The Tigerlily False Equivalency Issue

In case you haven’t heard, Hollywood wants to remake everything. That isn’t new. And, in the view of big producers remaking old things as “gritty” and “x-treme!” new things, we have a new rendition of Peter Pan. Again. That hasn’t made much in the way of headlines, because A.) more people want to see Angelina Jolie in Meleficent and B.) Once Upon a Time already does “gritty”, YA-friendly retellings of Peter Pan et al, so who cares? Plus, I just think this market has kind of worn out its welcome. At first it was cool, what with our Nolan’s Batman trilogy, but now, now that we have “x-treme!” Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and “x-treme” live-action Disney cartoons, the genre of “it was old and now it’s new and grownup and filmed in HD” is not really that cool. People didn’t embrace Robocop and Total Recall, and I haven’t seen anyone getting terribly stoked about the new Peter Pan.

That being said, it did make headlines for casting a white woman as Princess Tigerlily.

Rooney Mara. Authentic.

Rooney Mara. Authentic.

So, here we go again, the endless battle of racial casting. The usual arguments are as follows: “But, it should be about the talent, not the race! It’s just casting who’s best!”

And then we get The Last Airbender and The Lone Ranger, and clearly, no, there is no way what we got is the best. Airbender is unwatchable, and Lone Ranger just has Depp being Jack Sparrow again. Clearly this is not a meritocracy. It’s more of a stuff-producers-and-board-rooms-thought-would-sell-best-ocracy. So, capitalism. And you thought Hollywood was progressive, ha!

But, actually, a lot of people have been defending this casting decision, including a weird, Buzzfeed-style article from NPR. Seriously, first NetGeo went all Swamp People on us, and now my beloved bastion of pretention has started emulating the stuff I look up when I want to see pictures of French bulldog puppies? What’s next, putting One Direction in a Tiny Desk Concert? You leave Tiny Desk Concerts alone, evil boy bands!

Anyway, for those of you who actually pay attention to NPR (all 9 of us…) and know about it from something other than what does the FOX say, you know it’s really not a leftist station. Unless you think BBC collaboration is grossly left wing for not saying Obama is a Nigerian terrorist Muslim atheist child molester, in which case you are insane. Most of NPR is devoted to classical and underground music, trivia, car talk, Prairie Home Companion, interviews with artists and writers, discussions about the history of the world’s greatest cheese (possibly the best episode of anything ever). It’s more likely to tell you about all the craft beers you can drink at a rally than to tell you to rally. Unless you’re rallying behind craft beer. Is it perhaps more likely to appeal to someone sipping a latte in an indie café while reading Bitch Magazine than FOX’s demographic? Yes, but that’s hardly the only audience that tunes in to NPR. Although, I admit that it suffers from excessive gentrification at times, it also gives voice to unknown folk, country, and blues singers from down home places who may never have otherwise had a platform. So, I don’t know that you can say there is an NPR crowd other than the fact that it doesn’t actively fight to exclude the latte-sipper-Bitch-reader-in-indie-café the way FOX does. If anything, what you can expect is a lot of art and culture, a fascinating crossection of Americana, lots and lots of classical and opera performances, car talk, and some generally smart, solid programming, so what the hell is with this buzzfeed crap? (Says the person who inserts excessive pictures into all her posts to casually attempt at driving up hits…)

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…!

Anyway, I think the argument is thus: If you’re upset about this, are you also going to be upset at casting minor comic characters as black when they were originally white? Are you upset that the newest Phantom is black? Or that stage show Aladdin is Filipino?

And, I get where they’re coming from to an extent. Tigerlily isn’t exactly an iconic Native American character. Her tribe isn’t real, and is in fact named after a really racist word (no really). And, it’s not like the Disney cartoon isn’t, you know, offensive.

Straight-up racist. Sorry, but I'm calling it.

Straight-up racist. Sorry, but I’m calling it.

