Sunday, February 23, 2020

Fairy Tale Media Fix: Tall Tale.

Hey folks, guess what?  I signed up for Disney+!

How is it?  Well, I haven’t watched that Mandalorian show that everyone’s raving about yet, so I don’t have a lot to say about that in particular.  So, let’s see.  There’s a lot of cartoons from the ‘80s and ‘90s.  There are a lot of movies with teenage Kurt Russell.  Oh, and a lot of dog movies!

Okay, to be honest, once you get past Disney’s hype and their predatory business practices, they’re not particularly impressive to an adult consumer.  Nostalgia laid bare just looks like . . . “stuff”.  This especially seems to be the case with Disney as it concerns the contrast between their Disney Animation Studios animated movies and their Walt Disney Pictures/Walt Disney Studios live action fare.  It’s amazing to see, really.  On the first hand, you have animated movies that are almost routinely treated like instant classics, whether deservedly or undeservedly.  On the second hand, you have a studio that usually pumps out whatever is needed of them at the particular moment.  It might be literary adaptations like Swiss Family Robinson, family comedies like Freaky Friday or sports movies like The Mighty Ducks.  And along the way, yes, lots of dog movies and Kurt Russell.  Lately, it seems to be reimaginings of their animated films, which I find interesting but lots of other people see as the death of creativity (hey, at least people are talking about them).

But occasionally there’s a live action Disney movie that sticks with you.  One that sticks in the back of your mind and you can’t lose it.  I’ve seen it among other people who’ve signed up for the service.  For some, it was a TV movie called Mr. Boogedy.  For others, it was the treasure hunt mystery Candleshoe.  Not for me, though.

For me, it was a movie called Tall Tale.
 Sometimes called Tall Tale: The Unbvelievable Adventures of Pecos Bill or Tall Tale: The Unbelievable Adventure, this movie is a Walt Disney Pictures production released to theaters in 1995.  The movie draws on American folklore and legendary heroes like Calamity Jane, Paul Bunyan, John Henry and the one and only Pecos Bill.

[Knock, Knock, Knock]

FTG: “Who the hell could that be?  I guess I’ll have to switch over to script mode to handle this.”
[Answers the door.  Finds a very prim and proper woman carrying a briefcase and holding out a piece of paper in the other hand]

Lawyer: “Hello, sir.  I’m an attorney representing The Society for the Promotion of Truth and Accuracy in the Dissemination of American Folklore.  I’ve been sent here to extend you a cease and desist order regarding the spread of misinformation vis-à-vis the character of Pecos Bill.”

[FTG takes paper]

FTG: “You’ve got to be kidding me!  This really shouldn’t be a big deal.  The character has, despite a complicated origin, officially entered the pantheon of American folk heroes.  And for the purpose of a simple movie review . . . “

Lawyer: “Cease.  And.  Desist.  Otherwise, we will see you in court.  Good evening, sir.”

[Lawyer exits]

FTG: “Well, back to prose mode.  And now I have to deal with this.”

[Slams door]
 Anyway, where was I?

Oh, yeah!  Pecos Bill!  I guess we have to deal with Pecos Bill as that lawyer said.  And while we’re at it, deal with American folk heroes and the legacy of the American frontier in general.

Okay, so here’s the thing about American folk heroes.  Some of them were real people whose exploits were exaggerated.  Others were fictional characters that arose out of campfire stories and folk tradition.  Still others were just invented whole cloth by writers and treated as if they were folk characters the whole time as an attempt to invent folklore.  It’s something that folklorists and other scholars will refer to as “fakelore”.  And that’s what Pecos Bill is.  Pecos Bill was invented by writer and former soldier-of-fortune Edward S. O’Reilly.  O’Reilly thought the state of Texas needed its own hero like other places had, so he made one up.  And a whole bunch of us bought it.  Before O’Reilly wrote those stories, there probably wasn’t a single cattleman in Texas who had even heard the name Pecos Bill.  Folklore in general is a tricky mistress, though.  I know a whole bunch of fairy tales that were written by women in French salons, yet somehow managed to pop up in different forms in folk tale collections.  You have to wonder if after all these years and all his fame, ol’ Pecos may have actually earned some of his folk rep.
We should probably also talk about how attitudes toward the American frontier and its heroes has changed over time.  There was a time when the exploits of those who settled the American West were regarded as heroes.  Over time though, folks have taken a harder look at our mythologized past.  For one thing, acknowledging that Western towns weren’t necessarily the lawless places the movies claimed they were (some even required you to check your firearms before even entering the town).  But also acknowledging that the USA’s western expansion wasn’t really a good thing for the native people and the environement.  The funny thing is that when this movie was made, that was already starting to change and it’s echoed in the movie itself.

