Sunday, September 20, 2020

Fairy Tale Media Fix: Mulan (2020)


Well, they tried.  Sort of.

It’s been a while since I posted anything on here.  Especially considering all that’s happening in the world.  But I had been waiting for this specific movie and it had finally come albeit not in the form many of us had expected.


To make it clear, the original Disney’s Mulan has never really been my favorite Disney animated movie.  I like it, certainly.  It was never at the top of the list, though.  However, a few years ago I had developed a persistent curiosity toward the legend itself.  Then, when the Disney live action reimagining was announced, it caught my attention.  Mulan is one of a handful of properties that feels like a bit of a stretch for Disney.  Something outside their usual comfort zone and the storytelling traditions they’re used to.  So, how they handle it should be interesting to see.

The end result was  . . . eh.

The story this time around is that Mulan is a girl born with extremely strong chi.  This allows her to do some amazing things even at a young age.  Her parents worry over it, though, as it’s believed that girls shouldn’t have strong chi because that’s considered being a witch (at least in the world of the movie, but I’ll get to that later).

Time passes, Mulan grows up, and Mulan is made to go to the matchmaker with disastrous results.  Then the call goes out for young men to go to war.  The enemy is Bori Khan’s Rouran army and his shapeshifting magical ally Xianniang.  Mulan’s father is called to serve, but Mulan who is worried about his welfare steals his armor and sword and goes in his place.  She then becomes a soldier under the guise of Hua Jun where she meets her commanding officer Commander Tung as well as her fellow soldiers Ling, Chien-Po and Yao (her three soldier comrades from the 1998 Disney movie), Cri-Kee (the cricket sidekick made over into an unlucky human character) and Chen Honghui (a savvy young soldier who is suggested to have figured out Mulan’s secret, as well as her love interest in the absolute vaguest sense of the world).

That’s the set-up and it plays out reasonably well.  The movie was pitched to audiences as an action movie and some of the action scenes and set pieces are rather fun to watch.  The cast is really talented and they give this movie their all.  One thing that does strike me is that it sometimes feels like an oddly lonely movie compared to the animated version that preceded it.  Throughout the animated version, Mulan had Mushu and to a lesser extent Cri-Kee to talk to as confidants.  Mulan here has no one.  She keeps her secret from everyone else.  The closest she comes to talking with anyone is with Chen Honghui who she repeatedly pushes away.  You’d think that if they were at least going to keep the cricket around as a human that he might at least get to play the role of confidant/sidekick but no.  Heck, past versions from China just made it work by giving her a friend from back home that recognizes her and agrees to keep her secret or by just not emphasizing the conflict of her charade in favor of emphasizing her conflict with the enemy army.  The only explanation I can come up with here is that Disney was playing it up to later play into this whole thing about “her dishonesty clouding her chi”.

Mulan’s relative isolation isn’t the biggest problem here.  It’s the cultural stuff.