There, I said it. It’s an offensive representation. I’m always shocked when someone comes up and says, “Oh, Beauty and the Beast is SOOOO offensive! There’s a fleeting image of a pastor in the crowd when Gaston was going to marry Belle, because who ever heard of pastors at weddings? Offensive! And the father isn’t portrayed as a god-like figure of pure amazaballs! That’s offensive stereotyping!!!!” and then says, “Oh, don’t be so hypersensitive about Peter Pan. They’re only gross stereotypes of an entire people. Stop being so Politically Correct.”

I’ve come to a conclusion about Political Correctness:

If it affects the person speaking, it’s not Political Correctness, it’s decency! It’s morals! It’s family values!

If it doesn’t affect the person speaking, it’s Political Correctness, tyranny, and Hitler!

Pictured here: A popular representation of political correctness.

Pictured here: A popular representation of political correctness.

What’s weird is that almost every time someone invokes the ol’ PC it has exactly jack to do with being PC. What’s the political bent here? Real PC talk is like refusing to discuss money in politics, calling rich people “job creators”, and other forms of politicized language. What we’re referring to is just manners. It’s just being decent toward someone else and not caricaturing them as something sub-human, which, if you’re going to do any Nazi comparisons, is way, way, way more apt. Nostalgia doesn’t exempt someone from being respectful. You can’t be like, “Oh, I thought it was funny to laugh at Stepin Fetchit as a kid. So, that must be totally okay, you PC Nazis!” That works about as well as saying, “Oh, I enjoyed staring at people in sideshows! Therefore The Elephant Man is a liberal Nazi Hitler PC movie for making me recognize the humanity of people I just wanna stare at and mock!”

How dare you tell me to care about someone other than myself and my gross entitlement complex? You PC Hitler!

How dare you tell me to care about someone other than myself and my gross entitlement complex? You PC Hitler!

Also, stop invoking Hitler, people.

There actually is a difference between casting a black Phantom or a black Nick Fury, and casting a white Native American or Asian character. And, here’s why. We do not have a shortage of white actors in roles. Most of our heroes, romantic leads, and overall casts are white. Even in good movies, like Her, we’ve apparently conceived a very white future. If you’re a white actor, you are only limited by the number of other white actors you’re competing against. It’s not like there are only a handful of decent roles for you, and the rest of the time you’ll be in some niche like Tyler Perry movies or direct to DVD fare, or low-budget arthouse selections that will pay you in pennies while the director sells organs to get a single theatrical release. And, the majority of our celebrity coverage is also of white Hollywood.

So, when a white role is given to an actor of a different ethnicity, it’s not taking away from a tiny pool of representation, and it’s not taking one of the few jobs an actor can get. It’s not like when Nick Fury became a black character that was the only role for white people. The entire Avengers ensemble is white!

Furthermore, there is history to consider. Who has told the stories? Whose voices get heard the loudest? In cases of Native American representation, they have been cast by white people in circuses and mock train robberies to play “savages”.They have been cast as antagonists for cowboy heroes. They have been cast as hippies for a yuppie earth-love analogue of bourgeois values. There is a long history of appropriating and defining their culture as whatever white people want it to be.

Historical 12 year old becomes sexy babe, for instance...

Historical 12 year old becomes sexy babe, for instance…

However, how often do we see Native American roles? Really. Ask yourself that. And, how often in roles when the race is incidental, like a rom-com heroine, a scientist, an action star, do we see Native actors just getting cast? Are you saying that Native American peoples just cannot act, that acting just isn’t a thing they can do? The fact is, when you give a Native Role to a white person, it’s not the same as casting a black Phantom. It’s not the same because there are hardly any Native Roles written, for anyone.

It’s also not the same because Phantom of the Opera is a stage show, so there are many, many chances for people to play the title role, in many productions. Plenty of white people have played the Phantom. Most. Pretty much all. This is only making the news because it’s the first time on Broadway, maybe ever, that he hasn’t been white. Also, stage shows don’t follow the same rules as movies. People bend gender, race, age, et cetera, all the time. While there is a lack of representation for particular groups, and I wish every talented actor could be cast fairly, it’s much more fluid than movies. You can cast a 47 year old woman as a teenaged boy in an opera. But, you can’t cast white people as Asian people in Cloud Atlas and have it not be incredibly uncomfortable and scary as hell. Film demands more verisimilitude.

