Saturday, April 11, 2020

Fairy Tale Media Fix: The Adventures of Brer Rabbit.

So . . . it’s almost Easter.  Things are still quarantined from the Coronavirus.  Not a lot of places to go to get holiday-appropriate material to blog about.  Even my resources are limited, but I’ll see what I can find.

A quick search of Amazon Instant Video later . . .
Well, it’s folk story relevant and it has a rabbit in it.  That’s good enough for an Easter post, right?

Now, I’ve talked about Brer Rabbit before and his troublesome connection to misrepresenting the racial situation in the Reconstruction era South and cultural appropriation.  I may have even mentioned the Disney movie Song of the South and the Walt Disney World ride Splash Mountain, which both complicate the whole thing.  So, maybe we should move on to the film itself.

The film is based on a book titled The Tales of Uncle Remus: The Adventures of Brer Rabbit written by Julius Lester with illustrations by Jerry Pinkney published in 1987.  The book won both the Coretta Scott King Book Illustration Award for 1988 and was the 1988 Horn Book Fanfare Book.   
 There was a play called The Adventures of Brer Rabbit that was also based on the book that opened in 1977 and played at the California Theater Center in Sunnyvale, California for twenty years.  The animated film adaptation was released straight-to-DVD in 2006.  It features the voices of Nick Cannon as Brer Rabbit, Danny Glover as Brer Turtle, D.L. Hughley as Brer Fox, Wayne Brady as Brer Wolf and Wanda Sykes as Sister Moon among others. It was nominated for the Best Home Entertainment Production Annie Award.

Unlike the Joel Chandler Harris version (or Disney’s), Uncle Remus and the infamous plantation he lived on are nowhere to be seen.  Instead, we’re introduced to Janey.  Janey is a young African American girl who is feeling pushed around by her family, particularly her older brother.  Sent outside to play by her mother, Janey runs into Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox.  An altercation between the two results in Brer Fox being tricked into being stuck at the bottom of a well.  After this, Janey meets Brer Turtle who introduces her to the world of the animals and tells her various stories about Brer Rabbit.  The story choices in this movie include a number of familiar ones and some not so familiar ones.  Brer Fox getting caught down the well, I already mentioned.  But they also have the one where he tricks Brer Bear into taking his place in a trap.  They have the one about Brer Rabbit’s Laughing Place.  They even have the one about the Tar Baby, which I did not expect to see.  I believe there’s an issue with the phrase “tar baby” being used as a racial slur.  Though, the one that probably surprised me the most is a story about how all the animals used to live in the sky with Sister Moon and how Brer Rabbit convinced them all to move to Earth.  That story puts the Brer Rabbit stories on a much more cosmic, mythological scale.  Or, at least on the scale of a por quois story.

From a technical standpoint, this straight-to-video animated movie looks like a straight-to-video animated movie.  It doesn’t have the polish of a theatrical film and story-wise it’s pretty much just a string of short stories put together with a loose framing sequence.  The music isn’t super memorable except for one really fun gospel number towards the middle.  The acting maybe isn’t the best, though there are some talented people in the cast.  However, from a cultural standpoint, this adaptation feels better than a lot of the past versions of the Brer Rabbit stories I’ve encountered.  As I said before, there’s no plantation and no Uncle Remus playing the role of “magical negro”.  There is kind of a “magical turtle” I guess.  Brer Turtle isn't necessarily trying to solve anyone's problems though, he's just telling the stories.  And the child listening to the stories is actually part of the culture the stories come from this time.

This time, compared to Song of the South or Joel Chandler Harris’s books, this movie feels less like it’s full of stories that white people like myself . . . y’know . . . stole.

I mean, I’m sure it’s not perfect on that front.  The movie was made by Universal Animation, and almost any film made by a major studio is going to have some rich, white voices influencing.  But still, it seems better.

One thing I’m going to have to say is that some fans of the material and folklorists may still take issue with this adaptation.  The thing is that some folks really love how violent and brutal these stories can be (I believe one Brer Rabbit story involved Brer Rabbit boiling Brer Fox alive).  There’s frequently talk about their visceral quality and how the brutality reflected the lives of the African American slaves that first started circulating these tales.  Well, I regret to inform you that the stories in this movie are not that dark and brutal.  The thing is that there’s a difference between how you can tell stories when they’re written in a book or being told by the hearth and when you render them into visuals for a movie.  Some things can be left to the imagination and some things can’t.  This is especially the case if you want children to watch the movie.  And if you want tales like these to have a lot of cultural penetration, children are probably going to be a key demographic.  As was shown with Song of the South, the answer is usually to turn the violence into cartoonish slapstick.  That’s essentially what happened here.  Brutal folkloric violence becomes roughly the stuff of Looney Tunes cartoons (or, since this is a Universal production, a Woody Woodpecker cartoon).  I’m afraid them’s the breaks, though.  If it had been more realistic, they would have lost out on their target audience and I’m not sure that most adults would have wanted to watch an R or hard PG-13 movie about Brer Rabbit.  Though, even with the cartoonier violence, parents might still not be crazy about the fact that the ultimate takeaway in this story is Janey learning how to trick people.

This is a flawed movie.  Certainly not a masterpiece.  However, I think it was a noble attempt at something that people have been struggling with the adaptation of for a long time.  And sometimes it’s better to see the strengths of a flawed film than to look for something perfect.  If you have the off chance, give it a look and judge it for its flaws and strengths yourself.  

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Fairy Tale Media Fix: The Librarians and the Fables of Doom.

Okay, so this COVID-19 quarantine/self-isolation thing seems like it just keeps going.  I think we could use a little distraction.  Luckily, I’ve been keeping a fairy tale related show in my back pocket just in case we needed something a bit lighter as a distraction.

