Sunday, September 19, 2021

Fantasy Literature Rewind: When Marnie Was There.

 

To start off with, I want to say that it's hard to talk about this book without giving away spoilers. So, if you care about that sort of thing, I suggest that you stop now and go read the book or at least watch the movie (which I will also be talking about).

Good. Okay, so let's go.

When Marnie Was There book, vintage cover

When Marnie Was There is a young adult novel by British author Joan G. Robinson and published in 1967. It focuses on a 12-year old girl named Anna. Anna is a foster child and frequently feels lonely and unloved and as if she is separate from everyone else. Due to health concerns, Anna's foster mother whom Anna calls “Auntie” sends her to stay in Norfolk for a while. While in Norfolk, Anna meets a mysterious young girl named Marnie who lives in the large and equally mysterious Marsh House. The two develop a very deep, intimate friendship. Anna's feelings of loneliness and isolation mirror Marnie's life in which she feels neglected due to the frequent absences of her parents and her mistreatment at the hands of the servants. Anna and Marnie bond over a number of things and tell each other a number of secrets (for example: Anna reveals how her foster mother receives a stipend for Anna's care and how much that bothers her). They also engage in a couple of misadventures, such as when Marnie brought Anna into one of her parents' fancy parties in the guise of a beggar girl. This goes on until a climax that happens at a dilapidated windmill that Marnie is afraid to enter. After that, things kind of wind down to an ending in which Marnie's mysterious nature and her real connection to Anna is revealed.

And what's revealed is . . . (and here come the big SPOILERS folks)

Marnie was actually Anna's grandmother who had taken care of her for a short time when Anna was very young. Anna's family history and the circumstances by which she became a foster child come to light. Thus, Anna was able to connect with one of the family members she felt abandoned by as a human being and ultimately learn to forgive them. Whether Marnie was actually a ghost of the now-deceased grandmother or if Anna was actually somehow moving back and forth through time is unclear. Though it's also likely unimportant as the magical elements are here to serve Anna's character arc first and foremost.

When Marnie Was There book, modern cover

Now, I don't know quite how other people feel about this book. I've never met anyone else who's read it. Personally, I rather liked it. I like that it had the wherewithal to not explain its primary magical plot device. Because, let's be honest it wasn't really about that (time travel story rule #1: Time travel stories aren't really about time travel. They're about characters, the situations they get in and the experiences they have that change them due to time travel. Even though When Marnie Was There might not actually be time travel). Also, as someone who's read a lot of fairy tales, children's fiction and superhero origin stories, I'm interested in stories that actually care about the psychology and feelings of orphans and kid characters in other tough situations that don't treat them as standard tropes on a checklist. I echoed a similar sentiment regarding the Cinderella character in the Ashley Poston book Geekerella. I suppose that if anyone was able to make that happen, it would be Joan G. Robinson. Robinson made a career of writing about children who don't feel loved, basing much of it on experiences and feelings she herself had as a child. So, I really don't have much else to say. It's a book of big friendships and big feelings that cares about the rich internal lives of children. I do suggest reading it if you can.

But then there's the adaptation. And that's where things get really interesting. At least in the details.

When Marnie Was There film poster

The animated film When Marnie Was There (in Japanese Omoide no Mani or directly translated as Marnie of Memories), was released in 2014. The film was written and directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi.

Overall, most of the relevant story and emotional beats are the same. Anna is still a lonely foster child who feels unloved. Marnie is still a mysterious rich girl who is neglected despite seemingly having everything in the world. The friendship is still profound. Secrets are still revealed. The party still happens. The windmill part still happens (though it's not a windmill now, but I'll get to that). Marnie is still really who she was in the book.

The difference is that now, it all happens in Japan. And that can make a big difference.

Now, normally I would warn against one culture co-opting and rewriting the story of another culture. But like I said, very little has been rewritten and what has became a bit more interesting. Also, this is a case where it's the story of one imperial power (Great Britain) being co-opted by another once imperialist country (Japan). Certainly this would be a different situation if Studio Ghibli had taken a story that was Korean, Ainu or Okinawan.

In the movie, Anna is still Anna and Marnie is still Marnie. Everything else is changed or rewritten to be more Japanese. Instead of being Norfolk, the town she's sent to is in Hokkaido. The couple she stays with changes from the Peggs to the Oiwa. The taciturn fisherman who helps Anna out a couple of times changes from Wuntermenny (the name is a joke that I can't explain here. It's explained in the book) to Toichi. A friend Anna meets later changes from Priscilla to Sayaka. And for some reason the windmill changes to a grain silo (are there no windmills in Japan?).

So, what this means is that Marnie wasn't just a rich girl, she was a foreign rich girl spending holidays in Japan. The Marsh House isn't just a big house, it's a big Western style house on the edge of a tiny Japanese coastal town. And Anna isn't just a foster child. She's a foster child of mixed race living in Japan.

