Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Fairy Tale Media Fix: Song of the Sea.

What’s this?  What’s this?  Another movie review so soon after the Cinderella one? 

Well, this is a special case and stems from some miraculous fortune.  I’m driving down the streets of Albany when I spot on my left Albany’s resident independent movie theater the Spectrum 8 Theatres.  I glance at the marquee as I pass by and what should I see but the words “Song of the Sea”.  Seeing as I rarely get the chance to review these smaller released films, I saw this as a rare opportunity (Besides, things were starting to get far too Disney around here).

Now, if you’ve been following Gypsy Thornton’s Once Upon a Blog, you know she’s been talking about Song of the Sea for a little while.  So, if you want some more media-savvy material about it and to see some stellar images from the movie, click HERE (sadly, I have no images from the film myself.  I don’t use an image service like some bloggers do).

For those who don’t know, Song of the Sea is based on Irish folklore about the Selkie.  Selkies are magical beings who swim in the ocean in the form of seals but will come onto land and take off their seal-coats and become beautiful women. 

The movie features a young boy named Ben who lives in a lighthouse with his father.  Years ago, his mother disappeared into the ocean, leaving a newborn little girl named Saorsie.  His father, struggles with the loss of his wife.  Ben tries to hold onto the memory of his mother through the stories and songs that she left behind while at the same time struggling with the frustration of dealing with his younger sister.  Meanwhile, Saorsie, at 6 years old remains a mystery as she still hasn’t said a single word.  One night, Saiorsie is led to a locked chest by some glowing lights where she finds a glistening white coat.  From there, she heads toward the ocean where she meets a group of seals that lead her into the water where she turns into a seal herself.  The next morning, Saorsie and Ben’s visiting grandmother finds her washed up on the beach and forces their father to make them move to the city with her.  From there, Ben decides to run away back home with Saorsie in tow, discovering along the way that there’s far more to his sister than he expected and also realizing that he has to face his fears and his feelings about his sister and the loss of his mother.

This movie was fantastic!  One of the best uses of Irish lore I’ve seen on the screen  (admittedly, my experience is limited).

Now, keep in mind that not all folk tales are fairy tales.  There’s a difference.  Most of the selkie stories I know don’t end so much with “They all lived happily ever after” as often as they end with “and he never saw her again”.  So, be prepared for a wide range of emotions when you watch this.  The movie is magical, mysterious, funny and a bit melancholy all at the same time.  However, this is fitting when you consider the wide breadth of human emotions the old Irish tales often embraced.  In fact, one of the central themes of the movie seems to be that it’s better to feel something bad than nothing at all because feeling nothing is akin to being turned into a rock.

If you’re a mythology buff, you may want to keep an ear open for some familiar names.  In Irish folklore, the names of old Celtic mythical figures often get repurposed as saints, fairies, witches and giants.  The giant Mac Lir, for example, is derived from the sea god Lir.  The witch Macha has the same name as one of the incarnations of Morrigan the Celtic goddess of war.

I highly recommend watching Song of the Sea.  The story is well-crafted.  The art style is distinctive yet simple enough to allow for smooth animation.  The voice actors also do a terrific job.  It’s not your usual, wide-released animated film, but it’s not trying to be.  So, keep an eye on your local independent theater or look for the DVD that was just released.  I think you’ll be glad that you did.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Fairy Tale Media Fix: Cinderella (2015).

Hello once again, this is Adam the Fairy Tale Geek presenting another movie review.  This time, my subject is the newly released live-action version of Disney’s Cinderella.

Standee from my local theater.
Now, before I go on, let me say that I actually do know that the subject of Cinderella has become something of a battlefield lately.  Cinderella has become kind of the poster child for a lack of feminism in fairy tales and any number of people have latched onto this to make the story and original 1950 animated film the subject of criticism and ridicule.  Among those people are the people behind Cinema Sins, Honest Trailers and Princess Rap Battles (warning, the language for these videos can get quite coarse.  Remember parents, be aware of what your kids are watching online).  So, on one level, this movie can be judged by how well it updates a classic fairy tale for the values of modern times.  However, it can also be judged by how well of an adaptation it is and just how good of a movie it is.  Hopefully, I can cover all these angles suitably well.

