Want everyone else to buy into environmentalism? Never say “Earth”

Grist

For over three decades, David Fenton has played an unusual role in the environmental movement: marketing it. The company he founded, Fenton Communications, has worked with everyone from Nelson Mandela to MoveOn.org. It recently managed an anti-fracking campaign for Yoko Ono (fracking, it promised, would ruin New York’s groundwater, and therefore its bagels and pizza).

David FentonDavid Fenton.

To many environmentalists, what Fenton does — with all the celebrity chefs and celebrities, period — is … a little bit simplistic. To his opponents, he’s the Great Satan. If you find an article about him online, it’s probably a hit piece.

“People working in the nonprofit world sometimes have trouble adopting a marketing mindset,” Fenton Communications wrote in a 2009 report.  “But in the end, the goal is for people to ‘buy’ our ideas — ideas for a better world.”

Fenton recently talked with me over the phone…

View original post 1,366 more words

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Defending Disney: The Lion King

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I’m not even sure how to talk about this movie. For one thing, it’s considered by many people to not only be the greatest Disney film ever made, but the greatest animated film of all time. What do you add to that kind of cultural staying power? For another thing, and more appropriate to the subject of this series, people have really applied a heavy portion of Spiderman ethics to this piece. Oh, what does that mean? Well, it’s the “with great power comes great responsibility” idea, which people often take to mean that very influential companies, like Disney, have extra responsibility to the world. Disney should be some kind of ethical superhero, swooping in and teaching kids every lesson imaginable. And, because this is probably the most popular Disney feature, definitely considered some sort of zenith by many, many people, it is loaded with controversies.

I don’t even know how to address these controversies, or even pick out which ones are actual controversies and which are just… silly. That leaf swirl does not spell out “sex”, you idiots! Supposedly it spells “SFX”, which stands for special effects. Honestly, I think they just made that up, because the leaf swirl doesn’t look like either of these things.

If anything, it looks like "SEK". ...Oh, no! Disney is inserting subliminal messages in favor of... Southeast Kansas?

If anything, it looks like “SEK”. …Oh, no! Disney is inserting subliminal messages in favor of… Southeast Kansas?

 

I think that at this point Disney had become too big on the studio and image side, to the point that directors and artists working inside the company were getting squashed by the rising and increasingly hypersensitive expectations of audiences. And, I think we’re really going to start seeing some negative effects of this trend in the next Disney productions. Though, in recent years, I think that the company has been surprisingly receptive to more legitimate criticism and changing tastes, without wholly compromising artistic visions (at least in some cases).

My point for this series was to defend liking Disney productions as part of cinema history (for adults), and as good fun (for kids… and some adults). You see, I remember when I was more right-wing that a lot of people I knew had this strange way of looking for “offensive” material in… everything. Instead of looking for good lessons, they were always on guard for even the weirdest and most conspiracy-driven subliminal message or potential of a possible, if-you-squint, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it “evil”. It really troubled me that a lot of hypersensitive adults were ruining childhood fun because something may, kind-of, sort-of be seen as maybe not good, or because someone on the internet said it was bad. So, going more left-wing would solve that, right? Nope, on the left we have the same behavior, but simply looking for different things to find offensive. I’m beginning to think that a lot of ostensibly grownup people have way too much time on their hands.

I think it’s troubling that people look for offensive material. I don’t mean simply being aware of critical problems, but rather actually digging for it as though that is some sort of goal. It makes “bad” the highlight and focus of everything so that a side, right or left, becomes more about not being something than about standing for anything positive. Nowhere is this more absurd than in the idea of “symbolism”. I remember someone told me as a child that Harry Potter had abortion in it, but it was “symbolic”, so no one would know. Turn out that was mandrake root, which Rowling did not make up and which does not mean “abortion”. It’s from very old folklore! I think as soon as someone starts saying this, you can assume that the supposedly offensive material doesn’t actually exist.

The space between bunny ears kind of looks like a triangle... OMG, illuminati! Run! Burn the book! Scream! Hyperventilate!

The space between bunny ears kind of looks like a triangle… OMG, illuminati! Run! Burn the book! Scream! Hyperventilate!

So, with that out of the way, I don’t think I can address the controversies in The Lion King in the same way that I did with the previous movies. I felt strained already when addressing Aladdin, and that one actually had a real line that offended a real group of people. This… doesn’t work quite the same way. It’s all just, “Does this symbolically encourage premarital sex?” or “Does this symbolize the apartheid?” and I’ll try to address some of these ideas when they come up, but I won’t spend much more time on them.

The fact is, what is far more interesting about The Lion King is, well, The Lion King. Although… I don’t actually mean this to say that I think the movie really is the greatest animated film of all time. Oh, it’s great. Don’t get me wrong. The animation is spectacular. But, best of all time? I don’t know. How exactly do you pick the best animated movie of all time? Is there any criteria for that?

Full disclaimer: while this may be strange for someone who is writing a series on Disney, I don’t actually watch a lot of Disney. I loved these as a kid, and I will watch them from time to time. But, with the exception of Tangled and Frozen, I haven’t watched Disney movies recently. I just happen to be an enormous animation geek, which usually makes people think that I’m into either Disney or anime, but actually what really fascinates me is weird, arty stuff like this:

The Street of Crocodiles by The Quay Brothers

The Street of Crocodiles by The Quay Brothers

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

So, yeah, I’m not sure I’m comfortable with saying The Lion King beats out every animated film ever, or even other Disney films. But, I would be completely out of touch if I didn’t understand why people love this. It’s just so… big.

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The movie is epic, really. It’s almost overwhelming with its animation. Remember how I said that Disney often trades in detail for movement? Well, that isn’t a problem here. This film is lush with detail, but the movement absolutely soars. Every cinematography illusion trick from the previous films is put to magnificent use here with soaring shots overlooking gorgeous landscape imagery, superimposed images, action shots, flying POVs. It has the same fast-paced animation of Aladdin, with quick visual jokes and action scenes, and yet manages to have the glorious details and use of shadow in Beauty and the Beast.

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Actually, I blame this development on a movie I’m not even reviewing. And, I’m only not reviewing it because it doesn’t fit with the “defending” category. No one finds it controversial, but, then, a lot of people don’t remember it.

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That movie is The Rescuers Down Under, one of those odd occasions when a sequel is actually better than the original. This movie is sadly underrated, with a great story, great comedy, great characters, great action. And… it looks unbelievably good. While I don’t dislike the animation of Aladdin, I do think some of the CG feels a little dated in 2014. But, not so here. And, unlike previous films, it seamlessly blended lush landscape details with fast-paced animation, cinematographic illusions, and sight gags. I don’t know why people don’t appreciate this film, especially people who dislike the Disney formula and want a non-musical adventure story, because it’s really fantastic.

I think that The Lion King is the direct inheritor of the technological feats accomplished in The Rescuers Down Under, but, using that Disney formula of big songs and coming-of-age plots, it managed to make the movie even more marketable. Plus, it’s even bigger than Rescuers. The opening is just astonishing to watch, even by today’s animation standards in our Miyazaki world. Other scenes, like the wonderfully dark “Be Prepared” and the thunderous stampede scene, which has animation techniques just beyond anything else anyone in the West had seen before, these are technologically marvelous.

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So, saying that, is it terribly wrong if I don’t actually think the rest of the movie lives up to its visual brilliance? Because… I really don’t. It’s not that I think the film is bad. I think the film is good but awkward. Though, really, it’s amazing that this movie isn’t as awkward as, say, Hercules

The most obvious thing about it is that it’s not a princess film. In fact, despite being known for Disney princesses, the company has produced relatively few in relation to its other animated work. Even in the ’90s only three movies follow the fairytale princess formula, and only two of these has the princess in the lead role. The Lion King is an enormous departure from the fairytale world, and on paper it must have been a weird pitch. I mean, it’s Hamlet with African animals. That’s an odd idea.

Okay, but what if he was... a lion!

Okay, but what if he was… a lion!

How about we just add in music from Elton John? Yeah… that’s even weirder.

There's just something about Tiny Dancer that makes me think of both Africa and Elizabethan theatre, amitite?

There’s just something about Tiny Dancer that makes me think of both Africa and Elizabethan theatre, amitite?

Hitler symbolism? Again, weird.

Do you know what kids' movies need more? Nazis. They need more Nazis.

Do you know what kids’ movies need more? Nazis. They need more Nazis.

You know how no other Disney film looks like Sleeping Beauty? Well, no other Disney film has a plot as odd as The Lion King. In fact, this must have been kind of a risk, and whatever flaws are in the film should not overshadow their success. The fact that this was a success and the somewhat less risky (but also weird) Hercules was not says a lot about the movie’s quality.

That being said, I am not completely sold on the entire movie. For one thing, I don’t think that the story always makes sense. It’s not just Scar somehow causing a drought (how?), but it’s also how the film handles its own message. I remember watching a review from Doug Walker about this, and how the movie builds up this message about learning from mistakes and admitting your mistakes. But, in the end, no one stands behind Simba until he finds out that he didn’t actually kill his father. That’s sort of awkward.