Now, I've never been to Japan but I've heard other folks talk about their experience about being a foreigner or gaijin in Japan, so I'm going from that. So, the thing is that the Japanese in general do not in general hate gaijin, which may be what you were expecting. However, gaijin do frequently make Japanese folks feel uneasy. The thing is that Japan is a very risk-averse country and one of the things their culture emphasizes greatly is preserving harmony. Essentially keeping things running smoothly and not causing any unnecessary strain or burden on anyone. So, the assumption is that dealing with gaijin will more likely lead to that disharmony. For example, there are restaurants that put up signs that say things like “we don't serve foreigners” largely because they don't want to put pressure on their largely Japanese staff to serve someone who might not completely understand the language. And restaurants that actively welcome foreigners often do it because they have people on staff who know English and they'll just jump right to taking your order in that language rather than letting you even try to order in Japanese.

And while it may not be done maliciously, it is still othering.

So, with this undercurrent in mind, think of how it impacts a story about a young girl who feels thoroughly othered. And think about how it affects someone like Marnie who not only doesn't see her parents as much as she needs to, but is also in that situation in a strange country. Or think about how the Marsh House must have stuck out like a sore thumb being a Western style mansion on the edge of a more traditionally Japanese rural village.

There's one specific scene that really underscores this. A scene that happened a fair bit differently in the book. In the book, Anna has a conflict with a local girl in which the local girl says Anna is “just what she is” and Anna returns by calling the girl a “fat pig” (honestly, Anna probably could have handled that better). In the book, I believe the conflict happens at the local post office. It does underscore that Anna doesn't like herself because she treats “just what you are” like the worst insult ever. But the movie does more with it.

This time, the scene is set during the Tanabata festival. So, Anna is with the girl and her friends, wearing a borrowed yukata and still feeling out of place but trying to do her best. She's about to engage in one of the festival's traditions of tying a slip of paper with a wish written on it to a tree. Then, the local girl snatches it away and reveals that it says “I wish I could live a normal life”. She then notices and points out that Anna's eyes are “kind of blue”, which to the audience is a marker that she is not 100% Japanese. Then the blow up between the two happens. In that moment, when Anna is trying her best to fit in, this girl managed to blow it all up and reveal not only that Anna feels like she doesn't belong but also points out one of the things that makes her an outsider. It's a scene that really works better due to the setting change.

Anna and Marnie share a dance

There's not much else to talk about here but I do want to touch on one other thing. And that's the potential LGBTQ reading of the story which is essentially clear at the beginning and then denied in both the book and movie by the time it ends. You see, the beginning of Marnie and Anna's story can easily be read as the story of two girls falling in love. There's a lot of physical closeness between the two. There's a lot of emotional intimacy. They straight up tell each other “I love you” a few times. It's to the point where I've seen one internet poster who was absolutely put out by the fact that they had supposedly teased a queer romance and then supposedly changed it at the last minute. Which, really, isn't what they did but I don't blame them for interpreting it as such. Really, I think this is a case where the real culprit is the change in how close friendships are written in literature. Particularly among children. I mean, it's not just among children. One classic example is how the men in the Lord of the Rings treat their comrades with much more emotional openness in those books. They'll often weep and embrace and things like that. But especially between children, there was a tendency of showing friendships as being much more touchy-feely and open and physically expressive. The root of this being that Western fiction, childhood was generally regarded as innocent and downright asexual. Two young girls kissing or holding hands or telling each other they love each other was just them being emotionally straight-forward and innocent. And it's probably an even bigger thing when, like for Anna and Marnie, the friendship is supposed to be this life-changing thing. For another example, I remember in Baum's Oz books, Ozma would often welcome Dorothy to her throne room with a kiss on the cheek. The book didn't change, but the coding did. And it's kind of too bad because this likely gave a bit of false hope to a group of people who've felt starved for media representation.

Well, that's it for now. Next time: our last book and Studio Ghibli's first TV series.

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Fantasy Literature Rewind: Howl's Moving Castle.

 

Howl's Moving Castle is a 1986 young adult fantasy novel by British writer Diana Wynne Jones.  Though, fans of movies, animation and especially anime may know it better as the title of a 2004 animated film from Studio Ghibli.
 

While I had seen the movie before, I've just read the book for the first time and am glad I did.
My first impression upon reading the book is that Diana Wynne Jones sure knows her way around fairy tales, seeing as she built the beginning of the book around a fairy tale trope that's not all that well-known to the public.  My second impression is that this is one of the most surprising, hard to predict fantasy novels I've read in a long time.

