Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Four-Color Fairy Tales: The Fox and the Firebird.

I’ve talked about webcomics a few times on this blog.  Some are easier to talk about than others.  While it was easy to talk about Erstwhile as an excellent anthology adaptation and Meaghan Kearney’s Beauty and the Beast as an example of one story being expanded and fleshed out, I was never quite sure what to say about TheFox and the Firebird.

The Fox and the Firebird is a largely original story drawing on fairy tale elements.  The webcomic is written and drawn by a woman named Marie August, who also appears to be the author of a couple of self-published YA novels.  The story starts off with Prince Peridot of the gem kingdom going off in search of the legendary firebird to cure his ailing father who is dying.  Peridot’s two older brothers had left before him and hadn’t returned.  Along the way, he encounters a witch, the witch’s daughter, a talking fox, a sleeping princess and other assorted characters.  These characters sort of extend and complicate Peridot’s quest as obstacles arise.

It seems like a very story when I explain it like that.  It’s clearly based on your usual “prince as hero” story complete with older brothers who don’t measure up.  The fairy tale influences range all over the place.  The Fox to some extent reminds me of Reynard the fox from the old French fables.  The princess is partly “Sleeping Beauty”, but in the situation of being watched over by a monster like in tales like “Old Fire Dragaman” from the Appalachian Jack Tales (I can’t remember the titles of any of the European counterparts right now, but there are many) only this one’s a three-headed troll like one out of Scandinavian stories.  Then, of course, there is the Firebird of Russian lore.

Images used with permission from Marie August
I will warn you that there may be spoilers ahead.

At first, I didn’t think much of this series.  It just seemed kind of blah in a lot of ways.  There was very little that made it stand out.  However, after a little while, I found that the complexities of the various characters started to come out.  This made the whole thing a lot more intriguing.  While Prince Peridot seems to remain the standard prince of countless hero tales, everyone around him seems to be less and less what they seem.  Early in the story, Peridot gets in a bind with a witch.  The witch’s daughter Willow agrees to help him provided he takes her with him.  He agrees, though he soon forgets his vow in his quest for the firebird.  Willow’s presence doesn’t end there, though.  She continues to watch Peridot and his companions and through various actions reveals her character’s nuances.  She isn’t the prototypical evil witch like her mother but neither is she the good, meek girl she first appears to be.  The Fox is similarly complex, as it’s revealed that he has a past in which he had another form that was not a fox.  However, my favorite is probably the Princess Bellisima, if for no other reason than it plays with our modern expectations of what a fairy tale princess should be like.  When we first see Bellisima, she seems like the prototypical beautiful fairy tale princess asleep in an enchanted castle.  After Peridot wakes her, we see Bellisima come up behind the monster that is her captor and chop its heads off with a sword.  Now, we get the idea that she must be one of those new-school adventurous princesses that will take up a sword and rescue herself from bad situations (On a tangential note: How I dislike the phrase “rescue yourself”.  If you do it yourself, isn’t it much less a “rescue” and much more an “escape”?).  However, over time her background starts to be revealed and we start to see that Belissima has a selfish side to her actions and that she may be much more of a flawed individual than the reader first thought.  While there are any number of “not so righteous” princesses in folklore, very few seem to make it into fairy tale media.  It feels like a really neat twist on fairy tale princess tropes both old and new to be reminded that just because someone is beautiful and capable doesn’t necessarily mean she’s a great person.

Images used with permission from Marie August
Still, it’s not perfect.  I’m not particularly crazy about the artwork.  It tells the story okay, but something about the style bugs me.  Also, sometimes August tries to use what seems to be the webcomic equivalent of double-page spreads (when a picture spans to pages of a comic book).  However, the computer screen is not particularly adept at displaying this (see the picture below).  I also recall the webpage the comic was on being hard to navigate, but now it looks like that’s been fixed.

Images used with permission from Marie August
Overall, I wouldn’t say The Fox and the Firebird is a must-read, but it might be worth a look back on every once in a while.  It may still have some more surprises in store for us.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Once Upon a Pixel: Video Game Round-Up.