And, as much as people will hate me for this, I do not think the songs are as great as they are made out to be. I don’t hate them (except for “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?”). I think “Circle of Life” and “Be Prepared” are awesome. But, the rest are just kind of… meh. Now, I’m not sure exactly how to make a criticism about this other than a difference in taste, since I am not a music critic. My background is art and literature. But, I do think that there is a significant minority who agree with me about how Elton John-y the music is. I don’t even dislike Elton John, and I think a lot of his music is very good. But, it does give the film a sort of dated and pop-heavy score, which I don’t necessarially like or think fits the tone and setting. But, despite that, as a kid, I loved these songs. Many children love the songs. So, perhaps they do succeed where it counts, though, for me, I prefer the more Broadway-influenced Beauty and the Beast score.

Despite not sounding very traditionally Broadway, The Lion King has actually gained a lot of success …on Broadway. I would be lying if I didn’t understand why, and, again, it’s the visuals. The studio did a great job in hiring Julie Taymor, whose work you may know from Across the Universe  and Frida (and also that adaptation of Titus Adronicus that I mentioned in the last post), to lend her puppetry and stage-production skill to the show. She had already done some great, highly visual work for actual Shakespearean productions, so the choice made sense. She created one of the most stellar and unbelievable-looking production designs in Broadway history. It looks just absolutely amazing, technologically brilliant.

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However, that really leads to a lot of questions about the development of the musical itself, and Disney’s influence here.

Disney’s relationship to stage shows has gone back to the beginning, as I mentioned before. However, its relationship to the more specific mega-musical has been huge. The singing and musical style, even how the characters move as they sing, comes straight from Broadway in nearly all the ’90s Disney releases. It only made sense for Disney to put these stories on the stage. However, there gets to be a sort of weird recycling effect. These are shows based on movies inspired by shows, and the shows themselves start to rely rather heavily on either borrowing from the musicals that inspired the movies in the first place (don’t tell me that Beauty and the Beast doesn’t owe a ton of visual and storytelling ideas to Phantom of the Opera), or trying to bring the visual style of Disney to the stage. The Lion King musical looks great, and the orchestration sounds great, but the compositions are still somewhat …meh.

If musicals like Phantom are criticized for relying too heavily on style over substance and composition integrity (borrowing from Pink Floyd is one thing, but lifting entire sections from “Echoes” is another), The Lion King really pushes this extreme. I don’t think anyone goes to this show because they want Sondheim-style musical genius. They want to see puppets and special effects. Is this wrong? Set design is, in itself, an art, and I’d be remiss if I said that I didn’t think that the show is very artistic. However, it is not a great musical as a musical. I think this desire for a thrill ride, and big, awesome sets, and easy-to-sing pop-songs has really played a huge part in where musical theatre is today. Disney may have been trying to make a mega-musical, but it has more in common with contemporary productions, like Wicked, which are all about the set design and special effects. Also, it’s worth noting that Julie Taymor was behind the mega-flop Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark, one of the biggest failures in Broadway history.

It's just so... lame. Was anyone asking for this?

It’s just so… lame. Was anyone asking for this?

However, even though I don’t necessarily like everything about The Lion King, I still enjoy the movie and appreciate its art. And, honestly, I may have higher expectations for the movie’s storytelling simply because it is adapting Shakespeare than I might if the movie was based on a fairytale. There is still a lot of weight and emotional resonance in the film. Take, for example, the death of Mufasa. I think that destroyed me as a child. What kid, watching that the first time, wasn’t fighting back tears. It’s a genuinely sad scene, even for adults watching it again.

Disney, the happiest place on earth... except when killing Simba's dad and Bambi's mom, and breaking the hearts of kids everywhere.

Disney, the happiest place on earth… except when killing Simba’s dad and Bambi’s mom, and breaking the hearts of kids everywhere.

Furthermore, most of the voice acting is very good, although I’m not sure why the casting directors thought the child of James Earl Jones should be Ferris Bueller. Movies went through this weird phase where everything apparently just needed a little Bueller. Story about black soldiers in the Union Army? Needs Bueller.

Appropriate casting.

Appropriate casting.

Arty, surreal animation starring a character who doesn’t talk? What if he does talk, and is voiced by Bueller?

The Thief and the Cobbler

The Thief and the Cobbler

Why, studios? Why?

Otherwise, the story gets criticized for having a too simplistic view of good and evil, and perhaps even using some troublesome visual coding as shorthand for “bad” and “good”. Visual coding is when a movie uses clues to “code” characters in a certain way, like black cowboy hats standing for bad guys. And, it’s this coding which is the root of probably the loudest of the controversies. For one thing, many people find the flamboyant and somewhat effeminate Scar, as contrasted with Mufasa’s manly appearance, to be gay coding.

Yeah... about that...

Yeah… about that…

I would be lying if I didn’t think Scar seemed like a bad gay stereotype at times, though it strikes me as unlikely that Disney is planting anti-gay symbolism into the movie. It seems more likely that this is a careless attempt to make Scar seem “sly” or “weird”. Besides, one could argue that Timon and Pumbaa are also coded gay, but are very positive figures. I think that the problem with Scar is more in lazy writing. Yes, I do think that demonizing effeminate men is a huge problem. Hell, some writers and radio hosts have blamed “feminizing” men for basically every evil ever. There are different types of people and not being a traditionally macho guy does not mean you’re conniving, evil, and likely to kill your family or become lion-Hitler. But, I don’t necessarially think that Disney is saying, “Effeminate men are all evil!” I think it’s just sort of clunky storytelling shorthand. I mean, we need to get that pesky character development out of the way so that we can have more Elton John songs!

The other “coding” issue is… are the hyenas supposed to be black people? This is actually a very real issue for some people. And, I kind of see why people worried about this, since this was a ’90s film, apartheid was ending, and many rather prominent Americans were not against apartheid policy. But, I honestly think the visual coding gives us an entirely different, if a little weird, clue as to who the hyenas are. They are a hungry people who follow a charismatic leader to invade another territory, and they just so happen to learn to march in a very telling way… Okay, they’re Germany. “Be Prepared” basically tells you this. It’s not South Africa. It’s Nazi Germany. Why? Why are they German hyenas doing Elton John Shakespeare? I… don’t know. I mean, Nazis are easy bad guys… I guess? The movie has all kinds of weird cultural blending, what with the singing lions doing Shakespeare thing. Why not add Hitler? Hitler is an easy bad guy. There’s no real controversy if your bad guy is just Hitler.

Now, people can say that making an entire group evil is a really bad lesson for kids, and, yes, I agree, but this is hardly the only story to do  that. I find The Lord of the Rings far worse when it comes to creating pure-evil races that can be killed with impunity. That’s way more troubling to me because that story is meant for adults, while The Lion King is for kids who are more interested in a broad idea of “doing good things” than in drawing political parallels. However, if you want more subtle and morally complex animated fare, Miyazaki is a thing. I mean, he hardly ever has a pure-evil bad guy.

In the end, I think this movie is good but overrated, visually breathtaking but musically middling, somewhat awkward, but super successful. It may not always work, but when it does it really, really does. I understand why people love it, and I understand why some people don’t. But, for me, it is culturally significant enough to warrant viewings.

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Defending Disney: Beauty and the Beast

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I think that if you ask most people which Disney film they like best it is usually one of the following: Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King. And, it’s not hard to see the reasoning behind these choices. These are both big, impressive films, with stories far more complex and emotional than their predecessors. They really resonated with audiences due to their strong character development, memorable songs, and state-of-the-art animation. So, first to look at Beauty and the Beast.

This is one of those rare Disney films where even non-fans kind of like it. It’s hard to find anyone who dislikes the movie, and almost everyone who does has more of an ideological reason than a film-quality reason, which is unfortunate as the film is a film, not a political tract.

After the success of The Little Mermaid and the resurgence of popular interest in not only Disney princesses but Disney animation, the studio had a new direction and a new wave of fairytale structures. The ’90s Disney pics, the Renaissance Disney films, were typified by impressive animation, ’80s mega-musical-style songs, and a new sense of youth culture. The characters are generally misfits, for some reason or another, who want something “more”. In a way, this isn’t too different than Disney’s previous interest in living one’s dreams. But, while Classic Disney tells audiences that it’s good to be optimistic, to hope, and to see the world as full of possibilities, these ’90s Disney films are interested in how their protagonists can do this and how they feel. The stories, liberated by stronger innovations in motion and anatomy, as well as new computer technology, are able to move from the archetypal structures of the past to look at characters with stronger and more realistic desires. I say more realistic, because the archetypal style doesn’t really go away. But, in ’90s Disney the good princess might want to live her dreams because she has been reading books and has desires for adventure, and because she doesn’t fit in, rather that because she is a young princess who dreams.

So, enter Belle. Belle is almost everyone’s favorite princess. At least, almost everyone I know.