Howl's Moving Castle, first edition
 

The story is about a young woman named Sophie Hatter who lives in a fantasy world.  Sophie is the oldest of three sisters and curses herself for that, seemingly because of an old adage that the oldest child will always be a failure or at least succeed far less than younger siblings.  This, of course, stems from an old fairy tale trope in which the youngest sibling succeeds far in excess of their older siblings.  Usually coming down to the younger sibling being kinder and more innocent than their elders (there are a number of stories like this, but the first one that comes to my mind is "The Water of Life" from the Grimms' collection).  There are also a couple of inversions and reversions of the "wicked stepmother" trope regarding Sophie's stepmother Fannie.  Anyway, while Sophie's working at the hat shop, she receives a visit from The Witch of the Wastes who curses her, turning her into a 90-year-old woman in an instant.  Now, really being "elder" beyond her normal anxieties and unable to explain her ordeal because of conditions of the curse, she decides she has nothing to lose and goes off to seek her fortune.  She ends up at infamous Moving Castle of Wizard Howl.  Howl himself is an infamous figure, known for sweeping into towns and stealing girls' hearts.  What follows is a rather twisty, turny fantasy adventure that involves a turnip-headed scarecrow, a dog that used to be a human but can now only magically turn into other dogs, a couple of fire demons, a missing prince, some minor cases of mistaken identity, some poetry acting as a curse and a trip to Wales (yes, the country Wales from within the kingdom of Great Britain.  And yes, this is still an alternate world fantasy novel).

Howl's Moving Castle, recent edition

While I've praised the twistiness of the plot, probably one of the better qualities of the book is the main character of Sophie.  She's a wonderfully believably flawed protagonist.  Her story seems simple upon first blush.  She's a girl who accepts her fate and has to learn to be bolder and make her own destiny.  And that's fine to start with.  But from there, despite Sophie being a good person and bearing people no ill will, she's stubborn and nosy and often jumps to the wrong conclusions.  And while she seems to be working on these flaws, they don't just go away.  After all, change is rarely easy.  Sophie actually provides a good companion to the equally flawed Howl, who despite being a good man at heart is capricious, dramatic and rarely tells people the whole truth even when keeping things secret has few advantages.
 

The book, I think, was great.  The movie . . . well, it's okay.

Howl's Moving Castle, movie poster

This is actually a strange case.  Seeing as how most people agree that Studio Ghibli films are of the highest quality, and that those directed by Hayao Miyazaki are doubly so.  Folks who've seen the movie and haven't read the book for Howl's Moving Castle will likely agree with that sentiment.  And yet, the book just outpaces the movie in so many ways.  So much of it is pared down and simplified.  The characters have been changed, the story's been changed.  Even who the villain is has been changed.  Overall, it just feels like the book which was this unique gem of a thing was turned into . . . well, a Miyazaki-directed Studio Ghibli film.  It might seem a little hard to explain, but there are some tendencies among Ghibli film adaptations that have begun to stand out to me.  For one thing, they tend to amplify certain story elements that cause those elements to change the tone in very big ways.  Let's use another book and movie for an example.  In the book The Borrowers (which I've talked about here before) a young boy is staying with his aunt in the countryside while he recovers from some undefined illness.  There he makes friends with the borrower Arrietty Clock who helps him with his reading.  The Studio Ghibli adaptation The Secret World of Arrietty, has the boy staying in the countryside while he's awaiting a life-saving surgical procedure.  You see how that changes the tone of things (they also make the boy talk more like a 25-year-old than a child, but that's a discussion for another day).  They do the same thing here.  In the book and the movie there's a running plot thread about Howl constantly trying to avoid the king and some task he has for Howl.  In the book, the king is looking for Howl to go find his missing brother who went missing in the Wastes.  Howl doesn't want to do it because the Witch of the Wastes already has it out for him.  In the movie, the king wants Howl to join in fighting the giant steampunk war that he's waging against another kingdom.  And Howl doesn't want to for various reasons, including the fact that he sees the war as a mistake.  But yes, a STEAMPUNK WAR!  For this version of the fantasy realm has trains and airships and steam ships and stuff, which are seemingly not present in the book.  And the only reasons I can see that they added in a whole steam-powered war are to raise the stakes and maybe to play into Miyazaki's favorite theme of how modern, consumerist, mechanized lives are killing us and how we  need to turn back to spirituality and nature.  Only this time he's focused on mechanized warfare.  And granted, he's not necessarily wrong.  It's just that it's not what the book is about in any way, shape or form.
 