Alas, there is one simple truth to running this blog.  I can’t cover everything no matter how hard I try.  There are a number of pop culture/fairy tale topics I’d like to cover but just can’t with my once a week update schedule (and unlike Gypsy, I don’t think I could handle posting every day).  One of those unlucky subjects that I can’t get to is video games.  There are other reasons for this too, though.  For example, I’m limited by the technology in my possession.  I only own a Wii U and a Nintendo 3DS and my computer isn’t quite up to snuff when it comes to running modern games.  But I try my best when I get the chance.  So, to that extent I’ve put together a round-up of recent folk tale and fairy tale inspired games I’ve played recently and my thoughts on them.  So, shall we begin?

Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna)- Never Alone is the first in a newly developed genre of “world games”.  World class game makers teamed with the Inupiat native people of Alaska to develop a game based on their folklore.  The end result is a puzzle platformer in which the main character Nuna, a young Inupiat girl, and her arctic fox friend must manipulate the environment around them to reach their objectives.  I am not an expert on Inupiat folklore, but the game is filled with spirits, little people, monster men and an unusual and wise Owl Man.  If nothing else, the folklore feels genuine.  The rest of the game is up to snuff, even if it’s not groundbreaking.  The controls are responsive, the visuals are pretty and the game’s story is pretty engaging.  It’s a good, solid game.  I will let people know that they should make sure to download this game onto the best device they have because low processing power doesn’t help it much.  It’s currently available on Xbox One, PS4, Steam, Wii U and Nvidia Shield.

Woolfe: The Red Hood Diaries- Woolfe is a dark fairy tale themed platformer by publisher GriN Gamestudio in a similar vein to the popular American McGee Alice games.  The story focuses on a vengeful, ax-swinging version of Little Red Riding Hood as she investigates the disappearance of her father and its connection to a crooked industrialist named B.B. Woolfe.  Along the way she meets and fights various twisted fairy tale icons.  The idea had promise even if it’s a little bit textbook “dark fairy tale”.  However, this is a perfect example of when a decent idea can be brought down by bad design and mechanics.  The truth is that I found Woolfe’s camera to be glitchy, the controls to be sloppy and the hit detection very poor.  The end result is that the game became an exercise in frustration rather than fun.  It’s available on Steam if anyone still wants to try it out, though GriN Gamestudio has since shut its doors.  (Note: I actually found a picture from this one!)

A Day in the Woods- We move from one Red Riding Hood game to another.  This one is probably the simplest game on the list.  A Day in the Woods is a mobile phone game developed by RetroEpic and available on both Iphone and Android.  The game is a sliding tile puzzle game with the simple objective of moving Red Riding Hood through the woods to collect fruit and flowers and ultimately get her to her grandmother’s house.  However, there are obstacles to avoid like bears and giant spiders.  Luckily, there are things in the forest that can help Red.  Campfires keep bears away and beehives distract them so Red can slip past.  This game is very simple to play and control and easy to jump right into.  If you enjoy puzzle games and have a smartphone, I’d suggest giving A Day in the Woods a try.

Jack the Giant Killer- We’re reaching way back now to the early days of arcade gaming!  Jack the Giant Killer is a “Jack and the Beanstalk” themed game by Cinematronics published in 1982.  Each level starts off with Jack climbing a maze of vines leading to a level that involves a sleeping giant, golden eggs and some kind of treasure for Jack to take, which leads to a level in which the giant drops things down the beanstalk, trying to knock Jack off as he climbs down.  The controls are similar to Crazy Climber and Donkey Kong, but not as smooth.  Why am I talking about a game this old, though?  Because it can currently be played for free at the Internet Archive Arcade.  That’s why.  While not the best arcade game ever, it’s hard to beat a game you can play for free (and the Internet Archive has a lot of them).  I will admit that the controls can be a little difficult to figure out in this form, though.  So, some trial and error is likely going to be needed.  I also found an Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves game on Internet Archive, but it just looks like some kind of weird Pac-Man knock-off. I also found a game starring that classic of Irish folklore, the Leprechaun.

