Thursday, June 26, 2014

Four Color Fairy Tales: Castle Waiting

One of the interesting things about fairy tales is that despite what fantastical, magical happenings are going on, they’re actually really down-to-earth in a way.  Amidst all the struggles between good and evil, many of the biggest victories are little, personal ones.  They’re usually not about saving the world or even saving a kingdom.  They’re about a girl escaping from a toxic family situation.  They’re about a boy getting enough money to live on and prove to his mother that he’s not a screw-up.  They’re about a soldier coming home from war with nothing but the clothes on his back and trying to make a life for himself.  Sometimes you have some stories that involve rights of succession for princes, but they’re also usually set in a context of coming-of-age, family issues and jealousy.  However, Hollywood doesn’t always realize this.  So many adaptations of fairy tales have big, scary villains who want their own kingdoms or have some other kind of big ambition that it’s easy to lose touch with the smaller, more human side of it all.

That’s why it’s nice to have a little Castle Waiting in your life.

Castle Waiting is an Eisner Award-winning graphic novel series by writer and artist Linda Medley.  The story follows the lives of a group of unusual people as they deal with the ins and outs of living in a fairy tale castle turned sanctuary.  And  . . . that’s it. 

Well, I say “that’s it” because there’s really no major antagonists or conflicts.  Most of the major conflicts lurk in the characters’ pasts and are revealed as the characters’ histories are revealed.  What a strange and vibrant group of characters they are, too.  First of all, there’s Patience, Prudence and Plenty, one time ladies-in-waiting to a certain sleeping beauty who now own the castle.  That castle, is of course, the setting of the story.  There’s Lady Jain, a young woman on the run from an abusive husband, and her green-skinned beast-like infant son Pindar.  There’s also Rackham Adjutant, a bird-like dandy who serves as the castle’s steward.  There’s also the cook Dinah Lucina and her half-giant son Simon.  They’re just the tip of the iceberg, though.  Every character has a story to tell and a past they’re dealing with.  All the while, they have to deal with a number of everyday events in a sanctuary castle ranging from Pindar’s birth to enduring mischievous house sprites to fixing the roof so it doesn’t leak.  On top of all this, the book is filled with references to fairy tales.  In reading both volumes, I spotted references to “Sleeping Beauty”, “Beauty and the Beast”, “The Frog King, or Iron Henry”, “Puss in Boots”, “The Three Little Pigs”, “Jack and the Beanstalk”, “Jack the Giant Killer” and “Snow White”.

I don’t have any pictures I can legally post of the artwork, but you can find plenty if you do an image search like I did here.

Now, when I talked about Fables, I used the phrase “it’s not for everyone”.  I’m going to use that again here.  Personally, I like Castle Waiting but I can see why others might find it a bit on the boring side.  If you read some of the reviews out there, many will focus on the feminist side of Castle Waiting.  This isn’t a bad thing.  It’s true that many of the characters are women and their lives do get a fair bit of focus.  However, what I think makes Castle Waiting unique is that it shows us “ever after” in action.  Castle Waiting is what happens after the prince comes, the villain is defeated, the princess is rescued and the rice is swept up following the royal wedding.  This just leaves the supporting characters and characters on the periphery to live their lives.  Even after the major conflicts are dealt with, life goes on.  There are still meals to cook and roofs to fix, babies to birth, games to play, community to take part in and most of all, stories to tell.  So, if this unusual group of characters interests you or you wonder what happens after the “ever after”, you should give Castle Waiting a try.  It might not be for everyone, but it just might be for you.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Fantasy Literature Rewind: The Snow Queen.

Well, it’s summer and the temperature out there seems to keep climbing.  So, maybe it’s a good idea to find a tale to cool off.  How about Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen”?  Now, I’ll admit that I’ve never been a big fan of Andersen.  When it comes to the great fairy tale writers, I gravitate more towards the earthy, rustic tales of the Brothers Grimm or the courtly wit of Perrault.  Something about Andersen’s tales always left me cold (you might want to prepare yourself, because these puns are probably going to keep coming).  However, I figure that no one can write a fairy tale blog without talking about Andersen eventually.  Also, I remember thinking “The Snow Queen” wasn’t so bad the first time I read it.  Actually, I’ve wanted to do something regarding this tale ever since Disney’s Frozen came out, seeing how this story and the movie it inspired are so completely different.  If there are any huge Frozen fans out there who would have a serious problem with how different the title character in this story is from Princess Elsa, may I suggest before continuing that you just . . . let it go (I swear, I am so awful sometimes).