So, yes, the movie's good.  But the book is SO much better.  And the two are practically two entirely different experiences.  If you've only watched the movie and have never read the book, definitely give it a chance.  If you've read the book but never seen the movie . . . well, the movie ain't going to hurt you and it's still pretty good for what it is, but you might be disappointed that it isn't more like the book.  Diana Wynne-Jones has written two books that, while not really sequels to Howl's Moving Castle are set in the same fantasy world: Castle in the Air and House of Many Ways.  I might consider reading them if my existing to-be-read pile wasn't at the point of threatening to become an avalanche.  Anyway, next week we have a book adapted into a non-Miyazaki Studio Ghibli animated film.  So, stay tuned.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Fantasy Literature Rewind: Kiki's Delivery Service.

 


You know, maybe I’ve been picking on Disney a bit too much lately. I mean, it’s kind of the easy route. They’ve adapted a lot of fairy tales and books. A LOT. But they’re not the only adapters out there. Not by a long shot. So, for a little while, I think I’ll focus on the book adaptations of an animation studio that doesn’t fall under quite so much scrutiny. At least, not on this side of the Pacific.

So, that’s why I present to you a special sub-series titled: Fantasy Literature Rewind: The Ghibli Sequence. (Don’t read too much into the title, folks. I just thought it sounded cool). That’s right, folks! We’ll be focusing on the books adapted by that beloved icon of the anime film industry: Studio Ghibli. I’ve mentioned them before. They came up in my spotlight on The Borrowers and I reviewed their film The Tale of the Princess Kaguya.

But right now, we’ll be shining the spotlight on the inspiration for the Ghibli film that introduced a lot of global fans to Ghibli: Kiki’s Delivery Service.

Kiki’s Delivery Service the movie is adapted from Majo no Takkyubin (translated as Witch’s Express Home Delivery), a 1985 children’s book written by Japanese author Eiko Kadono. A book that has only been translated into English for the first time very recently. The concept was supposedly inspired by a picture the author’s daughter drew of a witch flying on a broomstick while listening to a radio. This inspired her to write a book about a twelve-year-old witch (Kadono’s daughter was twelve at the time) whose only magic power was flying. That way, the character would have to use her brain to sort out problems.


The book focuses on a young witch named Kiki as she leaves her old hometown where she lives with her witch mother and folklorist father (yes, really) to go to a town of her own to set herself up as the “resident witch”. They’re she’ll be expected to make her way using whatever magical skills she has. Kiki, though, doesn’t have many magical skills. She never took any interest in her mother’s business of making potions, and a lot of other types of magic have been lost to obscurity over the centuries. But what Kiki can do is fly. So, she packs up her black dresses and her cat Jiji and her radio and hops on her mother’s old broom and heads out to find a town near the ocean to settle down in.


The book is a largely episodic affair, covering how Kiki and Jiji moved to her new town and different adventures she has as she goes on her different deliveries. In one, she has to deliver a toy cat as a gift and loses it along the way (this one is in the movie). In another, she’s asked to retrieve or rather, steal, a part from a clock tower in another town (she doesn’t do it and finds another way). Another adventure has her delivering a love letter for a girl around her own age (she also loses that and has to compose a new love poem on the spot). One of my favorites is when she gets contracted by some musicians to retrieve their musical instruments from a moving train. Not everything happens while she’s working though. One chapter has her going to the beach only for her broom to get stolen by her future friend and possible love interest Tombo.


The episodic format kind of reminds me of the Mary Poppins books. Not a knock, mind you. Just like the Mary Poppins books, there are a lot of details that I really dig. Stuff like how a lot of witchy arts were lost over time. Or how Kiki’s father is a folklorist. Or the whole thing about why witches are accompanied by black cats. According to the book, when a witch has a baby girl they search for a black kitten born at about the same time. Then they are raised at the same time. As they grow, the girl and the cat learn to speak to each other in their own language. By the time the girl comes of age, the cat would become a trusted companion. But eventually, the witch would find a new companion to take that place. The cat would also find a new partner and then the two would part ways. As far as “losing magic equals adulthood/sexual awakening/falling in love” metaphors, which are a dime a dozen in children’s fantasy literature, it’s not bad. Most of those seem downright depressing when read in a certain mindset. This is one of the few that comes close to suggesting that finding a romantic partner is about as good as being able to talk to an animal.


