Monday, July 30, 2018

Fantasy Literature Rewind: Winnie-the-Pooh.

[Sits in Thoughtful Spot]

“Oh, what to say about Winnie-the-Pooh?  Think.  Think.  Think.”

Yeah, I’m starting with something that’s more from Disney than A.A. Milne for this one.  I mean, the “thoughtful spot” is definitely Milne, but “Think.  Think.  Think,” I’m pretty sure is a creation of the Walt Disney company and the cast and crew of their Winnie-the-Pooh short films.

It’s actually hard to get away from Disney when it comes to Pooh.  You know how many Winnie the Pooh projects they’ve done ranging between movies and children’s television.  A lot! A whole lot!  Far more than any Disney Princess.

Even as literary as I am, I’m not immune to it.  Being a child of the ‘80s and ‘90s, when I think of Winnie the Pooh, I think of the intro to this Saturday morning cartoon:

Even beyond Disney, Pooh’s got a fair bit of pop culture fame.  Up to and including being an extended reference in a Kenny Loggins song that’s known to get people a bit misty.

Winnie-the-Pooh’s genesis actually stems from a man by the name of Alan Alexander Milne.  Milne was born in 1882, the son of two school teachers.  Milne had an early start at reading and writing, reading at the age of two and writing verses, parodies and other things for his school paper when he was young.  He moved on to more writing after university, though not always with a financial gain.  In 1906, he took a position at the famous British satirical magazine Punch.  He went on to get married and serve in World War I.  After the war, he would write the play Mr. Pim Passes By, which was a huge success and netted the Milnes a certain degree of financial independence.  However, the event that would in a way lead to A.A. Milne’s worldwide fame happened in 1920.  His son Christopher Robin Milne was born.  Inspired by his son, Milne wrote four books for children.  There were the two Pooh books Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner.  There were also two books of verse, When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six.  The books were also perfectly complimented by the illustrations of artist Ernest H. Shephard.  And so, Winnie the Pooh and A.A. Milne’s fame were born.

There is a little bit of a shadow over all this, though.  You see, Christopher Robin Milne never quite managed to live down the fame of being THE Christopher Robin.  I’m not going to get into it much here, but I understand there are a book and a movie both named Goodbye, Christopher Robin that deal with it and other facts of Milne’s life.  There’s also Christopher Robin Milne’s own autobiography The Enchanted Places.
The Pooh books are series of short adventures by Christopher Robin’s stuffed animal friends Winnie-the-Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, Tigger, Kanga and Roo as well as their woodland animal friends Rabbit and Owl. 

I reread the Pooh books to see if there was anything I had forgotten that would strike me now as different or alarming or interesting.  There were a few things.  Most of it had to do not with Pooh himself but with his friends.  One of the things was Eeyore.  Eeyore, as you may remember is the gloomy donkey who is friends with Pooh and the rest.  I was aware that Eeyore was gloomy to the point of seeming downright depressed.  But while I knew that Eeyore was down on himself, I never quite realized he could be so down on others too.  When Eeyore finds out his tail is missing in the second story, he says “Somebody must have taken it.  How like them.”  And Eeyore’s like that throughout both books.  Always complaining about everything, including other people.  He’s like a little stuffed curmudgeon.

The other thing that strikes me is the character of Christopher Robin.  Christopher is probably at most about five years old.  Yet, in the Hundred Acre Wood, he’s the smartest and most competent one in the room.  He’s routinely the one who has the solutions to problems and who the others go to for help.  Looking at this, I’m thinking that this is in fact kind of brilliant.  Think of how rarely small children get to be in this situation in real life.  How rarely they’re the ones who have the answers.  I mean, it makes sense that a child would be smarter than his own semi-imaginary friends.  However, think of how great that is as a way of getting kids to warm up to a story.  Imagine being small and there being a story where a kid like you has all the answers.

There’s not much more to it.  I did find that Pooh and his friends are some surprisingly well-realized characters.  Animation writer Eric Lewald once said that the characters in The New Adventures of Winnie Pooh is one of the best examples of character writing he knows of because you couldn’t take a line meant for Pooh and give it to someone else like Tigger or Piglet and make it sound right.  And that goes back to the book, too.  You can’t take a line of dialogue from Piglet and give it to Eeyore because Piglet dialogue doesn’t sound like Eeyore dialogue.  They all have their own sense of voice.  Eeyore’s a gloomy curmudgeon.  Piglet is anxious.  Tigger is positive and exuberant.  Owl is long-winded and enamored of his own voice. Kanga is maternal.  Roo is playful.  Rabbit is fussy and self-important.  And Pooh is easygoing.
I think maybe what I was looking for was some insight into the modern tendency of seeing Winnie-the-Pooh as a source of wisdom.  I’m sure other people can echo this sentiment, but there’s a Winnie-the-Pooh quote hung up on the fridge in my office at work.  Disney’s upcoming movie Christopher Robin (which is the reason I’m writing about this book now) also seems to subscribe to this thinking, at least in its marketing materials.  Somehow this “bear of very little brain” has been reshaped by modern culture into a little stuffed Buddha.  Or maybe a little stuffed Laotzi would be more appropriate here.  You see, writer Benjamin Hoff wrote a book that was published way back in 1982 entitled The Tao of Pooh which uses elements of Milne’s Pooh books to explain elements of Eastern philosophy.  It was followed up by The Te of Piglet.  I'll admit, I haven't read either book.

