Discussing Horror: Tod Browning, Vampires, and Freaks

This isn’t the end of the Defending Disney series. I’m still writing that. But, since that isn’t the only part of pop-culture that interests me, I wanted to branch out and start another series for another often maligned genre: horror.

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If anything, the evils of horror are even more ubiquitous than Disney’s controversies. Feminists point out the fetishized female violence and damsels in distress. Religious people dislike the use of the supernatural, demons, and the occult. Gun rights activists blame horror movies for violent crime. Progressives criticize their portrayal of sexuality, because have-sex-and-die isn’t exactly progressive social policy (although some people approve). And, in general, horror fans are considered weird, awkward, creepy, and generally stereotyped as the kind of people you don’t want around your kids.

I’ve been told before that I don’t seem like a horror fan because I am “too calm” and “too bookish” –and I briefly worked for a horror magazine. This one.

Here, however, I am saying “discuss” instead of “defend”, because I find it more interesting to run these stories through social and theoretical schools of criticism than spend my time talking about all the controversies surrounding every horror film and work of literature. Also, I may not necessarily defend a film or book, but that doesn’t mean that I do not think that we can understand these stories in their social contexts.

So, you don’t have to like it. We’re just going to try and understand it and look at the tropes through different cultural lenses. And, since horror is a pretty broad subject, I’ll be taking varied selections, from Universal classic monsters, to silent scares, slashers, “goreno”, Asian extreme, cult horror, exploitation, arthouse, and cross-genre blends.

And, who best to start off a discussion of horror than the man who gave us one of the most classic horror movies of all time, 1931’s Dracula, by Tod Browning, starring horror legend, Bela Lugosi.

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This film really needs no introduction, as Lugosi’s performance has become so legendary that I would bet if you were to mimic Dracula right now, you would mimic Lugosi. He’s the one who have us that awesome slicked-back hair, the way he swishes that opera cape, and his eerie line delivery. Cinema legend has it that the line delivery was due to Lugosi, who was native Hungarian, not being fully fluent in English. In fact, Lugosi was so associated with this role that he was buried in his Dracula costume. And yet, although this movie is so famous that until recently every other vampire movie was a footnote to this version, I find that not a lot of modern audiences have seen it.

Maybe this is because the movie is from the 1930s, and a lot of people seem to feel a disconnect with Old Hollywood acting these days, as well as the old-timey special effects and, well, it’s in black and white. Not to be condescending, but if we’re honest that is a real handicap for some viewers. I think this is a shame, since many people now associate old horror movies with bad horrors, like Robot Monster, and seem conditioned to laugh at the dialogue or special effects without giving the movie a real chance. However, this one actually really, really holds up.

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And I’m not just saying that because I watched it for the first time as a child, at night, by the light of the fire, in my grandparents’ house in the woods, surrounded by cats, with wind and coyotes in the distance and… it was epic.

No, really, this movie still works. For one thing, the old film footage has been, as they say, lovingly restored, so the clarity of picture should not be a distraction. However, some of that old, warm feel from the film stock really, in my opinion, helps create the mood for a good horror experience. Part of what I love about horror is how weirdly cozy it is. It is cozy to be scared, to curl up with the popcorn and hot chocolate and everything. Halloween has always been a really nostalgic holiday for me, and the old footage and style really sets the tone for childhood Halloween experiences, at least for me. Something about it just screams candy-apples and community haunted houses.

Who doesn't love celebrating scary things with friends?

Who doesn’t love celebrating scary things with friends?

But, aside from my personal feelings about the movie, the style is actually very affective. We may have seen the creepy castles, the cobwebs and shadows, the black capes, and bats before, but this is one of the earliest examples of the tropes. And, Browning’s direction really pushes the subtle eeriness that made these clichés affective in the first place. The scene when Dracula walks up the stairs has a really great moment when he is suddenly on the other side of thick cobwebs, having passed through them. This really drives home the otherworldly quality of Dracula’s character. There has always been a sort of tragedy to the vampire, cursed with immortality, as an eternal Other and monster, and here Browning highlights how much of an outsider Dracula is, that he does not belong in this world, even on the physical level.

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Of course, the use of shadows, the gloomy lighting and angles, only further unsettle the viewer. But, it is actually the scenes of light that can be most unnerving. In one scene, Dracula attacks a sleeping woman. She has a light on. She is in her bed. The scene remains chilling because it strips away our security. If you aren’t safe in your own bed, in the light, then you’re always vulnerable.

You will never be safe again!