That’s it for now.  It will be rare that I cover video games again in the future.  If I do, it will likely be if a game comes out for a system I already have or if I want to touch on the elements of Japanese lore that find their way into classic series like Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda or Pokemon.  It is too bad, though.  I still want to play Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, but it doesn’t look like it’ll come out for Wii U anytime soon.  Still, we can at least put this post and the comments section to good use.  If anyone has recommendations for games that draw on folklore and fairy tales, post them in the comments regardless of gaming platform.  Maybe someone out there with the right system wants to play.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The OTHER gender issue with fairy tales.

Okay, so some of you may recall that I wrote a post about gender in fairy tales a while back.  Now, that post kind of tackled the issue of gender from inside the stories.  Now, I want to write a post that tackles them from the outside.

Basically, I want to talk about the image of fairy tales and how they’re marketed to the public.

Now, gendering in general is a big issue, in particular when it comes to things that are usually aimed at children.  It’s so big that Shannon Hale (award-winning author of The Goose Girl and the Princess Academy books) has seemingly been waging a one-woman war against gendering children’s literature on social media for the better part of a year at least.

Now, I’m going to get down to brass tacks here.  Despite the fact that maybe 50% of the tales in your average copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales have male protagonists, it’s largely the stories with female protagonists that get remembered these days.

There’s nothing wrong with that.  The old wonder tales often did have more of a connection to women long ago because it was the mothers and grandmothers who were often the storytellers in the household.
The issue is that those who use fairy tales for their own purposes, namely those who market them for toys and storybooks tend to really push that association.  Everything starts to revolve around gowns and princesses and romance.  The color palette also takes a decided shift toward soft pinks and purples (an interestingly modern note, seeing as before the 20th century pink was considered more aggressive and masculine and blue was considered more placid and feminine.  These associations change over time).

So, in our world of gendered marketing, the breadth of European fairy tales that have made it into our common culture tend to be branded as “for girls”.  Mind you, with our modern mindset towards these things, I’m sure some girls get tired of the “pretty pink princess” thing too, but the association still stands.  I recall when I was very young I wasn’t much of a fan of fairy tales with one exception.  To me, “Jack and the Beanstalk” was the one acceptable tale to like.  That’s because while the other popular tales often seemed geared towards romance, Jack’s tale seemed like more of an adventure story to me.  It was also a decidedly “active” tale, what with all the climbing, stealing and ax-swinging.  At the time, most other tales with male leads like “Tom Thumb” and “The Brave Little Tailor” were only known to me by title and their stories were still obscure.  Also, the Arabian Nights were still a mystery to me.  It wasn’t until years later and a kindled interest in American legends and ancient myths that my interest turned to fairy tales and I was able to see past all the pink-washed marketing efforts.

I mentioned the Arabian Nights a moment ago and I think they’re worth mentioning again for how they represent the opposite side of the gender-marketing double edged sword.  Since the days of The Thief of Baghdad, the Arabian Nights have been marketed more as adventure stories by the culture industry.  If Hollywood were to be believed, the Nights were constantly filled with adventure and daring sword fights with bandits and villains.  In short, they were marketed as something for a stereotypically male audience (note to female readers: stereotypes do not necessarily depict the truth.  I know some of you love rip-roaring adventures too).  The truth is that the Arabian Nights have a great variety of stories in them.  So, why do they get marketed this way?  Well, it’s probably because the three most famous character names in the Arabian Nights, Aladdin, Ali Baba and Sindbad, are all male (though, arguably, the bravest character in all the Arabian Nights is Sheherazad).

Marina Warner actually touches on the disparity in her book Once Upon a Time: A short history of fairy tale.  In chapter 6 of her book, “On the Couch”, she focuses on the psychological approach to fairy tales.  However, in one section she states how common it is to psychoanalyze the stories for their approach to femaleness and femininity while very few people have analyzed the various hero stories for their approach to masculinity.  The one exception she brings up is Robert Bly’s Iron John: A Book about Men in which the writer used the story of “Iron Hans” as the basis for a new approach to manliness.  There are numerous reasons why psychologists chose to steer away from the hero stories.  One of which is that fate and chance always seem to play a part in hero stories and chance is hard to analyze.