The 1989 animated adaptation by Studio Ghibli is a good, charming, entertaining movie. A pretty good movie but maybe not a pretty good adaptation. But that’s to be expected from a movie that tries to adapt a book with an episodic story structure. While some elements definitely remain, most of the book is not included in order to give Kiki more of an A-to-B coming of age arc. The part that kind of sticks out to me in the movie is the part near the end where Kiki develops something akin to burnout and loses her ability to fly. Now, this part might have been in one of the sequels. I don’t know because they haven’t been translated into English. But it feels like it might have been an addition by the director. The director Hayao Miyazaki was a big name in anime movies before his retirement. To the point where the name “Miyazaki” often superceded the name “Studio Ghibli”. But another thing about him is that he loved themes about the dangers of the consumerist world and how it could damage nature and people’s spiritual health (note: in Japan where Shinto has influenced things for centuries, nature and spiritual health are pretty closely intertwined). Now, in a lot of his movies like Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke, the themes tend to manifest more as bigger ecological themes. But in a smaller, more intimate movie like Kiki’s Delivery Service it makes more sense that it’s not the larger natural world that’s damaged by Kiki’s flying delivery business but her spirit. Which, in the movie, leads her to go on a retreat of sorts to her artist friend’s cottage in the forest (note: my reading of this part of the plot was partly inspired by this video). The movie’s still good. Most people won’t argue with that. The animation and background scenery is downright dazzling. Personally, I prefer the version of the dub with songs by Sydney Forest, but that may be nostalgia talking.


And you know, this blog post might have ended there if I hadn’t found out that in 2014 that there was a live action adaptation of Kiki’s Delivery Service.


Yes, in 2014 Toei released a live action version of Kiki’s Delivery Service based on the first two books in the series. I have not seen this movie but everything I’ve read about it suggests that it draws from the books more. I even spotted some bits I recognized from the trailer. And while, like I said, I have not seen this movie, boy do I hate the way it’s been criticized. I read the comments under the trailers and I watched one video review and almost all the criticisms could be boiled down to “It wasn’t like the Miyazaki movie, so they shouldn’t have even tried”. Granted, there could have been problems and I could see where they could have cropped up. The girl does look a little too old to be playing Kiki. If they stuck too close to the episodic nature of the book, then it could easily have felt tedious. But the main criticism shouldn’t be “it’s not the anime”. The only fairly forgiving review I read was this one from Kotaku. And the biggest strength that had is that it emphasized the different journeys that Kiki went on. The animated one being more about Kiki learning about herself, while the live action one being about Kiki learning about the outside world.

All that said, now I want to watch the live action adaptation. Just so I can form my own opinions about it. But I also want to see other adaptations of Kiki made (beyond both movies and this Cup Noodles ad, which is just an homage to the Miyazaki movie but with more of a romance anime vibe). Heck, with the episodic structure, a Kiki TV series would probably be an even better fit for her. You see, I’m cool with books remaining books. And I’m cool with books being adapted and reinterpreted by different artists and filmmakers. But what I’m really not cool with is a book getting adapted into one film or show and then having that form the basis of people’s view of it for all time. If a book is going to get adapted at least a few times so it can be seen from a number of different angles (hmm, I wonder how long copyright is in Japan). And I suppose I’d like to see the other Kiki books translated into English while I’m at it.


Anyway, next time, another book that was adapted by Miyazaki-sensei. At least, that’s the plan. Until then.

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Fairy Tale Media Fix: Grimm's Fairy Tale Classics.

 


Well, this was unexpected!  Great, but unexpected!

Through what was probably no small amount of effort, boutique DVD publisher Discotek Media has released the first season of the anime Grimm's Fairy Tale Classics on Standard Definition blu-ray.
A quick history lesson: this series is a an anime fairy tale anthology series that started as Gurimu Meisaku Gekijo or Grimm Masterpiece Theater and aired in its home country from Fall 1987 to Spring 1988 for 24 episodes.  It was then followed by Shin Gurimu Meisaku Gekijo or New Grimm Masterpiece Theater and aired between Fall 1988 and March 1989 for 23 episodes.  This series was then picked up by Saban Entertainment (Haim Saban being the guy responsible for turning Super Sentai into Power Rangers and someone who was always looking to create cheap content for kids' TV) brought both versions of the show over to the U.S., dubbed it into English, where it aired on Nickelodeon's preschool block Nick Jr. as Grimm's Fairy Tale Classics.
 

Which is where I would eventually find it.


You know, it's actually kind of hard for me to be objective about this show.  In some ways Grimm's Fairy Tale Classics provided an awakening of sorts.  If not to fairy tales in general then to just how deep the well of them actually went.  If you live in the United States like I do, you're probably aware of the three different levels of fairy tale knowledge.  First, there's all the ones that were made into Disney films.  I know Disney can be a sore subject for some, but they have a big influence that needs to be accounted for.  Then, there's the ones Disney adapted plus the other household name tales like "Rumpelstiltskin", "The Three Billy Goats Gruff" and "The Three Bears".  Then there's all that and everything else.  Grimm's Fairy Tale Classics with its episodes based on stories like "The Water of Life", "Mother Holle" and "Jorinda and Joringel" among others gave me a glimpse of that "everything else".  Heck, it even introduced me to one of my favorite protagonist archetypes in fairy tales: The Wandering Soldier.  You know, like in "How Six Men Got Far in the World", "Bearskin" or "The Shoes that were Danced to Pieces".  A decommisioned, possibly injured soldier with no purpose or direction shows up and gets involved in some kind of adventure, whether it's solving a mystery, cheating the devil or getting even with those who've mistreated him.  This archetype doesn't get used much in fairy tale media today.  (Hmm, considering how modern media often leans on fairy tales as a source of nostalgia or way of showing children what they want them to see, you don't suppose stories of wandering, directionless veterans might occasionally strilke a bad chord with people in post-Vietnam USA?).
 

