Monday, May 25, 2020

Fairy Tale Media Fix: Hanna-Barbera's Jack and the Beanstalk.

In the history of TV animation, there are few bigger names than Hanna-Barbera.  A company founded by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, who created Tom & Jerry for MGM, they created a number of tricks and methods that made producing animation for TV a viable option.  They then went on to create a number of popular characters and series like Yogi Bear, Huckleberry Hound, The Flintstones, The Jetsons, Jonny Quest, Space Ghost, Scooby-Doo and many more.

Why do I bring this up?  Because almost every major animation studio will take a crack at a popular fairy tale at some point.  Hanna-Barbera did it (for probably not the only time) for a 1967 telefilm production of Jack and the Beanstalk.
The film is a hybrid of animation and live action.  It stars Bobby Riha as Jack, Ted Cassidy (aka Lurch from The Addams Family) as the voice of the animated giant, Janet Waldo as the voice of Princess Serena (aka the Harp) and the one and only Gene Kelly as the peddler Jeremy Keen.  I should also note that Gene Kelly also produced and directed the movie.

The movie starts with Jack coming down the road with his cow and meeting Jeremy the peddler.  There’s a song and dance number (these happen quite often in this movie) and Jack walks away having traded the cow for some magic beans.  Jack goes back home and then we see him telling his mother about how he messed up.  Jack’s mother doesn’t actually say anything herself and we don’t even see her face (there’s a reason for this and I’ll get back to it later).  Jack then disposes of the bean and goes to bed only to find it grown into a giant beanstalk.  He goes out to find who else but Jeremy and Jack’s ex-cow.  Jeremy had come by to check on Jack after their trade.  Instead, he found a giant beanstalk which both he and Jack would both climb. 

That’s right.  Jack isn’t alone on his adventure.  Because when you sign Gene Kelly to your movie, you don’t relegate him to a bit part.
Anyway, they go up the beanstalk where they encounter a giant, a golden harp that’s actually a cursed princess, a couple of woggle-birds, a colony of scared mice and engage in many, many song and dance numbers (because Gene Kelly) and also engage in some strange but amusing wordplay (it’s hard to describe, you’ll just have to hear it for yourself).

This isn’t the first time Gene Kelly worked with Hanna and Barbera or their characters.  As you may recall, he danced with Jerry the Mouse in 1945’s Anchors Aweigh.  He acquits himself about as well here.  Though, between his producing, directing and the expanded role of his character, his role here might seem a bit outsized.

In  fact, one could argue that the movie is more like “Jeremy and the Beanstalk” with Jack as Jeremy’s sidekick.  The reason being that Jeremy is given a love story in the movie with Princess Serena aka the Singing Harp.  The payoff is something else though, but describing it involves MAJOR SPOILERS.  So, be warned.  You see, Serena is under a spell by an ogre that bonds her to the rest of the harp.  The spell can be lifted with a kiss (because animated fairy tale).  This kiss being quite naturally accompanied by a song and dance number (again because Gene Kelly).  Jeremy had fallen  for her at first sight, and apparently her for him.  But getting to her proves difficult.  Eventually it does happen, with the kiss and the song and dance and all that.  They escape the giant and Princess Serena wants Jeremy to stay with her.  And he sends her away because (and I’m paraphrasing) they’re from two different worlds.  She’s a princess and he’s just a peddler.  Now, they get back home and dispose of the beanstalk and Jack’s mother comes out to meet them.  Okay, so remember how I said we didn’t see Jack’s mother’s face or hear her speak, to the extent that Jack basically scolded himself?  Well, she shows up and SHE LOOKS JUST LIKE A LIVE ACTION VERSION OF PRINCESS SERENA.  Maybe a little bit older, but still clearly the model for the animated character.  And Jack’s mother isn’t a worn down middle-aged peasant woman.  In this case she’s a middle-aged but still quite lovely woman played by 1957 Miss America beauty contest winner Marian McKnight.  So, that’s the “happily ever after” here: the peddler marrying Jack’s mother.  I know  I usually come across as a bit of a traditionalist about “Jack and the Beanstalk”, but as someone who’s not exactly a spring chicken myself anymore, I have to applaud a fairy tale production where the older people get the happy ending (sidenote: has anyone ever compiled a collection of folk and fairy tales specifically aimed at the over 35 crowd?).  It is a bit strange from a technical standpoint though.  Because even though Princess Serena may have been modeled to look like McKnight, she wasn’t voiced by her.  Princess Serena’s speaking voice was provided by Janet Waldo and her singing voice by Marni Nixon.  I’m not sure why.  Was it the standard for physical acting and voice acting to be two separate things back then?  And why did they avoid letting Jack’s mother speak earlier?
Anyway, it’s not too bad.  Certainly not my least favorite “Jack and the Beanstalk” adaptation.  Though, I’m not sure which would be my most favorite.  It did win some accolades in its day.  It won the '67 Emmy for "Outstanding Children's Program".  Is this one the definitive cinematic adaptation of "Jack and the Beanstalk"?  No, but “Jack and the Beanstalk” doesn’t really have one, and I’m actually kind of glad it doesn’t.  It means that no Hollywood version can dictate expectations for this specific story and how it’s adapted.  Literary versions might still dictate them, but a movie won’t.