So, I may have digressed into psychology just a little bit.  Anyway, why is it important to think about how these tales are promoted and the broad strokes they’re brushed with?  Well, first of all, because there is very little to no reason to gender-market these stories to different demographics.  Despite what I would have told you when I was 6, European fairy tales are not about “princesses and kissing”.  Just like how the Arabian Nights are not about “sword fights and desert bandits”.  In my adult experience, fairy tales are most often about the transformations in a character’s life, moving from poor to rich or servant to royalty.  It’s a practice that strives to exclude more than it strives to include.  The other reason is because it gives people sometimes simplified notions of how the other gender is depicted in the stories, and sometimes that’s not for the best.

This brings us to the subject of Prince Charming.

Near as I can tell, the name Prince Charming stems originally from a character named Charming in Catherine D’Aulnoy’s story “Lovely Goldilocks”.  The name has then been taken and applied to any prince appearing in otherwise female-dominated stories like “Cinderella”, “Snow White” and “Sleeping Beauty”.  These princes are generally bit parts endowed with some deus ex machina ability and are generally just a reward for the much-suffering princess.  However, he’s also become most people’s vision of a male fairy tale lead.  As such, while people focused more on the princesses and changing those roles, the Prince Charming character has devolved into parody in the media.  In Into the Woods, there are two princes who are more interested and capable in chasing and rescuing damsels than what comes after.  In Shrek 2, he’s a vainglorious fop.  And in Fables, he’s a cad incapable of real romantic love.  So, why has this happened?  Well, I’m reminded of a scene in Disney’s Enchanted in which Prince Edward sits in front of a television asking it questions and asks “Tell me Magic Mirror, why is everything so difficult here?”  That’s the image we have of the fairy tale prince right now.  A character that used to be seen as an idealized knight errant and romantic ideal in less modern times is now seen as a character for whom everything is usually easy.  The female lead suffers from abusive step-families, curses and murderous huntsmen, but the male lead can waltz in and kiss a sleeping girl and his job is done.  He has the world on a platter.  For many, this is people’s vision of the male lead in the fairy tale.  However, that doesn’t mean it’s the best vision.

There are two Charming movies in the works.  One is a live action movie from Disney.  The other is an animated musical comedy from the people who made Shrek.  I don’t know much about them yet, but I’m betting on one or both of them being parodies.  I think before we can move forward in giving fairy tale fiction good male leads who are not Jack, the culture needs to get its head straight about its relationship with male leads in European fairy tales.  And before we can get things straight about male leads in European fairy tales and female leads in the Arabian Nights, the culture has to get its head right about gender marketing fairy tales in general.  After that, with luck and some magic, maybe things can become a little more balanced.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Fairy Tale Media Fix: Disney's Descendants.

It’s the Disney castle again, folks!  That means it’s time to review another Disney production!  It also means I couldn’t find any free-use pictures from the movie and I’m still too cheap to subscribe to an image service.
"When you wish upon a theme park . . ."
 Okay, so that’s not completely true.  I did find a picture of one of the actors.
A young Cameron Boyce who plays Carlos DeVil in Descendants
Anyway, it’s time to review Disney’s Descendants.  Descendants is Disney’s latest mash-up of characters and concepts from its various animated films.  It’s hardly the first mash-up of this type.  Some folks around here will remember the Kingdom Hearts video game series, which was like a Disney mash-up for anime fans who love convoluted plots.  Then there was Once Upon a Time which was a Disney mash-up that hid for about a season under the guise of a general fairy tale mash-up.  Descendants, on the other hand, is a mash-up that seems squarely aimed at the Disney Channel audience.  It also appears to be a mash-up that seems focused on competing with another fairy tale mash-up for young girls, Ever After High.