So, I’d like to make clear my feelings about the cultural aspects of the 1998 animated Mulan first.  The 1998 Mulan approaches the Chinese cultural stuff in Mulan like an American (specifically white American) elementary schooler would.  It’s all stuff about the Great Wall and why it was built, Chinese dragons, ancestor worship and lucky crickets.  There’s even the expected misstep of doing a joke about Chinese-American takeout food.  It’s not terrible taken that way and in a bubble.  However, as a film that was supposed to show internationally, it’s a weak sauce attempt.  Especially with things like making the dragon a silly, fire-breathing sidekick when Chinese dragons are almost uniformly wise, powerful water elementals and symbols of the emperor.  I’m honestly just glad they weren’t working from an American high school level for Chinese cultural references, or else we might have ended up with a joke about foot-binding (shudder!).  Now, in the live action version they’ve improved somewhat.  They’ve embraced more from the actual ballad.  They make Mulan more capable before enlisting like many versions of the legend do.  They also reference part of the ballad about two rabbits running side by side, albeit out of any useful context.  They also give Mulan the more common surname of Hua used in most versions of the story.  They even move on from the “easy mode” Chinese history stuff by foregoing the Huns and the Great Wall in favor of the enemy being the Rouran Khaganate.  But it kind of stops there and more problems show themselves.  For example, within the first half hour they confuse the legend of the Chinese Phoenix or Fenghuang with the Greek Phoenix.  There’s also just the way they handle the concept of chi.  The movie is pretty much insistent that women who have exceptionally strong chi are shunned and discriminated again because they’re seen as witches.  This is embodied in the character of Xianniang, who’s depicted as an exceptionally strong chi witch/warrior and meant as kind of cautionary figure for Mulan.  The thing is, chi and witchcraft traditions in China don’t really work that way.  Chi is supposed to be the life force that flows through everything.  Everyone has chi and no one is discriminated against for having “more chi” than anyone else.  Just the whole bit about stronger chi giving someone powers feels like they either confused it with The Force or took their interpretation from a Japanese or American cartoon from the ‘90s (it’s either Star Wars, Dragon Ball or the Double Dragon cartoon.  Take your pick).  And then there’s Xianniang as a “witch”.  The ins and outs of the cultural view of the supernatural and magic in Chinese tradition can be tricky for outsiders to completely get.  I’m not fully getting it myself.  But from what I’m seeing, there isn’t really a Chinese tradition of “witchcraft” exactly.  Especially as depicted in the movie.  There’s Gu or Jincan which is depicted as being like spell-casting, but is actually more about administering poison.  There is wu jiao which is a sort of Chinese shamanism.  More religious practice than witchcraft.  It’s far more likely that Xianniang would have been mistaken for or classified as a Huli jing, China’s version of the mythical fox spirit that exists in folklore throughout Asia.

At first I thought that maybe it was just a case of an American studio not being able to get out of its own way.  But now I’m wondering if we were all a bit confused as to what the movie was supposed to be.  We had heard since early on that Mushu and the various songs were being removed to appeal more to audiences in China.  We assumed that this meant that the movie was going to be more serious and more culturally accurate.  However, it may be more because of how hard it would be to translate verbal humor and songs that convey the plot into Mandarin.  The question then becomes: what was this movie trying to be?  The best I can assume is that it was just Disney trying to make wuxia film.  On that front it’s fine, I guess.  But compared to actual Chinese wuxia movies, there’s really not much to it.  So, their desire for big box office numbers in China through this probably isn’t going to work.

Oh, well.

It’s not like there’s a shortage of Mulan movies out there.  We just need to indulge the world of online piracy to find some of them.


Yeah, I know I shouldn’t be condoning this sort of thing, but it’s a basic truth that finding foreign films and TV in the United States can be hard without a little bit of video buccaneering going on (just ask any American who got really into anime in the 1980s).

One option which can be attained legally in the United States is the movie Mulan: Rise of a Warrior from 2009.  It’s available on DVD in multiple regions and can be rented digitally on Amazon Instant Video.  Then there’s one of the earlier examples of Mulan on film, 1939’s Hua Mulan Joins the Army.  That film is available on the Modern Chinese Cultural Studies YouTube page.  This is a page that curated by the Deapartment of Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia. (Note: this isn’t the earliest version of Mulan in film.  There are silent movies from 1927 and 1928 that I can’t find anywhere).  Next in our timeline is Lady General Hua Mulan from 1964.  This movie is from famed Hong Kong studio Shaw Brothers Studios, best known  for their martial arts action films.  I should probably mention that this is also a Huangmei opera film.  Huangmei opera has a whole history that I can’t get into right now, but just think of the movie as a Chinese musical (in case anyone was still upset about there being no singing in their live action Mulan movie).  This movie is also up on YouTube, albeit in parts.  There’s a playlist that will allow you to watch the whole thing through, though.  And finally, even this year’s Matchless Mulan (sometimes called Peerless Mulan) is also up on YouTube in its entirety with English subtitles.  Now, these movies aren’t necessarily family-friendly, but war movies rarely are.  If you live elsewhere in the world and can access these films in more copyright-law friendly ways, I would encourage you to do that.  But if you can’t, then they are up on YouTube.