Gah! The people of Innsmouth! Run away!

Gah! The people of Innsmouth! Run away!

And, again, the argument that Tigerlily isn’t a good role kind of doesn’t… work at all. What, you’re saying the source material and other adaptations are racist, so we have to be racist? I thought these were supposed to be reboots. Are we not rebooting the character, just keeping the stereotype? Why? Why do that? Why bother rebooting at all if you think the original should just be left alone? What is the point of that?

And, lastly, I think that producers don’t give audiences enough credit. They have really strict ideas about what audiences will and will not watch. They think that boys won’t follow the adventures of girls, and it was a cliché truism until The Hunger Games and everyone proved them wrong. Which, if you have ever encountered human beings outside of a very strict bubble, you already knew. Little boys have long been just fine with stories about girls, like Pippi Longstocking, which was a favorite when I worked in children’s libraries. A favorite of more boys than girls, actually.

Gee, I wonder why?

Gee, I wonder why?

 

People also think that America will only watch white people, so they do things like make the racially diverse Avatar the Last Airbender a white vs. Indian/Middle Eastern story.

Aang-Katara-avatar-the-last-airbender-26506247-720-480

 

A once racially diverse cast becomes a film about white kids being menaced by evil, Middle Eastern men.

A once racially diverse cast becomes a film about white kids being menaced by evil, Middle Eastern men.

And, yes, I know that Zuko becomes good. But, that’s not really the point, especially since there won’t be any sequels to the movie. The point is, the show has many fans, and they love it, and they love the characters, and they don’t want to see a bunch of bad child-actors shoved into roles that that shouldn’t fill. Not only shouldn’t they fill the roles because they are bad actors, but also because these aren’t white roles. Part of what people love about the show is its world-building, and it is built on distinctly non-white culture. This is just what the show is. Casting white actors just feels like cultural appropriation. It also just looks silly.

Similarly, audiences didn’t love Jack Sparrow Tonto, and that movie was an enormous disaster.

When Hollywood has occasionally rebooted material with black actors in what had been white roles, it’s also not a role contingent on race. The Karate Kid’s race is incidental. And, there’s nothing about being an orphan that makes Annie inherently white. But, Tigerlily and Tonto are specifically written as Native American characters. The Karate Kid and Annie are not played in white-face, and the characters are not representing some specific part of white history. They’re just kids, and kids are everywhere. Tigerlily and Tonto cannot be played as white, because the characters are Native American. It isn’t like having a black Karate Kid. It’d be like having a black John Smith, where race is in fact integral to what we are representing. Or, in terms of fiction, a black Snow White doesn’t work, for obvious reasons. If your character is written as inherently a specific race, then the actor doesn’t just make the role his or her own. The actor has to appropriate the race, and it is awkward. Depp didn’t play a role that had once been played by a Native actor. He played a role that is a Native character, and that is the difference between this and other race-bent reboots.

Tonto-depp

I don’t think that the meritocracy argument works, mostly because it isn’t a meritocracy. But, even if it was, it hinges on the idea that only a white actor would be best for the part. There are plenty of white actors who are very talented, and there are many roles for them, but to say that they also need the roles of other races is to imply that other races aren’t as talented. Yeah, Roony Mara is a great actress, and she may have done really well reading for Tigerlily, but does that mean that no one else could do as well in the role?

It isn’t as if Tonto or Tigerlily are especially great Native American roles. But, with so few Native Roles, and Hollywood’s disinclination to cast non-race-specific roles with diverse actors, there are only so many opportunities for work. This isn’t an issue of whether or not it’s okay for these stars to play race-bent roles, but whether or not other actors are able to get work at all.

My question is: did the filmmakers even try?