Belle-disney

Again, it’s not hard to understand. Belle, like Ariel, doesn’t quite fit in. But, unlike Ariel, who makes herself an outsider simply because she’s a brooding teenager who sits in her room with her posters and collectibles and sings angsty songs to herself, Belle is different because she just thinks differently than the people around her. She’s the daughter of an eccentric inventor and enjoys reading and studying, and cheering on her father in his plans to promote new inventions to the world. Unfortunately, they live in hicksville, where the cares of the villagers are, well, provincial.

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The people don’t understand dreamers who want more than finding a line of work or getting married, and, interestingly, this doesn’t just extend to Belle. I think people forget that her father is kind of a pioneering brain, and the town thinks he’s crazy for wanting to do things like… make work easier. He invents household technology and work-saving devices.

What is interesting about Belle is that, while Ariel’s good looks and voice were what made her fit in despite her awkwardness and angst, Belle’s good looks make her more of an outcast. The women her age don’t understand why she’s into books instead of boys. The town doesn’t understand why someone pretty is so different, and so they see her as even more odd, because she attracts more attention. And, the most attention she gets is from Gaston.

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Gaston is one of Disney’s more interesting villains. For one thing, he’s the first male villain in a princess movie. Considering that the films went from unable-to-animate-men to a character like Gaston, that is impressive. For another thing, Gaston is a major break from previous Disney villains. Ursula really isn’t that unusual for Disney –yet another witch with vague motivations, even if she is pretty awesome with her badass villain song. Gaston isn’t a witch or even an authority figure. He’s just the town jock, a good-looking guy whose interests happen to make him the town hero. He’s the kind of character one might initially think would be the hero, since he is vaguely good looking and has a Disney-style insta-love interest in Belle. However, he’s actually a selfish douchebag, who wants Belle because she would look good on his arm. He doesn’t share her interests, doesn’t respect her family, but thinks that she just should like him because everyone else does. He’s the town football hero who can’t understand why he doesn’t get everything his own way, the big-fish in the small pond. He’s the high school football star who always passed his classes so that he could play sports, even though he couldn’t really read.

And, frankly, I think that Belle and Gaston really typify why so many people relate to this movie. Belle is different, has ambitions that people don’t understand. How many people can relate to hearing, “Why don’t you just do what everyone else’s is doing?” or “What, do you think you’re special, wanting [fill in the blank]? Selfish!” In fact, that basically typifies all of society’s attitude toward “millennials”. “Why do you think you’re special or worthy of having a dream, ambitions, adventures? What, do you think you’re too good to work for $7 an hour flipping burgers at Pig’n’Grease, just because you have an MA in history and BAs in anthropology and classical languages? Pff, weirdo. Don’t take that unusual job. Don’t write that book. Don’t paint that. Don’t fall in love. Don’t try to fight for anything. Don’t try to get people interested in them derned books you’re always reading. You’re just a hipster!”

And, for all the (narcissistic) social analysis which deludes itself into thinking this is unique to our age, I’m pretty sure this theme is older and more resonating than current trending buzzwords might let on. I think when Disney unveiled a princess who has more ambition and brains than the people around her, that was a little refreshing: that it’s not elitist and doesn’t make you a horrible person to stand against mediocrity and want something more from life than “Marie, the baguettes!” and worshiping small-town heroes.

A literate young person? What an elitist hipster! Truly this is a terrible example for children!

A literate young person? What an elitist hipster! Truly this is a terrible example for children!

And, I think as much as a lot of people related to Belle, a lot of people related to a villain like Gaston. You see, where Belle just innocently desires something more from life, without judging or being unkind to the people around her, and therefore rises above provincial thinking without being an elitist, Gaston is an actual elitist. Yes, you can be a numb-skull and an elitist. He’s not above mediocrity, but he’s the best at being mediocre. He’s the douchebag frat boy who threw you into lockers. And, it’s not really his fault. Society is so mediocre that it doesn’t expect anything more. It made him.

This “more” that Disney is exploring is beyond the idea of dreams coming true and also carries with it a sense of rising above, seeking quality, being brave, being smart, striving for more than the average. Belle’s dad isn’t content with the way the world is, and so he invents ways to improve it, and Belle is the same. Interestingly, as much as this “more” and “being more” theme typifies ’90s Disney, its morals are very Pixar, not unlike The Incredibles. 

And, then, there’s the Beast, or, as Disney retroactively decided to name him, “Adam”. Yeah… they never mention this in the entire film. They probably only did so that people like me wouldn’t nickname him Marvin.

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The Beast is a great character, however. He’s a handsome prince with an ugly soul, who becomes an ugly beast and has to become beautiful on the inside. As corny as that sounds, this is interesting for Disney, as most of their heroes up to this point have been straight up good-looking, and their villains are ugly. How do you know Cinderella’s step-sisters are evil? Because they look plain and have enormous feet! But, beyond this, The Beast is a great character, with a story arc, internal conflict, changes, and even a sense of humor. He starts out very intimidating –this frightening, Gothic monster,–and then becomes a character whose transformation is almost disappointing when he actually turns human.

This is probably not unintentional. Beauty and the Beast owes much of its look and artistic style to classic arthouse, surrealist fairytale Le Belle et la Bete, a 1946 French film by Jean Cocteau, the director of Orphee.

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Cocteau reportedly thought the ending of the fairy tale was boring, unfitting for a dynamic heroine, and so he wanted audiences to be as disappointed as he was. He did this by making the ending extremely sentimental, but Disney does this by making The Beast a great character that you actually care about. In fact, Paige O’Hara supposedly cried while voicing the scene when The Beast seems to die.

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From a technical level, aside from borrowing heavily from Cocteau, it’s safe to say that Disney had solidified its image to the extent that it was building on its own artistic tradition more than picking art from history. However, this is not to say that the melds of art in the film do not have roots. For example, the heavy use of chiaroscuro and the interior designs of the castle itself are borrowing from the Baroque tradition.

Giovanni Lanfranco, Annunciation

Giovanni Lanfranco, Annunciation

However, the film is also very Gothic, in terms of architecture, as well as its interest in dark, monstrous images.

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It is also Romantic, but, again, Gothic Romantic, with Belle working just as easily in that tradition’s archetype as a fairy tale archetype. It has brooding, dark passages, an interest in decayed buildings, and an anti-hero, as well as a Byronic sense of heroes being somewhat outside of society. And, this I partially blame on its other major influence, the 1980s mega-musical, and Phantom of the Opera.

In fact, the entire structure is very mega-musical. While earlier Disney used the singing and dancing and talking animals of vaudevillian productions, The Little Mermaid was entering a musical scene that had changed dramatically. Broadway was creating massive, expensive mega-hits, with big pop-musical numbers, huge sets, and epic stories. EvitaLes MiserablesPhantom, these were all enormous productions with huge influence on the new Disney structure. In the past, for example, choir music works more like a Greek chorus, with only a few exceptions, often not even sung by anyone, and there more to explain a scene or create a montage to move the plot forward. In Beauty and the Beast, the first song is a Broadway chorus, where individualized characters sing the exposition in a massive show-tune style, not unlike scenes from Les Miserables. However, the way the characters sing dialog, and the big show-stoppers, like “Gaston”, “Be Our Guest”, and the titular “Beauty and the Beast” are also in this tradition. Songs like “On My Own” from Les Miserables or the love duet, “All I Ask of You” from Phantom of the Opera would not be out of place in this style of production. I think the film might owe more than it lets on to Phantom, in general, from its use of symbolic roses and mirrors, to a brooding and disfigured-but-romantic anti-hero, to The Beast having a Gothic lair… But, a lot of people tend to really disagree with this and argue that, if anything, they are simply inspired by the same fairy tale. What’s interesting is that Beauty and the Beast then went on to become a mega-musical on the stage, itself, bringing the influences full circle.

(Original Broadway Cast) Yes, I can see no obvious influence from Phantom here...

(Original Broadway Cast)
Yes, I can see no obvious influence from Phantom here…

Perhaps because of this structure, and audiences showing a strongly favorable interest in Phantom as a romantic story — because nothing says romance like brooding  angst–

Entire pop-culture, despotic empires have formed over this concept...

Entire pop-culture, despotic empires have formed over this concept…

Beauty and the Beast is one of the most unabashedly romantic Disney films. I don’t mean this in, “Oh! I am so swept up in this love story!” but rather that the film is intentionally put together to be more romantic and have more of an emphasis on the romance than the previous films. While love has always been a huge theme in the princess movies, the films aren’t really romantic, per se. Snow White only meets her prince twice, and he barely does anything. She’s simply waiting for him to find her, somehow. Cinderella’s dream, initially, is to go to the ball, and only then does she meet the prince. They share one song together, and that’s it. Love… I guess. Neither of these films had the technical prowess to create male characters that could be on screen long enough to be romantic. The films just tell us, in Cinderella‘s case quite literally, that this is love (huh-mmm-huh-mm). Sleeping Beauty has its princess and prince fall in love in a really gorgeously animated sequence, but the story is really about the fairies. The romance is just sort of assumed because this is fairytale logic. And, while Little Mermaid does have Ariel spend more time with Eric than any of the previous couples, the story really is about Ariel’s interests and Eric isn’t that much of a character. While as a kid I used to dress up as Eric (for some inexplicable reason), he’s actually a pretty bland leading man.