And I have to say, I didn’t find much in the way of wisdom when I was first started reading the books.  They were just simple but well-crafted children’s stories.  But I think I started to get a little bit of it by the time I made it to The House on Pooh Corner.  And it wasn’t necessarily Pooh himself who I saw it in.  I think it was the pacing of the stories themselves.  The general wisdom that gets taken from Winnie the Pooh is to slow down and enjoy the simple things in life.  To be “in the now”.  And while Pooh himself certainly could reflect these traits, it’s more the fact that I found it impossible to rush through reading these stories.  Even as an adult, the Pooh stories dictate their own ambling pace.  And once I stopped trying to rush through them, they became a lot more enjoyable to read.
So, that’s about all I have on the Winnie-the-Pooh books.  They’re simple.  They’re charming.  They have characters with unique voices.  And they’re worth taking your time with.  Perhaps read to a child or with a cup of tea that has just a little honey.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Fairy Tale Media Fix: The Adventures of Snow White and Rose Red.

You know, sometimes fairy tale TV shows can hit a little close to home.  It’s just not usually as literally as this.

You see, just recently a new children’s show inspired by fairy tales and children’s stories debuted on Amazon Instant Video.  The series, entitled The Adventures of Snow White and Rose Red, features a pair of sisters meeting fairy tale all stars in episodes designed to teach moral lessons to young folks.   Doesn’t seem too out-of-the-ordinary, right.  So, why does this specific show catch my interest?   

Because it’s filmed in the city of Saratoga.

Ah, Saratoga!

A city that at different points in history has hosted a Revolutionary War battle, been a tourist attraction for the wealthy (Saratoga is famous for its mineral water springs and wealthy tourists would go there to “take the waters”) and continues to be the location of one of the more popular race courses in horse racing circles.

It also happens to be a little less than a half hour by car from where I live.  So, I thought I should take a look and see what a locally made fairy tale production looks like (interestingly, not the only one.  There was also supposedly a Twelve Dancing Princesses movie that was filmed in Saratoga too).

Before we start, have a trailer video:

And really . . . it was good for what it was.

The truth is that the whole thing is clearly made on a shoestring.  The sets seem to largely consist of a small cottage and surrounding woods.  All the magic is done with camera tricks.  The costumes, I think, probably come from a local college’s theater department.  They don’t even try to use any kind of make-up to make the hare and dormouse in their Alice episode.  They’re just a couple of kids who get referred to as “hare” and “dormouse”.

I noticed this especially in the episode “Lots of Locks” in which Snow White and Rose Red help rescue Rapunzel from being trapped in a tree.  Not even a particularly tall tree.  But I guess that’s as close as they could get to a tower.

The actors do okay, even though I’m pretty sure a lot of them are recruited from the local theater scene (as small as it may be).  Especially the kids.  There are a fair number of kids playing fairy tale characters in this show.

Yet, the show feels like the creators had a rather rock solid vision for it and carried it out.  It’s an old-fashioned kids show that teaches basic morals and lessons and which is played mostly straight without any sort of unnecessary irony.  They also pull more from the expanses of European fairy tales than a lot of productions do.  Granted, they could probably do to draw a little more on their own title story “Snow White and Rose Red”.  But their final episode draws from the Grimm tale “The Golden Key”. 

So, kudos to them.  It may not be any kind of appointment viewing for me, but I wish them lots of luck and I hope their target audience takes to it.  I also wish them bigger budgets for the future.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Four-Color Fairy Tales: Spider-Man Fairy Tales.

Let’s take a look at something just a little bit offbeat.

It’s the early 2000s, Marvel is becoming successful in its attempt to transform from a comic book publisher to an intellectual property licensing firm.  They’ve managed to license characters for successful films like Blade, X-Men and Spider-Man as well as other less popular films.  Bankruptcy is behind them and the Marvel Cinematic Universe is still a little ways ahead.
And somewhere along the way, they started publishing miniseries that combine their popular characters with folklore, children’s literature and fairy tales.  You may recall I did an earlier post on X-Men Fairy Tales.  Well, this one is about the follow-up Spider-Man Fairy Tales.