Anyway, let’s start with some information on the author.  Hans Christian Andersen was born in Odense, Denmark on April 2, 1805.  Andersen was a product on two towns and two lives.  His youth was spent in the poor, rustic Odense.  His adult life was spent in the up-scale literary circles of Copenhagen.  So, for most of his life, Andersen was kind of a man of two worlds.  In some cases, he was even at war with himself.  This feeling of being “between two worlds” has become a feature of most of his stories (one notable example being “The Little Mermaid”).  He even stood between the worlds of folklore and literature.  In his youth, he would often hear tales from the elderly female inmates of the Odense Hospital (it was really more of a workhouse).  This would provide the basis for his adaptations of popular folk stories like “Little Claus and Big Claus” and “The Wild Swans”.  However, many of his most popular tales like “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, “The Ugly Duckling”, “The Princess and the Pea”, “The Little Mermaid” and this story were his own invention.  Another big influence on Andersen’s writing was his religious faith, which was what has been described as a sort of “undogmatic Christianity”.  This is just a brief overview.  If you want to read more about Andersen’s life, you can click the link HERE.

Now, “The Snow Queen” is a tale split into seven smaller stories.  So, I’ll try my best to give a brief gist of the story without spoiling it and give my impressions. 

First Story.  Here, we find out about a very specific magic mirror.  This magic mirror was created by a terrible troll.  That troll was called the devil (sometimes “troll” is translated as “sprite”).  The mirror had the ability to cause anything good or beautiful reflected in it look ridiculous or repulsive.  Through a series of events, the devil’s mirror gets shattered and little shards of it spread throughout the world.  Some are no bigger than a grain of sand.  The mirror will become important later.  However, what I find interesting is the combination of Christian mythology with Scandanavian folklore.  I would have never thought to characterize the devil as a troll before.  I suppose it should come as no surprise, though.  These things dovetail together all the time.  In Arabic folklore, ghouls are both described as evil djinn and as demons that are the children of the devil.  Also, in Scottish lore, the fairies supposedly owe a tithe to the devil.

Second Story.  Here we are introduced to Kai and Gerda.  They’re two innocent little children who are close friends and share a garden.  It’s also here that we’re introduced to the idea of the Snow Queen.  The Snow Queen in this story doesn’t seem to be so much a character as a force of nature.  She’s described as someone who flies right in the center of fierce snowstorms and returns to the clouds when it’s all over.  The snow flakes are described as being “white bees” and she is the queen.  She’s essentially the mother of the storm.  Now, all seems to go well until little Kai (which I believe is pronounced “Kay” with a long “a” sound) gets a little piece of the devil’s mirror caught in his eye and a little piece caught in his heart.  As a result, Kai changes.  He becomes mean and only sees the flaws and everything.  He teases the old grandmother who tells him and Gerda stories.  He even stops playing with Gerda and would rather go play with the other boys.   Essentially, what we have here is a metaphor for pre-adolescent cynicism.  It’s age 10-13 for boys with a magical twist.  If you’ve ever had to deal with middle school kids, you know what I’m talking about (I don’t blame them, it’s a hard time).  Anyway, Kai goes off to play with the boys but ends up getting led away by the Snow Queen.

Third Story.  With Kai missing, little Gerda decides to go out in the spring and look for him.  This is actually kind of awesome for a little girl.  One little girl against the world to find her best friend!  She ends up staying at the house of an old woman who knows magic.  The old woman enchants her to forget she’s looking for Kai until she sees a rosebush in the garden (Kai and Gerda used to play near a rosebush in their own garden).  She then goes and talks to all the flowers in the garden and they all tell their own story.  Honestly, I don’t really know what to make of their stories.  They’re all just little vignettes that seem like they should be part of bigger stories.

Fourth Story.  Having gained no help from the flowers, Gerda goes on her way.  She meets a crow who tells her about a little prince who came to marry a nearby princess.  Gerda is convinced it’s Kai and has the crow’s tame fiancĂ©e sneak her into the palace.  One of the most interesting things in this one is that the shadows of dreams appear on the walls of the palace.  It’s just such a wonderful, fantastical idea.  It’s also kind of reflected in Andersen’s other story “The Sandman” (yes, that Sandman).  Anyway, it turns out that the prince is not Kai, so Gerda goes on her way with some new warm clothes and a carriage to ride in.

Fifth Story.  In this story, Gerda meets the Robber Girl!  There’s not much to explain here.  Gerda gets kidnapped by robbers and meets a crazy little robber girl.  Robbers are something of a fairy tale staple, even if a less mainstream one.  They kind of play both hero and villain, too.  There’s the dark and vicious robber of Grimm’s “The Robber Bridegroom” but there’s also the helpful band of robbers that take in the heroine in the Italian “Snow White” variant “Bella Venezia”.  Here, they’re a little bit of both.  They are violent and dangerous, but the robber girl does help Gerda in the end.  Anyway, Gerda gets a lead on Kai and sets off on a reindeer for Lapland.

Sixth Story.  In this story, Gerda and the reindeer meet two old women, one is a Lapp and one is Finnish.  They give Gerda advice as old women in fairy tales often do.  The Finnish woman tells Gerda that she has all the power she needs to free Kai.  We also find out that the northern lights are the Snow Queen’s fireworks, which is a fun little factoid.  Gerda also heads for the Snow Queen’s palace where she encounters some snow flake monsters.  However, here’s the strange part of this story.  When Gerda says her prayers, her breath turns into a legion of little angels with spears and helmets that fight the snow flake monsters.  Wiggy, huh?