I feel like of the popular fairy tales, “Jack and the Beanstalk” can inspire a bit of confusion and debate.  The fact that it’s basically about a young trickster thief who gains his happy ending by robbing another character has caused people to question its appropriateness, its message and where it could have possibly come from.  It’s led to lots of “Jack was really the bad guy the whole time” hot takes and theories that the whole thing is really a metaphor for colonialism (these people would probably have had a field day with Disney’s Gigantic if it had ever been made).  And going back to the earliest printed version only seems to make things more confusing.  Personally, maybe it’s just me, but I think it’s mostly just a power fantasy for pre-Industrial English peasants.  Let’s just say that the giant in this case is a metaphor for the rich and powerful.  The royalty, gentry, landowners, etc.  Wouldn’t your average story listener in ages gone by appreciate the story of little Jack getting the best of the giant, no matter the method?  I know it’s not a very attractive answer for many people.  The idea that this story is basically the equivalent of a dumb superhero comic or summer action movie and that the subtext is as simple as “giant=rich and powerful”, but it is a possibility.  But then, like I’ve said twice, maybe it’s best we don’t have any grand insight into this story.  Let everyone’s interpretation stand on its own.  Let human beings create their own meaning and fill in the gaps. Then we can see how the next adaptation surprises us.  Until then, if you want to watch this version, it's on the Boomerang streaming service and available on DVD from Warner Archive.

Until next time.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Fairy Tale Media Fix: The Adventures of Brer Rabbit.

So . . . it’s almost Easter.  Things are still quarantined from the Coronavirus.  Not a lot of places to go to get holiday-appropriate material to blog about.  Even my resources are limited, but I’ll see what I can find.

A quick search of Amazon Instant Video later . . .
Well, it’s folk story relevant and it has a rabbit in it.  That’s good enough for an Easter post, right?

Now, I’ve talked about Brer Rabbit before and his troublesome connection to misrepresenting the racial situation in the Reconstruction era South and cultural appropriation.  I may have even mentioned the Disney movie Song of the South and the Walt Disney World ride Splash Mountain, which both complicate the whole thing.  So, maybe we should move on to the film itself.

