Disney Reflections No.10: The Modern Royal’s Guide On How Not To Parent

This is Disney Reflections, a series of monthly posts in which I compare Disney animated fairy tales to the original stories.

It is a rare fairy tale where the protagonist’s parents are a) alive, and b) capable of raising their children without life-damaging trauma. In this, the final post of Disney Reflections, the royal family of Arendelle fail both spectacularly. I was introduced to Tumblr’s opinions on this movie – including various versions of ‘Let It Go’, genderbent art, and meta I tried really hard not to read – before seeing it myself, which meant I was spoilered for several things on top of my usual ‘You’re Doing My Fairy Tale Wrong’ literalism. A rewatch is definitely necessary for judging this one.

The fairy tale: Frozen is based on Hans Christian Andersen’s story ‘The Snow Queen’, which is one of my favourites (admittedly, the list is lengthy) and was reviewed for the Fairy Tale Tuesday project. You can read my thoughts here.

The film: We start in the kingdom of Arendelle, which sounds like a dress shop rather than an actual place and what, may I ask, was wrong with Denmark? I mean, I can’t prove ‘The Snow Queen’ starts in Denmark but that’s where Andersen was from and later in the story Gerda travels to Lapland, so it would be reasonable to assume…

…you don’t really care, do you? It’s just I MISS the days when Disney set its fairy tales in real places, hyper-stereotyped though they usually were.

Anyway. Arendelle. It’s very north. In a sequence that reminds me of The Little Mermaid’s opening number, ‘Fathoms Below’, we see the ice-breakers at work on the river, hauling away vast frozen chunks with skill and speed. Tagging along behind is a little boy, with an equally diminutive young reindeer. He’s trying to learn the trade without anyone actually teaching him or, in fact, noticing he’s there.

http://vignette2.wikia.nocookie.net/disney/images/0/03/Images-3.jpg/revision/latest?cb=20140530195547In the castle, Princess Elsa is trying to sleep. The colours of the aurora borealis swirling in the night sky outside are not enough to wake her, even her little sister Anna’s determined tugging can’t get her up, until the magic words are deployed: “Do you wanna build a snowman?” The answer is YES. Elsa wants to build a snowman. And in the echoing great hall of the palace, that’s precisely what she does, because Elsa has magic that allows her to create winter at will. She makes the floor an ice rink, waves the stick arms of a snowman she calls Olaf, makes little hillocks of snow for Anna to jump between. But Anna keeps jumping higher and higher, and Elsa can’t keep up. Nor does Anna listen when she’s told to stop. A stray bolt of ice magic strikes her across the head; she tumbles to the ground and goes still. A streak of white appears in her hair. Panicked, Elsa screams for their parents.

Who at least know about the magic, though they don’t really like it. They take their daughters to the trolls, little mossy people who strongly resemble boulders. Trotting alone through the woods, the pint-sized ice-breaker is nearly mown down by the frantic royals and hurries after them to see what’s happening. “Cuties,” one troll remarks, petting both boy and reindeer approvingly. “I’m gonna keep you.”

The rest of the trolls are focused on the frightened family huddled in their midst. The chief troll comes kindly forward to examine his patient. It’s lucky – to a given value of ‘luck’ – that the blow struck Anna’s head, not her heart. By stripping away all memories of magic and modifying them to normal winter fun, the troll heals her. He warns Elsa that her power will only get stronger, and that she must learn to control it or disaster will follow. He illustrates his point with flashing red illusions that terrify the young princess and her parents, who decide the best way to handle their daughter’s burgeoning abilities is to go into full lockdown. The castle gates are locked; the staff reduced. Elsa’s things are moved out of the room she shared with her sister. She is encouraged to stay away from people until she learns to control her power…but the tighter her restrictions, the worse her control. Seeing that she makes frost with her bare hands, her father gives her gloves. The outside world becomes a terrifying place for a little girl with a secret.

And on the outside is Anna, bewildered at the sudden change in her sister, trying to coax her out of her room with slowly declining hope. She resorts to dangerous stunts to entertain herself, like riding a bike down a staircase, and starts talking to the paintings. When the girls are in their teens, their parents go on a fortnight’s sea voyage and are caught in a storm. They don’t come back. Now Elsa is utterly alone, and so is Anna.