Happy watching.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Mountains and Rabbit Holes.

[Anaheim, daytime, outside the gates of Disneyland.  A small but not insignificant group of protestors has gathered]


[The gate opens a little and a hand hastily pushes our resident Fairy Tale Geek out.  Gate closes and locks behind him]

FTG: [to unseen gate person] “Gee, thanks.” [brushes self off] 

                [To Protestors] “Hello, my name is Adam, sometimes known as the Fairy Tale Geek, and I’ve been commissioned by the Walt Disney Company to talk to you about the upcoming changes to your favorite ride.  First, I’d like to thank you all for being here while there are many, many, many, MANY more important protests you could have attended . . . “

Protestor 1: “Cut out the glad-handing!  Say what you need to say!

Protestors 2-26: “YEAH!”

FTG: “Well, it’s not as simple as all that.  Before we get talking, we need to go over some history . . . “
All Protestors: [GROOOAN!]

FTG: “This all starts with a man named Joel Chandler Harris.  Well, actually, it starts with folk tales being told in West Africa for hundreds of years . . . But let’s start with Harris instead.  Harris was a writer living in the American South, specifically Georgia, during the 19th Century.  When he was working at a newspaper located on a plantation, he struck up a friendship with some of the slaves living on the plantation and heard them tell stories about animal characters like Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox.  These stories were regional adaptations of African stories about the African Hare, who was often depicted as a trickster figure.  Because of certain quirks of his upbringing like his lack of a father and chronic shyness, Harris often felt like an outsider and would feel a kinship with the Black slaves even though their situations couldn’t be more different.  After the Civil War, he actually supported regional and racial reconciliation.”

Protestor 2: “So, he was anti-slavery?”

FTG: “Oh, hell no!  While slavery was still going on he was all for it, even though he considered himself a friend to slaves.  You’d be amazed what kind of contradictory things the human mind can reconcile.

Anyway, years later he would transcribe those stories that he heard in the slave cabins and build a framing sequence around them using a Black character named Remus that he developed when working at a different newspaper.  Originally, Remus was a comical figure, but as Uncle Remus he became a sort of homespun sage who passes wisdom on to the child of the plantation’s white owner.  The books were a huge hit and would remain so for years and years even into the early 20th Century and the Midwestern childhood of one Walter Elias Disney.”

Protestor 4: “What does any of this have to do with Splash Mountain?!”

FTG: “Well, I’m getting to the point where I explain the history of Song of the South.”

Protestor 13: “What’s Song of the South?”

FTG: “[SIGH] Well, anyway.  It’s safe to say Walt Disney was a fan of those stories.
So, in 1946 Walt Disney released a live action/animation hybrid film based on Harris’s Uncle Remus books titled Song of the South.  It featured young Bobby Driscoll as Johnny, the little boy from the stories and James Baskett as Uncle Remus.  It also featured various animated segments starring Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox and Brer Bear that were supposed to represent the stories Uncle Remus was telling Johnny.  The script had been written by Dalton Reymond, a White writer.  Disney then hired African-American writer and performer Clarence Muse to consult on the screenplay, but Muse left the project when Reymond refused to listen to any of his suggestions.  The movie itself met with mixed reviews even then.  Critics generally said it was boring, especially the live action parts.  Looked upon more favorably were the short animated segments and the song “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” (which you should know has a racist history all its ownthat I can’t explain right now).  Even then, there were concerns about racial stereotyping and depicting the reconstruction South in an overly positive way.  Heck, there were even protestors like yourselves.  One of the biggest things was that James Baskett wasn’t even allowed to attend the premiere because it was held in a Whites-only theater in Atlanta, Georgia.”
Protestor 13: “Ohhhhh . . . .”