You will never be safe again! (Also, subtext: Bad touch! Bad touch!)

But, it is the subject of the Other that really plays as a theme in the films I’m highlighting here. Dracula is an outsider because he is a monster. He’s frightening, a cold-blooded predator. When the ghost ship arrives, the entire crew slain by their vampire passenger, that is genuinely chilling. And yet, there is something enigmatic and interesting about Dracula. He’s sophisticated. He’s a gentleman. And, he is also a tragic character. In one scene, he speaks wistfully of death. Life and death, and what they mean to him, are what separates him. Life is blood, he says. Death is unattainable. Life, then, is the death of others, at the sacrifice of his own rest. Survival is the hunt, and the vampire is the everlasting predator.

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Compare this to Tod Browning’s next film, 1932’s Freaks. After the success of Dracula, Browning wanted to make the greatest horror movie ever made. That next year, he released the story of a sideshow performer who is seduced by a trapeze artist. It starred actual sideshow artists, including Violet and Daisy Hilton, the conjoined twins, and other famous figures in the sideshow world. However, there is a twist. The sideshow characters are not the freaks, and the real monsters are the beautiful trapeze artist and her lover, who only trick the main character so as to con him out of his money.

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It may not seem like an incredibly edgy movie. After all, today we are used to seeing the outcast and disfigured characters as the heroes and the handsome characters become villains. That’s basically the plot for Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, as well as movies like MaskEdward Scissorhands, and The Elephant Man. However, in 1931, we lived in a different cultural landscape.

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Film historians, meet pseudo-science. We’re probably going to see a lot of it. In the mid to late 1800s, a British scientist named Galton proposed a genetic theory. He called it eugenics. While it is basically the creationism of genetics today, back in the day it was all the rage. People had blood-line purity awards. People thought they could predict crime by the way someone’s eyes or head looked. It took a lot of ideas from another pseudo-science, phrenology, which held that examining the bumps in skulls would determine things like intelligence and criminal aptitude. You can see this played to chilling effect in Tarantino’s Django Unchained, when the sinister slave-owner, Candy, saws a skull in pieces to reveal the inside.

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Of course, as seen in Django, this prejudice extended to race, and it would eventually inspire the Nazis. But, the idea that it was somehow unnatural to have mixed bloodlines or to be different from the norm is a much earlier and more wide-spread concept than the Nazi agenda. A great scene from Spielberg’s Lincoln really showcases this, with characters citing a very misinformed notion of “natural law”. And, for all intents and purposes, you can basically rest assured that 9 out of 10 times someone references “natural law” they are about to be a raging bigot –and also not understand what Natural Law means.

In the 1930s, it was not only edgy, it was downright counter-cultural to make a film like Freaks. This wasn’t just horror pushing the envelope. This was a socially conscious, progressive piece of cinema that pushed the boundaries of social acceptability, morality, and cinema itself. And Browning didn’t pull any punches. Audiences had seen sympathetic portrayals of disfigured characters in the past, what with Lon Caney playing both Erik from The Phantom of the Opera (1925) and Quasimodo from The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1923). But, these characters were created with make-up, and were also both based on pre-existing literature. Also, and I don’t know if many people realize this now, but the 1925 Phantom was considered pretty low-brow. It’s really not a very arty silent film, despite what people say about it these days, when comparing it to other, dumber versions. 

The fact was, even though characters like Quasimodo and Erik existed, they were played by a mainstream movie star. In Browning’s film, however, no effects were used. The characters are real, 100%, with, of course, the exception being what happens to the villains at the end. But, I won’t spoil that for you. Furthermore, these are not villains. The sideshow performers are friendly, they have their own culture, they are loyal to one another, and they are portrayed as uniquely talented, not even as tragic. When bad things happen to them, you feel genuinely sorry, and not because they are victims due to their differences. No, you feel sorry because they are good people who are getting exploited.

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Consider how even to this day we tend to portray characters as entirely defined by their “otherness”. A great example of this would be Glee. What is the defining attribute of Artie? Well, he’s in a wheelchair. What are his conflicts generally related to? His disability. Likewise, what is Kurt’s definite attribute other than his extreme gay… ness? But, this extends to other media. How often do we see characters whose only defining attribute is that they are black, or female, or blind, or gay, et cetera? These two-dimensional characters become tired clichés, like the Mammy, The Magic Black Man, The Underachieving Minority Student With a Dream, The Strong-Independent-Woman Who Don’t Need No Man, The Love Interest, Walking Boobs, The Inspirational Handicapped One, and The Sassy Gay Friend. Although sd seem to have made a breakthrough in portrayals of little people due to the talents of one Mr. Fantastic, Peter Dinklage, who proved to many viewers that when it comes to superstars, tall, dark, and handsome is really best two out of three.