Three years later, the stillness on the castle cracks. Elsa is about to ascend the throne and that means, “for the first time in forever”, the gates are about to be opened. Anna is almost hysterical with excitement. She whizzes past ‘wow, am going to meet someone new’ straight to ‘TRUE LOVE IS OUT THERE’. Though her notion of true love is basically just someone who wants to talk to her. Oh, honey.

In the city outside, the festival mood is echoed in flower garlands and ribbons. The little boy, Kristoff – all grown up to lumberjack proportions, along with his reindeer Sven – is among the hopeful crowd. More distinguished guests, including a gang of dodgy-looking dignitaries, arrive in the port. When the gates are flung open Anna dives out, plunging into the crowd like she’s taking her first deep breath in years. Her enthusiasm is infectious. Her co-ordination could use some work, though. She runs straight into a horse, falls in a boat and ends up face to face with a prince. He’s handsome and courteous; she’s instantly smitten. Conversation stutters along in awkward mutual apologies until the introductions are made. He’s Hans; she’s the soon-to-be-queen’s younger sister; oh yes, and the coronation is about to start, she should probably be there.

Underneath a veneer of regal composure, Elsa is freaking out. Whatever she touches with her bare skin immediately frosts over, but part of the ceremony requires her to hold the traditional orb and sceptre aloft in front of everyone. She takes them in her hands for the briefest possible time and whips her gloves back on afterwards.

The following party is far less formal. Once Elsa has been introduced by her official title, with Anna by her side – and it’s desperately sad how uncertain Anna is about being there, edging diffidently away so they don’t stand too close – there is jaunty music and dancing. The sisters attempt to have a conversation. It’s reserved but kind on Elsa’s side, awkward and eager on Anna’s. Both are a little overwhelmed by the sheer number of people suddenly in their home,  both sniff longingly at the aroma of chocolate. Their chat gets interrupted by the Duke of Weselton (one of those dodgy-looking dignitaries from earlier on), who asks for a dance. Being the queen has its perks; Elsa can say no, but Anna gets whirled around on the floor while the duke tries to pump her for information and simultaneously perform an acrobatic sort of hornpipe. Coming back to Elsa after the dance, Anna makes another tentative overture – “I wish it could be like this all the time” – and Elsa obviously agrees, but the reminder closes her down again, making Anna back off in tears. 

And who should she stumble into at that moment? The handsome, the dashing, the much-better-dancer-than-that-duke Prince Hans of the Southern Isles, who proceeds over the evening to prove himself a fantastic listener. They swap stories: he’s the youngest of twelve brothers and three of them once pretended he didn’t exist, she doesn’t feel welcome in her own home. After hours of sneaking around the castle and gardens like little kids, Hans spontaneously proposes in a romantic spot beside a waterfall and Anna spontaneously accepts. They both http://i2.wp.com/www.thefandom.net/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/frozen-anna-hans-2.jpgseem drunk on finding someone who actually likes them. Bursting back into the ballroom to tell Elsa, their dizzy vibe is abruptly dampened when she points out they’ve only just met, this is weird, she’s not giving her blessing and definitely not hosting their wedding. She’s not very tactful. One thing leads to another, the sisters get into a screaming row and Anna accidentally pulls off one of Elsa’s gloves. Instantly, a wall of razor sharp icicles flash across the floor.

Elsa’s secret is finally out. Horrified, she flees into the village square but everyone wants to stop and congratulate her. The Duke of Weselton – who has somehow taken charge – shouts out an order to stop her. In her panic, Elsa lashes out again and her people shrink back in fear. She runs down to the fjord. When water meets her feet, it turns to ice, making a bridge for her to pass across. Which is pretty damn spectacular. Behind her, the whole fjord ices over, trapping the ships. Elsa’s fear is so great she has brought a sudden winter down on Arendelle.

http://www.scifinow.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/Once-Upon-A-Time-Season-3-spoilers.jpgAnna is not one of those calling Elsa a monster. She feels guilty about the fight and worried about her sister; leaving Hans to hold the fort, she gets a horse and rides off to find Elsa. “She’s my sister,” she reassures Hans. “She would never hurt me.” But Elsa does not want to be found. Climbing high into the mountains, the snow a whirlwind around her, she has gone right through panic into something like elation: she can’t go back so why bother with the rules? Why not do whatever she wants? Why not…LET IT GO, LET IT GO, SHE CAN’T HOLD IT BACK ANYMORE…

Had to be said.