Beauty and the Beast, however, opens with The Beast’s story, and asks us, “Who could ever love a beast?” Then, when the characters meet, we see them go through changes, learn about one another, and develop together until they even get a romantic ballroom scene.

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And, of course, it’s a forbidden love, which Disney plays up in the scene when Belle shows Gaston the magic mirror and everyone decides to become an angry mob –totally unlike that other show it totally doesn’t owe any artistic credit to. And, the interactions between the characters are more traditionally romantic, not in that I am going to argue their swoony potential, but that they literally borrow from the tropes of romance films. The characters argue a lot, and that just means they’re meant for each other (a common romance movie trope).

"Hey, girl, you piss me the hell off." (The Notebook)

“Hey, girl, you piss me the hell off.”
(The Notebook)

The characters also are more physically affectionate. They dance closer, hold hands, kiss passionately. These aren’t actors. Animators and animation directors had to choose to specifically make the chemistry stronger than, say, how Prince Eric apparently needs an entire animal choir to encourage him to kiss the girl who leans in to kiss him –and then doesn’t even do it. There are animation choices being made. People chose to draw this, in purpose. And, I think the fact that this is a romance movie, not just a love story, is part of why people really connected with the film. Audiences loved it. Critics loved it. And, it was the first animated film to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.

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Now, of course, because this is a princess movie it has controversies. Something about making media that has a primary target of girls just makes people complain a lot, I guess.

On the left: Belle has Stockholm Syndrome and the movie encourages abusive relationships.

On the right: Oh, gosh, where to begin… Belle humiliates Gaston, Gaston is an offensive portrayal of men, Belle’s father isn’t tough and strong, there’s a fleeting image of a religious figure laughing in the scene when Gaston tries to marry Belle, Belle and The Beast are too sexy, beast characters encourage children to like monsters and those are apparently real and also the devil…

Everyone else: “There’s a controversy? What?””

First, people, you have got to stop diagnosing everyone with mental illnesses. I think this Stockholm Syndrome argument is the direct outcome of people medicating kids who fidget slightly because they have “ADHD” or are “manic”. Yeah, let’s stop pretending like we have doctorates in psychiatry when we don’t. Unless you actually do, in which case why are you analyzing Belle instead of real patients? Belle doesn’t have a disorder where she has convinced herself that she cares about an abductor. That is because this is a fantasy. This isn’t about an abduction. It’s about a world where enchanted castles hold enchanted Beasts. He, feeling threatened by an outsider, imprisons Belle’s father. Belle takes his place in the castle, which The Beast is just surprised by. She doesn’t really act like a prisoner, and even leaves, only coming back when The Beast is injured by the wolves. From that point on, she stays and does things like play in the snow. Furthermore, this is, again, a fairy tale, and the story really does have this plot point. It isn’t about reality but about abstract messages, like isolation, loneliness, being an outsider. And, it’s a part of our heritage. People complain about Disney dumbing down fairy tales, and then they complain when Disney follows the fairy tales. Nobody’s every happy. It’s always something.

In the end, Belle is a smart, ambitious, sacrificial, caring, brave, and strong character, and there’s nothing anti-feminist about that. You can hardly argue that The Beast doesn’t respect her by like ten minutes into their screen-time together, also. And, what little girl after seeing this would decide that what she wants is to be captured by a real kidnapper or in an abusive relationship? That doesn’t even exist in the same reality as this story, and clearly Belle has no problem ditching loser guys.

As for the right, I am constantly boggled by the arguments concerning Gaston. The guy’s a creep. He’s the guy who constantly tries to force himself onto someone and then beats up her boyfriend. This kind of person actually does exist. And, I don’t think that the male filmmakers are attacking men. I think that, just maybe, the kind of people who grew up to make Disney cartoons might possibly have clashed with Gaston-like characters in the past. It seems likely to me that arty people who went into the cartoon business might have had their problems with Gastons as kids. Besides, how is The Beast not a good male character, the opposite Gaston? In fact, by the end, The Beast even appears gentler and Gaston looks like a raving maniac, and Belle puts a fine point on it by calling him the monster.

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The point is that not everyone who looks good and is maybe a small-town hero is a good person, which is a valuable lesson for kids. And, again, The Beast is a good male character, both kind but also strong and fierce when he needs to be. I get the feeling that some of the idea that he’s less “traditionally masculine”, a phrase which apparently forgot this was ever a thing…

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…comes from The Beast’s design when he is a prince. Because he’s… French-looking and doesn’t seem like, I don’t know, a Duck Dynasty member. Because only guys with a cleft chin, who hang antlers everywhere and shoot geese in city limits, are truly manly? Because manliness depends on fashion and looks? That sounds like a horrible lesson!

As for Belle’s father, yeah, he’s not strong. Because he’s an old man. He is, however, smart and obviously passed on his ways of thinking to his daughter. He also sacrifices and cares about her, despite being an old man and an intellectual, not a warrior. Physical strength isn’t everything, and that’s kind of the point of the movie. Plus, when Belle takes his place, the movie makes it clear that he’s not just given up. He doesn’t want her to take his place, and he almost dies looking for her. Yeah… what a horrible depiction of a kind, loving father. I wish he was more like Gaston, said no one ever.

And, yes, there is a reverend type in the crowd at Gaston’s farcical wedding. Because no reverend has never been bad… Besides, the entire town is there. The idea is that the town has spoiled Gaston so much that he literally cannot understand or stand being rejected. His entire motivation is that he’s embarrassed by this. But, I remember as a kid that a lot of people thought Belle should have been nicer to him. Let me ask you this: if a random guy burst in on your daughter with a bunch of people and was like, “We’re getting married! You’re so lucky!” would you say to her, “Be nice, girl. Be sweet about it!”? Probably not.

The last two complaints I’ll address really quickly, because they are dumb. One, do you really find a kid’s cartoon too steamy for you? What, are chair legs to steamy for you? The problem with this complaint is 100% about the complainer. Two, monsters aren’t real. You don’t have to worry about your kids falling for a real monster and thinking it’s good because… monsters are imaginary. So is Santa. But, kids will encounter very real people who look different or who are in some way outsiders, and we should care about them. Real people are hurt every day because they are different, look different, are not in the norm. But, monsters don’t exist. Real monsters are, like the movie says, like Gaston, and that’s a more realistic message to teach your kids.

I’ve encountered a lot of writing which really praises the idea of very abstract evil, dragons, and monsters. One writer complained that his political opposition should just admit that they are orks so that he could fight them. Need I remind anyone that orks are killed without mercy in fantasy stories? While showing kids the defeat of an abstract monster can teach kids the valuable lesson that evil can be conquered, real evil doesn’t look like imaginary monsters. We learned the lesson about slaying dragons in Sleeping Beauty, but there are more lessons that kids can learn, and Beauty and the Beast provides some of them.

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Defending Disney: The Little Mermaid

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I’m skipping ahead a little. After Sleeping Beauty, the Disney franchise didn’t make films that were as big and, frankly, expensive. There are real classics from this era, of course, and it’s interesting to note that the idea of making more male-focused cartoons is not recent. In fact the second major Disney film after Snow White was Pinocchio, and in this era we have our Jungle Book and our Robin Hood  and Peter Pan. Some of these, like the previously mentioned three, are classics. Some are underrated and unfairly forgotten, like The Great Mouse Detective, and some are just not that interesting, like the original Rescuers and Oliver and Company. And, eventually Disney went through a bit of a slump, in an era dominated by classic Don Bluth cartoons, and culminating in a really terrible adaptation of Lloyd Alexander’s The Book of Three and bits of The Black Cauldron, but going by the latter book’s title because the studio didn’t care about that project.

So, so stupid...

So, so stupid…

Despite the handful of classics, I am skipping ahead simply for two reasons. The first is that the technological innovation sort of plateaued, despite some greater sense of “camera motion” in the animation. But, in general, in Disney’s age the focus seemed to be on creating solid and recognizably Disney pictures, and after his passing many of the features began to take a bit of a downturn in quality. And, furthermore, there wasn’t another big, controversial film until the princess movies came back. And, yes, I know that technically I am skipping probably the most controversial Disney film, Song of the South. This is because I haven’t seen it. It’s also not really a cartoon, but more of a Who Framed Roger Rabbit  type meld. I have heard reviews saying it isn’t as controversial as people think, and I’ve heard counter reviews saying that making the treatment of black people in the South so happy is actually horribly offensive. But, I haven’t seen it. I don’t know how the movie plays out. I’m inclined to agree with the arguments against the film, as they tend to be historically and socially stronger, but, again, I can’t speak for the movie’s quality myself.