This a four-issue miniseries written by C.B. Cebulski, a writer who is now the editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics. . .

And who is also apparently in trouble with fans for culturally appropriating a pseudonym that made him sound Japanese (geez, this little miniseries is getting more scandalous by the minute).

Anyway, as I’ve said about anthology minis like this one, they work best as artist showcases.  Luckily, that’s what this one is.  Each issue is drawn by a different artist with a unique visual style.  The first issue, a “Little Red Riding Hood” riff, is drawn by Ricardo Tercio.  The second issue, an Anansi tale, is illustrated by Niko Henrichon.  The third issue is a Japanese-inspired tale of samurai and yokai drawn by Kei Kobayashi (pretty sure he’s actually Japanese).  The last issue is a “Cinderella” tale penciled by Nick Dragotta and inked by Mike Allred.

One thing you may be noting here is how the choice of tales this time around is a little bit more by the books.  Or, it half is.  The Anansi tale and the Japanese tale are more obscure and different while the other two are the most popular, cliché, overdone tales in all of Western culture.  I’m pretty sure the folks at Marvel wanted to play more on familiarity, so they did.

But let’s just jump right in.  I will give the same disclaimer I gave when I did this with X-Men Fairy Tales: I’ve been reading superhero comics for a long time.  There’s a chance I may reference something from the comics that you don’t know without an explanatory link.  If I do, then I’m sorry.

Issue 1: This first issue is our “Little Red Riding Hood” riff of the evening.  It features a young woman named Mary Jane who is engaged to a woodcutter named Peter.  The woodcutters in this specific village are not just those who cut down trees for firewood and lumber, but also the town’s chosen protectors.  Mary Jane is feeling a bit uneasy about her upcoming nuptials as she doesn’t want to be taken care of by Peter  so much as be his equal.  Mary Jane decides to mull it all over as she takes a basket of goodies to Peter’s Aunt May through the dark and dangerous woods.  Of course, she meets a wolf along the way (one that’s supposed to be based on Kraven the Hunter if I recall an early interview about the project correctly).  Though, she does more to outwit it than Little Red usually does.  There are other little Spider-Man Easter eggs.  J. Jonah Jameson is the boss woodcutter.  Betty Brant is one of the townsfolk.  They even say something about the woods being where Mary Jane’s friend Gwen Stacy disappeared.  One nice little bit is that there is no actual Spider-Man in the story.  The “Spider-Man” is actually a legendary protector that’s supposed to live in the woods but who few have seen.  He’s essentially a fairy tale within a fairy tale.  It’s essentially Little Red Riding Hood turned into a modern relationship story based around the love story of Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson.  And while that’s fine, especially for 2007, it kind of hurts a little in 2018.  You see, they used a magical plot device to split up Peter and MJ a few years ago because they thought a married Spider-Man wasn’t relatable enough to kids (it’s okay.  I get it.  It just still bothers me).  So yeah, it’s passable.  It works.  Or more accurately, they make it work.  On a geekier note, I kind of think Man-Wolf would have been a better choice for the Big, Bad Wolf over Kraven, both because he’s an actual wolf-inspired character and because he’s Jameson’s son.

Issue 2: Here we have Spider-Man as an Anansi story.  It starts with Anansi, sporting a familiar red and blue color scheme bored with his life.  So, he climbs into the heavens to seek advice from his father but instead finds his uncle Nebasti (Uncle Ben).  He tells Nebasti that he wants to seek the power of the Great Beasts.  Nebasti warns him of the responsibility that comes with that power.  After some more talk, Nebasti tells Anansi that he must travel to the end of the world and find the spider-orchid.  Then he gives him a calabash and sends him on his way.  Anansi sets out on his journey and along the way he encounters spirits of the wind, water, earth and fire that try to stop him.  The wind he traps in his calabash.  The water he soaks up into his clothes, but then lets go so it can continue to nourish the land.  The earth (which is mostly made up of sand) he sucks up into a reed and traps.  The fire he just talks to.  Now, I want to say these characters are supposed to coincide with Whirlwind, Hydro-Man, Sandman and Firebrand respectively.  However, only Hydro-Man and Sandman are usually associated with Spider-Man.  So, I don’t know.  Anyway, they all agree to travel with him up until the end when he meets Fire.  Then, Anansi decides he’s had enough of companionship and goes on alone.  Anyway, Anansi gets to the valley of the spider-orchid, but ends up being opposed by a living swarm of bees who I’m absolutely sure is supposed to call back to the super-villain Swarm.  Anyway, the four elements come back and help Anansi fight off the bees.  Then, with his path to the orchid no longer blocked, he chooses not to pick it.  You see, Anansi’s discovered that he doesn’t really need the power of the great beasts because he has the power of friendship, responsibility, etc.  So, that’s issue two and honestly, it’s probably the best one of the bunch.  You see, unlike some of the other issues that just try to force Spider-Man into a folk tale framework, this story instead tells an Anansi story and uses our familiarity with the Spider-Man mythos highlighted by visual cues to accent some subtextual elements of Spider-Man.  Most notably that there’s always been something oddly tribal about Spider-Man.  The notion of “Spider-Man as trickster” is kind of obvious, of course.  Everyone knows that Spider-Man is often depicted as an underdog who wins his battles through agility and cunning.  But also consider how many of his enemies have an animal motif (Dr. Octopus, Rhino, Scorpion, Lizard, etc), are themed after forces of nature (Electro, Hydro-Man, Sandman), are positioned as rival tricksters (Mysterio, Green Goblin, Hobgoblin) or even rival spiders (Venom, Doppelganger).  Heck, he even has a villain named Kraven the Hunter who’s supposed to be a “great, white hunter” with a lion motif thrown in for good measure.  Even emphasizing Uncle Ben’s role or even the role of New York City kind of calls back to the roles that family and community play in African folk tales.  This comic isn’t the first to note this.  J. Michael Straczynski wrote a run on Amazing Spider-Man in the early 2000s that essentially turned the subtext into text by suggesting that Spider-Man got his powers not from a radiation accident but from a mysterious spider totem.  But yeah, best one of the bunch.