Now, before we go any further, I have to give people a chance to get off this ride.  You see, I have to talk about the ending and there are SPOILERS a-coming.  If you don’t want to hear about the ending and the subtext of said ending, you should leave now.  I will, however, give you a link to the original story right HERE, so you can finish on your own time.  Everyone ready?  Good.

Seventh Story.  Gerda finds Kai, who is turned blue with cold.  He’s playing a game called The Game of Reason in which he puts together shards of ice to form the word “eternity”.  However, he can’t remember what the word is.  Gerda runs to Kai and her tears melt the glass shard in his heart.  She sings part of a psalm and Kai cries and the tiny piece of glass is cried out of his eyes.  Gerda kisses him and his warmth and color is restored.  So, everything is restored and they return to their happy lives . . . or do they?

Here’s the thing, I’m not entirely sure Kai and Gerda survive this encounter.  They do seem to go back home to the grandmother.  However, Kai is frozen close to death already.  Also, Gerda had lost her boots and mittens and was exposed to the elements as well.  Also, right before they leave, the Game of Reason rearranges itself to spell out “eternity”.  Two children, cold and exposed to the elements find eternity.  Now there’s a chilling thought (I knew I had another pun in me).  It wouldn’t be the first time Andersen has depicted Heaven as something earthly and comforting.  In “The Little Match Girl”, the titular character sees Heaven as a warm, cozy room.  The lines of the psalm at the end seem to hint at this too:

Our roses bloom and fade away
Our infant Lord abides always.
May we be blessed his face to see
And ever little children be.

This may be why I never cared much for Andersen’s tales.  I’ve never really been religious.  I’m more of a secular humanist, really.  However, in the world of many of Andersen’s stories, reaching Heaven is the ultimate happy ending.  For him the Ever After is actually The Ever After.  I can’t blame a man for building his beliefs into the stories he created.  However, as someone who sees death as more a sad ending than a happy new beginning, you can’t be surprised that I find his endings leave me cold.

Update: Well, we've been having some lively discussion in the comments section.  And the more I've been reading, the more I think I've been reading into things a little too much.  Kai and Gerda probably just went home rather than . . . passing on.  I'd say it was subtext but upon looking at some of Andersen's other works, I've noticed that he doesn't really do subtext (other than maybe how the themes in his writing reflect his own life.  If they had gone on to meet their maker, he'd have just said so.  I usually don't do much in the way of interpretation for these stories, but I chose to with this one and came up with something kind of surprising.  But that's what's so great about interpreting literature, two people can see two completely different things in the same story.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Fairy Tale Fandom Book Report: The Lunar Chronicles.

It seems like I’m always playing catch-up when it comes to fairy tale fiction.  That’s why I’m glad there are folks like Heidi over at the Sur La Lune blog who make a point of keeping up to date on these things.  However, there are sometimes books that you feel you really need to tell people about regardless of how behind you are.  That’s how I currently feel about The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer.  The Lunar Chronicles is a series of science fiction books for young adults (in book and library lingo that translates to “teenagers”).  Before going any further though, lets take a look at how the author, Ms. Marissa Meyer, is described by her own author page on


“Marissa Meyer lives near Seattle with her husband and their three cats. She's a fan of most things geeky (Sailor Moon, Firefly, color-coordinating her bookshelf...) and will take any excuse to put on a costume. She may or may not be a cyborg.”


            So, it’s pretty clear she’s one of us.  That’s something that becomes pretty clear when you see how she approaches fairy tales.  There have been many people who have retold fairy tales by placing them in different settings.  Ms. Meyer is one of very few who have retold fairy tales in a setting that she had to create herself.  The Lunar Chronicles take place in a technologically advanced future a few centuries ahead of where we are now.  It’s a future that has endured another World War, which resulted in political lines being redrawn so dramatically that each continent has evolved into its own super-country (Asia has become The Eastern Commonwealth, North and South America have become The American Republic, etc.).  It’s a world that has androids and cyborgs and is being threatened by a deadly plague called Letumosis.  And then there are the Lunars.  The Lunars are a race of people that developed from Earth expatriates who fled to the moon.  Many of them are endowed with a Lunar “gift” that allows them to control the bioelectricity in people’s minds and bodies and control their thoughts and actions.

The first book in the cycle is Cinder.  Cinder is a take on “Cinderella”.  Linh Cinder is a cyborg mechanic working and living in the city of New Beijing in the Eastern Commonwealth.  As a cyborg, the Commonwealth treats her as a second-class citizen and property of her stepmother.  Her only friends are a servant android named Iko and her stepsister Peony (her other stepsister Pearl, she’s not so close with).  Her life follows its usual routine until one day Prince Kai comes to her shop to try and get one of the royal androids fixed.  This starts a chain of events that changes everything in her life and everything she thought she knew about herself (and yes, there is a trip to a ball involved).