 

And this brings me to a recent pseudo-news, celebrity faux pas story about Heidi Klum, who recently dressed up like a historically inaccurate “sexy squaw” stereotype for a German reality show.

Also, this photo sucks. It's too posed and silly, and it looks like a bad instagram pic that should be captioned with lyrics to an Owl City song.

Also, this photo sucks. It’s too posed and silly, and it looks like a bad instagram pic that should be captioned with lyrics to an Owl City song.

Although I don’t think German reality TV ever needs to be news, any more than American reality TV or British reality TV or any reality TV, what interested me was the reaction. People were outraged, not over Klum’s “redface”, but over the fact that anyone considered it racist. People were quick to point out that, you see, Americans just don’t get that Germany has a tradition of seeing Native American people in this way.

Because we all know that if Germany has a traditional view of a particular race, it’s best to follow that view without question. I don’t remember a time that has ever been racist in the slightest…

However, this does bring up an interesting point. The argument isn’t whether or not the people represented care, but whether or not white America or white Germany are the best white people in this white person argument. The voice of the Native American people doesn’t matter.

This is regularly the argument behind race issues, that white liberals are just whining and other white people should do their thing. The only people whose possible offence is even questioned are white. The idea that someone from another race might actually have opinions about how they are represented is never questioned. Which, for the record, they do.

Another reaction I saw was that if people like Heidi Klum do not dress up as stereotypes of Native American culture, then the Native American peoples will only be represented by casinos. In other words, Native Americans don’t have a culture anymore. They’re just poor. And, white people now rightfully own all that is attractive about their culture and can appropriate it as such.

Because a long tradition of romanticizing Native Americans has never led to anything bad.

The fact is, Native American voices do exist. There are actors, artists, writers. If you are more familiar with a white woman in feathers than you are with Zitkala-Ša, Leslie Marmon Silko, Mary Brave Bird, and Sherman Alexie, then it’s not that Native American culture is missing but that you’re systematically ignoring it.

Ray Bradbury, one of my favorite people of all time and author of Fahrenheit 451, once said: “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”

By not knowing these writers, or artists, or employing actors to represent their own people, you’re silencing the culture. It isn’t that casinos and silly modeling reality shows are all that are left for Native Americans. It’s hard to read, so let’s just watch Heidi Klum take sexy pictures for a reality show.

The greatest sin a person can commit these days is asking someone to care about something. The best way to bring on rage is to say, “Maybe you should eat something that doesn’t hurt the environment, or be more energy efficient, or not commoditize a person based on sexual appeal in order to sell beer, or not sexualize young girls, or not support exploitative businesses, or care about the representation of a people.” It doesn’t cause people to change oh-so-much to say that maybe Heidi Klum’s bad photoshoot was also pretty racist, or that maybe we should actually start casting Native American actors. But, even this small amount of change is enough to send people into a rage of tooth-gnashing and pants-wetting.

But, in the end, these aren’t abstracts that white liberals and white conservatives do or do not care about. These are issues about people, people who have their own voices and cares, and whose culture is very real.

It’s not that they don’t have a voice. It’s whether or not anyone is listening.

 

 

 

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Defending Disney: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Happy Valentine’s Day! Let’s celebrate with a movie about lust-driven attempted homicide –for kids!

hunchback

(And, for anyone wondering, the reason why I have not updated recently was because my old laptop was crashing every few minutes.)

After the critical and boxoffice disappointment of Pocahontas, Disney released another risky, very mature, artistically original film, this time an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel, Notre-Dame de Paris. I can only imagine the trepidation at the Disney studio at the time of its release. When they realized that, no, actually, the public does not love their new direction, it was too late to do anything about Hunchback. And, in the end, the response to the lavish animated spectacle was lukewarm, with audiences confused by the dark and sexual nature of the plot. The movie cost around $100,000,000 to produce, and it did make a profit and Roger Ebert gave it four stars. But, I think it’s been the movies lasting power and success compared to extravaganzas like The Lion King which lead some people to see this as a failure. And, by some people, I also mean the studio. Whatever direction the company was trying to move in, it definitely back-peddled hard, and this film has been considered one of the downward post-Renaissance slump movies.