Crafting a palace from ice, she frosts herself a dress and conjures up a snowman just for the hell of it. Elsa likes being banished. The cold never bothered her anyway. It does bother Anna, who didn’t change out of her summer ballgown and just lost both her cloak and her horse in the woods. Staggering through knee-deep snow towards the rising smoke of a chimney, she discovers a little shop that is stocked almost exclusively for summer. Managing to acquire a warm dress and boots, she and the shopkeeper are both taken aback when a snow-encrusted stranger stomps in demanding carrots. It is Kristoff, who has just come from the North Mountain, where scary magic stuff is happening. Anna perks up. In return for buying his hideously expensive winter supplies – the shopkeeper is not sympathetic to sorcerous changes in season – she enlists Kristoff’s help to reach the mountain and hopefully convince Elsa to stop freezing Arendelle to death.

Kristoff has grown up a bit odd. He prefers his reindeer Sven to human beings (well, that’s not odd, Sven is adorable, if a bit dog-like) and has a ventriloquism thing going on where he pretends Sven is singing along with him, but he’s all Anna’s got, even if he does tell her off for scuffing his freshly lacquered sled and takes Elsa’s side in the Hans argument. Anna sticks to her guns. It is TRUE LOVE. When wolves attack the sled, she works off her anger beating them away with Kristoff’s guitar.

I feel really sorry for wolves in Disney films, they get so badly typecast.

Anna and Kristoff end up running straight at a cliff. Because it is Disney, they get over safely; the freshly lacquered sled, however, ends up at the bottom of a ravine. Anna guiltily promises to buy a new one. Kristoff isn’t very forgiving, but Sven likes her so Kristoff ends up having an argument more or less with himself and comes along grudgingly.

As the sun comes up, the wintry world Elsa has created glitters bewitchingly. Anna and Kristoff are walking through it (with a very bouncy Sven) toward the mountain when they come across Olaf the mobile snowman, Elsa’s creation from last night, who is cheerfully critiquing the lack of colour. Despite initial misgivings, Anna gives him one of Sven’s carrots for a nose. When he introduces himself, she recognises the childhood name and realises they have a lead on finding Elsa. Olaf is delighted to help, though it means bringing back summer. He likes summer. Just doesn’t understand quite what it is…

As a side note: being a Queenslander, I find his desire to get tanned really unhealthy. Snow melts. Skin burns. Don’t tan, people!

Meanwhile, in the city, Hans is great in a crisis. He’s handing around cloaks and blankets, offering hot soup from the castle kitchens, tamping down the Duke of Weselton’s hysterical accusations. When Anna’s horse returns without its rider, he rapidly gathers volunteers for a rescue party. The Duke sends along two men who do not have the royal family’s interests at heart. Unaware of the concerns for her safety, Anna climbs higher into Elsa’s winter wonderland. The closer they get to the top, the spikier the ice formations grow. At length they come to a cliff-face that’s too steep to climb. Nothing daunted, Anna launches herself at it anyway. “You know, most people who disappear into the mountains want to be alone,” Kristoff points out. “Nobody wants to be alone!” Anna declares. Olaf politely interrupts by finding a staircase round the back that leads straight to Elsa’s massive ice palace. Kristoff falls in love with it on the spot.

He’s indignant when Anna insists on going in alone, but doesn’t push it. Olaf trots in anyway. Elsa is astonished to see him alive; apparently her magic has even less limits than she thought. Anna reminds her of the snowmen they built as children, asking her to come home; Elsa gets a painful flashback to when her magic and her sister last collided and demands she leave, go back to the castle where she’ll be safe. Only she won’t, because eternal winter. Hearing what her magic has done, Elsa is appalled – she doesn’t know how to undo it and Anna’s blithe assurance that she can is maddening. Ice starbursts out from her, a splinter accidentally lodging in Anna’s chest.

The noise brings Kristoff running. That’s the last straw for Elsa, who calls up a giant snow bouncer to throw them out. Unfortunately, like Olaf, it has more personality than she intended. When Anna insults it, the snow bouncer chases after them all in a homicidal rage. Kristoff rapidly rigs up his rope and pick to swing them down the side of the mountain, but the snow bouncer starts pulling them back up and they have to cut the rope, falling into deep snow. As they get up and try to decide what to do next, Kristoff notices Anna’s hair slowly turning white. Realising she was struck by Elsa’s magic, he leads her to meet some friends.