So, instead, I want to jump ahead to 1989.

The so-called Disney Renaissance films may or may not have been started by technological innovations in Roger Rabbit but the look, style, and storytelling comes firmly from The Little Mermaid. Here’s where we get our ’90s Disney formula, of “wanting more”, and heroes who feel insecure and out of place, and big Broadway-styled musical numbers matching the mega-musical style of the ’80s, like Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables. And this trend would continue to dominate Disney from this point onward.

The Little Mermaid is based on the Hans Christian Anderson story of the same name, but shares basically nothing with that plot outside of the title and the mermaids. Otherwise, this is a very loose adaptation. This is the American Disney fairytale, with happy endings, cute animal friends, and big songs. Interestingly the original story is very quiet and dark, and, spoilers, she dies in the end. So, the man who brought us The Little Match Girl killed The Little Mermaid as well. I think that whatever unfair criticisms of Snow White‘s lack of darkness are, they are better served here, because this is truly the first time that Disney has completely chosen its wholesome, happy image over the source material in a princess movie. (It did this in The Jungle Book, previously, however, and I think that adaptation paved the way for audiences to be okay with these changes.)

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So, let’s jump right into the controversies:

On the left: Ariel sells her soul for a man.

On the right: Ariel is disobedient and doesn’t learn much from her disobedience. Also, the modesty movement finds her shell-bikini offensive.

Everyone: Ariel is a brat who never learns anything.

First of all, Ariel is absolutely a brat. That’s completely accurate. And, I think that her character is why this, after Cinderella, is the most controversial Disney princess. She gets on a lot of parents’ nerves. She makes poor choices. I think a lot of people find her not only a bad example for kids, but kind of an annoying character. You see, Disney has always been involved with the budding youth culture of America since its inception, but by 1989 the youth culture brand of teenager was fully recognized. This is the first teenaged princess, not youthful but straight up teenaged. And, boy do they play this up!

I want to address this first because a.) I loved this movie as a kid and b.) I think that the storytelling is really pretty interesting here. You see, I think Disney’s wholesome image has led a lot of people to see the studio not simply as happy and family-friendly (you can trust that Ariel does not die in this version), but instead that it serves as some moral compass, the fables of America. And, I think that’s really bad. While definitely a parent who worries that her child will imitate Ariel’s moodiness might wait on showing this film, Disney really should not be America’s beacon of morality. On the one hand, these are pretty abstract and simplistic stories, with very basic good-vs-evil morals that need to be supplemented by parents and teachers with meatier ethical instruction. On the other hand, it hampers the studio’s artistic freedom to be constantly worried about people who seem to want their entire moral instruction to come from The House of Mouse.

I am going to posit that Ariel isn’t meant to be a fully didactic, good character, an example of princessly goodness. The earlier Disney princess films, both artistically and structurally, have a sort of diorama feel to them. This is because they basically are dioramas of images placed upon one another in layers of transparent cells and shot into. On the one hand, it makes for some of the most lush and detailed animation in the studio’s history. On the other hand, there’s not a strong illusion of “camera” movement. The characters are mostly shot straight on, which allow for the scenery to be far more detailed than future productions simply because it didn’t have to move. It’s like they are shot on beautiful sets. But, with more movement and less lush detail getting adapted into Disney, and some new computer innovation (first used to create movement in Oliver and Company, I believe, which was released the year before), the stories moved away from the beautiful stage play look. They created worlds you could more freely move around in, which from a movement perspective is really wonderful, but which also loses something by ending those static but gorgeous background pieces.

However, with more movement came more room for the characters to express themselves physically, to “act”. While early Disney works in a sort of comedia dell’arte style of archetypal characters (the sweet princess, handsome prince, funny sidekicks, cute animals, scary villains) the increase of movement let the animators and writers create characters with more personality and, well, flaws. And here is where Ariel comes in. Ariel is a very flawed character. She’s naive, disobedient, moody, full of teen angst, and, interestingly, she also isn’t as graceful and poised as her predecessors. Can you imagine Cinderella tripping around the way Ariel does when she first gets legs? Or Snow White brushing her hair with a fork? Or Aurora running around barefoot in her nightgown, her hair a mess?

The awkward princess. Also, the first princess with toes.

The awkward princess. Also, the first princess with toes.

I think when people critique Ariel they forget just how innovative she is as a character. She isn’t an archetype. She’s not a didactic image of goodness. She’s a character, and she has flaws and quirks. But, what I will suggest is that these are actually good. Ariel is selfish, awkward, naive, and moody, just wanting to do her thing and hang out in her room with her collection of stuff, and sing her songs, and dream of romance, and awkwardly want to grow up. Sound familiar? Disney has always had this great knack for picking up on young concerns, and that’s usually where the controversies come from: that Disney is addressing the concerns and anxieties of young people rather than the rules and concerns of grownups. But, honestly, I think that the adults will survive. Truly. I think there is a place for Disney creations that aren’t just teaching “be good” but understand that sometimes kids don’t do the right thing, and can be moody, angsty, and selfish, and have a collection of junk, and sing songs alone about how misunderstood they are. I think Disney actually really captured this aspect of teen years, and, frankly, weren’t we all a little like this? Should we all be punished for being teens? I kind of like that Ariel is simply understood, as flawed as she is, because teenagers are flawed. And this doesn’t make them bad. In fact, in some ways, we can learn from these flawed teens, learn from their aspirations, their stubbornness, their joy at some pretty silly stuff, their passion.

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I said before that Ariel would be the feisty princess, and she is, but she’s also the angsty princess. And, that’s good. That’s a part of growing up. If Snow White shows you can get through scary situations with a positive attitude and some friends, Ariel shows kids that you can get through your own major screw-ups, and that being an angsty, teenaged screw-up isn’t the end of the world. That people will still love you, your parents will still love you, and that this kind of parental love may not make sense at first but eventually you’ll understand and appreciate it. Which, I think, should counter the right’s concern that Ariel is too disobedient. Because sometimes kids disobey, but that doesn’t mean that we want them to be killed by Sea Witches. And, reassuring kids that sometimes the parent who seems harsh really does love you is probably a better deterrent for disobedience than just having her be obedient.

The left’s concern is that Ariel encourages girls to give away everything to get a man. Honestly, I don’t think that’s accurate to the story at all. For one thing, did you know that originally critics liked how Ariel was active in her romance, that this was considered progressive? We don’t think that Prince Philip is giving away everything when he literally risks his life to fight a dragon and save a woman he only just met. I think that the idea that a woman might be the pursuer is somehow anti-feminist only reflects the critic’s own preconceived notion that women cannot have it all. It’s love or a career, kids! No, no, I don’t buy that. Also, I think that, again, Ariel isn’t a didactic character. She’s a character, and sometimes characters aren’t perfect for any one political movement. Besides, I’d like to point out that the entire beginning of the movie is devoted to showing how obsessed with humans Ariel is, so it’s reasonable to say that her crush on the prince isn’t her only motivation. In fact, it seems like her real motivation is that her dad broke her collection of human stuff and she rebelled out of emotion. So, I think that criticism might be made by people who didn’t watch the show very carefully.

Ariel is the fangirl princess who collects human images like teenagers collect pop-idol posters.

Ariel is the fangirl princess who collects human images like teenagers collect pop-idol posters.

As for the modestly argument, can I just say that first of all, this is a cartoon. It’s not a real body. It’s a collection of circles, inking, and coloring effects. So, there’s that. Furthermore, traditionally, mermaid characters would be topless, so there’s that, too. And, lastly, she’s sixteen and wearing a bikini top. If you think that’s murderously immoral, then we probably aren’t going to be able to discuss it. But, for me, personally, the drawing of a sixteen-year-old fish-woman in a bikini isn’t immodest, and usually this argument comes from the same fringe group that thinks Sleeping Beauty is bad.

Now, from an art history perspective, the show doesn’t reference or draw from art as much as the previous princess films, other than a quick reference to a sculpture of The Little Mermaid.

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I’ve heard people make claims that she is inspired by Waterhouse, but I don’t see it and haven’t heard anything about that in cinema history studies.

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No, the artistic direction here is based more on the animation itself, the movement. It has illusions of cinematography, and this is really probably the most interesting thing about the film. I am not kidding. Cinematography has been a huge discussion recently, what with the use of CGI. What does it mean anymore? What does it mean, say, for a film like Gravity?

Gravity by Alfonso Cuaron

Gravity by Alfonso Cuaron

What do we mean when our “camera” is a computer? How does this change our perception of what cinematography is, as an art form and from a technical level? This year, especially, the subject has been on all the film nerd sites. But, I say we can take the discussion and look back, retroactively, and apply it to animation, as well. Animation has to create an illusion of a world that isn’t there. While the earlier princess movies did have illusions of crane shots, they were mostly shot straight on, like an audience watching a play. In this film, however, we get an idea that a “camera” is moving in and out, capturing all sorts of angles and movement, following the characters around.