I think that part of the trouble people have with this movie is trying to figure out what the target audience is supposed to be. The movie is really, really dark, starting out right away with the murder of a mother who is trying to protect her infant.

Child-friendly mom-murder, from Disney.

Child-friendly mom-murder, from Disney.

And, that’s just the beginning. The father-son relationship between the hero, Quasimodo, and the antagonist, Claude Frollo, is really twisted, even more so than the relationship between Rapunzel and Mother Gothel. The movie also deals with discrimination, and with rather more sophistication than Pocahontas, although I blame that on the fact that there isn’t an institutionalized anti-gypsy discrimination in the USA. Most Americans don’t really have much of a connection to the culture at all, as they form a very small minority, which is why Disney doesn’t have to worry about offending anyone while representing their culture.It’s also why TV shows like Hemlock Grove make no sense.

In what high school would THIS guy be bullied? I don't care if he is a werewolf, it wouldn't happen.

In what high school would THIS guy be bullied? I don’t care if he is a werewolf, it wouldn’t happen.

However, it’s the movie’s depiction of sexuality and violence which really sets the film apart as a truly dark and, honestly, strange Disney production.

Hunchback-disneyscreencaps.com-8417

The movie features an attempted burning at the stake, a mob, institutionalized discrimination, violent oppression, and even an attempted genocide. The depiction of gypsy relations works as an eerie analogue for Nazism and other forms of ethnic cleansing. But, what really sticks with audiences is Claude Frollo and his obsession with Esmeralda. It’s not just desire and ego, like Gaston’s jealous anger over Belle. No, Claude Frollo sees Esmeralda and is overcome with very explicit lust, which serves as his motivation for every horrible thing that follows in the story. This isn’t usual Disney, and the company would never again touch on this sort of subject.

So, what do I think of this story? Well, unlike Pocahontas, I actually would really defend this film as flawed (very, very flawed, but we’ll get to that) but powerful. First, let’s look at the art. If Hunchback has one unquestionably solid attribute, that would be the animation. The art design is brilliant, the most mature and honestly least-Disney to date.

disney_4535_10

The characters are even more angular and realistic than those in Pocahontas, and the studio also used shadows to create more 3D appearances and expression, a technique you see in quite a bit of anime.  The movement is also spectacular, perhaps even more so than its predecessor, since the film has scenes of acrobatics and dancing that showcase the animator’s keen observation of human anatomy.

However, it is the scene design that everyone remembers, and rightly so. The representations of architecture, cityscapes, even the light of stained glass windows are so absolutely stunning in their design and accuracy that they have the power to dazzle audiences even to this day. God_Help_the_OutcastsThe scene of Esmeralda praying in the cathedral are some of the most hauntingly beautiful pieces of animation that the studio has ever produced. god-15Furthermore, the illusion of camera angles, including soaring “crane shots” of Notre-Dame itself, are spectacular in their effect, and the use of CG blends seamlessly with the 2D animation in a way that rarely works this well.

I really have nothing negative to say about the art in this film. It is spectacular through-and-through. Even if every, single aspect of the film was a failure, the art would make it work viewing. Rather like the transformation scene in Cinderellaits visual power justifies its existence.

So, does this mean that it is another beautiful-looking film that does not hold up in the storytelling department, rather like the final release of The Thief and the Cobbler?

A childhood acid trip from hell...

A childhood acid trip from hell…

Actually, no. The movie succeeds on multiple levels. The first and most obvious would be the villain. Claude Frollo may be the greatest villain Disney has ever produced, and I don’t say that lightly because the studio has created some truly dynamic villains. He’s just so complex, even more so than our heretofore most human villain, Gaston. Frollo is motivated by a conviction that he is doing good, which makes him actually all that much more frightening. Goodness, for Frollo, is a code of ethics that gets very much intertwined with his own biases and desires. However, he justifies his prejudices and even his most barbaric acts, by conflating his beliefs with morality. When his conviction in his own moral superiority is threatened by his lust for Esmeralda, he decides that she is in fact to blame for his desires.