The second book Scarlet is based on “Little Red Riding Hood”.  Scarlet Benoit lives with her grandmother, a farmer and ex-military pilot, in the France region of Europe.  One day, Scarlet’s grandmother disappears and the police can do nothing to help her.  She decides to take matters into her own hands.  Her only chance of finding her seems to lie with a mysterious street fighter called Wolf, who she finds herself inescapably drawn to.

The third book, Cress, takes elements from Grimm’s “Rapunzel”.  Cress is a Lunar shell, which means she was born without the ability to manipulate bioelectricity.  She’s spent her whole life living on a satellite working as the Lunar Queen Levana’s official hacker, programmer and spy.  However, she’d do anything to escape to Earth.  She gets her chance when Cinder and her crew of outlaws, including American soldier turned thief Carswell Thorne (who Cress’s crushing on something fierce), comes to her rescue.  Things don’t quite go as planned, though.

            I tried to give you the set up for each book without giving too much away.  The best way to get into the world created for these books is to dive right into them with the first book Cinder.  I think this series is one of the most interesting things being done with popular fairy tales lately.  If I had to pick a favorite among them, Cinder is probably it.  In the past, I’ve written off “Cinderella” and its various variants and retellings.  I was one of those stories that never really impressed me.  Marissa Meyer impressed me, though.  She made me care about Cinder in a way I’ve never cared about other Cinderella analogues.  While other “Cinderellas” may seem terribly passive, Cinder is clearly strong and brave but hampered by her situation.  I wasn’t quite as impressed with Scarlet, but I tend to think “Little Red Riding Hood” has been done to death, especially in the young adult paranormal romance mold.  There’s still a lot of good in that book, though.  Cress was almost as good as Cinder.  I especially liked how Thorne got some focus.  I’m a sucker for scoundrel heroes.  He does remind me a little bit of Flynn Rider from Disney’s Tangled but he also reminds me of Jack and various other “clever fool” heroes from folklore, so I’m willing to let any Disney-like qualities slide.  This isn’t the end, though.  A prequel entitled Fairest that focuses on the villain Queen Levana has been announced for a January 2015 release.  Also, the final book in the series Winter based on “Snow White” is due out in November 2015.  If you’re looking for fairy tale retellings that take these world famous tales to someplace vey new and different, you should definitely check out Marissa Meyer’s The Lunar Chronicles.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

The Swan Lake Project: Part 3

Okay . . . so . . . I’m posting a review of a ballet.  This may seem a bit strange considering this blog’s supposed “mission statement”.  When someone says they’re doing a “geeky” take on fairy tales, most people don’t expect things to take such a “high culture” turn.  After all, “geek culture” is usually considered to have more of a connection to “low culture” or even “junk culture”.  You may say I’ve sold out and drifted off-mission.  Well, first of all, I’d say you’re wrong.  For one thing, the modern, evolved definition of “geekiness” has less to do with specific arts and more to do with the unrestrained enthusiasm with which people enjoy things.  Actor and comedian Simon Pegg once said (and I may be paraphrasing) “Being a geek means not having to play it cool about something you love”.  Also, as InkGypsy reminded me in the comments of the last part of this feature, the ballet reaches to a far greater spectrum of classes than many would think.  After all, we still live in a world where little girls are still often given ballet lessons at a young age, regardless of social stratum.  I figure that if we live in a world where nerdcore rapper Adam Warrock (who routinely raps about stuff like Marvel Comics and Joss Whedon’s show Firefly) can write rap songs about the opera La Boheme, it’s not too much of a stretch for Fairy Tale Fandom to cover ballet.  Also, whether you’re “high-falootin” or “low-falootin”, humanity just loves a story.  Ballet is essentially story conveyed through music, motion and dance.  I may not know much about dance, but I do know a thing or two about story.  So, I present my review of The Royal Ballet Covent Garden’s production of Swan Lake.

            Now, admittedly, this is kind of an old production.  It’s dated at 1982, which is as old as me.  However, it must be a classic because a quick search suggests that they still show a variation of this performance at the Royal Opera House.  I could have used the Matthew Bourne version, which features an all-male corps of swans.  However, as something of a ballet novice I thought it would be better to go with something more traditional.  Now, the primary players in this production include Anthony Dowell as Prince Siegfried, Derek Rencher as Baron Von Rothbart and Natalia Makarova as Odette and Odile.  I actually have a more modern photo of her right here:

Now, the way this DVD is set up is that each act starts with a synopsis presented by a narrator.  This is actually rather helpful if you don’t know the story particularly well.  Anyway, the first thing I notice when the curtain goes up is how familiar the music is.  This music has probably been playing in the background of things my whole life and I never knew what it was.  I recognize the main theme from the opening of Universal’s Dracula, of all places.  The first act starts with Prince Siegfried celebrating his 21st birthday.  There’s a party, some villagers are in attendance and his old Tutor (Gary Grant) is apparently playing the role of chaperone.  Things are going well, and then the queen arrives.  She tells Siegfried (through “ballet mime” in this case) that he’s played around enough and that she’s planned a ball where he’s meant to pick out a future wife.  Here would be a good point to point out one of the misconceptions about ballet: not everyone is dancing all the time.  When I was younger, I figured that all the characters in a ballet had to be dancing all the time.  The queen does not dance.  She shows up, talks in mime and that’s it.  Anyway, Siegfried is not happy with this idea.  However, his friends convince him to go hunting and try out his brand new crossbow.  Act two ends with the group of friends chasing after a flock of swans they see in the sky.

