Friday, September 30, 2016

Fairy Tale Media Fix: Shelley Duvall's Faerie Tale Theatre.

Faerie Tale Theatre!  Faerie Tale Theatre!  Whenever I ask people about fairy tale TV shows, someone inevitably brings up ShelleyDuvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre!  I had only ever watched a few episodes of it when I was young.  Probably because it aired on Showtime which was a premium cable channel and my family didn’t pay for premium cable channels (Faerie Tale Theatre aired on Showtime, both Jim Henson’s The Storyteller and Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child both aired on HBO.  What is it with fairy tale anthology shows and premium cable?).  Anyway, I only saw a few episodes of it when the show came to PBS for a short period of time.

For those who don’t know, back in the early ‘80s Shelley Duvall decided she wanted to create a better class of children’s television.  So, she shined the Shelley Duvall Signal into the sky and a bunch of her actor and director friends came running to help out (okay, so maybe I’m confusing Duvall with Batman a little bit and for reasons you’ll get as you read more, but you get the gist of what I’m saying).  The end result is a collection of 26 hour-long adaptations of famous fairy tales with one or two more obscure ones thrown in.  The show is supposedly inspired by the show Shirley Temple’s Storybook, which I just found out about recently.
I finally took this series out from one of the local libraries and gave it a watch.  So, what did I think?  Well, I honestly thought it was kind of a mixed bag.

I mean, it’s interesting to see fairy tales depicted in a way kind of reminiscent of the 1966 Batman show with famous guest stars in abundance (I told you the Batman analogy would make sense soon).  Some of the actors do great jobs in their roles.  Both Matthew Broderick and Christopher Reeves make excellent Prince Charmings in “Cinderella” and “Sleeping Beauty” respectively.  James Earl Jones does an admirable job as both genies from “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp” and Peter Macnicol does a surprisingly good job as the title character in “The Boy Who Went to Learn About the Shivers” among others (note: I’m just listing the first ones that come to mind.  There are so many ‘80s stars in this show it’s hard to keep up).  However, there are others that I’m just not keen on.  For example, I could have certainly done without Paul Reubens (aka Pee Wee Herman) as Pinocchio and I could have really done without Father Guido Sarducci’s (real name Don Novello) narration of the tale.  I’m also not sure that someone of Mick Jagger’s considerable Whiteness should have played an Asian emperor in “The Nightingale”.  Also, it may be a personal preference, but I couldn’t stand Ben Vereen as Puss in Boots.  It’s probably because of the annoying “cat voice” he gave him.

The camera and editing tricks they use to create the magic in the series look cheap now but was probably the best they could manage with both a TV budget and the technology of the time.  The backgrounds and scenery are all inspired by the works of certain artists and storybook illustrators.  While that’s an interesting idea, it often makes all the scenery look like something set up for a school play.  Script-wise, you can tell when they’ve overextended themselves.  Usually when they’re given the task of stretching one of the shorter tales into an hour (Goldilocks, The Three Little Pigs) or shortening a long tale (Pinocchio, The Snow Queen).  In the case of the shorter tales, sometimes they go off on weird new directions like how their version of Goldilocks seems to straddle the line between compulsive liar and con artist.  In some other cases I just wondered how many adults they thought were watching.  The early episodes have their share of adult jokes and innuendos slipped in (In Rapunzel, when Rapunzel’s mother tells her husband about her craving for vegetables, he asks if she’d like a cucumber, *wink, wink, nudge, nudge*).  It’s nothing that would necessarily be too much for kids, but it would still be lost on a very young audience.

And yet, sometimes they knock it out of the park.