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illusion of a low-angle shot

illusion of a low-angle shot

This is a fascinating illusion and technologically masterful, because there obviously is not a moving camera in the water with Ariel or following her through the scenes. It’s all illusion, done by animation angles and perspective shots. That’s fascinating. Also, this would be a great time to introduce kids to perspective art…

The School of Athens by Raphael

The School of Athens by Raphael

The film’s other strength is, of course, its music. While earlier Disney does have some classic songs, they don’t tend to be as catchy or as pop-memorable as the pseudo-mega-musical numbers of ’90s Disney. A lot of this, I think, comes from character developments in the Disney films we kind of skipped, like the desire to make The Jungle Book more fun and reference a lot of popular music styles, and how that film and The Great Mouse Detective  introduced us to villain songs. Little Mermaid is the first princess movie with a villain song, and man is it a classic. (Also, fun fact, Ursula’s character was based on Divine, the drag queen from Pink Flamingos.) But, it’s not just Ursula who has great songs. In fact, the music was what really captured audiences and, I think, may have been why people wanted a resurgence of Disney princess stories instead of, say, more Oliver and Company. Ariel’s songs are catchy, pop-ballads, still wonderfully sing-able, and other characters, like Sebastian, the crab, have great tunes, as well.

There is some controversy over Sebastian, like the fact that he is Jamaican and everyone else is so white. And there is a throw-away scene of “the blackfish” which… yeah, if you catch it, it is pretty bad. But, I don’t think that kids catch this. I never did. So, I think that if you are introducing kids to racially diverse media, this is unlikely to create subconscious racism. I don’t think they’re going to notice, although I also wish it wasn’t in the film. But, for me, it’s like the naked woman in RescuersShe’s there, but did anyone notice her as kids? I certainly didn’t.

Also, I think Sebastian is Jamaican because of the music the studio wanted to do, and probably that’s where the entire rationale went. For better or for worse, I don’t think he’s meant to be offensive. And, for better, I think his songs are great. “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl” are catchy, fun songs, at least as memorable as a lot of stuff Andrew Lloyd Webber was producing at the time.

So, in the end, I wouldn’t say this is the greatest film ever made, but I do think it is important. It ushered in a new era of Disney, and it created a new kind of female character. I know she’s flawed, but I like that she’s flawed, because as a teenager I was also very flawed. I still am flawed. And, somehow having a princess be this flawed is really reassuring.

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Defending Disney: Cinderella

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Cinderella is by far the Disney film that has earned the most controversy –and this fact blows my mind. I honestly, truly do not understand this, and not because I think the film is good. No, this is absolutely my least favorite Disney Princess movie. No, my confusion is simply because this movie is so incredibly bland that I don’t really see how it can be offensive.

My problems with Cinderella are not ideological at all. I have the least political reasons imaginable, and probably the nerdiest, for disliking this movie. My first problem is that the animation changed. If I recall my film history correctly, it’s because of one or more deaths in the company, but I don’t have a citation on that so someone may need to check for me. Regardless, the Grimm’s illustration-style, dark, broody, lush, Germanic look of Snow White and Pinocchio  (which I am not going to review other than to say it is actually a really scary movie) was replaced with a French-inspired, light, frothy, pastel look. It’s been compared to illustrations by C.E. Brock, which I’m not sure is intentional, but makes sense.

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However, I simply don’t like it. My artistic tastes are for more detailed, lush animation styles and I find Cinderella a little too clean and polished and frothy for my liking.

Cinderella and the prince

My other problem with Cinderella is that the music is actually really bad. Sure, the film won an Oscar for best song, but other than that song, really think about the soundtrack. Do you ever find your self humming it? Do you think, “You know, Cinderella has some really classic tunes!” My guess is not. The music is extremely bland. The love song is literally dominated by humming, which is never a good sign. The second most sing-able tune is “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes”, which is in itself a lyrically vague statement and paired with a forgettable la-de-da type tune, which is only memorable because it is so simplistic. “Sing Sweet Nightingale” serves no storytelling purpose, is lyrically not even related to the plot, and is extremely boring. Sure, it’s technically interesting, from a sound-mixing perspective. Ilene Woods harmonizes with herself in the scene, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t admit that she does have a very nice voice. But, since this is 1950, and I do like my music of the era, I have to say that song is not really something you want to tune into now. And, then there’s the mice. I hate the mice. I hate their voices so, so much. I’ve heard people say that their song is actually good, but no. It can’t be. Because it’s sung by the mice! I’ve never been into that chipmunk sound, and this is no exception. If I wanted to hear that, I’d just suck helium from a balloon.

So, my two major complaints are out of the way, what can we say about the story and what are the controversies?

On the left: Cinderella is the worst role-model for women ever, because she is passive, never does anything for herself, and waits around to be saved from her situation.

On the right: Like Snow White, this film doesn’t offend most conservatives, but some have been pointing out that the prince is just incidental.

Everyone:  The prince falls in love with Cinderella because of her clothes.

First of all, I’d like to make a wild and daring statement and say that Cinderella suffers from unsophisticated storytelling. Oh, I know. Radical. I bet everyone thought this was the animated Rashomon.

A dream is a wish your heart makes... five different and conflicting ways, and even beyond the dead!

A dream is a wish your heart makes… five different and conflicting ways, and even beyond the dead!

I know, it’s a children’s film, it’s Disney. We shouldn’t expect extremely complicated storytelling. However, I think that story expectations are where the problems come in. For example, the story is set in a fantasy world, and it has castles and royalty. But, the art design borrows heavily from 1950s fashion. Without making a clear setting in the story, the viewer starts to get an idea that this is the 1950s, but with fantasy elements. And, because of this, Cinderella seems like kind of a putz. In the original story, she cannot leave. Where would she go? But, if this is the 1950s, there’s a real sense that Cinderella is suffering from codependency and could probably leave if she wanted to. That’s why so many feminists find her infuriating. However, I’d like to point out that Cinderella isn’t a 1950s woman. She just looks like one. Think of it this way: Cinderella, the drawing, is a 1950s woman illustration who was “cast” as Cinderella the character, a fantasy character in a semi-medieval world where she is not going to be able to leave, go to New York, get a flat and work as a typist. For all intents and purposes, Cinderella is stuck and has nowhere to go.

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Honestly, I find this controversy fairly silly because it’s actually a great parable for how not to be as a woman. In a world where women are often pitted against one another, through competition and a consumer culture which encourages this kind of comparison to one another, Cinderella shows just how ugly jealousy and pettiness really is. The dynamic of the evil stepmother and Cinderella, as well as the step-sisters (who are more stupid and bratty than straight-up evil) is actually very interesting and carries some valuable lessons. Lady Tremaine is manipulative, cunning, and her one sense of control and power is to ruin her step-daughter’s life. We all have met people who are like this in some sense, whether they are classmates, peers, co-workers, relatives, employers, and so on, there are people who find their power trips just through trying to destroy another person. They tend to narrow in on sweet-tempered people, as well, like Cinderella. This could be useful to point out to children, how manipulative and power-hungry people can behave. And, it’s interesting that the mother twists her daughters into doing her bullying for her, daughters who the film portrays as otherwise just kind of lazy. They’d probably be happy with just eating breakfast in bed and lounging around, but their laziness, pettiness, and delusional belief that they will become celebrities (marry the prince) makes them downright abusive. If that’s not a timely lesson to this day, I don’t know what is!

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Even though I never really liked this movie as a kid, it was hard not to feel sad right at this scene.

Even though I never really liked this movie as a kid, it was hard not to feel sad right at this scene.

Now, in all fairness, there is a point to Cinderella’s character problems, but it’s not anti-feminism. In fact, supposedly this was the fairytale Walt Disney related to the most, because he had received such luck in his own career and art. (There’s a good review for the movie on http://www.thatguywiththeglasses.com, if anyone is interested.) If he related to Cinderella, it seems unlikely he’d create her to be a character with bad morals. No, Cinderella’s problem once again goes back to some unsophisticated storytelling. She’s just really boring. She’s passive. If Snow White is an optimist with a go-get-’em attitude, who is always doing something to improve her situation and make friends, Cinderella is the opposite. She’s actually not very optimistic and gives up easily. When she’s interrupted in making her dress, she doesn’t decide to sneakily make it at night. She just leaves it, wistfully, and the mice and birds make it for her. Her character doesn’t do very much. And, I think the writers realized this because we have endless padding with the mice and birds doing all the action we’d probably rather see the main character do. This, I assume, is actually a fault of the same technical difficulties in Snow White: humans are hard to animate, and mice aren’t. Unfortunately for me, I hate the mice, so all of these scenes are tedious and annoying to me.