Victim Blaming: Flirt with the wrong creepy guy and he'll use that as justification to burn you alive.

Victim Blaming: Flirt with the wrong creepy guy and he’ll use that as justification to burn you alive.

He persecutes her for witchcraft and for being sexually open, and even tries to have her murdered. The song “Hellfire”, one of the single most powerful moments of Disney animation, showcases Frollo’s conflict between his strict religious sensibilities, his confused sexuality, and his cold egomania. If he cannot have Esmeralda, he would destroy her, and within the song he justifies himself to a choir of faceless monks (representing his religious dogmatism) by blaming both Esmeralda and the temptations of satan.

In today’s political climate, I really can’t think of a Disney film that covers an issue that remains so timely and important. Conflicts generally are perpetrated by people believing that they are doing the right thing, or at least convincing themselves of this. Moreover, the creepy sexual politics of an authority figure trying to either own or destroy an object of desire are eerily familiar. There is a strong sense of a victim-blaming mentality in Frollo and how deeply uncomfortable he is with a beautiful woman who happens to be rather flamboyant with her looks. Furthermore, the movie shows that Esmeralda is a good, moral person, and the puritanical Frollo is the one obsessed with sexuality. That’s pretty heady stuff.

Shockingly, being sexy and being morally good are not mutually exclusive. I know, in these Medieval Ages of... 2014, this must be a difficult lesson.

Shockingly, being sexy and being morally good are not mutually exclusive. I know, in these Medieval Ages of… 2014, this must be a difficult lesson.

Another major plus, branching off from the Frollo discussion, is the music. The music is just really good. It moves from religious chant to Broadway-style numbers to pop ballads with wonderful continuity. Well, with one exception, “A Guy Like You”, but I’ll get to that in a minute. The choral moments are really lovely, dark, and powerful. “God Help the Outcasts”, Esmeralda’s song while she is in sanctuary in the cathedral, is a beautiful piece, and one which contrasts Esmeralda’s prayer for her oppressed people with the “health and wealth” morality of the more privileged worshippers. Some people have actually criticized this scene for being anti-religious, and I honestly have no idea how that could be. For one thing, it’s literally a prayer. That song is an actual prayer. Someone please tell me how praying is anti-religious. The scene, with lines like “Were you once an outcast, too?” directed at a statue of the Virgin Mary, intentionally creates a parallel between the oppressed people of the story and the Biblical story of Jesus and Mary. And, with Esmeralda praying before a religious statue, walking through lit candles, and singing “God help my people!”, I think we’d be hard pressed to find a more overtly religious depiction in any piece of children’s media.god-1 I think the criticism comes more from a sort of classism that sees the wealthy worshippers as somehow more religious than the poor gypsy girl, which… kind of makes me think this movie is right about more things than we’d like to admit. However, even that criticism is just wrong. While Esmeralda’s selflessness in her prayer(“I ask for nothing…” is a line) is definitely contrasted as the better prayer than the other requests in the church, the other characters are still quite sympathetic. They are seen as unhappy, and their prayers are more of a misguided attempt to find something meaningful than a condemnation for their selfishness. One woman tragically flings up her hands and asks for love. How is that not sympathetic?

Also, I’m pretty sure this scene is in the book and it is definitely in the 1939 version, where Esmeralda is even more explicitly contrasted with the other worshippers. In that version, she prays for God to take all she has as a sacrifice to save her people. So, if anything the Disney version is tame by comparison. 1939