They really do look a lot like boulders. Olaf is skeptical. But the stones quickly reveal themselves to actually be trolls, who are so wildly overjoyed about Kristoff finally introducing them to another human being that they start planning a wedding straight away. I find this a bit creepy. Finally, when Anna collapses, they figure out this is a medical emergency rather than a marriage, but the news gets no better – Anna has been struck in the heart and the only cure for that is an act of true love.

Kristoff lifts her onto Sven. His idea is to bring her back to Hans for true love’s kiss, but Hans is at the ice palace getting attacked by Elsa’s snow bouncer while the Duke’s men slip past with crossbows. Elsa begs them to just leave, flinging up ice to defend herself – but by the time Hans gets there, she has both men at the mercy of her ice and is about to kill them. “Don’t be the monster they fear you are!” Hans calls out. Elsa wavers. One of the Duke’s men grabs the chance to fire his crossbow; in deflecting it, Hans brings down a chandelier. Elsa is knocked unconscious. When she comes to, she’s in a cell under the castle, hands gloved in iron to prevent her using her magic, and Hans comes in pleading with her to bring back summer. She tells him what she told Anna: she doesn’t know how.

At the same time, Kristoff is riding like mad for the castle. He leaves Anna with the people there, unwilling to go but not sure what else he can do, and she’s quickly bundled into a quiet, warm room with Hans. She explains as best she can, already very weak, and he leans in to kiss her…only their mouths don’t meet. He pulls back at the last minute. “Oh Anna,” he remarks. “If only there was someone out there who loved you.” In a screeching narrative U-turn, he reveals his hand. All he actually wants is the kingdom and as it looks like he can have that without her, he’s going to let the magic take its course. To be sure it does, he locks the door behind him when he leaves. Heartbroken, Anna collapses on the floor.

If this is really based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, I think it’s a bit much they’ve named the villain after him.

Hans then goes straight to the council room to announce Anna’s death at Elsa’s hands. “At least we got to say our marriage vows,” he whispers, “before she died in my arms.” He should be off on stage doing Romeo and Juliet. Instead he gets the throne and everybody’s approval to execute Elsa. But it won’t be quite that simple. As Anna told him, he’s no match for Elsa – her ice freezes the metal gloves to breaking point and she breaks down a wall to escape her cell.

Up on the hill overlooking the city, Kristoff is walking away from the royal family drama. Sven completely disagrees with this life choice. Kristoff kind of does too, though he can’t quite admit it. This is probably their first fight ever. It breaks off when they see the massive storm building around the castle – Anna is down there and Kristoff doesn’t even hesitate, plunging back the way he came.

The one to reach Anna first, however, is Olaf. He picks the lock with his carrot nose (there’s an interesting line to type) and throws caution to the winds by kindling a fire to warm her up. Though she can barely talk, Anna tries to warn him. “Some people are worth melting for,” he tells her. That is an act of true love, if you ask me, but he thinks they should get Kristoff, who is riding hard for the castle. If they’re going to reach him, it had better be soon – spikes of ice are spreading across the castle, turning it into a death trap. Breaking open a window, Anna drops onto the frozen fjord. Unknown to her, Elsa is close by, lost in the storm of snow. Hans is in pursuit; Kristoff and Sven are searching. It’s like a game of Murder. Guess who’s the murderer?

Hans comes up behind Elsa. He tells her that she killed Anna and the shock of it brings her to her knees, the storm collapsing with her. Raising his sword, Hans prepares to finish her off – but Anna sees them first. With the last of her strength, she throws herself between them, just as she turns into a statue of pure ice. Hans’s sword shatters on impact, sending him flying. Elsa sobs brokenly over what is left of her sister while Kristoff, Sven and Olaf look on helplessly.

Magic is tricky. Anna thought she needed to receive an act of true love; instead she showed one.https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/48/96/bd/4896bdc7789cdc5bc872a36d1f9d9b1c.jpg The ice melts and the sisters share their first hug in a very long time. Elsa realises that love is the key; if fear can set off an eternal winter, a sibling reunion is enough to end it. The deep snow around doesn’t thaw, it vanishes, leaving them all standing under a warm summer sky. Including Olaf. Who does start melting, but Elsa promptly fixes that with a personalised snow cloud to follow him about.