And yet, very few of my online fairy tale colleagues seem to have heard of this show.  It probably didn't help that Nickelodeon buried it in its preschool block.  I was older than that when I found the show and it's probably not a very good choice of demographic anyway.  Many of the stories had scary scenes that could have upset the children ages 3-5 that Nick Jr. was aiming for.  And yet, Nickelodeon never seemed to doubt that a series of fairy tales must be a series for pre-schoolers.
 

Well, luckily, it did manage to build a cult following of anime and vintage Nickelodeon fans, which is probably what drove this series to get an official release in the first place.


The blu-ray itself is pretty good.  It's standard definition, so the picture quality isn't super great.  However, making an SD blu-ray apparently means there's enough room to put both the English dubbed versions and the Japanese version with English subtitles on it.  There are no special features but that's still a lot.  Since no masters of the English dubbed versions exist, the English dubbed episodes had to essentially be recreated from available sources (this isn't the first time something like that has happened.  The Voltron DVDs were created in much the same way).  I very much liked watching the Japanese version of this show.  It allows you to not only hear the original music and voices, but also see scenes that were cut for the English-language airing.  Also, just the way the show was done was different.  One thing with the English version of Grimm's Fairy Tale Classics is that the show had an ever-present narrator played by Theodore Lehmann.  The Japanese version only uses a narrator, played by Mitsuko Horie, when it really needs one to convey additional information to the audience.  Once, in the "Puss in Boots" episode, they even mix things up by having the narrator speak directly to the Miller's third son.  

One of the unusual side effects of this show coming out on blu-ray is that through the prompting of an online colleague, it made me think about my own biases as to how these lesser-known tales are told.  For example, the climax to the Grimm's Fairy Tale Classics version of "The Shoes That Were Danced to Pieces" ends with a chase scene.  And it never struck me that it would seem odd until someone pointed it out.  For the uninitiated, this story is commonly called "The Twelve Dancing Princesses" (an unfitting name for this show's version, which only has three princesses).  In the story as it's written down, twelve princesses disappear down a mysterious passageway wear they dance and dance with mysterious princes until a soldier with a cloak of invisibility disovers where they've been going and reveals it to their father the king.  In the Grimm's Fairy Tale Classics version, it's revealed that not only are the princesses entranced to dance with the princes, the princes themselves are monsters.  When this is revealed, the monsters chase the princesses and the soldier and they escape before almost getting sealed in the underground kingdom forever.  And that always felt like the most natural way to end things, and I always thought the way the fairy tale ended in the book was kind of abrupt.  I always felt that way because I first encountered the tale on this show, though.  It makes me wonder what other biases I've picked up from it.  I guess maybe I should cut the people whose fairy tale biases were formed by Disney movies just a tiny bit more slack.
 

Well, anyway, I think folks should check it out.  However, I'm hardly the most impartial judge with this one.  If you can look past things like picture quality to things like storytelling, maybe check out one of the numerous bootleg episodes uploaded on YouTube to see if you like it.  If you do, the blu-ray is available from various online purveyors, including Amazon and www.rightstufanime.com.  The English-dubbed episodes can be watched for free on Retro Crush or free with Amazon Prime on Amazon Instant Video.  The blu-ray for the second season comes out at the end of August.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Fantasy Literature Rewind: The Hundred and One Dalmatians

 

So, you might be wondering how we got here.
 

Not here on the blog.  Here:

How did we get to a place where Walt Disney Studios, makers of family entertainment, are putting out a PG-13 movie about the puppy-skinningly psychotic villainess from 101 Dalmatians, Cruella DeVil?
Well, maybe we should go back to the roots of all this.  


The Hundred and One Dalmatians is a 1956 children's book by Dodie Smith.  It was originally serialized in the magazine Woman's Day under the title The Great Dog Robbery.  The story concerns a pair of married dalmatians named Pongo and Missis.  Their humans are Mr. and Mrs. Dearly, a financial whiz and his wife.  Also part of  the household are the servants Nanny Cook and Nanny Butler who originally served as nannies to their charges and then on a whim took up the jobs their surnames invoked.  The adventure starts when Missis gives birth to 15 puppies.  First, there are simply the challenges of taking care of such a large litter of puppies.  For example, they have to find another dog to play the role of wet nurse for some of them, which seems impossible until Mrs. Dearly stumbles on a liver-spotted dalmatian named Perdita who had recently been separated from her puppies and her husband Prince.  But then, things take a turn for even more sinister when the puppies are stolen by a rather devilish woman named Cruella DeVil who it is revealed wants to turn the puppies into fur coats.  Pongo and Missis's rescue of their puppies (as well as 82 more) involves employing an extensive network of dogs called the Twilight Barking, a trip across country, assistance from numerous unexpected quarters and some mild subterfuge.