Some episodes are really, really good.  They had an episode based on Robert Browning’s poetic version of “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” starring Eric Idle and it was fantastic.  It was very faithful to the text and was able to stir up a whole lot of emotion.  Another fantastic effort is the “Beauty and the Beast” episode starring Susan Sarandon which is a straight-up homage both in story and design to the movie version by Jean Cocteau.  I also thought they did a pretty good job adapting the more obscure “The Youth Who Went to Learn about the Shivers”, which is kind of a hard one to adapt.  I also thought their take on “The Emperor’s New Clothes” was really good, relying very much on the chemistry between Art Carney and Alan Arkin who play the two swindlers who trick the Emperor.  Also, even when they don’t do the greatest adaptation, sometimes they can provide ideas that are kind of interesting.  In one fairly prophetic turn, they’re one of the earliest examples I’ve seen of a production depicting the Snow Queen as good or misunderstood.  Before Disney’s Frozen made the idea an in vogue depiction of the Snow Queen, Faerie Tale Theatre gave us the twist of claiming that the Snow Queen had abducted Kai in order to try and cure him of the shard of the evil mirror he was afflicted by.  They didn’t even really change her role in the story as Kai’s abductor, just asked you to look at it differently and placed the bulk of the blame on the goblin who made the mirror.
Overall, I don’t think it’s bad.  I admire the effort that was put in.  This was clearly a passion project for Duvall and it shows with how much well-known talent she got to sign on for it.  I wouldn’t necessarily tell you to run out and buy the DVD set, but it’s probably worth a watch if you can get it from the local library like I did.  What it really did was get me thinking about fairy tale anthology shows and what the next one might be like.  There hasn’t been a fairy tale anthology show on US television for a while and it’s kind of surprising.  We’re arguably at the end of a trend in which fairy tales were getting some serious play on television, but in every case it was fairy tale plots and ideas being folded into ongoing dramas rather than shows anthologizing the tales directly.  In the past, every anthology had its own style and hook.  Faerie Tale Theatre had the hook of having lots of well-known acting talent.  Jim Henson’s the Storyteller had cutting-edge practical effects and an acknowledgement of the oral tradition.  Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child took popular tales and adapted them to different cultures.  Grimm’s Fairy Tale Classics is remembered best probably for being the first anime a lot of Americans who grew up in the ‘90s ever saw as well as focusing exclusively on tales from Grimm.  If there’s another one, where will it come from and what will make it stand out?  I sure hope I have the chance to find out (though, knowing my luck with premium channels, it will probably be on Netflix.  I’m not subscribed to Netflix).

Friday, September 23, 2016

Once Upon a Pixel: Video Game Round-Up, Level 2.

You know, writing about folklore, fairy tales and related subjects in relation to video games can be a bit tough.  The truth is that, back in the day, there was kind of an unspoken stigma about basing video games on or around fairy tales.  In the back of most gamers’ minds, unless the game was part of a Disney movie license, a game based around a fairy tale was a sign that the game was either aimed at very little kids, was a cheap badly made game or both.  Part of that was because the “fairy tales are for little kids” stigma was still in full swing then.  Part of it was because fairy tales and their accompanying lore are just so unabashedly public domain.  So, you didn’t see a lot of games inspired by the old stories.  You might occasionally get something like Puss in Boots: Pero’s Great Adventure (which, truth be told, was more based on the Toei Animation logo than the fairy tale) but that was about it.

Well, thank goodness for indie and mobile gaming.

With indie game designers’ desire to think outside the box and a growing interest in the idea of “global games” we’re seeing more folklore making it into games.  And with the populist nature of mobile games, we’re seeing more games that draw from popular stories (though, I would suggest they draw from some of the less popular ones too).  It’s still not particularly common, but it is something.  So, I created a title card to celebrate.  Here’s hoping I get to use it once in a blue moon.
So, let’s move on to a new round up of what I’ve been playing!

Yo-Kai Watch (Nintendo, Level-5)- Okay, so I know Yo-Kai Watch is an odd one to start with considering I just said how it’s mainly indie and mobile games that are drawing on this stuff.  Yo-Kai Watch is a major handheld console release, but it does draw on Japanese folklore.  The basic premise is that a young boy or girl (you choose the character) is hunting for bugs when they comes across a capsule machine and releases a ghost named Whisper that gives them a watch that lets them see and hunt down Yokai (Japanese supernatural creatures) that are causing problems.  It’s a fighting monsters game like Pokemon but with some different mechanics.  If you know your Japanese creatures, there are some familiar creatures like Baku and a very frightening oni that appears during something called “Terror Time” (which is based on a common warning that Japanese parents give their kids about bad behavior).  It’s not bad.  I played it a lot when I bought it on vacation, but I’ve kind of fallen out of the habit now.