The movie is about a 12-year old boy named Daniel Hackett (Nick Stahl) who lives on a farm in an area called Paradise Valley during the early days of the 20th Century.  Daniel doesn’t care for life on a Paradise Valley farm.  He wants to move elsewhere.  Specifically, an elsewhere with modern wonders like motor cars and electric lights.  This causes him to clash with his father, who’s been known to tell Daniel stories about tall tale heroes as well as instruct him to hold to the “Code of the West” (“Respect the land.  Defend the defenseless.  And don’t ever spit in front of women or children”.  No, that’s seriously the code according to Mr. Hackett).  Daniel’s Father, Elias Hackett, doesn’t like that Daniel doesn’t respect the land or the work he put into it in order to give Daniel a home and life.  This conflict changes into something else when a crooked businessman named J.P. Stiles shows up to try and buy all the land in Paradise Valley for a mining project.  Elias comes into conflict with Stiles and is gravely injured in the process.  It’s then that we travel into mythologized West of the tall tales.
You see, Daniel goes to sleep in a rowboat on a nearby lake and wakes up in the middle of the desert where he is accosted by two crooks who want to rob him.  He’s then rescued by Pecos Bill (Patrick Swayze) who rides in on a tornado and shoots the trigger fingers off the robbers.  Then, after some cajoling, Pecos takes Daniel on a journey across the whole country to recruit Paul Bunyan (Oliver Platt) and John Henry (Roger Aaron Brown) so they can return to Paradise Valley so that Daniel can stand up to Stiles and save his father’s land.

When I say this is a trip into the mythologized Amercan West, I’m being pretty serious.  There’s kind of a dreamlike quality underlying a lot of it.  Like I said before, Pecos arrives via tornado.  Pecos and Daniel manage to travel to locations thousands of miles apart in three days via horseback.  They randomly run into other characters like John Henry and Calamity Jane (a cameo of sorts by Catherine O’Hara) by luck.  It’s much the same way you’d imagine the old West when filtered through a storybook of American legends.
Yet, these folk heroes aren’t quite the same as you might remember them.  Most American folk heroes are exemplars of the work they do.  These include but are not limited to cattleman (Pecos Bill), lumberjack (Paul Bunyan), steel driver (John Henry), sailor (Old Stormalong), train engineer (Casey Jones) and keelboatman (Mike Fink) among others.  Their tales are frequently about how amazing they are at their job and how their feats c hanged either their profession or the landscape around them.  So they’re not really heroes in the modern sense.  Tall Tale seeks to change that.  Instead, our three main legends are depicted as righters of wrongs.  This is exemplified by how they stick to and even drink to The Code of the West (which according to Bunyan is also “The Code of the North” and to Henry is “The Code of the South”).  The last item about spitting aside, they stick to the far more noteworthy parts about respecting the land and defending the defenseless.  This is a frontier hero movie that was aware that it was being released in 1995 and that the kids watching weren’t going to fall for the same loving respect for the Western that their parents did.  It may not be super historically accurate but it acknowledges things that in the past it might not have.  In a discussion about their respective fathers, John Henry mentions that he could never reconcile with his father because he had been sold down river and then very directly clarifies to a confused Daniel that he and his family were slaves.  Pecos Bill is shown to have a greater respect for nature in a couple of scenes, notably one with a flock of butterflies.  Probably the most changed though is Paul Bunyan.  To start with Paul Bunyan isn’t a giant in this version.  Though, that might be more for budget and practical reasons.  What’s important with Paul Bunyan is that he’s become something of a bitter recluse who’s been driven out of the logging industry by changes and innovations to the industry.  Instead, he lives a hermit-like existence in the Redwood Forest, living in a house carved into a fallen tree and dressed in a buckskin outfit with a vaguely Native American motif.  Paul isn’t just upset aboutlosing his job, though.  Instead he laments that the new way of logging cuts down everything both weak and strong, the sapling and full grown tree.  Bunyan even suggests that if they don’t stop nothing will grow there again.  This is different.  A Paul Bunyan who cares not just about logging but about the forest where he logs.  It seems like a far cry from the towering giant who could cut down an entire forest with just a swing of his ax.  But after all, he’s keeping to the Code.  What was that first part?  “Respect the land.”
So, all that aside, what is the final word on this movie?  Is it good?  Well, it’s pretty good but it falls short of being great.  Some of the little bits are great, like the nods to the original tales or how Pecos and company treat Daniel’s stories of then-modern inventions as if he’s telling them his own tall tales.  The main thrust of the story is Daniel and his development as he overcomes his own shortcomings.  He learns to stand his ground against injustice from Pecos Bill.  He learns to try his hardest from even when things look impossible from John Henry.  And he learns to overcome his bitterness and frustration by seeing that same whininess reflected back at him by Paul Bunyan.  And Daniel does eventually stand up to Stiles.  However, the movie does this thing where it fails to commit in the last act.  At first, it seems that his meeting with Pecos and the others is a dream, but then they all show up to help anyway.  And then when the folk heroes leave they just sort of fade away.  So, what was all that?