But you're probably wondering about Cruella DeVil, aren't you?  She is a strange and scary individual in this book.  The funny thing is, what's communicated about her seems to mostly be rumor and possible hearsay meant to give her a supernatural air without it being proven.  Combine this with certain odd habits of hers, and it makes the name DeVil seem a lot more like Devil.  Earliest talk about the DeVil family seems to concern an ancestor who was probably Cruella's grandfather.  He had purchased an estate named Hill Hall, which this elder DeVil planned to tear down and rebuild as a house that resembled a cross between a castle and a cathedral.  Shortly after it had been built, rumors started to spread though.  Travellers would say they heard screams and wild laughter coming from the estate.  People would start to count their children carefully to make sure they were safe.  Some would even say that DeVil had a long tail.  It was around this time that Hill Hall would be rechristened Hell Hall.  It apparently got to the point where an angry mob with lighted torches went to Hell Hall to burn it down, only to be greeted by DeVil bursting through the gate on a coach-and-four, supposedly shooting blue forked lightning from his body.  As for Cruella herself, when we meet her in-story, she's driving a big, black-and-white striped car equipped with the loudest horn in all of England.  We're also informed by her old classmate Mrs. Dearly that everyone in school was afraid of her and that she was expelled for drinking ink.  Cruella is married to a furrier who isn't much of a character in the book, but who she apparently just wants for his furs.  Among Cruella's eccentricities, the one that lends credence to her being more devil than human is that she likes everything hot, whether in spice or environment.  She wears furs during all seasons, loves raging fires and loads up her food with pepper.  And even if she is human, she's anything but humane.  She talks plainly about how she drowns all the kittens of her pet white Persian cat.  She is, in the simplest terms: a real piece of work.
 

In terms of adaptation, Disney has gotten a surprising amount of mileage out of this property.  They've made one theatrical animated movie (trailer HERE), one straight-to-video animated movie (trailer HERE), two live action movies (trailers HERE and HERE), two animated TV shows (intros HERE and HERE) and now Cruella in addition to various toys, merchandise and other assorted bits and bobs.  The one adaptation most people go back to is the 1961 animated movie (possibly one of Disney's most contemporary adaptations.  The film premiered only 5 years after the book was published).  Unlike a lot of Disney adaptations, I don't really have any major issues with the animated movie.  It doesn't alter the tone drastically.  And most of the changes made to the text are a matter of condensing things.  The two nannies are reduced down to one.  The characters of Missis and Perdita are merged into one character, as are the pups Lucky and Cadpig.  Events are removed from the dogs' cross-country rescue mission.  Some names are changed.  Jasper and Saul Baddun become Jasper and Horace Baddun and the Dearlys become the Radcliffes (interesting note: both Cadpig and the surname Dearly are restored in 101 Dalmatians: The Series).  Overall, it's fine.  Though, I do like to make fun of the notion that Roger Radcliffe made so much money off of a hate song (depicted HERE played by the one and only Dr. John).  I'd still recommend reading the book, because there's just a lot more in it.  Though, do keep in mind that it is a relic of its era (there's one slightly racist encounter with Romani people).
 

But one of the reasons why the Mouse has managed to do so much with 101 Dalmatians is Cruella DeVil.  As far as villains go, she may not be complex or nuanced but she is compelling.  And that is the central appeal of the great "Disney Villains".  They may be a simplistic sort of evil, but it's very fun to watch them in all their dastardly glory.  With Cruella though, it goes all the way back to the source material.  When she's present in the story, she commands all the attention.  And that's probably why Disney made a movie about her.  Whether or not the movie delivers what fans expect (a devilishly evil diva who's fun to root against) is yet to be seen.