The Man, the Myth, the Superstar!

The Man, the Myth, the Superstar!

Considering how ridiculously hard it is to get past this stereotyping problem in 2014, it’s amazing that Tod Browning wrote these characters in 1932. Hans and Frieda are a couple broken apart by the conniving femme fatale of a villainess, and it has nothing to do with the fact that they are little people. Likewise, the reportedly very upbeat Johnny Eck, who plays The Half-Boy, is an optimistic, happy-go-lucky kind of person. Aside from an ongoing gag about Violet and Daisy’s disagreements, they are also interesting characters, a little sassy, somewhat diva-ish, but interacting like any other pair of sisters. And the list goes on.

So, how did this progressive piece of media play with 1930s audiences?

Banned.

Oh, yeah, it was that controversial, with critics expressing shock at the unseemly display of these “others” alongside “normal people” –presumably before sniffing through their moustaches and saying, “Most unorthodox! Most unorthodox! Harumph! Harumph!”

The film ruined Browning’s career. He continued to make movies, but his fame as the great director of Dracula was pretty much nixed. It would be like today’s audiences discovering that David Fincher had made The Human Centipede. Maybe he would still work, but no one would want to give him a budget. Even so, Browning managed to make a few more films, but these were mostly forgotten flicks in the low-budget horror genre. However, his contribution to film history with his two most memorable works has been astounding.

The idea of The Other is a huge theme in horror, and Browning highlighted this as a source of both pathos and terror. In Dracula, Otherness is due to monstrosity, being something outside of society because of one’s own evil nature.shadows In Freaks, Otherness is due to society being the monster, with our heroes placed outside of the world due to how prejudiced everyone else is. These two themes, one of the otherworldly or outsider-by-action villainy, and one of the isolation imposed on Othered characters, are both prominent in the horror genre. Horror does not often teach a straight-forward lesson, but instead it shows audiences what they fear, turning a light on the fears, as it were. In Dracula, audiences confront fears of the unknown, of being vulnerable to evil, and of being consumed by this evil, as victims themselves become vampires.rats

In Freaks, audiences are forced to considered where they stand in society, and whether or not society’s fears are actually what should frighten us.freaks-photo-3 What is more scary? The demonized outsider or the one doing the demonizing? Who is the real monster? What are we so afraid of? (Why aren’t we supposed to end sentences with prepositions?) Both films question whether or not we, the audience, can become villains, either by our treatment of others or by being consumed by an evil. In Freaks the “normative” person is a part of a society that creates monsters. In Dracula, the normal people can become the outsider and monstrous Other through evil forces.

And remember, even if you keep the light on, even if you are under the covers, monsters can still find you.

Pleasant dreams!

Pleasant dreams!

C.

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Defending(ish) Disney: Pocahontas

images For all the talk about the greatness of the Disney Renaissance, it peaked pretty early and receded after really only four major successes. I wish I could include The Rescuers Down Under, but apparently only about nine people saw that one. It really began its nosedive that would last until very recently with this movie, Pocahontas. I’m going to make a slight change to the format here. Usually, I’m defending the individual movies, but in this case… yeah, I agree with the criticism. Almost everyone, of all political stripes, dislikes this movie. And I have to agree, honestly. If you’re a part of the minority who likes this movie, good for you. I’m glad, because I think a lot of hard work went into making it. I wish I could like the movie for this reason, but, no, I really can’t. I think it’s actually …bad.

History.

History.

So, instead of defending a movie I don’t like, I’m going to try and understand where this movie came from and what the Disney company might be doing. Remember how I said that Aladdin really succeeds because it isn’t trying too hard? It did its own thing and it did it well. However, at this point, Disney had managed to achieve success after success, and with both a Best Picture nom and all the acclaim that The Lion King has, I think the company was under a lot of pressure. This was not just another movie, they were taking chances. They had taken a big chance with The Lion King, and it paid off. They had reached new levels of technical innovation in their animation. This was supposed to be the next step, their launch into a new level of greatness, their next Oscar nom, their next classic. So, what happened? I think one of the reasons why I hate how much I hate this movie is that the company really was trying new things. This isn’t just moving away from fantasy (kind of, sort of…), but it’s an issues movie. It’s tackling history and diversity and controversial subjects and… non-white characters! This may not seem like such a big deal, but Disney has always been pretty reticent to take a progressive racial stance. It’s not just some truly unfortunate past expressions, like a crow named Jim in Dumbo, or the “Indians” in Peter Pan.