FTG: “Moving on, decades after the movie was made and rereleased in theaters a number of times, we get to the late ‘80s.  And at this point in the ‘80s, imagineer Tony Baxter has a handful of problems.  One, the Bear Country part of the Disneyland park is seeing a lot less traffic.  Two, An attraction called America Sings was closing and a number of animatronics designed by the veteran animator Mark Davis were potentially headed for the scrap heap.  Three, newly minted CEO Michael Eisner had told Baxter to come up with some more thrilling rides that would attract a teen and young adult audience to the parks.  And four, attractions supervisor Dick Nunis kept pushing to include an old-fashioned log flume ride in the Disney Parks.  The answer to all these problems was Splash Mountain, which he thought of while stuck in traffic.  Splash Mountain was a log flume ride with a thrilling drop.  It could be placed in Bear Country which would be renamed Critter Country.  And because Mark Davis was the lead animator on Song of the South, they could recast the various animal characters from America Sings as sort of extras in the world of Brer Rabbit and company without the designs looking too out-of-place.  There were a couple of hiccups.  The ride was going to be called the “Zip-a-Dee River Run” but Michael Eisner asked them to change the name to “Splash Mountain” because he wanted to use the ride to promote the new Touchstone Pictures movie Splash.  He also wanted them to add a mermaid character too for that purpose, which Imagineering pushed back against.  But the attraction was very popular and two more opened at Walt Disney World and Disneyland Japan. 

Now, we look back at all this history and we see all these names.  Joel Chandler Harris, Walt Disney, Dalton Reymond, Tony Baxter, Mark Davis, Dick Nunis and Michael Eisner.  Who does it seem like was mostly left out in the evolution of this ride that depicts characters from African-American folk tales?”

Protestor 18: “Um . . . “

Protestor6: “Uh . . . “

FTG: “ . . . Black people.  All the names I just listed were of White guys.”

Protestor 2: “What about that Basket guy?”

FTG: “James Baskett?  Who wasn’t even allowed to view his own movie at the premiere?  There’s also Clarence Muse whose input was ignored.  I didn’t even mention the slaves that Harris got the stories from like Uncle George Terrell, Old Harbert and Aunt Crissy.  People don’t even credit them as the storytellers, always crediting ‘Uncle Remus’ who was created by Harris.

Look, I’m trying to point out that the retheming of Splash Mountain to The Princess and the Frog has the potential to be a good thing in a number of ways.  The Princess and the Frog is a good movie with memorable music.  The retheme will allow them to give the ride a facelift after thirty years, including replacing the America Sings animatronics which are old, actually dating back to 1976.  And, most important of all, by getting rid of one of the last parts of Song of the South’s legacy, we can try to put a cap on that specific era of pop culture.  Now, Black writers and artists can have a little more elbow room to reclaim their own folk stories and reinterpret them in a way that’s meaningful to them in the modern era.  Heck, while maybe it’s not ideal, a big company like Disney could even help bring those visions to a wider audience.

Actually, they kind of already are . . . “

Protestor 5: “What?”

FTG: “Oh, well, it's not a movie thing or a theme park thing.  There’s a book titled Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky that’s by an African-American writer, Kwame Mbalia.  It’s from the Rick Riordan Presents line.  You know, Rick Riordan from the Percy Jackson series . . . “


FTG: “Okay . . . .

Well, anyway, it’s about a young Black boy from Chicago who ends up going into the world of African and African-American tales.  Among them are Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox.  Guess who published the book.”

Protestor 9: “Uh . . . Disney?”

FTG: “BINGO!  Disney-Hyperion Press!”
Protestor 1: “AGGH!  You guys are forgetting why we’re here!  We still have concerns about the ride!  Like, the placement of it.  Sure, at Disneyland they can extend New Orleans Square, but won’t it be weird in Disney World to have a Princess and the Frog ride in Frontierland?!”

FTG: “No weirder than it already is.  The Brer Rabbit stories were African stories that were transplanted to Georgia.  None of them have anything to do with the American frontier.”

Protestor 1: “But it’s just that . . . it’s my favorite ride and . . . it’s going to change . . . “

FTG: “Yeah, it is.  And change can be tough to deal with.  I know that.  But it’s got to happen.  It’s what Walt Disney would have wanted too.  It may sound strange coming from a guy who built an entertainment empire on nostalgia, but he always said that Disneyland would never be finished.  That as long as there was imagination, that it would always be growing and changing.  And this is a change that can be made to close a chapter on a troubled past and hopefully create a better future.  After all I said, you know it’s a good idea.”