But still, even if it’s not perfect, I do find it to be a lot of fun.  It’s especially fun if you grew up reading about these folk heroes like I did.  Fun enough to justify a subscription to Disney+?  Well, that’s up to you.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Fantastical Feasts: Hansel & Gretel's German Pancake with Apple Compote.

 [Fairy Tale Geek walks in to kitchen to see Snow White and Goldilocks sitting at the table.  Goldilocks is eating a bowl of porridge]

FTG: “Well, this is something I didn’t expect to see when walking into my own kitchen.  A princess and . . . a girl who apparently learned nothing from her own fairy tale.”

Goldi: “What do you mean?”

FTG: “The oatmeal.  That’s clearly some of the steel cut oats I put in the fridge.  You entered my condo without permission and started eating my food.”

Goldi: “It needs some honey.”

FTG:  “[Sigh] So, why are you two ladies here?”

Snow: “Well, we know you write that blog about fairy tales and movies and stuff.  And Hansel and Gretel just got a new movie.  So, we thought maybe you were working on something related to that.”

FTG: “Nope.  With a few exceptions, horror movies aren’t really my thing.”

Goldi: “Nothing?  Really?  Not even one of those food posts you’ve been doing recently?  Maybe some kind of iconic food from that fairy tale?  I think you owe it to your adoring public to do something.”

FTG: “My adoring public, eh?  You know what, Goldi?  You’re right!  I should make something for Hansel and Gretel.”

Goldi: “Really?”

FTG: “So, I’m going to make . . . PANCAKES!”

Snow: “Pancakes?”

FTG: “Yeah, like in the fairy tale. It’s what the witch serves them when they get to her house.  I have it right here [points to book] Then she served them a good meal: milk and pancakes with sugar, apples, and nuts.

Goldi: “Are you sure that’s what you want to make?”

FTG: “No, you’re right.  I’m going to make a German Pancake because it’s a German fairy tale!”

German Pancake

-          ¼ cup butter
-          1 cup all-purpose butter
-          1 cup milk
-          6 eggs, lightly beaten
-          1.8 teaspoon salt

1)      Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C).  Melt butter in medium baking dish.
2)      In a medium bowl, mix flour, milk, eggs and salt.  Pour mixture into prepared baking dish.
3)      Bake on center rack for 30 to 40 minutes, until golden brown.

FTG: “There you go, a nice custardy German pancake.  Best served with powdered sugar and a little maple syrup.”

Snow: “That’s it?  You’re sure that’s what you want to make for a Hansel and Gretel post?”

FTG: “You’re right!  Not good enough!  The fairy tale said they ate pancakes with apples.  So, let’s make some apple compote to put over the German pancake!  This recipe comes from the Food Network chef Sunny Anderson.”