And then there was this deleted scene from Fantasia, because this isn't horrible at all...

And then there was this deleted scene from Fantasia, because this isn’t horrible at all…

It’s that while Disney certainly has moments with really troubling racial depictions, as time went on the official stance became a very strong we-have-no-stance… stance, while at the same time teaching lessons about how it’s okay to be yourself, even if you’re different. It’s as if the company saw controversy and said, “Look, we make happy movies about singing, dancing mice. Don’t look at us. Nothing to see here.”

Consider this in contrast to what Don Bluth was doing before he Thumbelina-ed his way into sell-out obscurity. In American Tail, for example, he uses a kid-friendly format to discuss subjects as weighty as Anti-Semitism, immigration prejudice, political corruption, and exploitative labor.

It's never too early to start talking to your kids about the importance of just labor laws...

Because it’s never too early to start talking to your kids about the importance of just labor laws…

And, while Disney tiptoed up to actual issues in the past, what with Fox and the Hound being about two characters driven apart by societal expectations, their lesson was actually pretty subtle. Yeah, it’s really sad when Todd and Copper can’t be friends anymore, but the movie doesn’t really answer the question of whether or not this is wrong in the real, non-cartoon, non-talking-animal world. On the one hand, kudos for subtle messages and making kids think (as they fight back their tears…), but one cannot help but notice that the Disney company really did shy away from race as an issue at all. Considering that it took until Atlantis for the company to animate a major character who is also a black man, you get an idea of what Disney is comfortable with.

And, in some sense, Disney may have also understood its own company’s cultural limitations, because when they depict non-white cultures it’s usually kind of… awkward. Not always. Lilo and Nani are fantastic characters in what I will call a very underrated movie, and the cast of The Emperor’s New Groove is sort of progressive in that race is never an issue at all. How many all-Native American movies are there where the focus isn’t on race? Because, really, people, it’s not like everyone who isn’t white goes around thinking about how not-white they are all the time. “I woke in my not-white way, and then not-whited in a not-white fashion through my not-white thoughts and not-white life, which is totally defined by my not-whiteness…”

However, whenever the company tries to make bring their race relations to the forefront, it does come across as pretty messy and awkward, as well as trying way, way too hard to be inoffensive and bland.

Another risk that  the company took, and one which I think is actually far riskier than what turned into some very flaccid race relations, would be the artistic direction. Like I said before, The Lion King had really conquered any previous animation limitations from past productions. It’s big, beautiful, detailed, fast-moving, and the design is really interesting as it is actually based on a lot of life drawings. It’s Disney art building primarily on Disney art, as its own art form. In Pocahontas, however, they really decided to push the envelope. The characters look radically different from anything Disney had done before. The big-eyes and soft curves, these are replaced by far more realistic faces and a more adult look to the entire production. The landscapes are big and detailed, and the animation pushes the cinematography illusions and use of CGI further than any previous film. MSDPOCA EC004 And, honestly, I think that may contribute to a part of the problem. Disney’s last animated humans didn’t look like this. Audiences were given not only the promise of this historical epic dealing with some hefty race issues, but also this brand new, mature look. It’s a little jarring to go from something like Aladdin to this. tumblr_lzs4j7Y7e31r0bp3ao1_1280 I feel like all this rush to be greater and greater as a studio may have left some viewers behind. If it was just the new animation style with a fairytale story, I think the movie wouldn’t feel so disappointing. But when you tell a story that fails as hard as this one does, and tell it with animation as technologically brilliant and artistically interesting as this, then it just feels extra disappointing. After all, this was by no means the only white-guy-learns-about-land-from-native-other-archetype-story of the ’90s. But where something like Fern Gully gets off easier is that it’s a silly fairy story that looks like this:

Derp.

Derp.