Protestor 1: [dejectedly] “Yeah, I guess.”

FTG: “So, since we’re all still here, this seems like a good opportunity!  Why don’t we all just have a frank discussion right here about the effects of cultural appropriation in adapting folk stories for family entertainment?”

[Protestors drop their signs and start walking away]

“Hey!  Where are you all going?”

[A man in a suit walks out of the gate and comes up to the Fairy Tale Geek]

FTG: “Okay, so I did what you hired me for. “

Man-in-Suit: “Very good.  The Walt Disney Company thanks you. “

FTG: “And my compensation?”

Man-in-Suit: “Right!  Right!  Keep an eye on your mailbox.  We’ll send you a check and maybe a Disneyland t-shirt or something!”

FTG: “We talked about this.  I told you I want tickets to the press screening of Mulan.”

Man-in-Suit: “Yeah . . . we’ll see.”

[Man-in-Suit walks back in the gate and locks it behind him.]

FTG: “Hmm!  ‘We’ll see’ probably means ‘not a snowball’s chance in Orlando’.  Oh, well.

[FTG walks away humming “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah”, silently cursing to himself that the song is so catchy]

Monday, May 25, 2020

Fairy Tale Media Fix: Hanna-Barbera's Jack and the Beanstalk.

In the history of TV animation, there are few bigger names than Hanna-Barbera.  A company founded by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, who created Tom & Jerry for MGM, they created a number of tricks and methods that made producing animation for TV a viable option.  They then went on to create a number of popular characters and series like Yogi Bear, Huckleberry Hound, The Flintstones, The Jetsons, Jonny Quest, Space Ghost, Scooby-Doo and many more.

Why do I bring this up?  Because almost every major animation studio will take a crack at a popular fairy tale at some point.  Hanna-Barbera did it (for probably not the only time) for a 1967 telefilm production of Jack and the Beanstalk.
The film is a hybrid of animation and live action.  It stars Bobby Riha as Jack, Ted Cassidy (aka Lurch from The Addams Family) as the voice of the animated giant, Janet Waldo as the voice of Princess Serena (aka the Harp) and the one and only Gene Kelly as the peddler Jeremy Keen.  I should also note that Gene Kelly also produced and directed the movie.

The movie starts with Jack coming down the road with his cow and meeting Jeremy the peddler.  There’s a song and dance number (these happen quite often in this movie) and Jack walks away having traded the cow for some magic beans.  Jack goes back home and then we see him telling his mother about how he messed up.  Jack’s mother doesn’t actually say anything herself and we don’t even see her face (there’s a reason for this and I’ll get back to it later).  Jack then disposes of the bean and goes to bed only to find it grown into a giant beanstalk.  He goes out to find who else but Jeremy and Jack’s ex-cow.  Jeremy had come by to check on Jack after their trade.  Instead, he found a giant beanstalk which both he and Jack would both climb. 

That’s right.  Jack isn’t alone on his adventure.  Because when you sign Gene Kelly to your movie, you don’t relegate him to a bit part.
Anyway, they go up the beanstalk where they encounter a giant, a golden harp that’s actually a cursed princess, a couple of woggle-birds, a colony of scared mice and engage in many, many song and dance numbers (because Gene Kelly) and also engage in some strange but amusing wordplay (it’s hard to describe, you’ll just have to hear it for yourself).

This isn’t the first time Gene Kelly worked with Hanna and Barbera or their characters.  As you may recall, he danced with Jerry the Mouse in 1945’s Anchors Aweigh.  He acquits himself about as well here.  Though, between his producing, directing and the expanded role of his character, his role here might seem a bit outsized.