            Act two begins with Siegfried arriving at a lake all by his lonesome.  There, he meets Odette.  The two “talk” and we get the usual story.  She’s been enchanted by Von Rothbart and needs a declaration of love in order to fully regain her human form and all that (we’ve kind of covered this in my last two installments).  It’s here that we actually first see Baron Von Rothbart in, actually a kind of badass owl costume.  Seriously, he’s rather imposing compared to the goofy version from The Swan Princess.  I might even wear that costume for Halloween if I had the chance (I wish I had a picture to post).  Anyway, we get a few dance numbers.  There’s one between Siegfried and Odette as well as some that show off the talents of the swan maidens.  The whole act ends with Siegfried trying to shoot at Von Rothbart and Odette stopping him.  Then, Siegfried makes his promise to declare his love at the ball and then leaves.

            Act three is the big, opulent ball scene.  Lots of dancing!  This seems to be the big chance for the cast to show off their dancing skills.  There’s a waltz of prospective brides as well as a Spanish dance, Hungarian dance, Neapolitan dance and Polish dance.  Now, when all this is done, Odile enters the picture led in by Von Rothbart in his human form (not as impressive as the owl form, but still not bad).   Naturally, Odile is the spitting image of Odette (they’re played by the same ballerina) but she’s dressed all in black.  Also, the music is different, indicating that there’s something not quite right.  Siegfried and Odile have a very long, intense dance number.  Odette sees all of it, though.  They do this by projecting a moving image of Odette on the windows of the ballroom set.  For 1982, it’s a pretty good way of having two of the same performer in the same place at the same time.  Anyway, it ends with Siegfried making his declaration of love (which Odette also sees from the window).  Here, Von Rothbart has his triumphant laugh and reveals his ruse.  Then, the whole party just falls apart.  Before moving on to act four, I’d like to point out how helpful the pre-act synopsis was for this act.  It was only in this version and in the synopsis that they explained that Von Rothbart had replaced Odette with his own daughter.  That adds a whole other layer to the story.

            Now, act four with its grand finale is where I start to lose track of the story a little bit.  I know that Odette flies back to the lake to drown herself and her flock intervenes.  I know that Siegfried runs there to try and make amends.  I also know that they decide to drown themselves together (this is one of the sad endings).  However, I don’t remember them actually, y’know, offing themselves.  I do know that they left the stage at a certain point but I don’t remember them doing it with any feeling of finality.  I do remember Von Rothbart chewing the scenery quite a bit as their sacrifice affects him and he dies as well.  I’m kind of left wondering what ever happened to Odile, though.  Anyway, the whole thing ends with Prince Siegfried and Odette appearing on a big, heavenly swan boat indicating they’re together and happy in the next world.

            Well, this has been a first.  Not a first ballet (I’ve watched two previously on PBS) but the first time I’ve actually had to think about one enough to actually write about it.  I do like the story and Tchaikovsky’s music is excellent.  I’ve even been thinking about adapting the story into a storytelling performance.  If there were anything that turned me off in all this it’s that I kind of wish there were less dance numbers that didn’t seem to contribute to the story.  Some of the swan dances that did not include Odette, for example.  However, I feel that that’s probably just in the nature of the art form.  Sometimes in ballet, you just need to have dance for the sake of dance.  I wish I knew more about dance so I could understand the significance.  One nice thing about doing this project is that along the way I discovered some of the most interesting takes on Swan Lake, including a WiiMusic version and a dubstep version.  I also found the Royal Opera House’sSwan Lake: a Beginner’s Guide” videos which were rather helpful in interpreting what I saw.

Anyway, it’s been quite a week and I thank you for joining me for The Swan Lake Project.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Swan Lake Project: Part 2

I’ve admitted before to not knowing much about the Swan Lake story.  After all, it’s pretty specific to one form of entertainment: the ballet.  However, it always seemed like it was pretty well-known by other people.  I mean, Odette the Swan Princess isn’t as well known as a “Little Red Riding Hood” or “Cinderella”, but I figured she existed around “Brave Little Tailor” levels of fame.  I’ve seen mention of it in articles before and Mattel based one of their Ever After High doll characters on the character of Odette.  I figure Mattel’s not going to roll the dice on some obscure ballet character when it could draw from all over popular folklore, children’s literature, legend and nursery rhymes.