The film is based on a book titled The Tales of Uncle Remus: The Adventures of Brer Rabbit written by Julius Lester with illustrations by Jerry Pinkney published in 1987.  The book won both the Coretta Scott King Book Illustration Award for 1988 and was the 1988 Horn Book Fanfare Book.   
 There was a play called The Adventures of Brer Rabbit that was also based on the book that opened in 1977 and played at the California Theater Center in Sunnyvale, California for twenty years.  The animated film adaptation was released straight-to-DVD in 2006.  It features the voices of Nick Cannon as Brer Rabbit, Danny Glover as Brer Turtle, D.L. Hughley as Brer Fox, Wayne Brady as Brer Wolf and Wanda Sykes as Sister Moon among others. It was nominated for the Best Home Entertainment Production Annie Award.

Unlike the Joel Chandler Harris version (or Disney’s), Uncle Remus and the infamous plantation he lived on are nowhere to be seen.  Instead, we’re introduced to Janey.  Janey is a young African American girl who is feeling pushed around by her family, particularly her older brother.  Sent outside to play by her mother, Janey runs into Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox.  An altercation between the two results in Brer Fox being tricked into being stuck at the bottom of a well.  After this, Janey meets Brer Turtle who introduces her to the world of the animals and tells her various stories about Brer Rabbit.  The story choices in this movie include a number of familiar ones and some not so familiar ones.  Brer Fox getting caught down the well, I already mentioned.  But they also have the one where he tricks Brer Bear into taking his place in a trap.  They have the one about Brer Rabbit’s Laughing Place.  They even have the one about the Tar Baby, which I did not expect to see.  I believe there’s an issue with the phrase “tar baby” being used as a racial slur.  Though, the one that probably surprised me the most is a story about how all the animals used to live in the sky with Sister Moon and how Brer Rabbit convinced them all to move to Earth.  That story puts the Brer Rabbit stories on a much more cosmic, mythological scale.  Or, at least on the scale of a por quois story.

From a technical standpoint, this straight-to-video animated movie looks like a straight-to-video animated movie.  It doesn’t have the polish of a theatrical film and story-wise it’s pretty much just a string of short stories put together with a loose framing sequence.  The music isn’t super memorable except for one really fun gospel number towards the middle.  The acting maybe isn’t the best, though there are some talented people in the cast.  However, from a cultural standpoint, this adaptation feels better than a lot of the past versions of the Brer Rabbit stories I’ve encountered.  As I said before, there’s no plantation and no Uncle Remus playing the role of “magical negro”.  There is kind of a “magical turtle” I guess.  Brer Turtle isn't necessarily trying to solve anyone's problems though, he's just telling the stories.  And the child listening to the stories is actually part of the culture the stories come from this time.

This time, compared to Song of the South or Joel Chandler Harris’s books, this movie feels less like it’s full of stories that white people like myself . . . y’know . . . stole.

I mean, I’m sure it’s not perfect on that front.  The movie was made by Universal Animation, and almost any film made by a major studio is going to have some rich, white voices influencing.  But still, it seems better.

One thing I’m going to have to say is that some fans of the material and folklorists may still take issue with this adaptation.  The thing is that some folks really love how violent and brutal these stories can be (I believe one Brer Rabbit story involved Brer Rabbit boiling Brer Fox alive).  There’s frequently talk about their visceral quality and how the brutality reflected the lives of the African American slaves that first started circulating these tales.  Well, I regret to inform you that the stories in this movie are not that dark and brutal.  The thing is that there’s a difference between how you can tell stories when they’re written in a book or being told by the hearth and when you render them into visuals for a movie.  Some things can be left to the imagination and some things can’t.  This is especially the case if you want children to watch the movie.  And if you want tales like these to have a lot of cultural penetration, children are probably going to be a key demographic.  As was shown with Song of the South, the answer is usually to turn the violence into cartoonish slapstick.  That’s essentially what happened here.  Brutal folkloric violence becomes roughly the stuff of Looney Tunes cartoons (or, since this is a Universal production, a Woody Woodpecker cartoon).  I’m afraid them’s the breaks, though.  If it had been more realistic, they would have lost out on their target audience and I’m not sure that most adults would have wanted to watch an R or hard PG-13 movie about Brer Rabbit.  Though, even with the cartoonier violence, parents might still not be crazy about the fact that the ultimate takeaway in this story is Janey learning how to trick people.