But, of course, it is”Hellfire” that takes the cake as the best song in the movie. Disney villain songs often tend to be the best, but this one is especially good. It’s not a very fun song, like “Be Prepared” or “Poor, Unfortunate Souls”, which are enjoyable to sing along with. No, this is honestly getting up there with some classic Broadway pieces as a complex song that is combined with a chanting, Gregorian-style choir. It begins with Frollo saying a prayer about his virtue and righteousness, very poised and self-collected, and then it slowly crumbles into emotional madness as he obsesses over his lust for Esmeralda. It’s powerful stuff, and maybe the most emotionally complex scene in Disney history. His prayer turns to real sexual confusion, asking why he is having these feelings. And, because of his own code and his own prejudices, he turns these desires into real moral agony and eventual murderous rage. By the time he starts to sing “Like fire, hellfire…” The song breaks down into both the character’s own moral fear and a deeply disturbed internal conflict of violence and lust. And, again, from Disney!

frollo3

I really love how while Frollo sings “It’s not my fault!” and blames Esmeralda for his desires, the entire faceless-monk choir sings “Mea Culpa!”, which is Latin for “My fault”. This has further subtext, since the “Mea Culpa” of a Catholic Mass is a prayer of admitting one’s sins are, in fact, one’s own fault. This kind of complex religious dynamic is really unusual for any children’s movie, especially the House of Mouse.d-hell-8

And, I have to say that the scene when Frollo stars rubbing Esmeralada’s scarf all over his face is pretty damn creepy, the director giving us a no-holds-barred depiction of a sexual predator. frollo2Although, whenever I see it, I do start getting little Dario Argento flashbacks to his “Your female smell!” scene from that really weird, Italian Phantom of the Opera with all the rats…

Lemme just snort up some of that female smell off your scarf, if that's cool...

Lemme just snort up some of that female smell off your scarf, if that’s cool…

So, with all this praise for the movie, you’d think that this would be my favorite Disney film. Well… no. Actually, it’s not.

The trouble is, when dealing with a story so dark, so unusual, so, well, not kid-friendly, Disney was having its own internal conflict. Disney is the happiest place in earth, right? And its image had become one of wholesome, family entertainment. It’s about finding your dreams and love and all that, not about creepy, old men obsessing over their own sexual repression and locking their disfigured adopted children in towers while plotting genocide. None of that screams Disney. So, Disney had two options for a consistent film: One, it could abandon the dark stuff and make a totally different movie or, Two, it could go all-out adult and make a really good, dark film.

They chose a third option: not to make a consistent movie.

So, this is where that Disney formula, the one about finding dreams, wanting more, true love, and cute/funny sidekicks comes in. Does it work? Oh, hell, no. No, it does not work at all.

We seem to be in a totally different cartoon...

We seem to be in a totally different cartoon…

Now, a little Disney optimism would be just fine. Even in the 1939 version a lot of the more depressing elements of the story were taken out. In the book, Esmeralda dies (oh, and she also gets raped, and not even by Frollo), and Quasimodo dies holding her dead body. The end.

It’s no surprise that Disney would make a happy ending, or make Quasimodo a sort of free-spirit, wanting-of-more Disney archetype, or cut out the whole rape thing. They also change Frollo’s occupation and really tone down the religious criticism from the book. In the novel, Frollo is a priest and the Catholic Church is heavily criticized. In the movie, Frollo’s occupation is secular and he just happens to be a religious nutjob, kind of like Glenn Beck (zinger!). Also, all the other religious characters are portrayed from benign to downright noble, and the ending shows everyone getting together and learning something about tolerance and acceptance.

Pro-justice, racially tolerant priests and scenes of overt prayer from the good guys, and people still think it's anti-religious?

Pro-justice, racially tolerant priests and scenes of overt prayer from the good guys, and people still think it’s anti-religious?

In the book the main characters just die horribly and the Church comes across like an outdated institution of prejudice. Despite this heavy editing of the source material, some religious critics still found the movie objectionable, and I really cannot understand why. How much more removed from the source material would it have to be?

Anyway, some changes just make sense. I don’t expect Disney to go all Lars von Trier all of a sudden and execute our heroine.

"It's the second to last song!"

“It’s the second to last song!”