Which means there’s only Hans left to deal with. Anna faces him with disdainful composure. “The only frozen heart around here is yours,” she informs him, before decking him in the face. Everyone approves. Including the councillors, who are watching from a balcony and have changed their minds about a lot of things. For example, Elsa gets her crown back uncontested, while the Duke of Weselton is sent packing on the next ship out. Hans is taken home to face his big brothers.

http://vignette2.wikia.nocookie.net/disney/images/a/a6/Annakristoffkiss.png/revision/latest?cb=20140308194133Since they’re handling unfinished business, Anna prepares a surprise for Kristoff. He gets a brand new sled, the official post of Royal Icemaster and Deliverer, and a quite enthusiastic kiss from the crown princess. Olaf and Sven play practical jokes with a carrot and Queen Elsa creates an ice rink in the castle square to show off how fun her powers can be. “I like the open gates,” Anna confides. “We’re never closing them again,” Elsa declares. Skating together, surrounded by the people who love them, they both have all they ever wanted.

Spot the Difference: Okay, so this is a sweet movie. I love to see anything about sibling relationships take centre stage, particularly sisters, and there are some interesting – if not terribly well explained – narrative subversions. Anna breaking the spell on herself was a delightful touch that took me a second viewing to recognise, I thought Elsa’s grief broke it the first time around. Elsa is an unusually ambiguous character for Disney, which is also good to see. A lot of Elsa’s behaviour suggests she has an anxiety disorder, making her the first Disney princess with a mental illness, and her emotional upheaval gets a lot of very welcome nuance. These are all great things. On the other hand, a retelling that bears less resemblance to the original story would be difficult to find. The overlap is extraordinarily small and the differences are…interesting.

Andersen’s ‘The Snow Queen’ is all about friendship – not just between Gerda and Kay, but the host of allies Gerda receives support from along the way. Most of whom are female, occupying a wide spectrum of ages: the lonely enchantress, an exceptionally well-educated princess, the robber girl and a pair of wisewomen. The Snow Queen is a distant and largely disinterested villain. Anna and Elsa appear to be an odd amalgamation of Gerda, Kay and the Snow Queen – actually, that’s too much of a stretch, they appear to be entirely original characters with no basis in the fairy tale at all. There are no other significant female characters. Every secondary character of significance is male. This movie is about frightened girls finding their ground, and that is an important story to tell – but in the process, a host of fantastic women have been ignored.

Why pretend this is based on ‘The Snow Queen’ at all? It isn’t! It has a queen who likes snow. That’s not the same. I can appreciate all the good things about this movie and rewatching it was enjoyable, but as a retelling, it is a complete failure. I hope they make another version of ‘The Snow Queen’ someday and do it a bit more justice. Frozen stands perfectly well on its own.

This has been a fun project for me. It’s always exciting to see how fairy tales are adapted for changing times and audiences, what different ideas each iteration draws from the same story. Over Disney’s long history, the approach has evolved markedly. The next Disney princess to hit screens will be Moana, in a movie of the same name which will be released next year. I’ll definitely be watching it. Thank you for reading – I hope you’ve had fun too!

Advertisements

Disney Reflections No.3 – Disgracing the Forces of Evil

This is Disney Reflections, a series of monthly posts in which I compare Disney animated fairy tales to the original stories.

Sleeping Beauty was the last Disney fairy tale made under the personal direction of Walt Disney, and the last the studios would produce for thirty years. This one I’m watching on DVD, the platinum edition no less, which means it comes with an underwhelming music video for ‘Once Upon a Dream’. To be fair, no one can make me like that song.

The fairy tale: My Fairy Tale Tuesday review can be read here. There are older versions of the story in which the prince’s encounter with Sleeping Beauty takes place on considerably less courteous terms (which makes you think about why those encircling thorns were so necessary) but the one I discuss follows the more popular pattern of love at first sight – it doesn’t even take a kiss to wake her. It then continues after the wedding with vicious family politics. I like it more than I probably should.

http://img2.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20140511171004/disney/images/7/72/Original_Sleeping_Beauty_Poster.jpgThe film: The story opens, as have all Disney fairy tales to date, with a storybook sequence introducing us to the action. King Stefan and his queen (who, I notice, never gets a name) have long been childless and when they finally get the baby of their dreams, they proclaim a holiday throughout the kingdom so that everyone can ‘pay homage’ to the newborn princess Aurora. So, not an actual holiday, then.

The christening ceremony kicks off with a celebratory procession and King Hubert (yeah, the king next door gets a name) shows up with his small son Philip to seal a betrothal between the children. The royals certainly waste no time in cementing their alliances. Such mundane visitors are eclipsed, however, by the arrival of ‘the three good fairies’ – the phrasing of it makes me wonder, are they the only fairies in the kingdom or are the rest on rocky terms with the monarchy? Where are all the bad fairies?