The movie starts off rather slowly with a whole lot of backstory.  We’re introduced to Ella (played in her adult incarnation by Lily James), her mother, her father and the general household.  They’re sweet, loving, kind and . . . well . . . kind of boring.  Okay, that’s not a fair criticism.  There isn’t any real conflict in the story yet.  Anyway, before long Ella’s mother falls ill and before she dies she gives Ella the sage advice of “Have courage and be kind”.  As I understand it, this phrase (oft repeated through the movie) has come under fire from feminist critics as reinforcing outdated female behaviors.  I don’t quite understand that seeing as “have courage and be kind” seems like good advice regardless of your gender.  What struck me was that it seems like the fairy tale equivalent of this:

I wonder if anyone’s put Cinderella’s motto on a t-shirt yet (Oh look, they have!).  Anyway, time passes and the father decides to marry again, this time to the Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett).  She brings along her two daughters, a cat named Lucifer and an unmistakable air of evil that only the audience seems able to detect.  Some more time passes and Ella’s father leaves on business only to die on the road.  Now, here’s where the story really begins in earnest.  After her father dies, Ella is essentially exiled to the attic and made into a servant.  After one particularly bad morning in which her stepsisters give her the nickname Cinderella, she rides off into the woods where she encounters a stag who she saves from being hunted by the prince (Richard Madden) and his entourage.  Taking him to be a regular soldier or hunter, the prince introduces himself as an apprentice named Kit.  Yeah . . . Prince Kit.  One of the few times in Disney history that Cinderella’s prince actually gets a name and they go with Kit.  I don’t know, I guess I just never expected the prince to have the same first name as The Phantom.

Well, I’m not going to bore you with any more synopsis.  The rest of the movie is actually rather entertaining.  Compared with the animated movie it’s remaking, they jettison the Tom and Jerry antics of Lucifer and the mice (which took up way too much of the original film) largely in favor of more scenes for the prince and some behind-the-scenes political maneuvering by the Duke.  Helena Bonham Carter plays a good turn as a somewhat daffy Fairy Godmother in what may be one of the most entertaining scenes in the movie.  There’s also a surprisingly exciting and action-packed race away from the ball as the coach and animals begin to turn back to normal.  The stepsisters are hilarious in many of their scenes.  The movie does its best to try and give Lady Tremaine some depth regarding her hatred toward Ella.  Overall, though, the highlight is the onscreen romantic chemistry between Kit and Ella.  The movie is just sweet.  It may not do anything revolutionary with the story but it will give you the warm fuzzies as you’re watching it.

Movie poster from my local theater
From a fairy tale perspective, there’s a lot to love.  While the movie is considered to be a remake of the 1950 animated film, that isn’t their only source material.  There are references back to Charles Perrault’s “Cendrillon”.  For example, the footmen are once again transformed from lizards.  There are also references to the Grimm version.  The most notable of which is the branch she asks her father to bring back from his travels.  Also, the stepsisters in this version are depicted as “beautiful, with fair faces, but evil and dark hearts” rather than ugly like in many versions.

The biggest challenge that director Kenneth Branagh and screenwriter Chris Weitz had is convincing the audience that Ella is strong because she manages to keep her good nature rather than becoming bitter in the face of the cruelty of her step-family.  I think they do a passable job.  I know there are others who wouldn’t be convinced.  That, honestly, is probably because in our modern world and especially in the culture of the USA, we don’t easily see that type of internal fortitude as strength.  Staying in one place, even if it’s your ancestral home, isn’t seen as strong these days.  Being intrepid and going off into the world is.  We expect people to show strength through confrontation.  People want Ella to stand up and demand respect, damn the risks!  However, sometimes it’s better and wiser to avoid confrontation.  My aunt, who went to see the movie with me, actually asked me during the movie actually asked me why she lets her stepfamily treat her that way in her own house.  My answer is that I didn’t know if anyone else with any legal authority would agree with her.  Not knowing how the laws in that kingdom are applied and coming in blind to what’s actually going on, are we so sure that a judge or magistrate would side with Ella over Tremaine.  If you were given such a task, who do you think the house belongs to now?  The owner’s widow or the owner’s orphaned child?  And hey, this version of Cinderella does actually stand up to Lady Tremaine when she tries to use her to weasel her way into controlling the prince.  Like I said, some will disagree with me as to whether Ella’s a strong character.  However, I also will say that I sometimes find the standards people hold for empowered fairy tale characters to be unfair seeing as many of them aren’t applicable to characters of either gender.  That’s a post for another time, though.

Overall, I’d say the new Cinderella despite a slow start is a sweet, enjoyable movie.  It also does a decent, if not fantastic job of rebranding one of Disney’s most embattled characters.  It may not be revolutionary, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth watching.