Apple Compote

-2 apples, peeled, cored and chopped.
- ½ cup orange juice.
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice.
- ¼ cup dark brown sugar.
-dash of nutmeg
- salt

In a saucepan on medium-high heat, add apples, orange juice, lemon juice, brown sugar and nutmeg.  Simmer over medium heat until the apples are tender and the juice has thickened to a thin syrup.  10 to 12 minutes.  Season with a pinch of salt.

FTG: “Now that’s a good breakfast.  German pancake with apple compote.”

Goldi: “Okay, I’m just going to go ahead and ask it: Why aren’t you making a gingerbread house for this post?”

FTG: “Gingerbread house?  OH!  Well, I didn’t think of it for one.  But I wouldn’t have made one anyway.”

Snow: “Why?  It’s one of the most iconic parts of that fairy tale!”

FTG: “Well, I really just don’t like them that much.  They’re more of a decoration or arts and crafts project than a food.  There are much better uses for gingerbread.  Like, just eating it.”

Goldi: “Hmm.  Well, I doubt anyone will see this dish as an iconic part of any fairy tale.”

[A knock is heard on the sliding glass door.  FTG opens the blinds to see Hansel and Gretel standing right up to the glass]

H&G: [in unison] “We smelled German pancake!  Can we come in and have some?”

FTG: “Maybe not.  But it seems to be okay for them.”

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Fantasy Literature Rewind: The Story of Doctor Dolittle.

Hey, folks!  Another movie is out based on an old children’s story.  So, time for another Fantasy Literature Rewind.  This time it’s The Story of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting. 

What’s that?  I’m late to this one?  Well, considering how I don’t think anyone’s really going to see the new Dolittle movie, I’m not sure it really matters.

Anyway, The Story of Doctor Dolittle came out in the year 1920.  Lofting was born in England in 1886 and moved to the United States when he was twenty-six.  The genesis of Doctor Dolittle likely began during his military service with the British army in World War I.  Lofting was supposedly very troubled by the effect of war on animals.  Of particular note was the euthanizing of injured regimental horses.  In a letter, he complained that the horses that encountered the same danger as the human soldiers should receive the same level of care when wounded.  He noted in the letter: “But obviously to develop horse surgery as good as that of our Casualty Clearing Station would necessitate a knowledge of horse language”.
And so, the Doctor Dolittle stories started as a series of story letters to Lofting’s wife and children during wartime.  They would eventually bloom into a fourteen volume children’s book series.  The second book, The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle would even win the 1923 Newberry Award.  The books would of course be adapted into various movies of vastly different types and even a cartoon series in 1970.

The story of the first book concerns both how Dr. John Dolittle learned to talk to animals and a trip to Africa to help sick monkeys.  The book starts out with Dolittle as a human doctor with a soft spot for animals, to the point that he even seems to prefer their company to that of human beings.  He soon finds out that he can learn animal languages from his parrot Polynesia, who knows both animal languages and English.  Then, over time, he develops into an animal doctor who can provide better care for animals than the average veterinarian because he can actually communicate with his patients (for example, rather than trying to doctor a horse with large pills, he makes it a pair of glasses because the horse told him it was losing its eyesight).  His home and practice change accordingly.  He takes on more and more pets and remodels his home to suit the needs of them and his patients.  His sister, who had been watching over him, get fed up with it all and leaves to get married.

The other part follows Dolittle’s journey to Africa to help the monkeys on that continent (not a specific troop of monkeys apparently.  Just all or most of them.  Some of the ones referenced are even actually apes).  By basically begging and borrowing, Dolittle and a number of his animals secure a ship and take to the sea.  They get to Africa where they run afoul of the king of the fictional country of Jolliginki, who’s not too fond of white outsiders after one showed up and took all the gold and ivory in the country years ago (honestly, this bit feels surprisingly honest about European forces and their colonialist tendency toward resource extraction.  It’s not really focused on, though).  He helps the monkeys.  He receives the rare pushmi-pulyu (sort of a two-headed antelope) as a gift.  He gets put in jail by the king and escapes.  And then he encounters pirates and helps a young boy find his lost uncle on the way home.
That’s pretty much the book in a nutshell.  I like elements of it.  There are some fun fantasy elements.  I like that the doctor is neither some sort of action hero or broad, comedic clown.  At heart, he’s just a kindly country doctor who likes animals a little bit more than he does people.  He’s not even the smartest guy in the room.  He’s particularly inept when it comes to managing money.  His various animals prove smarter than him about a number of subjects, which shows that it’s a good thing he can talk to them.  Doctor Dolittle’s two greatest traits are kindness and communication.