However, I don’t think Cinderella is a bad character. I think she’s a poorly-written character. But, she does have good traits. If Snow White is optimistic, Cinderella is hopeful. She doesn’t see the good in all her situations like Snow White does (which, again, is because she’s in a literally abusive household, so that makes sense) but she is hopeful. She has an idea that someday things will get better. That’s the message of the story: life gets better. And, sometimes children are in bad situations that they can’t really change. We do need messages that life sometimes just does get better. Kids change and bullies grow up and you eventually graduate and life can get better. It’s a good idea to remember when this film was made: 1950. This is a postwar movie. And, the world needed a little of that sort of hope, that despite situations the civilians could not change, life does indeed get better. That’s a good message.

disney_quotes_cinderella_1

Now, as for the prince, he, too, suffers from being poorly written. He’s not really an important character, again hampered by animation technicalities but also just not being important. If you think that boys won’t get into the movie because of this, then I don’t blame you. But, here’s the thing, I never related to either Cinderella or the prince as a kid. I used to pretend to be many Disney characters, and I don’t remember ever pretending to be either of these two. I found them extremely boring. I think that the filmmakers kind of realized this and so we do have active characters, male and female, in the mice and birds. Tragically, for me, these characters are just nails-on-a-chalkboard annoying, but I know some kids really loved them. And, I admit, I did like Gus as a child. Though, now, I just like the cat. The cat the the fairy godmother. But, if you think kids are going to get ideas that women should just wait around and men are prizes for being good, I think you might be too invested in Disney as your moral compass in adult life. Kids probably won’t get that idea and most likely will see a very simplistic good-vs-bad story that also includes magic and talking animals. I wouldn’t worry too much.

However, for all the conservative worry about how fathers are portrayed in media, I’m shocked no one seems to hate the king. The king is horrible. He is like this tyrant who has an all-consuming drive to have grandkids, not because he wants heirs but because he’s lonely. And he’s willing to sell out his son to all the fame-obsessed women of the community just so they will breed. He even tries to kill the duke when this doesn’t work out. The duke is literally terrified of being executed when he accidentally breaks the glass slipper. The king is an ass. A lonely ass, but an ass. However, as a kid, I never got how creepy that was, so my guess is it’s not too damaging. It is, however, really weird. The prince doesn’t even go searching for Cinderella. The king sets that up because he’s maniacal in his desire to be a grandfather. This is a super weird twist, and I don’t know why people don’t mention it very often.

The madness of King Disney-guy...

The madness of King Disney-guy…

As for the prince only picking Cinderella for her clothes or whatever else people have problems with: the prince is barely a character. His voice actor is not even credited. Male characters are just technically hard to animate, and the story isn’t written well. It’s not a scheme or a plot to teach bad lessons. But, it isn’t written very well, and these problems will later be addressed in the far-superior Sleeping Beauty.

I feel like I’ve been unfairly harsh on the movie, however, and I’d like to point out some decent scenes. While I don’t like the overall look of the film, I do appreciate Mary Blair’s original concept, which is very much based on Romantic and Rococo art.

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I don’t like Rococo. It makes me anxious, and I think it looks cluttered and garish. But, this is a matter of taste, and I have to admit that at least there is a lot of thought and effort that went into emulating the artistic styles for the movie.

Portrait of Mademoiselle Guimard as Terpsichore by Jacques-Louis David Jacques-Louis David

Portrait of Mademoiselle Guimard as Terpsichore by Jacques-Louis David Jacques-Louis David

Also, the movement looks wonderful. Cinderella moves in a far more fluid manner than Snow White and the characters look more realistic. There’s a lot of grace to Cinderella’s movements. She’s very elegant, and there must have been incredible patience in getting all those frames to create her beautifully fluid motion. Also, there are some animation scenes that I do like and think really work. I love the scene when the fairy godmother creates her coach and horses, et cetera. And, then there’s the scene when Cinderella finally gets her dress and glass slippers. This is a technically brilliant moment of animation, and Disney himself considered it the most beautiful scene in any of his films. And, yeah, it’s that good. Even though I don’t think that the movie is as artistic as Snow White, and I do find a lot of the film very boring, every time I think I wouldn’t recommend it to a child I remember that the child wouldn’t get to see this scene. And, this is an important scene in animation, cinema history, and art. It really does capture the magic and wonder of a faiytale, and it works beautiful. It’s a damn good piece of animation, and I think it actually justifies the rest of the film’s existence. It’s that powerful.

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Cinderella-Blue-Dress

So, I don’t think this is a great film, but I also don’t think it’s an offensive film. I don’t think the movie encourages bad behaviors in children or portrays women or men in a bad light. I think it suffers from bad storytelling, but in the end I’d call this an innocuous bore with a few moments of brilliance. And, the message of hope remains timely and true. So, for all my dislike of the movie, I am actually happy it exists. Sometimes, we need a movie that says life gets better, and which gives us that sense of awe at seeing a beautiful moment in animation. Maybe that’s enough.

Cinderella - getting the slipper

The Dangerous Imagination

And now for something completely different.

I will use this picture over, and over, and over again, so help me...!

I will use this picture over, and over, and over again, so help me…!

I don’t think we often discuss imagination critically. In fact, most discussion of imagination falls into one of the following categories:

1.) “Hey, kids!I’m a popular TV character! Use your imagination and SOAR –on my show, at weekdays at 10!”

2.) “It’s great that the kids have such imaginations.”

3.) “Woa. That fantasy novel had duck-bear-werecats! Such imagination!”

4.) “Little Bobby spent 72 hours on the internet without eating, drinking, or peeing. I fear his imagination is dead. As well as his frontal lobe.”

Generally, imagination is seen as this nebulous thing, like refracted light, something we all just think is pretty and can’t quite define or grasp. It’s like love in a cheesy movie. We don’t really know what it is or what it does, but it’s really, really awesome and good people want it and have it, and baaaad people just don’t get it. Imagination is what the quirky underdog character in the movie has. The big, meany bully characters don’t have it because they don’t get underdog’s amazing ability to be whimsical and quirky. And it’s really awesome that underdog is so whimsical and quirky and imaginative and why can’t we all be like that?

The trouble with wanting and idolizing something that we don’t really define or explain is that you can’t really preserve the good that is there when you don’t know what it is or how to preserve it. It’s like true love. The reason people are starting to get a little tired of Disney’s insta-love, as parodied in Enchanted, isn’t just because we’re a bunch of progressive cynics or evil feminists who hate romance. The trouble is that we have had romances and they aren’t instant, just-add-water love between two perfectly good-looking people who just so happen to be royalty. I don’t have a problem with stories that teach kids that true love is a beautiful, great thing and can save the day. That’s fine. I don’t have a problem with stories that teach kids that imagination is cool and better than beating the crap out of people. That’s excellent. But, we already have our Snow Whites and Cinderellas and Sleeping Beauties, and we already have our Disney’s Bridge to Terabithia and countless TV specials about imagination. We don’t need any more. Those simple lessons are there, and the good ones (like classic Disney) will be timeless. But, people need more than Moulin Rouge-style love is awesome in order to understand love, and people need more than a PBS kids special about how awesome imagination is to understand imagination. When Disney parodies itself in Enchanted, it’s not spitting on Snow White or its other darlings. But, it is recognizing that we as a society do know that love is more complicated than singing a song and going straight to the wedding. This is less of a gender issues/liberation discussion and more of cultural growth. We learned our original Disney lessons, and some of them were valuable and cultural icons. But, after learning that we move on. That’s what learning is. And, in terms of imagination, I don’t see this happening very often.

The first and most obvious problem, in my opinion, is that we don’t really explain what imagination just –only that it’s awesome and good people have it and bad people don’t. It you don’t have it, then maybe a wide-eyed child will teach you, or a manic pixie dream girl, or an unlikely hero underdog who just sees the world so beautifully and…

Oscar! Oscar! Give them all Oscars!

Actually, imagination is more than having a streak of purple hair, or closing your eyes and picturing a really cool special effects sequence for the next heartwarming blockbuster, or just being a tortured poet from a Stephen King novel. The idea of the sensitive, quirky, nutty aesthete has been popularized by the media to create this weird, whimsical image of the imaginative. It’s the big kids learning to let go and be like the little kids again. It’s Robbin Williams’ Patch Adams portrayal. It’s the outsider who dares to be different! That’s ART!

And, unfortunately, that is not art. In fact, for every wacky, quirky artist, from G.K. Chesterton sitting for hours in front of cobwebs, to Hunter S. Thompson’s constant performance of Dr. Gonzo, to Baroness Elsa von Freytag Loringhoven and her birdcage hat, there are some pretty serious, even stuffy artists and writers who created masterful works without ever getting so much as a lip ring and an anti-establishment T-shirt.

So, why am I bringing up these cliches about artists and imaginative types? Well, I’m bringing them up because often times these are what we think of when we’re given a subject. We think of cliches, types, common images, even if they’re misconceptions or just outright lies, or partial truths formed by a cultural bias. And all of these cliches, biases, misconceptions, and images that form what we think about are all a part of the imagination.

Yes.

That illusive, so awesome, totally hip imagination is also responsible for people coming up with cliched group-think.