Fading Fairy Tales (Crescent Moon Games)- I downloaded this one onto my phone months ago.  The idea is that some dark force has descended on a world of fairy tale characters and that you play as characters that are trying to defeat that force.  For some reason, the characters you start out as are a bear, an anteater and a platypus though.  I guess talking animals are a fairy tale standard, but other than the bear, they don’t seem much like fairy tale creatures.  There’s a certain adventure/RPG quality to it.  But a lot of time is spent using turns to move the characters during fights and the difficulty spikes considerably after the first level.  I’ve kind of lost interest in it.

Song of the Deep (Insomniac Games)- This one is an interesting one.  It’s an underwater submarine exploration game that focuses on a young girl who has to set out to find her father when he's lost at sea.  However, instead of using the typical Atlantis stuff for the underwater world the developers drew on folklore and myth from Ireland.  So, there’s a lot of stuff about merrows and Fomorians.  I haven’t seen any selkies in the game yet, but I wouldn’t count it out.  The version I played is for the PC, downloaded through Steam.  I’m not crazy about the controls because it requires using the mouse to determine direction and the keyboard to move.  However, I’ve used far worse control schemes before.  I would say it’s a good game, but I can’t say much about it beyond the first level.  Why?  Because I can’t seem to get past the first boss!  It’s this big, frustrating underwater spider thing that always seems to kick my ass!  But other than that, it’s a nice little indie game.  (Note: despite similar subject matter, this game is not to be confused with the movie Song of the Sea).

Oz: Broken Kingdom (Nexon)- My newest gaming obsession.  This is a mobile RPG that’s set in the land of Oz.  The story goes that a dark force tried to steal Oz’s magic so Ozma split it all up and put it in gems rather than keeping it isolated in the Emerald City.  Seeing this, the dark forces start splitting up and searching for as many gems as they can and they kidnap the Wizard and Dorothy Gale for good measure.  Meanwhile, in our world a great war is going on and a girl named Ophelia Shen is on the run with her cat.  While on a ship, a storm comes and sweeps her away to Oz.  Ophelia soon joins up with the Scarecrow (a magic user), Tin Man (an armored tank) and Lion (a melee fighter) to beat back Oz’s enemies and save the kingdom.  Now, clearly this game doesn’t exactly conform to the spirit of L. Frank Baum’s books.  Baum was trying to create children’s fantasy that was less violent than the fairy tales of Grimm and Andersen.  So, the constant presence of combat would probably have not sat well with Baum.  However, it’s hardly the first time an Oz adaptation strayed from that spirit.  Disney’s dark adaptation of the second and third books Return to Oz immediately comes to mind (say what you will about the Wheelers, Mombi or the Nome King, I am absolutely certain Baum would have never had Dorothy Gale almost receive electroshock therapy in a mental hospital).  Still, the game is a lot of fun.  It also embraces a whole lot of Baum’s text.  The game keeps reminding me of things I forgot were in the books.  The new character of Ophelia Shen is also a nice addition.  She fills the spot of the agile “rogue” in the party and her personality has a feisty, jaded edge that would not be there by using Dorothy in the same slot.  The biggest issue some might have is what gamers call “pay to win”.  The game is free to download, but there are numerous parts where it asks you if you want to make an in-app purchase.  Sometimes, you will get to points where your characters will simply not be strong enough to go any further, however you can’t enhance your characters without paying for resources.  There are ways around it.  The game gives you a bronze coin to use in the Pool of Wonders and emeralds to spend on resources once a day but it takes time for them to materialize.  So, if you want to proceed while spending as little real money in the game as possible, it will take patience (honestly, game developers have to eat too so I get the notion but I think I would have preferred to just pay for the game itself up front).
The closest the Oz books usually get to having combat.
So, those are the folk/fairy tale games I’ve played since last time.  I'd recommend Song of the Deep and Oz: Broken Kingdom while I wouldn't necessarily urge you to try Fading Fairy Tales.  As for Yo-Kai Watch, it's been out so long and is so mainstream that I figure that if you wanted to play it you probably have already (though, to be clear, it's a pretty good game).  I don’t know when I’ll get the chance to do this column again but if the need arises you know I’ll do it.  This post has also reminded me that I’ve never done a proper post about The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, just my post-surgery reflections.  Oh well, I’ll get to it eventually.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Stuff of Legends: Robin Hood.