Before wrapping this up, I should probably talk about the one Hundred and One Dalmatians thing that Disney stayed well away from.  In 1967, a follow-up to The Hundred and One Dalmatians was published titled The Starlight Barking.  It starts with Pongo and Missis waking up to discover that the Dearlys and every other human or animal on the planet except dogs (and honorary dogs) are all asleep and cannot be awakened.  This leads them to discovering that they can do some things that they normally cannot do like opening doors, communicating long distances telepathically and telekinetically propelling themselves over the ground at high speeds (they refer to it as "swooshing").  This leads them to go to London where they meet with other dogs, including Cadpig who is now the Prime Minister's dog and Prime Minister in his stead, to discuss the problem and eventually meet its cause.  This book is, in all seriousness, a work of Cold War or Atomic age science fiction.  It hits all the beats.  Strange happenings, psychic powers, alien visitors, the threat of nuclear war and a hero having to make a hard choice.  And you know what?  I kind of dig it for what it is.  Sure, it may not be the sequel people expect for The Hundred and One Dalmatians, but it's perfectly fine when viewed as a diversion or unconventional offshoot of the original.  It even made me appreciate certain characters from the original a little more (In the first book, Missis could come across as a little dim-witted compared to Pongo aka "The Greatest Brain in all of Dogdom", but in the Starlight Barking she's depicted as intuitive and more adept at the metaphysical feats presented).  And I just bet writing this book helped Dodie Smith process some of the feelings she had about what was going on in the world.

So, here's hoping that Cruella remembers what made the original villainess so compelling.  And if not, well, we can always go back to the book.

Monday, April 26, 2021

A Handy Q&A Guide to 2020's Pinocchio.

 Hey everybody!  In the wake of last night's 2021 Academy Awards, there have been a number of questions about the recent Pinocchio movie that was released last year.  So, here we are with some answers.


Q) Did you know there was a new Pinocchio movie?  

A) Yes.  Like many people who are really into fairy tales here on the internet, I've been keeping my eye on this one for a while.  In fact, I own the blu-ray of it.

Q) Is this a Disney animated remake thing?

A) No, that one is coming, though.  It's set to be directed by Robert Zemeckis (oddly fitting because the motion capture stuff he does for movies like The Polar Express and Beowulf seem kind of like digital puppets).

Q) What is it?

A) It's an Italian production by director Matteo Garrone, who had previously made an R-rated movie adaptation of Giambattista Basile's fairy tale collection The Tale of Tales.  This new Pinocchio movie features Roberto Benigni playing the role of Geppetto among other fairly accomplished Italian actors.  

Q) You're sure this isn't a Disney thing?

A) Absolutely sure.


Q) Don't you find the Pinocchio in this movie kind of creepy?

A) Not really.  I understand this is "uncanny valley" territory for a lot of people, but I find making up a human to look like a wooden puppet a far better choice than using a special effect or visual effect to depict a living doll or puppet.  That can turn out especially creepy if done a certain way.  And it seems like the look of this movie was appealing to other people too, since the Oscars it was nominated for were Best Costume Design and Best Make-Up and Hairstyling.


Q) So, why did Roberto Benigni make two different Pinocchio movies?

A) Well, I can't speak for the man but it's probably because The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi is THE children's classic story from Italy with the most worldwide appeal.  This shouldn't be unfamiliar to Americans, as we also have only one big children's fantasy story with widespread appeal (L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, with diminishing returns for the sequel books).  You'll also notice that Benigni is in different roles in the two movies.  In the 2002 movie, Benigni is the director as  well as plays the part of Pinocchio himself (in fact, all of the children are played by adults.  It's weird, and not in the way Pinocchio usually is).  In the 2020 movie, he's just playing the role of Geppetto.  Approaching the same material from different angles can be rewarding.


Q) Should I watch this movie?

A) Okay, here's the thing: Most Americans known Pinocchio primarily from the Disney movie.  This isn't that movie.  This movie is primarily based on the original book by Carlo Collodi, which has a decidedly different tone than the Disney film.  Collodi's book and this movie can be much darker and deal with some bleaker truths.  It also just generally draws on a much more 19th Century European view of child-rearing that suggests that the job of parents is to "civilize" their children.  At the same time, Collodi also kind of subverts that impulse by showing Pinocchio becoming victims of characters much worse and more "uncivilized" than he is ("Why raise civilized children in an uncivilized world?").  Disney's childhood ethos, by comparison views childhood as a magical, nostalgic time full of wonder.  The movie and the book are also much weirder than Disney's movie.  I mean, sure, Disney's movie is kind of strange, but they ground it by limiting certain things.  Disney's Pinocchio is the only talking puppet, brought to life by magic.  Collodi's Pinocchio is one of many living puppets.  For Disney, the Fox and the Cat are the only talking animals.  For Collodi, there are many others ranging from snails to poodles to a judge who's a gorilla.  Disney's Pinocchio is swallowed by a whale, Collodi's is swallowed by a giant dogfish (a dogfish being a species of shark usually just a meter long).  It's like if Wonderland resembled 19th Century Tuscany.

So, if you're okay with all the weirdness and bleakness and want to see something that's decidedly un-Disney, give it a shot.  It can be a little slow and episodic at times, but I liked it.


Well, that's all!  I hope I was able to help out a few people!  See you next time!