Pocahontas was a real person, and these are much stronger issues, and the story tells itself with really terrible plot devices (magic trees, magic Babel Fish leaves, cute animal sidekicks, a super flamboyant villain, cheesy romance), and yet it still looks like it’s supposed to be a good movie: images (2) So, why does this story fail so hard? Well, part of it is that despite trying really hard to be so big and epic, the studio just would not relinquish that ’90s Disney formula. This basically forms the bulk of everyone’s problems with the movie, right or left. It’s super historically inaccurate. Meaning, it has basically nothing to do with history. At all. John Smith is turned into this long-haired Ken Doll, and the pre-pubescent Pocahontas becomes this Disney Princess who wants something “more” (this time it really is super vague) and doesn’t want to marry unless it’s for love, and there are cute animal sidekicks and big musical numbers and a big, fay villain. tumblr_ld734lZRCO1qdq3ajo1_500 If Disney had really believed, fully, in pushing this project all the way, instead of just trying too hard with their old formula, we could have had a really good movie. Instead, it just feels really jarring, like two genres that really shouldn’t be together. And, I feel like Pocahontas’s position as a princess is probably the reason why they chose this story at all and shoehorned in their ’90s formula. While historical accuracy is not necessary for a great movie, in this case the storytelling choices do not work. I don’t think anyone wanted to see an analogue for Native-Colonial race relations played out by a pug and a raccoon, or have the entirety of First Nations culture reduced to safe, non-threatening hippie ways. pocahontas-21 This “white man’s Indian” problem is really one of the major issues with this and many other depictions of First Nations peoples. When the culture began to move away from treating Native peoples like Saturday morning cartoon villains and caricatures, the result was unfortunately not to look at the actual peoples and understand them, or let them tell their own stories. To this day, it’s pretty unusual to find movies made by Native directors, or even casting Native actors. And, while I know Johnny Depp does have some mixed heritage, I’d like to point out that he was still a really safe, white choice for The Lone Ranger.

Represent.

Represent.

The thing is, representation is almost always seen through a white lens, and when stereotypes moved from negative to positive it was still in a very white perspective. In order to side with Native peoples, the people had to be utterly angelic, and usually analogues for bourgeois hippie values. This is troublesome because it makes the First Nations Peoples unhuman, as if to say that the only way genocide and systematic oppression is wrong is if the oppressed are angels. Because if they had flaws like everyone else in the world, it’d be okay? That creates a very troubling undercurrent in this new, sugar-coated race relations paradigm, and one which we see today in many situations of violence, where, for examples, victims of crimes begin to be judged for their moral character rather than their legal rights.

"Okay, so we'll admit that it was wrong, just so long as we never find out any of you were anything less than perfect, little flower children, kay?"

“Okay, so we’ll admit that it was wrong, just so long as we never find out any of you were anything less than perfect, little flower children, kay?”

The story is also just not very challenging, focusing on a really vague notion of not cutting down sycamores and remembering that even rocks have spirits and names, or whatever. It’s not that interested in discussing race, and really sugar coats that issue.

I have heard some right-wing critics say that this is a lefitst, anti-white movie. I really could not disagree more. The movie reduces the entire conflict and all of the race relations therein to one, single, probably-gay bad guy (with pigtails) who just wants gold. The rest? Oh, well, there was a misunderstanding, but in the end everyone can just get along, because that’s totally what actually happened. It utterly exonerates colonialism by placing the blame on one rogue, gay stereotype of a leader and his love of gold and disrespect for trees.

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Hell, John Smith literally takes a bullet for Powhatan in the end –you know, after he learns his valuable lesson about rolling around in nature and not wondering what it’s worth.

The real flaw of colonialism is just that they didn't do this enough... whatever "this" is... Forget oppression, they just needed more of... this in order to solve all conflicts for all time.

The real flaw of colonialism is just that they didn’t do this enough… whatever “this” is… Forget oppression, they just needed more of… this in order to solve all conflicts for all time.

The real lesson here: Trees be good, greed be bad. So, basically, proto-Avatar. It doesn’t challenge viewers at all, and keeps everything in this safe, artificially happy world that never existed.

Now, some people argue that Disney doesn’t need to make a more realistic movie because it’s for kids. Kids don’t need to know all the gritty, depressing details. I think that if this is the case then Disney really should have adapted something else. However, if you really look at that argument, consider what it means. “It’s for kids, therefore the first time they are likely to learn about this really important, historical issue! Let’s make sure it’s totally false, so as to forever color their interpretation of the events with lies!”

No. I don’t mean that we should necessarily show every drop of historical blood to our three-year-olds, but kids can handle the truth. And the truth did not involve magic tree spirits.

So, I’ve been pretty negative about this movie, and this is supposed to be an series about defending Disney. So, what is positive about the movie? Well, again, the animation is just really good. And, for those who do like this movie, I think that’s a part of the reason why. I think a lot of outdoorsy people enjoy it because it’s Disney really romanticizing nature. And, as far as art goes, American arts have a long history of this.