This is it, folks.  The final name on my list of twelve legendary figures and thus my last “The Stuff of Legends”.  I wanted to start strong and end strong which is why my first entry in the series was King Arthur and why this one is Robin Hood (going for the crowd pleasers).  But if you liked “The Stuff of Legends”, don’t be too sad.  It might appear again in the future.  Just not necessarily in the same form.

Anyway, Robin Hood is probably the most popular folk hero to ever rise out of English legend.  The legend as we know it now concerns a dispossessed English nobleman who takes to Sherwood Forest with a band of outlaws including but not limited to: Little John, Will Scarlet, Alan-a-Dale, Friar Tuck, Arthur-a-Bland, Maid Marian and Much the Miller’s Son.  From there they act out in protest of King John’s laws by robbing from the rich and giving to the poor.  This puts them in conflict with such agents of the law as The Sherriff of Nottingham and Sir Guy of Gisborne. 
It’s one of the most famous tales in all the world, having been adapted a million times.  But where did it come from and was there actually a real Robin Hood?

Well, it seems that whether there was a real Robin Hood or not is a 10 million pound question (we’re using English currency here for consistency), because historians have been looking for that answer for years.

Near as anyone can tell, the earliest record of an outlaw being referred to as Robin Hood was actually the case of a man named Robert Hode listed as an outlaw in judicial documents from the years 1225 and 1226.  Not much is known about this man other than the fact that he was a debtor who escaped into the greenwood and how much money it took to hunt him down and execute him. 

Still, there are other candidates for the man who inspired the legend.  One is the knight Robert Fitz Odo of Loxley in Warwickshire.  Again, there is little evidence to suggest they are one and the same man except the fact that a drawing of Robin Hood’s grave closely resembles a grave in Warwickshire.

Another possible inspiration is a young Earl of Huntingdon who was known to rebel against his own father.  This is also unsupported by any serious evidence.

Making matters more difficult is the fact that the name “Robin Hood” in various forms appears in numerous medieval document as a nickname for any number of outlaws.
Whether he was real or not, it’s safe to say his legend has taken a few different forms.  His first literary appearance is in the poem “Piers Plowman” by William Langland circa 1377.  The most common surviving ballads of Robin Hood’s exploits date from about a century later.  Many of Robin Hood’s more common aspects such as his archery skill, his partisanship of the lower classes his animosity toward the Sherriff of Nottingham and his associations with Little John and Will Scarlet are all in evidence.  However, other elements like the characters of Friar Tuck and Maid Marian are absent.

Beyond the ballads, Robin Hood’s legend was furthered by the performance of “Robin Hood games” or plays about Robin Hood that were part of traditional May Day celebrations.  It’s here that we see the first appearance of a Maid Marian figure though as a matronly woman who is played by a man in drag and has a romantic association with the “jolly friar”.  Later, the character would get conflated with a character from the French pastourelle “Robin and Marian” and become the character we know now.
Through much of Robin Hood’s existence he was identified as a yeoman, or a member of the middle class.  However, this changed with the plays of Anthony Munday in 1598 who identified his Robin Hood as the Earl of Huntingdon (referenced above) and solidifies his historical position by making him the enemy of King John.