Imagination is exactly what it sounds like. It’s what we imagine, how we picture reality. It’s literally creating images of what reality is like. This can be a fantastic tool if you are Mozart and your image of reality comes in the form of some of the greatest music ever written, and you can just BE a fantastic tool if your imagination leads you to brand people with negative stereotypes. It’s a double-edged sword.

See that? “Double-edged sword” is a cliche, but it’s a part of the common lexicon and a subject we can all understand based on our ability to use imaginations. If we didn’t have imaginations, if we were entirely made of fact and unable to process metaphor, we’d be like Vulcans and very confused.

Imagination is usually meant to mean that child-like ability to look at the clouds and see fairy castles. In actuality, that image of imagination IS imagining. We imagine imagination to be a certain way, and when we do it is almost impossible to stop. It’s very hard to separate the valued, desire, awesome imagination that Anne of Greengables loved so much with the fact that a collective imagination also produced those annoying TV ads about what guys and gals are *supposed* to like.

Imagination is often how we see the world, particularly in terms of things we can’t actually see. That’s why it’s so useful. We cannot really grasp infinite, the age of the universe, complex emotions, people we never met, but we can imagine and that can be a great learning tool. We can take this imagining and create stories, art, film, music, dance, architecture, and it can inspire questions that will influence science, technology, even cooking. In that sense, it’s great.

Imagination also influences wonder, which is basically the only aspect of imagination that people imagine about imagination. This is the wide-eyed, childlike sense of awe that I was just mocking, but is actually pretty important. Awe can be healthy, can make people appreciate their lives, can make people feel good about the world, and can inspire great art which in turn inspires awe. Wonder is a good thing, and becoming jaded and cynical is an actual problem in society. I don’t want to downplay that.

But, just focusing on all the wonder does mean that we might forget what imagination can do. Remember, just trying to dispel the notion that imagination is something more than what we imagine it to be is itself kind of a task. But, imagination really can have a dark side, which itself is a cliche that we all understand and is mired in tons of ideological and social issues which form our imaginations.

One of the most obvious examples of the dangerous imagination crops up in art and media from the past quite frequently. This being the normative perspective, the perspective of a majority or ruling class which is then taken as the mainstream understanding of society and which influences the collective imagination. I am, of course, talking about racism. Think about the old-timey, embarrassingly racist images of people from other cultures: the evil, treacherous Jews of Hitlerian propaganda, who also show up in everything from The Sun Also Rises to Oliver Twist; the thick-lipped and slow-witted Stepin Fetchit caricature of Africans that we see in so many cartoons, and the lecherous counterpart who is always after “white women”, as seen in Birth of a Nation. The US used negative stereotypes of monstrous, yellow-skinned Japanese during World War II. European settlers of America used images of savages to depict the Native peoples. Today we have images of terrorist Middle Easterners, and every woman in a headscarf is either oppressed or suspect.

The imagination is something which can be formed, and it’s often formed by the master narrative, and us vs. them complexes. Most people aren’t going to look at a block of marble and imagine taking out everything except Michelangelo’s David. Unfortunately, most people use their imaginations to perpetuate preconceived notions and never question what those may mean. When you think a certain political movement is all rednecks or all yuppies, you’re imagining something, and it may not be true.

Furthermore, blindly trusting imagination allows people to form your imagination in whatever way they see fit. Can you just not imagine making changes to your lifestyle, even if you know products you use are made by slave labor and the food you eat is damning the planet? Then thank an advertiser! Advertisers make a living on molding your imagination. We didn’t always have surprise engagements with expensive rings, tons of Valentine’s gifts, Black Friday, or even the image of the suburban family in the house with the picket fence and the perfect, modern lifestyle. That’s advertising. Advertising is also why people get depressed when the Holidays aren’t as special as they thought they should be, or when visiting Paris is a major letdown. Advertising forms how you imagine success, sexiness, love, excitement, freedom, relaxation, family, food, holidays, education, and so on. And all just to sell deodorant, toothpaste, and genetically altered turkeys.

Politicians also use imagination. Does wanting to buck the tyranny of Political Correctness make you want to say racial slurs for no reason? Thank politicians for forming your imagination! There’s a reason why people refer to their favorite presidential candidate as president, even before the election. They’re making people imagine that this person already is president. There’s a reason why Republicans want to say “job creators” instead of “rich people”. There’s a reason why Obama has a special photographer. There’s a reason why news commentators cry, why Fox hires only sexy women and has them all wear short dresses, why political memes on facebook are even a thing at all. It all forms an image in your head about what reality is. Every time you look at a political meme, or post such a meme, you’re accepting a reality that someone else created for you. Your imagination is being formed by someone else’s agenda.

And, once your imagination is formed, it’s really, really hard to change it. If you can’t imagine something, most people refuse to talk about it or even accept that it might exist. You hear creationists regularly speak of being unable to imagine a very old earth, or a time without humans. Time is difficult to imagine. The same goes for math. When a mathematician makes a discovery with numbers, it’s hard for non-mathematicians to imagine how this even works. You get people refusing to accept scientific data because it’s unimaginable. But, it’s only unimaginable because our imaginations haven’t caught up with science. It’s not as if a scientific discovery happens and POOF, everyone’s imagination is suddenly updated, like Adobe Flash. No. If you don’t have the information, you can’t imagine it, and sometimes that information requires serious scientific study and research. Because of this, some people simply imagine that scientific study is just brainwashing, because they cannot imagine that being able to understand reality might be complicated. They cannot imagine that they do not know everything. Most people cannot imagine being wrong.

This isn’t to discredit imagination when it is good. Imagination is a tool, like any other. You can use it to create amazing works of art, or you can use it to perpetuate horrible ideas about the Jews. It is a tool, and you need to be its master, not the other way around. We act as if a good person surrenders to imagination, and that’s how beauty just happens. This is also an image, and we imagine it mostly because children’s shows told us to. Imagination is actually a tool, like a wrench, and we are the masters. It is a very powerful tool, but we have to make sure that we are using it correctly, and that we fuel our imagination with facts and not the other way around. Imagination should not fuel our facts, because imagination is a perspective, how we image information, and an image of an image cannot be reality. We’re getting into some Plato’s Cave stuff with that.

Furthermore, we limit imagination by not recognizing what it is. Imagination isn’t “I created a new fantasy character for the magic world of magic I just made up”. It can be, but that’s not the whole of it. Imagination is how we see the world. Imagination is what language we use to communicate information. It’s what boundaries we impose upon ourselves by refusing to imagine certain scenarios. It’s how we collect images and ideas and organize them. Arguably, a realistic novel by Steinbeck is more imaginative than the werecamel of the magic world of magic, because he had to work within boundaries and face the challenges of processing real-world information. This isn’t to say that fantasy can’t be imaginative. It does take skill to create a fantastic world, but that, too, is built on the perspectives of the author, which come from living.

It also affects how we form society. If we imagine a certain time of the past was perfect, just wonderful, and we forget both the evils of that era and the contemporary problems which have outgrown that era’s solutions, we are muddling our ability to see reality clearly. When we cannot empathize with someone, when we cannot imagine a change in government or economics, when we see changes as Hitler or Stalin, when we are afraid of our neighbors, these are flaws in the imagination –flaws probably planted by political sources and advertisers.

So, to venture into a fantasy world, you wouldn’t let your magic wand be tampered with by corporate executives from Buy N Large, Lord Voldemort, or the news anchor from the song “Dirty Laundry”, would you? No. That would change how your wand words, change the magic, maybe even hurt you. You have to guard your magic wand and learn proper spellcasting. The same goes for the imagination.
I mean, seriously, guys, did Harry Potter teach us nothing?

Beautiful, Unusual Children’s Books 5

I had some technical difficulties and couldn’t upload images for a while. Here’s the next in the list of lovely child-appropriate material.

Andrew Henry’s Meadow by Doris Burn

Andrew_Henry's_Meadow_1st_Edition_cover

This is a very special book for me. It’s one that I loved as a child. I loved the black and white illustrations with the beautiful negative space and detailed figures. I loved the drawings of nature. And, I loved the story! What kid can’t relate to this? A young boy wants to be an inventor, but his pursuits tend to make messes in the house and one day his family gets fed up and yells at him. He takes this hard, and decides he will found his own town where he will be an inventor. Along the way, he meets other unusual, misunderstood kids –musicians, artists, collectors of dandelion seeds– and they form a colony in a meadow. Then, the parents realize the children are missing and go look for them. When they see the meadow, they come to appreciate their children’s unusual gifts and their kids realize that they missed their families. And so they are reunited.

andrew-henry-thumb

It’s a very imaginative book, and one that I remember finding fairly inspirational as a kid. It is also a very sweet, gentle book, which makes sense as the author/artist created it for her son. I absolutely love children’s books that take the readers seriously and give them something beautiful, and I also love it when kids’ media isn’t all hip and cynical. This is a lovely, gentle story, and a beautiful one, and one I remember fondly!

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Age level: probably K+
Available for purchase: http://www.powells.com/s?kw=andrew+henry%27s+meadow&class=