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.  

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