Finally, I will also add that if you are a fan of the music from Disney’s original animated version, sit through the credits.  You’ll be in for a treat.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Mixmaster Andrew Lang, Spinning the Hits!

Hello again everyone, and greeting from the Enchanted Condo.  I am, as you know, Adam the Fairy Tale Geek.  Now, just last week I posted my list of “fairy tale superheroes”.  These were the folk tale collectors whose super-powered bodies of work shaped how we viewed the fairy tale and the folklore of the world.  However, you may have noticed that one specific name was missing from the list that many thought should have been on that list.  I am talking of course about the one and only Andrew Lang.
I’m going to tell you the truth.  I didn’t know much of what to make of Andrew Lang and his body of work.  I know people referenced his “color books” as a landmark but didn’t know much else.  I did get the chance to read The Blue Fairy Book a while back and actually thought it was kind of an odd little book.  It was largely a mix of German, British and French fairy tales with some other odd bits thrown in.  One story is “The Terrible Head” which is clearly the myth of Perseus with the mythological names and places removed.  The minute I figured I got a handle on the book, it threw me another curveball.  That would be “A Voyage to Lilliput” which appears toward the end and is basically just the first three chapters of Johnathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels removed from their original source and presented as a standalone tale.

Now, I didn’t find it to be an unpleasant book.  In fact, I thought it was quite fun.  I was always wondering what tale Lang would throw my way next.  I also liked that he included some of the work of Madame D’Aulnoy, which I’ve found very difficult to locate in English.  I liked it, but I just wasn’t sure of what to make of it.  Eventually I did some research and found that Mr. Lang in addition to deserving credit for writing so many other pieces of his own work, was kind of a rebel in collecting his fairy tales.  Traditional fairy tales were out of vogue in Britain during the age in which he lived.  People believed they were too simple for adult reading and too crude and violent for reading by children.  Instead, children were encouraged to read the more gentle, fanciful Victorian fairy tales of the day.  Lang had a certain amount of disdain for these.  I can’t blame him, of the ones I’ve managed to dig up often lack a certain vitality.  The Victorian children’s stories that survived the test of time are the ones that had a little something extra like Peter Pan and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.  So, fueled by the love of folklore he developed growing up on the English-Scots border, he started importing tales and translating them into English with the aid of his wife.  In many cases, it was the first time any of these tales appeared in English.  He took from Grimm, D’Aulnoy, Perrault and yes even Swift.  Twelve color-coded books later and he’d become a writer famous more for the works he didn’t write than the ones he did.

So, Andrew Lang may have been one of the first great anthologists of fairy tales.  This is no mean feat.  The fairy tale writing world is full of editors and anthologists putting together different books along different themes.  Surely, this is deserving of superhero status.  However, I can’t help thinking that something like this deserves its own awesome analogy separate from the superhero one I used earlier.  Then it hit me!  Andrew Lang is the world’s first and greatest fairy tale DJ!

Now hear me out!  If the books of other fairy tale collectors are essentially albums, then Lang is the guy who takes tracks from all these different albums and puts them together into epic fairy tale playlists.  Sometimes it’s familiar hits you know.  Other times it’s stuff you’ve never heard of.  Sometimes he’ll just surprise the heck out of you by including something crazy like Gulliver’s Travels.  Every color fairy tale book is the equivalent of a fairy tale mixtape (or mix CD or Ipod playlist depending on your generation) all set to rock your weekend.

Not only that, he’s the guy who paved the way for all those other fairy tale playlists we’ve encountered in our lives.  Like the “greatest hits” compilations many of us had around as kids.

Yes, that is a picture of my own childhood storybook.  I’m holding onto it until my niece and nephew get a little older and I can pass it on.  I’m sure many of us have fond memories of our own childhood storybooks.  However, these books are kind of amazing if you think about it.  Our moms, dads, grandpas and grandmas didn’t have to go looking through numerous different books to find “Jack and the Beanstalk”, “Snow White”, “The Three Billy Goats Gruff”, Perrault’s “Cinderella”, “The Ugly Duckling” and all those other stories we were likely demand when we were younger.  Sometimes they even threw in some Aesop’s Fables for good measure.  They could all be found in that one big, giant storybook.  And of course, there are other multi-cultural, multi-source anthologies out there based around a variety of themes.