Issue 3: This one draws on Japanese folklore in its depiction of Spider-Man.  In this case, our Spider-Man is a young boy named Izumi who lives with his aunt and uncle on the border of a forest populated by evil yokai.  At some point in the past, the yokai killed Izumi’s parents and now he burns with a need to get revenge.  His aunt and uncle warn him against it.  However, Izumi goes off into the woods anyway only to find the yokai went after his aunt and uncle after he left.  His uncle is killed in the encounter.  His aunt however is kidnapped and he goes off to rescue her.  The yokai in this are reminiscent of the Spider-Man villains Venom, Vulture, Black Cat and Man-Wolf.  Here, they seem to be taking the form of a Tsuchigumo, Tengu, Bakeneko and Okuri-inu respectively (keep in mind that I’m not an expert in Japanese folklore, so I could be a little off).  There’s also some stuff about Izumi being corrupted by the power of the Venom Tsuchigumo.  This is reminiscent of the famous “Alien Costume” story, which you may be aware of if you’ve seen Spider-Man 3.  This is the second best story in the miniseries.  It plays with some decidedly Asian and Buddhist takes on the themes in Spider-Man like family honor and revenge, playing off how the loss of Peter’s parents effects him.  Playing the alien symbiote thing as a sort of contamination of spirit rather than body is also interesting.  Not as good as the Anansi story, but still good.

Issue 4: Guess what, folks!  It’s “Cinderella” time again!  That’s right!  The most over-played folk tale in all of Western culture is at it again.

Okay, okay.  I’ll try to be fair to this one.

In this case, Peter Parker is the son of Sir Richard Parker, a knight who is slain in battle.  He’s raised in the household of the Goblin Knight, Sir Norman Osborn.  Peter is mostly kept as a slave/servant at the beck and call of Norman and his son Harry.  He isn’t alone in the endeavor, because Mary Jane also slaves away in the Osborn household.  Peter finds out that the king is holding a grand ball to win the hand of Princess Gwendolyn (Gwen Stacy).  So, Peter sets out on a plan to disguise himself as a sort of Spider-Knight, attend the ball, win the hand of the princess and reclaim his birthright.  There isn’t any Fairy Godmother.  Peter does the work himself.  Though, Mary Jane does his work for him while he’s at the ball.  There’s some stuff with a webbed brassard instead of a glass slipper.  There’s also some sword-fighting action between Peter and Norman when Norman learns who the Spider-Knight is.  And if you know your Spider-Man storylines, you can probably expect that Princess Gwendolyn doesn’t come out of that unscathed.  So, it’s basically “The Death of Gwen Stacy” turned into a gender-swapped Cinderella story.  I’m going to be honest, this is my least favorite of these.  Combining the Spider-Man elements with the Cinderella elements doesn’t really feel like it enhances either.  At least it has some interesting artwork.  The combo of Nick Dragotta and Mike Allred is very good and Allred’s distinct style even comes out when he’s just on inks.

So, what’s our takeaway here?  Well, I suppose it’s that these kind of mash-ups are most interesting when one half can bring some sort of interesting theme or subtext out of the other.  That’s why the Anansi and Yokai stories were so interesting while the “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Cinderella” riffs were not.

There’s one more miniseries in this cycle.  It’s Avengers Fairy Tales, which is kind of a different animal in its own way.  But, that’s a post for a future date.