Flora, Fauna and Merryweather appear as diminutive middle-aged ladies who just happen to have magic wands and wings, and are a lot more taken with Aurora than Philip was. Flora’s christening gift to the little princess is beauty, which…is nice, but not the most useful application of magic ever. Did she not consider giving Aurora wicked maths skills for rehauling the kingdom’s taxation system, or a photographic memory for learning speeches? Fauna’s offering of song is a bit more constructive. Merryweather goes last and we never get to see what she had planned – which is a terrible shame as I think it would have been awesome – because at this moment the christening gets crashed by Maleficent.

She holds to the Disney trend of stylish female supervillains with excellent cheekbones and tyranny issues. Having very deliberately not been invited, she stretches out the awkward moment for as long as possible while the royals watch her like hypnotised mice and the good fairies scramble to shield the cradle. All to no avail: she bestows her ‘gift’ on the baby regardless, vowing that on the day she turns sixteen Aurora will prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die. With that, Maleficent disappears in a pillar of green flame.

Is she a bad fairy or a sorceress? Either way, I bet if she was buttered up correctly she’d give fantastic gifts, like razor sarcasm or a flawless right hook.

http://images4.fanpop.com/image/photos/24400000/Sleeping-Beauty-disney-classics-24452979-960-540.jpg Sadly, that’s not what happened. Once spoken, the curse cannot be undone, but it can be softened. Merryweather changes the magic so that Aurora’s injury will cause an enchanted sleep, not death, and she will awaken at the touch of love’s first kiss. That is of course not much reassurance for King Stefan, who orders every spinning wheel in the kingdom to be burned (goodbye, cloth industry!). The fairies, who are also dissatisfied with the outcome, gather in private for tea and plotting. Fauna is concerned about Maleficent’s mental health and Merryweather is almost incoherent with rage, which leaves Flora to make an actual plan. It is, can I say, a really bad plan: disguise themselves as peasants, give up magic and raise Aurora under a different identity.

Everyone agrees to the plan. I suppose the alternative is doom by spinning wheel, but talk about emotional devastation for the king and queen.

What’s amazing is, the plan works. In a menacing castle at the top of a menacing mountain, Maleficent is literally thundering at her army of low-grade minions, and for good reason. Sixteen years to the day after the fairies slipped away from the castle with the baby princess, they are still looking for Aurora in cradles. “They’re hopeless,” Maleficent sighs, “a disgrace to the forces of evil.” She’s talking to her pet raven, the only intelligent company in the place and from the look of it, the same bird who lived with Snow White’s stepmother. Clearly it has a taste for wickedness. Maleficent sends her bird to hunt down Aurora, before the curse can fail.

Meanwhile, a girl known as Briar Rose is about to turn sixteen. Her three guardians intend to throw a surprise party and bundle her off into the woods to pick berries so they can get on with preparations. Given their total lack of subtlety, it’s a miracle they’ve managed to keep anything secret so long. Also astonishing is how they’ve lived without magic, as they certainly haven’t learned how to cook or make clothes. Merryweather is taking the ban hardest; she imagines they can make an exception for the party, but Flora’s having none of that. This is their last chance to do things the human way. Fauna is having a go at baking, while Flora makes a new dress for Aurora by hand. Merryweather gets roped into modelling. Fortunately for Flora, she’s too upset about the prospect of Briar Rose returning to her birth parents to make a real effort at mutiny.

Briar Rose, entirely unaware, is wandering through the seemingly berryless woods, unleashing her spectacular singing voice. The Disney bluebirds recognise a kindred spirit and http://img4.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20130531025634/degrassi/images/e/ec/Sleeping_beauty_aurora_singing.jpgsoon whip up a suitable audience of woodland creatures, including a starstruck owl and some mildly bewildered rabbits. Also overhearing her, a horseman in red tries to rein in and just gets unimpressed side-eye from his horse Samson. Only when the word ‘carrots’ is uttered does Samson kick into gear, bounding off in Briar Rose’s general direction and in his enthusiastic rush, accidentally tossing the prince into a river. for of course, the man in red is none other than Prince Philip.

