear are treated as if they are foolish rubes.  So, you’d think if these were the so-called villains of our story then the hero would be better and more moral than that, right?
In most stories, maybe.  But remember how I said Reynard was an unrepentant liar.  We should probably add thief and killer to that list too.  So many of his adversaries end up killed or maimes (because of Reynard, Cuwaert the Hare gets eaten, Bruin the Bear loses a big chunk of his scalp and Tybert the Cat loses an eye).

So, what makes Reynard the hero of this tale other than the fact that he uses brains instead of brawn to solve his problems?  Well, it largely seems to be the fact that he’s unambitious.  No, really.  Most of his primary antagonists are in some way affiliated with King Noble’s court.  They have positions of power and authority.  Reynard doesn’t have or want those things.  His primary motivations are to fill his belly, save his own skin and feed his family.

The Introduction to my copy of the book by translator James Simpson describes Reynard the Fox as a sort of reverse of Niccolo Macchiavelli’s The Prince and it’s hard to argue with him.  While The Prince was supposed to teach monarchs and leaders how to survive their enemies and subjects “by any means necessary”, Reynard the Fox seems intent on teaching the people how to survive their rulers “by any means necessary”.  Even as satire, it’s a decidedly dark outlook.
Still, while this may be too dark for many people’s modern tastes.  There is something to be learned from the story of Reynard in terms of how to make darkly comedic stories and possibly unlikable characters work.  And I can do it with some handy comparisons to popular cartoons.  For example, why is all the courtly maneuvering, trickery and death seen as darkly comic rather than the stuff of Shakespearean tragedy?  Well, have you noticed how violent old Tom & Jerry and Looney Tunes can be?  For some reason, when casting characters as anthropomorphic animals rather than humans, it creates a sort of distance between the reader or viewer and the material.  The characters aren’t quite like real animals or like actual humans.  They become a sort of stand-in or parody of humanity.  Thus we feel a certain freedom to laugh at their misfortunes.  This is something we can see in other trickster and animal traditions as well.  Some of the Anansi and Brer Rabbit stories can be pretty brutal too, but because all the characters are animals they come across as funny trickster stories instead.  (Note: this approach probably wouldn’t have worked with Disney, because they try too hard to make you care about their characters despite the fact they are sometimes anthropomorphic animals).  Now, let’s circle back to the idea of making the unlikeable likeable.  You may think this is a rare occurrence, but it’s not.  For example, let’s use another character that we really shouldn’t like all that much: Homer Simpson.  Kind of the opposite end of the spectrum, really.  Whereas Reynard is clever, Homer’s possibly the dumbest sitcom dad in history.  He’s also gluttonous, lazy, selfish and prone to getting into hare-brained schemes that seem to have no possibility of working.  But to make this oaf likable, you do the same two things that were done with Reynard: 1) You double-down on whatever likable trait he might have, and 2) You make those who complicate his life much worse than him.  In Homer’s case, what you double down on his love for and devotion to his wife Marge.  As for the other trait, we must never forget that he works for the single most evil man in town C. Montgomery Burns.  So, Reynard is much the same in that way.  He’s awful in so many ways but root for him because of his unambitious aims of making it through the day and feeding his family (mind you, he’s not completely devoted by modern standards, Reynard does cheat on his wife Ermilyn at least once.  But he does still bring home food for the pups).  And at least he’s not one of the fawning phonies in Noble’s court.

So, there we have it.  Reynard the Fox explained in cartoon language.  He might have been too dark for Disney, but he was probably just the kind of bitter tonic people needed back during the Middle Ages.