So, let’s take a little trip back in time to 2015.  For a while, the cable network TNT had been airing TV movies under the heading of The Librarian.  The series starred actor Noah Wyle as Flynn Carson, a rather overeducated man who is inducted into the role of “The Librarian” at the Metropolitan Library.  It turns out though that his real job is to be an adventurer who’s supposed to secure certain supernatural artifacts so they can be stored safely in a secret part of the library.  (So, not so much a librarian as a pulp adventure hero.  But hey, Indiana Jones isn’t much of an archaeologist either).  After a while, TNT decided to stop doing TV movies and just launched a Librarians TV show in late 2014.  This time, the show focused on a trio of rookie Librarians under the guiding hand of the “Guardian” Col. Eve Baird played by Rebecca Romijn.  The trio consists of: Jacob Stone (Christian Kane), a polyglot and all-around expert on art, architecture and world cultures.  Or rather, six experts because he would publish papers under six different pseudonyms in order to hide his genius from his peers and family in rural Oklahoma.  Cassandra Killian (Lindy Booth) a science and mathematics genius who can solve problems by using the synesthetic hallucinations inflicted on her by a small brain tumor.  And Ezekiel Jones (John Kim), a cocky master thief who’s the team's expert at electronics and security systems.  They’re also helped by John Larroquette as Jenkins, the caretaker of the Library Annex they work out of.  Jenkins is a rather venerable if occasionally cranky fellow with extensive knowledge of the past.  He’s also pretty much stated to be Sir Galahad from Camelot granted immortality by the end of season one.
 This brings us to the Season One episode from 2015 The Librarians and the Fables of Doom.
Our four heroes arrive in the small town of Bremen, Washington to investigate an incident in which a truck went off a bridge.  Some investigation leads to the conclusion that it’s a troll.  However, the fact that the events resemble the story of “The Three Billy Goats Gruff” and some other incidents (including an “Emperor’s New Clothes” situation with the town mayor) leads them to the rather unusual conclusion that someone is weaponizing fairy tales.  Throughout the episode, there are references to fairy tales.  A girl gets cut out of an unusually large wolf at one point.  There’s a wall of thorns at another point.  A lot of them are references to local incidents in the town like food poisoning at an apple orchard or a local woman getting stuck in her pizza oven.  Ultimately, the problem stems from a magical storybook that feeds on the life force of who it’s being read to, the Libris Fabulum.

So, what’s the big deal, right?  This is pretty standard stuff for the “fairy tale episode” of an urban fantasy show.  In fact, this episode has some superficial similarities to an episode of Supernatural that uses a similar gimmick.  But here’s what makes this episode more fun and memorable than the fairy tale episodes of shows like Supernatural or Charmed.  As our quartet of heroes go through the episode, they also get drawn into the story that’s taking place and start to embody different fairy tale hero archetypes.  Or rather, they start to embody our modern, pop culture fueled interpretations of fairy tale heroes.  Eve Baird becomes the archetypal fairy tale princess.  Jacob Stone becomes the rugged Woodsman (or possibly Huntsman.  Those two often get conflated).  Cassandra Killian becomes Prince Charming.  And Ezekiel Jones (who was pretty much this character already) becomes the lucky rogue Jack.  It happens gradually through most of the episode too, with little changes happening from scene to scene.  A slight change in wardrobe here or an altered behavior there.  Now, like I said, the performances are based on common modern interpretations of these archetypes.  So, I get if there’s some trepidation.  But the original archetypes are kind of bare bones anyway, and the modern interpretations are usually ripe for parody.  So, we have Baird’s hair growing longer into flowing locks throughout the episode, as well as instances of her losing her shoe, humming/singing for no reason and an admittedly kind of awkward attempt at doing a princess’s “tinkling laughter”.  Stone, meanwhile, shows skill at throwing an ax, cutting a girl out of the belly of an oversized wolf and can apparently smell storms coming.  Probably my favorite is Cassandra as the Prince.  They lampoon the idea of Prince Charming as the romantic ideal by having pretty much every woman in the town infatuated with her.  It becomes even more interesting as Cassandra becomes more dynamic and commanding as the episode wears on.  Lindy Booth even seems to affect a deeper speaking voice when she’s being the Prince.  The only character that doesn’t seem to change much is Ezekiel as Jack, but that’s by design.  Ezekiel already embodied the lucky rogue, so he just got luckier.  The solution to the episode pretty much hinges on Ezekiel as Jack.  Basically, the unique fact that Jack usually comes through most of his adventures relatively unscathed compared to the princes and princesses who may end up blinded by thorns or stuck in a one hundred year coma.  Though this show is five years old and could likely be spoiled with impunity, I’m still not going to give away more than that.
 Is it perfect?  No.  As is often the case, I wish they hadn’t mixed up fairy tales with nursery rhymes and children’s fantasy at one point.  I would have liked to see some emphasis put on the fact that Jack can be both a rogue and a fool (which, actually does fit Ezekiel to a T now that I think about it).  Also, just being who I am and liking the fairy tale archetypes that I do, I would have maybe preferred seeing the Wandering Soldier (think “Twelve Dancing Princesses”, “How Six Men Got on in the World”, “Bearskin”, etc) over the Huntsman.  But I understand that archetype doesn’t quite have the optics that the others do.

As an example of a one shot “fairy tale episode” of a fantasy show, it may not be anything groundbreaking but it can show how a small change can add some spice and variety to a concept.  So, check it out if you are so inclined.  The whole series is on DVD and you can just buy the episode ala carte on Amazon Instant Video.  I mean, why not?  For the next couple weeks at least, you’ve probably got the time.

See ya next time.