John Kensett, Mount Washington (part of the Hudson River School of painting)

John Kensett, Mount Washington (part of the Hudson River School of painting)

In fact, American Romanticism is really about nature. While Europe was looking at its cultural past, America, being young and without things like ruins and castles, looked instead to the land as both prize and heritage, a symbol for cultural values.

I think this is part of the reason why you have really pretty right-wing Americans who are still very passionate about the landscape and devoted to things like the National Parks system –which, by the way, is a really underrated green achievement.

While I think romanticism has a lot of flaws, not the least of which being its annoying habit of whitewashing everything and not noticing reality…

White Europe's romantic depiction of Native Americans. (The Entombment of Atala by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson)

White Europe’s romantic depiction of Native Americans. (The Entombment of Atala by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson)

…I do think that some of this romantic view of nature is good. The US really does do some great work in maintain wildlands. Living in the UK, a place where wildness is really quite limited, I really do appreciate the fact that the US has this tie to the land. It’s so ubiquitous that I think it often gets missed, especially by coastal, urban environmentalists who sometimes see the lack of eco-speak in rural areas as a sign of right-wing anti-earth ideology. And, this really isn’t always the case, even if some of these same people are not informed about, say, climate change or energy. Often times, the supposed “redneck” is actually living a very green life, especially when it comes to living off the land and having a cultural identity tied to it. After all, the guy hunting and fishing his own food, and living simply in the countryside, is more green than someone who drinks exotic coffees and eats imported “world foods” and goes on lots of expensive vacations.

I think this almost unspoken tie to nature, even among people who are verbally very anti-environmentalist, is part of what the movie gets right. It doesn’t get nature itself right, because Virginia looks nothing like this movie (the movie looks more like Alaksa, really). But, it gets the viewer’s emotions about wildlife right, the same ideas that fill Westerns with grand vistas and inspire states like Colorado to make propaganda videos like this.

So, despite its Captain Planet goofiness, it does understand something about how Americans view nature, even if it’s totally scientifically inaccurate.

MERICA!

MERICA!

And, I think that scenes of Pocahontas canoeing and running around the woods really appeal to outdoorsy people. That’s actually pretty accurate, what with its jubilant celebration of ultra-romanticised American landscapes. I think outdoorsy people really do feel this way and have this romantic love of beautiful places and outdoor adventures.

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Otherwise, I do think that this was an important step for Disney to take, even if it stumbled all over itself and ended up sending the company in a pretty sharp downward spiral. There really are more than just attractive white people in this world. And, pretending like race doesn’t exist is really taking a pretty bad stand in the entire situation. It’s not keeping out of politics to offer zero visibility to a group. Doing nothing is really very political, and actually expressing that, yes, these people exist, was kind of a big deal. It shouldn’t be, but it is.

Visibility is a major issue for media and society, in general. It’s why people want to see heroes and main characters who look like them. People who say that they want more female superheroes, or more multiracial movies, et cetera, are not saying that they cannot enjoy a movie with white leads or male leads. It’s saying that they want to be recognized as existing, too. Not seeing yourself, or only seeing yourself as the sidekick, comic relief, damsel, or even villain, is actually really damaging for how certain groups will perceive themselves. I would suggest reading Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye for more on that, especially the scene about white baby dolls.

It is important in a society to not marginalize a group by silencing them or rendering them invisible, or regulating them to strict roles. So, while Pocahontas is the safest, least-challenging depiction of a fairly fetishized character (let’s be real here)…

The "exotic babe who loves and saves the white man" isn't exactly the greatest depiction of a real, historical woman...

The “exotic babe who loves and saves the white man” isn’t exactly the greatest depiction of a real, historical woman…

…she at least exists. It’s also why I tend to forgive Aladdin’s race relations, because at least they are offering visibility to Middle Eastern peoples. (They also do it better because it’s make-believe, race is incidental to character types, and the characters are just better.) It might be pure fantasy, but in a world where Middle Eastern prejudice is pretty rampant, it’s a good way to give kids characters who are at least very universal and relatable.

This movie isn’t as successful as Aladdin because it falls in the category of trying both way too hard and not hard enough. It’s trying too hard with the Disney formula, but not hard enough with the actual story. However, at least the company is acknowledging that, yes, different races exist, and giving some recognition to this fact. It’s not much, it is whitewashed pretty badly, and it’s not a great film. But, at least there’s that. Also, trees.

Oh my gosh, trees, people!!!

Eywa, the early years...

Eywa, the early years…

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.

perspective

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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