But the question is: “how did it become so famous?”  After all, I don’t think the ballet really reaches the masses, especially the children that folks like Mattel aim their products at.  Well, I figured the reason was this:
The Swan Princess.  As you can see, I got this copy out of the library.  This was an animated movie released by Warner Brothers in 1994.  I originally thought this was a Don Bluth production, but it turns out it was directed and spearheaded by a guy named Richard Rich (so tempted to make a Harvey Comics joke here).  Apparently, when the movie was released, it was a box office bomb.  Part of that may be because it was competing with a rerelease of The Lion King.  However, it apparently had enough of a life on home video that it spawned four direct-to-video sequels (with fairy tale films, usually one sequel is kind of pushing it).  This is kind of perplexing, I admit.  However, as part of The Swan Lake Project, I said I would watch this movie and that I have done.  

So, here is my review of The Swan Princess.

Okay, the story starts off with an extended back story.  King William is a king who is growing older and is troubled by the fact that he has no heir.  However, then a daughter is born, who he names Odette.  People flock from far and near to see the new princess and the king makes a plan with a neighboring queen who has a young son that they’d bring the two of their children together every summer in the hopes of them falling in love one day and uniting their two kingdoms.  Now, lurking in the shadows is a man named Rothbart (shortened from Von Rothbart in the original libretto) who seeks to take over the kingdom using sorcery.  However, the king’s guards somehow find out about this and bust up his little black magic operation.  Rothbart is then banished from the kingdom.  Anyway, the years pass and the king and queen do their best to bring their children together.  However, for years and years they don’t really seem to like each other.  Then,  finally, they’re fully grown.  When brought together, Prince Derek (it was Siegfried in the ballet.  Don’t know why only the prince got an overhauled name when there was still a “Rothbart” walking around) is instantly smitten.  Odette seems interested, but less so.  However, pretty soon Derek puts his foot in his mouth.  Odette wants to know why he loves her beyond her beauty and he says “What else is there?”.  The king and princess leave in a bit of a huff.  Their carriage is overtaken by Rothbart who turns into a monster (referred to as “the great animal”), King William is seemingly killed (but not before giving Derek a cryptic warning) and Odette disappears . . .

And that’s when the actual story from Swan Lake actually starts.  It’s actually about where the movie starts to fall apart too.

            You can more or less read the story from Swan Lake in the first part of The Swan Lake Project.  Most of the parts are there, but they’ve been tweaked to tie in more with the back story they created.  Now, the prince’s fascination with hunting is because he wants to hunt down the “great animal” and rescue Odette.  The prince shooting At Odette in swan form is now because he thinks she is the “great animal”.  However, they need to jump through a number of hoops to make it work.  In addition, Rothbart’s plan is never consistent.  At first, he wants to make Odette marry him so that he can take over her father’s kingdom legally.  Then, his plan suddenly shifts to making Derek declare his love to the wrong girl, which will make Odette die for some reason (which also blows his whole “legal hostile takeover” plan).  The whole movie tries to follow the Disney musical formula, but doesn’t quite pull it off that well.  Odette’s fellow swan-maidens are replaced with a trio of animal sidekicks: a French frog named Jean-Bob that thinks he’s a cursed prince, a slow-talking turtle named Speed and a gutsy puffin named Puffin (great work on the naming there, fellas).  Of course, there are songs as well, but while they start out okay, by the end they’re scraping the bottom of the barrel.  You start out with a decent early montage song and a pretty good love song but you also have a rather unnecessary song sung by the court musicians dressed as animals and by the end you have strange jazzy numbers like this one sung by the villain.  It all seems strange when the source material essentially hands the filmmakers music by Tchaikovsky.  A couple of the early songs sound like they may be set to classical music, but what’s the deal with those songs at the end?  Did they run out of music to work from?  I also can’t help but think that they could have done more with the “fake Odette” (Odile in the ballet).  She was just this silent crone servant that Rothbart transforms in the movie.  Oh, and by the way, that whole bit about needing Derek to declare his love for something other than Odette’s beauty.  It seemed so important towards the beginning.  It never comes up again.  Anyway, the end result is a strange, uneven film that has to try too hard to make its back story match up with its front story.

            So, what can we learn from this?  Well, that a film doesn’t necessarily have to be a box offices success or particularly good to spin off four direct-to-video sequels.  We also learned that a mediocre film can also put a fairy tale character in the public eye without really tarnishing their rep (though, it doesn’t necessarily launch them to super-stardom like a popular Disney flick might).  However, I think the biggest lesson is that adaptation really is a difficult trick.  Whether trying to expand a fairy tale into one movie or condense a 50 year old comic book series into a series of movies, the act of turning one story into a different story requires a form of magic all its own.