But, Disney didn’t just make the movie happier and less religiously controversial. It went full-Disney, and it does not work at all. Basically the entire fault is with the sidekicks, who really, really kill the movie. These would be the gargoyles and Esmeralda’s goat, none of which should be prominent enough to ruin a movie about human drama, but there you have it. The gargoyle’s are based on the Three Stooges, itself a weird artistic choice, and they spend the entire movie cracking dumb jokes and singing horribly out-of-place songs like “A Guy Like You”. The humor doesn’t even make sense because “A Guy Like You” is about how Quasimodo is actually good-looking and can “get the girl”. What the hell, movie? And, it is big, over-the-top, ridiculous, like a rejected song from the Genie, and no one ever talks about it again.

Again, like a totally different cartoon.

Again, like a totally different cartoon.

And the gargoyles are in the whole movie! They aren’t even Quasimodo’s imaginary friends. They are very real and partake in the final fight scene, all the while making horrible jokes. Disney, we live in a Miyazaki world! Kids can and will watch movies with battle scenes that are just action sequences.

Honestly, I think that about halfway through Disney thought, “Wait, sexual predators and murder? What the fuck are we doing?” and started cramming stupid, kid-friendly moments in to make up for that. But, that really hurts the tone of the film, and ruins serious moments with stupid fantasy and an ongoing gag about how a gargoyle is in love with the goat… What the hell, movie? And this does the most harm to our romantic couple, Esmeralda and Phoebus, who in this version is her lover and not, you know, a rapist. To be fair, if I remember correctly, the ’39 version does the same thing. However, the lack of character development, especially when contrasted to the villain and main character, really makes these two seem kind of bland. Esmeralda looks amazing, with her great character design, and she does interesting things, like dance and stand up for others, but her personality is really not that interesting. couple She’s just kind of a Mary Sue, a beautiful, self-sacrificing woman who everyone is in love with. That’s not that interesting. And Phoebus is John Smith-dull, making Disney Prince-style quips and heroics that seem kind of out of place.

Quasimodo is also not really the most compelling character, although he’s better than our lovebirds. Yet again, we have a love triangle where the character who doesn’t “get the girl” (I know, it’s kind of a regressive concept in itself…) is the more interesting one. He’s upbeat and kind-hearted, and you do genuinely feel bad for him. I wouldn’t say he’s exactly an original character, though, since he seems pretty strongly influenced by The Elephant Man. But, that’s a great movie, so if you are going to borrow from someone, make it David Lynch.

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Tonally, the movie is all over, from horrific to childish to blandly light-hearted to tragic, and the transitions basically don’t exist. I feel like the studio didn’t have enough confidence to believe in this project and really push their artistic boundaries. Instead, they held back, dumbed it down, and shied away from the real heart of the story. Which begs the question: why adapt this story at all?

Well… remember what I said about Disney’s relationship with the mega-musical and how influenced Beauty and the Beast is by Phantom? Well, what’s the other big, successful mega-musical everyone loves? Oh, yeah…

French misery, by Victor Hugo

French misery, by Victor Hugo

Huh, I wonder if that had anything to do with the decision? It’s only a Disney musical adaptation of a work by the same author, featuring mega-musical style songs and big-choral moments, just like that other music. But, I’m sure that in no way influenced the decision at all…

In the end, I think most people, and especially the studio, look at this movie as kind of a miss. This is too bad, really, because it has a lot of good. And, it’s also too bad because the studio learned exactly the wrong message and instead of deciding to make films more brave and more adult, they decided to abandon that idea and go with the funny, cutesy moments that actually were the real flaw with this movie. And, because of this, this is basically the end of the Disney Renaissance. Oh, they have one last hurrah, but it’s definitely a back-peddle from the direction they tried to go with Pocahontas and Hunchback. I don’t suppose we’ll ever get to see what Disney was going for with this brief foray into the mature and its break from its image. Which is too bad, because the idea was really interesting, even if the execution didn’t always pay off.

Oh, well, at least we have this, one big, beautiful, messy movie about sexual predators, murder, and genocide from the Happiest Place On Earth.

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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…