The movie starts out with a description of the premise.  It seems that after Belle married her Beast, the ex-Beast set out to unite the various Disney movie kingdoms into one big kingdom called the United States of Auradon.  He then rounded up all the villains and henchmen and stuck them on an island surrounded by a magical barrier called The Isle of the Lost.  The villains stayed there and had their own little families while the villain parents continued to sit and plot away as they are wont to do.  As you can tell, much like Ever After High, this movie asks you not to sweat the details.  Details like why everything is so modern, how all these villains are still alive after the climax of their respective movies, who the other parents are to these villain kids, and how the Beast could unite kingdoms as diverse as Agrabah and Atlantica as well as parts of France, India, China and 20th Century London all under one banner.  Like I said, don’t sweat it.

Anyway, we cut to Belle and Beast’s son Ben (there’s a trend of using alliteration for the next generation characters’ names here.  It may be a bit lazy, but also better than Ever After High’s tendency of building the names on puns).  Ben’s getting fitted for a suit for his coronation when he tells his parents what his first kingly proclamation will be.  He has decided that the children of the Island of the Lost should have the chance to live and go to school in Auradon.  He’s even picked the first four that he wants to try out.  They are Carlos the son of Cruella DeVil, Jay the son of Jafar, Evie the daughter of the Evil Queen and Mal the daughter of Maleficent.

Then, of course, we cut to the Isle of the Lost where we’re introduced to our infamous “villain kids” as they tear around what appears to be a Disneyfied, candy-colored slum while singing the song “Rotten to the Core” (did I mention this is a musical?  Well, it is).  Anyway, at the climax of their performance, Maleficent shows up to tell the foursome that they have been chosen to leave the island to go to Auradon Prep.  We then cut to Maleficent’s lair where all the villain parents are gathered to talk about the situation and come up with a plan for their offspring to carry out.


Those villains!  Those grown-up villains!  I’m sorry but while the kids are actually fun to watch in their own way, their parents manage to camp it up every time they’re on screen.  Usually, I’m okay with cheesiness.  After all, I’m a ‘50s sci-fi fan and a Super Sentai fan.  Still, this is a little much.  I suppose the intention is to show that these middle-aged villains have all gone to seed on this island, but it’s still a bit painful to watch.
Anyway, the ultimate plan is for them to steal the Fairy Godmother’s magic wand so that they can take down the barrier and spread evil across the world (points for ambition).

From here, we get into the bulk of the movie as the would-be villainous four attempt to steal the wand  while simultaneously being wooed to the side of good by the various amenities of Auradon as well as their burgeoning consciences.  If you’re okay with Disney teen movies, then you’ll probably be okay with watching our various heroes/antiheroes struggle between filial duty and the new life they found at the school.  Each learn their little lesson.  Jay discovers sports and finds out that working with a team can be better than just looking out for yourself.  Carlos overcomes the fear of dogs that his mother drilled into him since he was little (as someone who knows their obscure Disney canon, I was kind of hoping the dog in question would be Scamp).  Evie discovers that she’s smarter than she thought and that she doesn’t have to play dumb and win over a rich prince.  And Mal just generally grows a conscience around the time she falls in love with king-to-be Ben.  In fact, there’s a clever little bit regarding a love potion during that plotline.  Of course, as you may expect, not everything they do is so good.  They try to break into a museum, plot to disrupt a coronation and play with the self esteem of the Fairy Godmother’s daughter Jane.

Now, do I think this is a great movie?  No.  Do I think it’s horrible?  Barring the campy scenes with the villain parents, no I don’t.  It’s not so much bad as just ridiculous.  This is about what I’d expect from a Disney Channel Original Movie.  If the truth is to be told, I tend to find fairy tale character mash-ups a lot easier to take when they’re played for laughs.

If we’re being entirely honest here, the audience for fairy tale related media has gotten a lot wider in recent years.  So, a lot of this will come down to personal taste.  Many adults will see a project like this and think it looks terrible while some kids will look at it and think it looks great.  On the other hand, many adults who are fairy tale fans will look at something like the indie film Beast and think it looks great while I look at it and think it looks a little too bleak and dark for my tastes.

We’ll likely be seeing more of Descendants as the months go by.  There are fashion dolls planned for the girl characters as well as animated shorts coming out in September (boy, does that approach sound awfully familiar).  So, with the Disney marketing machine poised to bring out more Descendants, we can at least rest assured that it’s little more than a silly but ultimately harmless product.