So that ends this installment.  Tune in next time for some culture, because next I will tackle a production of the actual ballet.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Swan Lake Project: Part 1

Y’know, even for a fairy tale geek, some popular stories just fall through the cracks.  It may be because of culture divides.  It may also be because of the medium the story is typically presented in.  I realized this was the case when I read a blog post from a fellow fairy tale blogger mention the Swan Lake story in passing.  I realized then that I really didn’t know the story from Swan Lake.  It’s true that I don’t exactly make it a habit of going to the ballet.  However, I even managed to miss Don Bluth’s animated adaptation The Swan Princess.  Well, I decided to remedy that.  So, I devised The Swan Lake Project.  The idea is to have a semi-immersive experience (semi-immersive because I still have other things to do besides study the story from one ballet) in which I would get myself acquainted with the story and blog about the process.  The project is split into three parts:

1)      Preliminary research, plus a reading of a book adaptation of the story.

2)      Watching and reviewing the popular Hollywood representation, Don Bluth’s The Swan Princess.

3)      Watching and blogging about a recorded production of the actual ballet.

 I’m also going to see if I can post all three parts of this in the same week.  Wish me luck on that part.

     Anyway, on to the background information!  Swan Lake was a ballet composed by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky that first hit the stage in 1877.  Despite being blasted by critics, the initial production had a long, healthy run.  The ballet was revived with some alterations in 1895.  The music was altered, as was the ending (more on that later).  The origins of the story are a bit nebulous.  It’s supposedly based on a story by German author Johann Karl August Musaus entitled “The Stolen Veil”.  It also bears a strong resemblance to the Russian folk tale “The White Duck”.  Tchaikovsky was also supposedly very interested in the life of Bavarian King Ludwig II whose life and misfortunes were frequently marked by the sign of a swan.  Whatever it was, Russian ballet patriarch Fyodor Lopukhov considered Swan Lake to be Russia’s “national ballet” because he saw many of the symbols and elements of the story as being essentially Russian.  Now, it’s the most well-known ballet around.

          When looking for a book adaptation, I had many choices.  In fact, I had too many choices.  So, a quick Google search of “best Swan Lake adaptations” causes this book to pop up:

It’s a 2002 picture book which gives Pyotr I. Tchaikovsky writing credit and illustration credit goes to Hans Christian Andersen award winner Lisbeth Zwerger.  This is kind of a pleasant surprise because I haven’t had the chance to do anything about picture books on the blog yet.  It’s a lovely book.  All the illustrations seem to be painted in watercolor. (Please note: all these pictures belong to the copyright holder.  I’m simply posting them for illustrative/educational purposes). 

The Cliffs Notes story is as such: It starts with a prince being told by his mother that he has to get married.  She says that she’ll hold a ball and invite many princesses.  At this, the prince  decides to live in the moment and go hunting with his buddies.  He grabs his bow and chases after a flock of swans he saw.  Getting tired, he stops to rest by a pond when in a flash of light, the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen appears.  She explains that she was the swan he tried to kill and that she was put under an evil spell by a sorcerer.  By day, she’s a swan and at night a woman.  The only thing that can break the spell is true love.  The prince invites her to the ball the next day, where (seeing as he’s quite smitten) he will introduce her as his bride.  The next day is the day of the ball.  The prince is waiting for his Swan Queen to arrive.  Suddenly, he thinks he sees her, dressed in black and being led into the ballroom by a strange man. 

The prince swears his undying love for this woman when who should enter but the REAL Swan Queen.  The Swan Queen, betrayed, leaves.  The prince chases after her.  She returns to the lake and her swan sisters.  Then the Swan Queen starts being pulled into the water by the sorcerer’s power.  The prince rushes to the rescue and saves his Swan Queen.  Insert “happily ever after” here.

(Phew.  You know, I’m not sure it’s a great idea to summarize a whole book/ballet in two paragraphs).

Anyway, like I said, it’s a lovely book and a nice story.  The story is filled with all sorts of fairy tale motifs, particularly in regards to transformation.  There are echoes of the “animal bridegroom” motif, with the swans assuming human form at night.  Also, I’m reminded of other stories where women take on animal forms like the Irish selkies (seal women) and even a Chinese story entitled “The Peacock Maiden”. 
There are some bits in the book’s illustrations that really caught my attention.  For example, how the Swan Queen’s hand and arm seem to be made up to look like the head and neck of a swan.  I don’t know if that’s some sort of traditional costuming from the ballet, but I still think it’s neat.
Now, we need to talk about the ending.  Most versions of the Swan Lake story have a tragic ending.  According to Lisbeth Zwerger, Tchaikovsky originally wanted a happy ending for the 1877 version of the ballet.  The ending was supposedly changed for the 1895 version.  However, other sources I’ve read claim that the original ending has the two leads drowning at the hands of the sorcerer while the newer ending has the Swan Queen committing suicide and the prince choosing to die to be with her.  So, if that’s the case, then neither ending was particularly happy.

So, that’s part one.  Stay tuned for a look at the Hollywood animated version of the story next time.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Me and The Mouse.