However, Andrew Lang was probably the first.  It makes me start to think about what my own epic fairy tale anthology/playlist would look like.  Let’s see.  If I could pick ten, I think I’d go with:

1)      Jack and the Beanstalk

2)      How Six Men Got on in the World

3)      Baba Yaga

4)      Momotaro

5)      Li Chi Slays the Serpent

6)      Kate Crackernuts

7)      The White Cat

8)      Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp

9)      The Ash Lad Who Had an Eating Match with a Troll

10)  Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell (threw in a legend to shake it up)

If you want to find the full text of Lang’s Fairy Books, look HERE and HERE.  In the comments tell me your thoughts on Andrew Lang.  However, if you want, also let me know what would be on your epic fairy tale anthology/playlist.  You’ve got a blank storybook and you can fill it with any ten tales you want.  Give it some thought. 

Until next time, keep aiming for that happy ever after.

Friday, March 6, 2015

The Superheroes of Fairy Tale Writing!

Look what I got in the mail!
Yeah, I know some of you are jealous.

It’s always nice to get a new book of folk and fairy tales.  It’s also nice when much of the world gets excited about the book, too.  Sadly, I’ll have to wait to read this one because I’ve accumulated quite a number of unread books that I’m going to have to read first.

Also, though I am excited to read this book, I do have one teensy problem with the blurb on the back.  What problem?  Well, it’s the first sentence, really.  Here’s what it says:

“With this volume, the holy trinity of fairy tales- the Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault, and Hans Christian Andersen- becomes a quartet.”

First of all, I think it might be a bit presumptuous to add Franz Xaver Von Schonwerth to a list of the biggest names in fairy tale writing.  The man’s work has just been rediscovered.  He hasn’t made his reputation yet.  Heck, I myself haven’t even read the book.  Secondly, I’m a bit put off by the fact that there’s a “holy trinity” of fairy tale writers in the first place.  I could question the choices for who’s in this “trinity”.  I mean, Charles Perrault is hardly a well-known name outside of literary and folklore circles.  Sometimes I think the only reason people know the name Hans Christian Andersen is because it was the title of a Danny Kaye movie.  Though, I suppose it’s the popularity of certain stories and concepts that puts these on the list.  Perrault’s “Cinderella” and “Puss in Boots” are both fairy tale standards.  For Andersen, stories like “The Ugly Duckling” and “The Emperor’s New Clothes” have become recognized worldwide.  I won’t even bother making the argument for the Grimms.  It doesn’t need to be done.  However, I think my biggest problem is that there is just a trinity.  With all the writers and folklorists who went out there to collect stories and make the fairy tale universe bigger for us, people only acknowledge these three.

I suppose that just like comic book superhero fans, people who write about fairy tales get a little bit hung up on the idea of a “big three”.  It’s Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman for DC Comics’ Justice League.  It’s Captain America, Iron Man and Thor for Marvel Comics’ Avengers.  So, it’s Grimm, Perrault and Andersen for the world of fairy tales.

However, what if we expanded their number?  What if we made it a “big seven” instead.  I mean, it’s a perfectly suitable number.  The number seven is a symbolic number in both folklore and myth.  That’s why I use it for my “top seven” posts.  Also, it works with the metaphor I’ve got going here because the Justice League and the Avengers commonly have seven member rosters (despite the movie Avengers only having six, not counting Nick Fury).

So, we’ll assume that the list goes like this for now:

1)      Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

2)      Charles Perrault

3)      Hans Christian Andersen

4)      Franz Xaver von Schonwerth

We’ll be charitable and include Schonwerth until I’ve read the book and decide otherwise.  That leaves us with three open slots.  Here are my candidates:

5)      Joseph Jacobs- Jacobs is sort of the Grimm of England and sort of isn’t.  What I mean is that, while he did follow the Grimms’ example in creating a book of fairy tales, he actually chose to follow their later example after their books started to gain popular acclaim.  Instead of creating a scholarly work for folklorists to read and argue over, he set out to create a commercial work that was meant to entertain children.  Sometimes I wonder if this was what keeps him off of people’s lists.  Jacobs was actually an Australian writer who was moved by the same nationalistic pride as the Grimms (Australia still being part of the English disapora at the time).  One interesting thing to note is that in addition to seeking out oral sources, Jacobs also took stories from the English chapbook tradition, which was an interesting route to take.  He also was ultra-inclusive, taking stories from all over the English speaking world in such places as Scotland and as far away as his homeland of Australia.  Prior to this, many people claimed that England had no fairy tales.  Instead of accepting this supposed limitation, he widened the playing field.  However, it’s the stories that are in his book English Fairy Tales that speak for his placement on this list.  They include “Jack and the Beanstalk”, “The Story of the Three Little Pigs”, The Story of the Three Bears” (which he gives full credit to Robert Southey for writing first, classy fellow that he is), “Jack the Giant-Killer” and “The History of Tom Thumb”.  You would not believe how many people out there seem to believe these are Grimm stories.  It’s hard to imagine the world of popular fairy tales without these stories, yet the world has forgotten the name of the man who wrote them down.  Other fairy tale books he wrote include Celtic Fairy Tales, More Celtic Fairy Tales, More English Fairy Tales, Indian Fairy Tales and European Folk and Fairy Tales.  On a personal note, there’s one reason why Jacobs has to make my personal list.  I just thought English Fairy Tales was way too much fun!  It’s one of the few fairy tale books that I found to be fun from beginning to end with few dull stories if any (well “Whittington and his Cat” might be the exception).  Sometimes, that’s all you need.

6)      Peter Christen Asbornsen and Jorgen Moe- Here we have another duo act, like the Brothers Grimm (or Batman and Robin).  Peter Christen Asbjornsen and Jorgen Engebretsen Moe were a teacher and a minister who came together to write the definitive collection of Norwegian folk tales, Norske Folkeeventyr.  The publication of their book, like the Grimms’ book, was fueled in large part by some degree of nationalistic zeal.  The country of Norway had just gained partial independence from the Swedes and the Danes.  In Norway, Asbjornsen and Moe are as associated with the concept of fairy tales as the Grimms are in other countries.  Now you say, “That’s great, but why does this matter to those of us who aren’t in Norway?”  Well, okay, so maybe the majority of their tales have not become household names.  Their collections are full of great tales, but many of them just didn’t become well-known except to fairy tale fans.  However, one little tale has become a household name and in a way it has added something big to the fairy tale landscape.  That story is “The Three Billy Goats Gruff”.  With this little story about three goats crossing a bridge, they’ve added one more monster to the fairy tale creature bestiary alongside the witch, giant, ogre, dragon and big bad wolf.  That creature is the troll.  It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but can you imagine the world of the European fairy tales without the troll?  It’s become such a well-known concept that it’s become a slang term for rude people on the internet.  The great thing about all this is that it’s just the tip of the iceberg.  Open their book and suddenly you see trolls of all shapes and sizes.  Heck, the illustrations in their book even inspired the movie Troll Hunter.  So, one little thing from a fantastic book has impacted how much of the world (or at least much of the USA) sees European fairy tales.

7)      Alexander Afanasyev- To the outside world, Afanasyev may seem a more unusual choice than even the two I’ve already chosen.  After all, the canon of well-known European fairy tales rarely if ever extends to the more Central European Slavic countries, let alone all the way to Russia.  However, every super team line-up usually has at least one character that is a little more obscure but is still great in his or her own way.  As a scholar and folklorist who published nearly 600 Russian folk tales, it’s hard to argue with Afansyev’s greatness.  Afansyev was a scholar of the Mythological school, who viewed folk tales as echoes of a distant mythological past.  In the 1850s, Afansyev was asked by the Russian Geographic Society to edit and publish the large collection of folk stories they had accumulated.  This was the beginning of his collection.  Afansyev’s tales may not be household names.  They may have never inspired any Hollywood animated movies.  But to those in the know, these tales are loved and respected.  His collection introduced the world to Baba Yaga, and I have yet to meet a fairy tale geek who does not love or at least know Baba Yaga.  His stories influenced the narrative trappings of The Fairy Tale Lobby.  Afansyev’s tales have inspired the musical works of Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky.  So, Afansyev is my choice in the lineup for the hardcore fairy tale fans.  Sadly, Afansyev died at the age of 45 penniless in Moscow.  It’s nice to know his work was remembered, though.

So, there you have it.  My line-up of fairy tale writing superheroes.  A group dedicated to bringing truth, justice and folklore to all mankind!  Keep in mind, my lineup may differ from yours.  There are any number of other fairy tale writers who you might think deserve a spot on the “big seven”.  Heck, I’m reading The Pentamerone right now and Giambatista Basile is seriously growing on me.

So, let’s have it.  In the comments section, let me know what your lineup would be for your own personal Fairy Tale League of Super-Writers!