This is a flawed movie.  Certainly not a masterpiece.  However, I think it was a noble attempt at something that people have been struggling with the adaptation of for a long time.  And sometimes it’s better to see the strengths of a flawed film than to look for something perfect.  If you have the off chance, give it a look and judge it for its flaws and strengths yourself.  

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Fairy Tale Media Fix: The Librarians and the Fables of Doom.

Okay, so this COVID-19 quarantine/self-isolation thing seems like it just keeps going.  I think we could use a little distraction.  Luckily, I’ve been keeping a fairy tale related show in my back pocket just in case we needed something a bit lighter as a distraction.

So, let’s take a little trip back in time to 2015.  For a while, the cable network TNT had been airing TV movies under the heading of The Librarian.  The series starred actor Noah Wyle as Flynn Carson, a rather overeducated man who is inducted into the role of “The Librarian” at the Metropolitan Library.  It turns out though that his real job is to be an adventurer who’s supposed to secure certain supernatural artifacts so they can be stored safely in a secret part of the library.  (So, not so much a librarian as a pulp adventure hero.  But hey, Indiana Jones isn’t much of an archaeologist either).  After a while, TNT decided to stop doing TV movies and just launched a Librarians TV show in late 2014.  This time, the show focused on a trio of rookie Librarians under the guiding hand of the “Guardian” Col. Eve Baird played by Rebecca Romijn.  The trio consists of: Jacob Stone (Christian Kane), a polyglot and all-around expert on art, architecture and world cultures.  Or rather, six experts because he would publish papers under six different pseudonyms in order to hide his genius from his peers and family in rural Oklahoma.  Cassandra Killian (Lindy Booth) a science and mathematics genius who can solve problems by using the synesthetic hallucinations inflicted on her by a small brain tumor.  And Ezekiel Jones (John Kim), a cocky master thief who’s the team's expert at electronics and security systems.  They’re also helped by John Larroquette as Jenkins, the caretaker of the Library Annex they work out of.  Jenkins is a rather venerable if occasionally cranky fellow with extensive knowledge of the past.  He’s also pretty much stated to be Sir Galahad from Camelot granted immortality by the end of season one.
 This brings us to the Season One episode from 2015 The Librarians and the Fables of Doom.
Our four heroes arrive in the small town of Bremen, Washington to investigate an incident in which a truck went off a bridge.  Some investigation leads to the conclusion that it’s a troll.  However, the fact that the events resemble the story of “The Three Billy Goats Gruff” and some other incidents (including an “Emperor’s New Clothes” situation with the town mayor) leads them to the rather unusual conclusion that someone is weaponizing fairy tales.  Throughout the episode, there are references to fairy tales.  A girl gets cut out of an unusually large wolf at one point.  There’s a wall of thorns at another point.  A lot of them are references to local incidents in the town like food poisoning at an apple orchard or a local woman getting stuck in her pizza oven.  Ultimately, the problem stems from a magical storybook that feeds on the life force of who it’s being read to, the Libris Fabulum.