Okay, so last time I actually went and reviewed a Disney movie, commenting toward the end that I would continue to poke fun at them.  Also, I’ve realized that it’s been a long time since I’ve written an actual opinion piece that doesn’t fall under any of my title cards.  So, I decided it was time to finally address something that might be on people’s minds: 

“Why do you hate Disney?”

Well, first of all, I don’t hate Disney.  I’ve tried to make that pretty clear (though, it does make for a nice, dramatic opening question).  I grew up with Disney, just like everyone who’s reading this blog probably did.  When I was little I used to watch movies like The Jungle Book and Aladdin all the time.  Even as I grew older, I developed a fondness for other movies like Hercules, Tarzan, Brave, Tangled and Treasure Planet (that last one is horribly underrated in my opinion).  Though, I’ve also noted that as I grew older, a lot of my fondness and “Disney Nostalgia” has shifted from the movies which are generally very well-remembered and have a strong cultural presence to the Disney cartoon shows I used to watch on The Disney Afternoon like this one:

Or this one:

Sadly, for us older guys, you can’t still see this stuff at Disney parks anymore. L

I also love the Disney comic books and comic strips by guys like Carl Barks and Floyd Gottfredson.  My love of all things 3-D also stems from Disney and their annual 3-D issue of Disney Adventures magazine.

But then, why do I poke fun at them whenever it comes down to Disney and fairy tales?

Is it because of the changes they make to the material?  Well, it is and it isn’t.  I mean, there are other famous movies that had major changes to the source material and I love them to death.  Like what Universal did with these guys:

(I do suggest reading the original horror novels but I won’t knock Boris and Bela).

The problem really is that Disney just does too good of a job promoting its brand.  The Disney people are very savvy about marketing.  Well, pretty savvy, at least.  They’re fantastic at marketing to girls and families and a bit shoddier at marketing to boys.  Both little ones and those in their teens (this explains why so many Disney fairy tale movies seem aimed at girls while good boy-oriented movies like John Carter stumble at the box office).  A lot of their ability to hook people comes from the ability to read trends too.  One of the biggest advantages to their “Disney Renaissance” of movies that started with the Little Mermaid and lasted until Pocahontas is that they managed to crib the style of the musicals by Andrew Lloyd Weber, who was very popular in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.  For a more modern example, let’s look at the recent trend in naming for Disney animated films: Enchanted, Tangled, Brave, Frozen.  All single word adjectives.  Basically, they all sound like Wicked.  In recent years, Gregory Maguire and his book came along and essentially became the new pop culture standard for adapting and reinventing fairy tales and children’s stories.  Anyway, when Disney makes a movie based on a story, that movie has a tendency of looming large in the minds of people.  It becomes the pop culture standard for the story and to many people becomes a sort of “fairy tale canon”, obscuring all the other history the story has and forms the story has taken.  They have human nature on their side, too.  Human beings are highly visual, so they tend to respond to things presented to them visually more than things written in words.  Having a Disney movie is in some ways great PR for a story because it makes it a household name but also not great because people don’t bother to seek out the originals and read them. 

Basically, I don’t think the world needs less Disney as much as it needs more fairy tale geeks like me.

Becoming a fairy tale fan is like becoming a comic book fan.  You may go in just knowing about Batman, Superman and Spider-Man, but before long a whole world opens up to you.  Once you become a fairy tale geek or all-around literature fan, seeking out the original stories and the histories behind them becomes a priority and a joy.  You find new favorite stories you didn’t know were out there.  You may even revisit stories you saw in animated form and discover that you love the originals even more.  This was the case for me and Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio.  However, you also realize that many of these stories have been around for hundreds of years in some form or another.  And you realize that Disney is just one of many storytellers over the centuries trying to adapt these stories just like I am, only with more money and influence.  In the grand scheme of storytelling, they’re just a little mouse with a surprisingly big shadow.

However, Disney’s not going anywhere.  After they bought Marvel Comics, The Muppets and Lucasfilm, they’re likely going to be a presence in my life for a good while longer.  I certainly can’t convert the entire world into fairy tale geeks.  Though, it still rankles me a little when I hear people say things like “Pocahontas is my favorite fairy tale” or other things like that.  But I can do little things like poke fun at Disney, offering a little irreverence toward a storyteller that sometimes looms unusually large in people’s minds.  I liken it to how Alton Brown used to poke fun at the reverence for French chefs and French cooking on his show Good Eats (if you haven’t seen it, all fairy tale fans should check out his green bean casserole episode.  The link just provides the recipe.  The whole episode, well, let's say it involves a giant).  I can remind people that the writers of children’s literature  like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or Pinocchio might have had their own ideas when they were writing those books.  I can also remind folks that Disney doesn’t really own folk stories like Snow White, Cinderella and Aladdin.  We own them.  They belong to the folk of the world.  The truth is that whether your name is Jacob Grimm, Walt Disney, Jim Henson or “that guy Adam who’s got the blog”, we’re all just storytellers in our way.  The question is ultimately “How do I tell the story?”