And all this is well and good as far as raw information goes.  But it does very little to get to the essence and appeal of the legend of Robin Hood.
Robin Hood is probably one of the most retold legends of all time.  It was transformed into a children’s book by Howard Pyle.  It has been made into movies starring the likes of Errol Flynn, Kevin Costner  and Russell Crowe.  It was one of the few stories that Disney, before 1990 at least, chose to adapt twice.  They did it first in 1952 as The Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men and again in 1973 with the animated Robin Hood.  There have been TV shows like The Adventures of Robin Hood and the more recent BBC Robin Hood series as well as the occasional single episode like this one of Doctor Who.  There have also been animated shows like Young Robin Hood and the anime Robin Hood no Daibouken (strangely, both of these shows depict Robin as a teenager).  Heck, there’s even been the occasional tabletop game.
And I’m just scratching the surface.  Don’t believe me?  Check out the Wikipedia list.

So, why does this specific legend resonate with so many people?  Well, I think it has a great deal to do with Robin Hood’s outlaw hero status.  The legend speaks to everyone who has felt the need to rebel and also to everyone who’s ever felt downcast, oppressed or downtrodden at any point in their life.  It’s a legend that (at least the way it’s told today) suggests that justice will still exist outside the law when the law becomes unjust.

And to tell you the truth, neither Robin himself nor England have a monopoly on legendary outlaws.  Heck, they don’t even have a monopoly on “stealing from the rich to give to the poor”.
In Poland and neighboring regions, there’s a legend of a very Robin Hood-esque character named Juraj Janosik.  In Japan, there are legends and many kabuki theater productions about a thief named Ishikawa Goemon who also gave his loot to the poor.  Heck, the American West is filled with notorious criminals who have somehow been raised up to legendary hero status.  If you believed the early settlers of New Mexico, then you’d think Billy the Kid was some kind of champion of the oppressed rather than the violent, buck-toothed delinquent he was (interesting pop culture note: in the Japanese superhero show Kamen Rider Ghost, the spirits of Robin Hood, Goemon and Billy the Kid all appear as power-ups for the hero).  Even in England, Robin’s in good company.  From the same time period in English history come two other outlaw heroes Fulk FitzWarin and Eustace the Monk.  Of course, we also can’t forget Adam Bell, another outlaw archer from English legend.

Outlaws are often admired for the sheer gall they have in taking on the established order.  But in many cases, the stories of outlaws are embroidered to make them seem more virtuous than they likely were.  This is even true with Robin Hood.  As late as the 18th Century, there were still works that depicted Robin as more of a notorious criminal than a hero.

But despite all the other legendary outlaws out there, something made Robin Hood rise to the top in popularity.  I’m not sure I could say what it is.  On some level, I imagine the fact that he robs from the rich and gives to the poor really struck a chord with English audiences.  Class differences and class struggle have long been undercurrents in English life, politics and literature.  At the same time, it might have been the appeal of the colorful cast of characters that rose around him like Little John, Friar Tuck and Will Scarlet.  It could have also been something about the time period he’s placed in, a fractious time when the true king was away on a Crusade and the throne was held by another.  The legend even managed to travel.  In his book Grandfather Tales, Richard Chase includes an Appalachian tale entitled "The Outlaw Boy".  The difference in this tale other than location is that Robin learned to shoot a bow and arrow from the local Native Americans.

Whichever it is, the legend of Robin Hood doesn’t seem like it’s going away anytime soon.

Whatever his secret, Robin Hood is a bad man who makes for a very good story.  And he most certainly is The STUFF OF LEGEND!

Friday, September 9, 2016

Character Study.

Before getting to the meat of this post, I’d first like to welcome InkGypsy back to the fairy tale blogging circle.  She has been on hiatus for a considerable amount of time but now Once Upon a Blog is back.  I always thought there was a certain amount of symmetry between Gypsy’s blog and mine.  We both cover the pop culture angle but Gypsy’s blog is much more up to the moment while I post a lot more retro reviews.  To use a music industry analogy, Gypsy tends to talk about the new albums that are about to drop while I’m the one digging through the box of old 45s saying “Hey, remember this?  Let’s see if it still holds up!”