So, what’s the big deal, right?  This is pretty standard stuff for the “fairy tale episode” of an urban fantasy show.  In fact, this episode has some superficial similarities to an episode of Supernatural that uses a similar gimmick.  But here’s what makes this episode more fun and memorable than the fairy tale episodes of shows like Supernatural or Charmed.  As our quartet of heroes go through the episode, they also get drawn into the story that’s taking place and start to embody different fairy tale hero archetypes.  Or rather, they start to embody our modern, pop culture fueled interpretations of fairy tale heroes.  Eve Baird becomes the archetypal fairy tale princess.  Jacob Stone becomes the rugged Woodsman (or possibly Huntsman.  Those two often get conflated).  Cassandra Killian becomes Prince Charming.  And Ezekiel Jones (who was pretty much this character already) becomes the lucky rogue Jack.  It happens gradually through most of the episode too, with little changes happening from scene to scene.  A slight change in wardrobe here or an altered behavior there.  Now, like I said, the performances are based on common modern interpretations of these archetypes.  So, I get if there’s some trepidation.  But the original archetypes are kind of bare bones anyway, and the modern interpretations are usually ripe for parody.  So, we have Baird’s hair growing longer into flowing locks throughout the episode, as well as instances of her losing her shoe, humming/singing for no reason and an admittedly kind of awkward attempt at doing a princess’s “tinkling laughter”.  Stone, meanwhile, shows skill at throwing an ax, cutting a girl out of the belly of an oversized wolf and can apparently smell storms coming.  Probably my favorite is Cassandra as the Prince.  They lampoon the idea of Prince Charming as the romantic ideal by having pretty much every woman in the town infatuated with her.  It becomes even more interesting as Cassandra becomes more dynamic and commanding as the episode wears on.  Lindy Booth even seems to affect a deeper speaking voice when she’s being the Prince.  The only character that doesn’t seem to change much is Ezekiel as Jack, but that’s by design.  Ezekiel already embodied the lucky rogue, so he just got luckier.  The solution to the episode pretty much hinges on Ezekiel as Jack.  Basically, the unique fact that Jack usually comes through most of his adventures relatively unscathed compared to the princes and princesses who may end up blinded by thorns or stuck in a one hundred year coma.  Though this show is five years old and could likely be spoiled with impunity, I’m still not going to give away more than that.
 Is it perfect?  No.  As is often the case, I wish they hadn’t mixed up fairy tales with nursery rhymes and children’s fantasy at one point.  I would have liked to see some emphasis put on the fact that Jack can be both a rogue and a fool (which, actually does fit Ezekiel to a T now that I think about it).  Also, just being who I am and liking the fairy tale archetypes that I do, I would have maybe preferred seeing the Wandering Soldier (think “Twelve Dancing Princesses”, “How Six Men Got on in the World”, “Bearskin”, etc) over the Huntsman.  But I understand that archetype doesn’t quite have the optics that the others do.

As an example of a one shot “fairy tale episode” of a fantasy show, it may not be anything groundbreaking but it can show how a small change can add some spice and variety to a concept.  So, check it out if you are so inclined.  The whole series is on DVD and you can just buy the episode ala carte on Amazon Instant Video.  I mean, why not?  For the next couple weeks at least, you’ve probably got the time.

See ya next time.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Folk Tale Secret Stash: Madam White Snake.


It’s early March 2020 and everywhere I look I see something about the coronavirus.  And since the virus started in China, incidents of racist actions and attacks against Asian and Asian-American people seem to be on the rise.

You know what?  At least right here, right now, let’s turn things around.  Let’s focus on something positive and creative from China.

We’re going to talk about one of China’s “Four Great Folk Tales”.  For those who don’t know, China’s Four Great Folk Tales are “The Butterfly Lovers”, “Lady Meng Jiang Wailed Over the Great Wall”, “The Cowherd and the Weaving Girl” and “Madam White Snake”.  That last one is the one we’re going to focus on.
The story of “Madam White Snake” is also often called “The White Snake”.  I’m using the former name here because there’s also a Grimm story with the same title and I don’t want to confuse the two.  There are a couple of different versions.  Here’s a condensed version that has many of the most common elements:

One day, Lu Dongbin of the Eight Immortals disguises himself as a tangyuan vendor at a certain bridge.  There he meets a boy named Xu Xian who buys some tangyuan from him.  Now, it turns out that the tangyuan are actually immortality pills.  After eating them, Xu Xian discovers he doesn’t get hungry for the next three days.  Wanting to know why, Xu Xian goes back to the vendor.  Lu Dongbin laughs, carries him back to the bridge and holds him upside down and forces him to vomit the immortality pills into the lake.  Now, in the lake is a white snake who has been practicing Taoist magical arts.  Upon eating the spewed-up pills, she gains 500 years worth of magic power.  One day, the white snake sees a beggar who has caught a green snake and wants to kill it and cut out its gall to sell (snake gall can be used as a sort of medicine in Chinese medicine).  The White Snake transforms herself into a woman and buys the green snake, saving her life.  The green snake is grateful and begins to regard the white snake as a sort of elder sister.  Years later, the white snake and green snake take on the forms of two women named Bai Suzhen and Xiaoqing respectively.  There, they meet Xu Xian again who has grown into a man and become a physician to boot.  In time, Bai Suzhen and Xu Xian fall in love.  They marry and open a medicine shop.  Now, in this area there is a monk named Fahai who has somehow realized that there is something supernatural about Bai Suzhen.  One day during the Duanwu Festival, Fahai convinces Xu Xian that he should give Bai Suzhen some realgar wine (a wine that humans can drink but does not agree with demons).  Bai Suzhen drinks the wine and, feeling ill, unconsciously turns back into the form of a large white snake.  Seeing her true form, Xu Xian dies from shock.  Bai Suzhen and Xiaoqing then travel to a distant mountain to retrieve a magical herb that can heal any wound and even revive the dead.  Thus revived, Xu Xian realizes his wife’s devotion and love despite her supernatural nature and embraces her, vowing to continue loving and cherishing his amazing wife.
This isn’t the end of the story, though.  This story is practically a saga unto itself.  Fahai keeps coming back to try and split up the two lovers.  The tale even carries over to another generation, Xu Xian and Bai Suzhen’s son Xu Mengjiao.  There are different versions of the story too.  Some say that Fahai was just a monk who thought it was unholy for humans and spirits (spirits, demons, etc.  There are a lot of English substitution words for what Bai Suzhen actually was) to comingle like they did.  Others say that Fahai was a terrapin or tortoise that was practicing magic like the White Snake had and was jealous that she had 500 years of magical power given to her by seeming chance.
When I pick these stories for Folk Tale Secret Stash, I usually hedge my bets toward something that I feel will be easy for Western audiences to get into.  This one is almost the opposite of that.  With mentions of certain obscure forms of food and wine, real locations and specific references to Chinese medicine and Taoist magical practices, this story can seem VERY Chinese.  So, why did I pick this specific story?  Well, one thing is exposure.  But I’ll get back to that later.  The other is that there comes a point where we can’t be afraid of those kinds of details anymore.  If my aim is to expand the fairy tale canon beyond the standard European tales, which it is, we’ll need to get to the point where we can see the epic love story beyond all the details and cultural references.
As for the exposure thing, well, it’s one of the most popular folk tales in all of China.  How big is this tale?  Really big.  Big enough that the media stemming off of it has spilled over into the U.S.  Seriously, stuff based on this tale is around.  A loose animated prequel to the story was brought over by GKIDS in a limited theatrical run and has just been released on blu-ray.  A serialized drama based on the tale, The Legend of White Snake, is currently available on Netflix.  A far looser adaptation, The Destiny of White Snake, is viewable on Amazon Prime Video.  There’s even a Jet Li movie titled The Sorcerer and the White Snake  which I’m pretty sure got an American release if only on home video.  So, it’s been around in some form, but if you’re not the type to peruse Asian media you might not have seen it.

So, that’s the story of “Madam White Snake”.  Personally, I like it.  I think it has a unique heroine and I like the grand scale love story that plays out.  And it’s at least a nice break from the panic surrounding the recent virus outbreak.  Will it become part of the new Cosmopolitan fairy tale canon I hope takes root in the Western world?  Maybe not.  This one might still be playing too much on hard mode for most Americans at least (I can’t speak for Europe).  But I always have hope.