All that said, we should probably talk about what makes these books controversial today.  It’s the attitudes and undertones regarding race they still carry with them.

In the case of this specific book, it’s a sequence involving a character named Prince Bumpo.  Bumpo is the son of the king of Jolliginki.  As such, he is a young black African man.  He’s also presented as kind of a romantic dreamer who’s a bit hung up on fairy tales (not an unusual thing in my circles, at least).  Here’s the problem with Bumpo in this book: He asks Doctor Dolittle to turn him white [insert record scratch here].  The story he tells is that he went off as princes sometimes do and found the famous Sleeping Beauty.  He then woke her with a kiss, but when the Sleeping Beauty saw that the prince was black she rejected him and made for parts unknown.  So, Prince Bumpo wishes to be a white prince like the other Prince Charmings.  The good doctor helps by giving him some kind of liquid that bleaches his face and eyes at least temporarily in exchange for Prince Bumpo helping him and his animals escape from his father’s prison.

It’s a very awkward section of the book.  Maybe Lofting was just trying to write a section based around the idea of foolishly wanting to be something you’re not and just stumbled onto such an explosive idea.  But I can’t say for sure.  It certainly would be easy to stumble on it back in the 20s.  Much of the Western world still subscribed to some degree of Social Darwinist nonsense.  Even major universities used to publish “scientific” papers based around the idea that the Caucasian race was superior to all the others.  It was a dark time.  And near as I can tell, this attitude apparently persists in the rest of the series.

So, with the books having underlying attitudes that don’t really fly in modern times, people discovered a solution to all that.  They started bowdlerizing them.

Now, I’m pretty sure we know what bowdlerizing means.  It’s the removing and changing things in a written story that are seen as offensive or inappropriate.  “Bowdlerizing” or more formally “expurgating” a work is often seen as a taboo move among writers and readers.

In the case of Prince Bumpo, in later versions of this book, instead of wanting to be white he wants to become a lion.  And instead of putting his face in a liquid that bleaches his skin, he drinks a potion that makes him grow a big mane of hair.

Was this a good move?  Was it a bad move?  I don’t know.  It’s not necessarily what the original author intended.  For adult readers the original text shouldn’t be a huge deal because we understand the attitudes of the time period it was written in.  However, let’s not forget that this is a book originally meant for children.  Children today aren’t going to understand the way things have changed over the decades.

But when dealing with older stories that were formed during times with older attitudes, it’s a question that has to be contended with.  How do you deal with stuff like that?

I know the answer many people will give me is that you just leave the old books alone and read newer books.  But I think if humanity was so capable of leaving old stories behind and embracing newer ones, we would have done it a lot more effectively by now.  Also, those new stories might develop similar problems as time moves forward.
One of the newer versions of the book.
This problem doesn’t just affect Doctor Dolittle, either.  Something I touched on in another post is that the Mary Poppins books had an unfortunate amount of casual racism in them too.  And back in the ‘80s P.L. Travers even went to the extent of bowdlerizing one chapter.  From what I’ve read, she seemed to do it quite indignantly too.  It’s even occurred to me that maybe the reason Travers’s estate allowed for another movie to be made (something Travers distinctly didn’t want to happen) was because they realized that the only way to keep the character vital and in circulation was to license the character out and let people write new stories with her rather than relying on the increasingly racist books.  The same might be said of Doctor Dolittle, but his recent movie outing doesn’t seem to be panning out as well.

Whether changing the text is a viable option for dealing with older stories is something that probably has no easy answer.  However, right now, both versions of the story exist.  The newer version can probably be found in the children’s section of a local library or on Amazon.  As for the original version, that one entered the public domain not too long ago and can be found on Project Gutenberg or downloaded for $0 on Kindle.