But speaking of my fairy tale blogging colleagues, some of them give me ideas for posts even when they’re not trying too.  For example, in the comments of my “Fairy Tale School” post, Kristin from Tales of Faerie said she had no idea so many fairy tale retellings took place in school settings.  I noted that they weren’t so much retellings as character mash-ups.

However, that made me realize something.  To some extent, fairy tale character mash-ups don’t make much sense.

The thing about fairy tale characters is that they’re flat.  Fairy tale characters lack nuance and depth.  They are archetypical in the extreme.  We only know these characters by their positions and their actions.  Sometimes they don’t even have names, they just have designations like the Prince, the Princess, the Woodcutter, the Tailor, etc.  So, the question becomes: why do we love them so much?
Why do we get such a kick out of putting a bunch of these characters or their descendants in the same setting and watching them play off of each other?
Well, I think it ultimately comes down to what we and the writers of these various retellings and mash-ups brings to them.  Fairy tales aren’t the only genre to utilize flat characters.  Nintendo has notoriously resisted giving most of their characters like Mario and Link voices and defined personalities.  Their logic is that their lead characters are avatars that the player can project their own voice and personalities onto.  Mattel has a similar approach with their fashion doll character Barbie.  She’s supposed to be whatever little girls want her to be and thus has no defined character traits.

I think this can backfire too, though.  When a character has so little defined personality, a lot of attention falls on their physical form.  I’ve long held the theory that the reason there is so much concern over Barbie and little girls trying to emulate her appearance is because there is nothing else for them to emulate.  Children will often imitate the media figures in their life.  I know as a little boy I used to pretend I was He-Man or a Ninja Turtle quite frequently.  But with Barbie there’s nothing there to imitate except her appearance.  In order to make her anything to any little girl, they made her nothing.  The same issue falls on popular versions of fairy tale characters.  Disney never went into much detail when fleshing out their early princess characters like Snow White, Cinderella and Aurora.  The extent of who they are seems to be summed up as “pretty and kind”.  With so little else to work with, parents started to worry what the effect of these characters is on their daughters.  That’s likely why Disney went to a lot of trouble to redefine Cinderella in their 2015 movie.
Flat characters can allow readers to project onto them but they also provide with a blank slate for writers to paint on.  In some cases that results in iconic takes on the characters that are often imitated.  Disney’s version of Belle from Beauty and the Beast is a good example.  Disney defined their Belle as an independent-minded intellectual and a voracious reader.  Ever since then, I’ve rarely seen a version of Belle that hasn’t regularly carried a book in her hand.  It can also result in some unusual takes that are creative but might not work for some people.  I’ve encountered a few of these in Bill Willingham’s comic book series Fables.  As you folks probably know, I am a big fan of “Jack and the Beanstalk”.  However, I was always a bit put off by Willingham’s depiction of Jack as a dislikable scumbag.  I understand the reasoning for it.  Jack did steal from the giant in “Jack and the Beanstalk” and he uses trickery in numerous other Jack tales.  However, Willingham’s Jack was just too slimy for me.  I also didn’t care for his depiction of the seven dwarfs as Snow White’s abusers and slave drivers.  Willingham’s two most popular characters are probably Snow White (who I have a couple of different versions of in my head) and the Big Bad Wolf (who I never had much interest in).  On the other hand, there are versions of the characters I like that others might not.  For example, as mediocre as Shrek 3 was, I have a strange soft spot for that movie’s version of Snow White.  Snow White in Shrek 3 is depicted as kind of a haughty, catty mean girl.  I think that’s hilarious and makes an odd kind of sense.  Who wouldn’t get kind of full of themselves if they were told from an early age that they were the fairest of them all.  I know it’s not for everyone and that interpretation wouldn’t work for every story that people would want to use Snow White in, but I like it.
So maybe what fairy tale characters lack in nuance they make up for in flexibility.  What are your thoughts?  And what are some unconventional takes on fairy tale characters that you really like?  The comment section is below.  You know what to do.