In  fact, one could argue that the movie is more like “Jeremy and the Beanstalk” with Jack as Jeremy’s sidekick.  The reason being that Jeremy is given a love story in the movie with Princess Serena aka the Singing Harp.  The payoff is something else though, but describing it involves MAJOR SPOILERS.  So, be warned.  You see, Serena is under a spell by an ogre that bonds her to the rest of the harp.  The spell can be lifted with a kiss (because animated fairy tale).  This kiss being quite naturally accompanied by a song and dance number (again because Gene Kelly).  Jeremy had fallen  for her at first sight, and apparently her for him.  But getting to her proves difficult.  Eventually it does happen, with the kiss and the song and dance and all that.  They escape the giant and Princess Serena wants Jeremy to stay with her.  And he sends her away because (and I’m paraphrasing) they’re from two different worlds.  She’s a princess and he’s just a peddler.  Now, they get back home and dispose of the beanstalk and Jack’s mother comes out to meet them.  Okay, so remember how I said we didn’t see Jack’s mother’s face or hear her speak, to the extent that Jack basically scolded himself?  Well, she shows up and SHE LOOKS JUST LIKE A LIVE ACTION VERSION OF PRINCESS SERENA.  Maybe a little bit older, but still clearly the model for the animated character.  And Jack’s mother isn’t a worn down middle-aged peasant woman.  In this case she’s a middle-aged but still quite lovely woman played by 1957 Miss America beauty contest winner Marian McKnight.  So, that’s the “happily ever after” here: the peddler marrying Jack’s mother.  I know  I usually come across as a bit of a traditionalist about “Jack and the Beanstalk”, but as someone who’s not exactly a spring chicken myself anymore, I have to applaud a fairy tale production where the older people get the happy ending (sidenote: has anyone ever compiled a collection of folk and fairy tales specifically aimed at the over 35 crowd?).  It is a bit strange from a technical standpoint though.  Because even though Princess Serena may have been modeled to look like McKnight, she wasn’t voiced by her.  Princess Serena’s speaking voice was provided by Janet Waldo and her singing voice by Marni Nixon.  I’m not sure why.  Was it the standard for physical acting and voice acting to be two separate things back then?  And why did they avoid letting Jack’s mother speak earlier?
Anyway, it’s not too bad.  Certainly not my least favorite “Jack and the Beanstalk” adaptation.  Though, I’m not sure which would be my most favorite.  It did win some accolades in its day.  It won the '67 Emmy for "Outstanding Children's Program".  Is this one the definitive cinematic adaptation of "Jack and the Beanstalk"?  No, but “Jack and the Beanstalk” doesn’t really have one, and I’m actually kind of glad it doesn’t.  It means that no Hollywood version can dictate expectations for this specific story and how it’s adapted.  Literary versions might still dictate them, but a movie won’t.

I feel like of the popular fairy tales, “Jack and the Beanstalk” can inspire a bit of confusion and debate.  The fact that it’s basically about a young trickster thief who gains his happy ending by robbing another character has caused people to question its appropriateness, its message and where it could have possibly come from.  It’s led to lots of “Jack was really the bad guy the whole time” hot takes and theories that the whole thing is really a metaphor for colonialism (these people would probably have had a field day with Disney’s Gigantic if it had ever been made).  And going back to the earliest printed version only seems to make things more confusing.  Personally, maybe it’s just me, but I think it’s mostly just a power fantasy for pre-Industrial English peasants.  Let’s just say that the giant in this case is a metaphor for the rich and powerful.  The royalty, gentry, landowners, etc.  Wouldn’t your average story listener in ages gone by appreciate the story of little Jack getting the best of the giant, no matter the method?  I know it’s not a very attractive answer for many people.  The idea that this story is basically the equivalent of a dumb superhero comic or summer action movie and that the subtext is as simple as “giant=rich and powerful”, but it is a possibility.  But then, like I’ve said twice, maybe it’s best we don’t have any grand insight into this story.  Let everyone’s interpretation stand on its own.  Let human beings create their own meaning and fill in the gaps. Then we can see how the next adaptation surprises us.  Until then, if you want to watch this version, it's on the Boomerang streaming service and available on DVD from Warner Archive.

Until next time.