It’s a good thing Aurora has acquired friends among the local wildlife, because she’s led an intensely cloistered life and is still being treated as a little girl by her doting guardians. Even in her dreams of love, she’s never got as far as the kiss. The owl, deeply moved by her story, spies Philip’s cloak and hat drying out on a branch and convinces his friends to steal them; with the rabbits hopping around in the boots and the owl under the hat, they return to Aurora as a makeshift prince. She laughs, playing along, but during the dance the woodland prince is replaced by a real one who seizes her from behind like that’s romantic and not what a really scary stranger would do. He insists they’ve met before, ‘once upon a dream’.

I genuinely hate that song. This scene is at least half the reason why.

Briar Rose has probably never met a boy her own age before. She’s lonely enough to tumble headfirst into mutual infatuation but is also confused, backing off when he goes in for a kiss and babbling ‘never!’ when he asks to see her again. He suggests tomorrow as an alternative. She changes that to tonight, and gives him her address. Honey, no, dreams are not reliable! Do not give out personal information to people you may or may not have encountered in a dream!

Back at the cottage, the dress Flora made is rags held together by ribbon, the cake is falling to bits, and Merryweather is climbing the walls. The others cave, admitting the only way to salvage the mess is with magic. Drawing all the curtains and stopping up the cracks, they get to work with their wands. Fauna chats cheerfully with cake ingredients, showing them the recipe; Flora whips up a dress in her favourite shade, pink, and Merryweather gets stuck cleaning the room because the elder two don’t take her seriously. She takes her revenge by changing the dress to blue whenever Flora turns her back.

This escalates into a colour duel, sparks flying up the unguarded chimney like a whacking great beacon shrieking MAGIC! It does not take a Sherlock raven to notice. Also, the dress turns out a disastrous splotchy mix of both colours. As Briar Rose returns, Merryweather quickly magics it to straight blue. Not that she really needed to bother – the girl is giving off a lovestruck vibe that can be seen in the dark and when they realise she’s met a boy the fairies act like someone’s died. In a manner of speaking, she has. Briar Rose learns her true identity, and at the same time, that she’s betrothed to a man she’s never met. She runs upstairs to cry. No cake is eaten.

Her parents, on the other hand, are preparing for a celebration sixteen years in the making. King Stefan’s banquet hall is set up for a huge feast and he’s trying to discuss his parental anxieties with his friend King Hubert. Unfortunately, Hubert is an insensitive lout who’d rather get them both drunk on endless toasts to the future. He cares less about Aurora’s return than the ensuing marriage – he’s already had a house designed and built for the newlyweds – and the grandchildren he hopes to have. Realising his daughter’s life is being planned out before he’s even met her, Stefan tries to object and his intoxicated friend takes immediate offence. It goes a lot less diplomatic from there. “Unreasonable, pompous, blustering old windbag!” Stefan shouts, accurately. Hubert attacks him with a fish. They both realise how ridiculous they’re being and drink some more. They are terrible role models.

Aurora may not be around to defend her rights, but Philip is. Riding home with his head in the clouds, he tells his horrified father he’s met the girl of his dreams, he doesn’t know her name and by the way, she’s a peasant. Guess which of these facts upsets Hubert most. Philip takes absolutely none of his father’s rage seriously, drifting off to dream some more before his rendezvous. Hubert doesn’t know how to break it to Stefan. Are they married now? WHERE IS THE QUEEN?

The day is almost over. Swathed in a cloak and her own misery, Aurora is ushered into her parents’ castle through a side entrance and led up a back stairway to a pretty cage of a bedroom, where she can prepare for the big meeting. When the fairies place a tiara upon her head, she bursts into tears. They have nothing comforting to say, so give her the only thing they can, which is space. Not necessarily a wise decision. The fire gutters out, the smoke turning into a green orb. The princess rises like a waxen doll to follow it.

Outside, Merryweather is fermenting rebellion against outdated marriage practices and Fauna, never one for confrontation, is dithering anxiously. Flora, the manager, is the first to realise they’ve lost Aurora. They break into her room, where a doorway has opened in the fireplace. With the fairies following as fast as they can, their cries unheard, Aurora climbs into a tower room where a spinning wheel waits with more menace than any inanimate object should possess. Aurora’s face has frozen in a skeptical eyebrow arch and she draws back a little from the sharp needle, trying to reassert control, but at Maleficent’s order she reaches out. A touch is all it takes. She collapses. The sorceress disappears, triumphant at last.

As the fairies mourn their lost girl, fireworks burst across the sky. The whole kingdom is waiting. How can they possibly go into the hall where Stefan and his queen are straining for the first glimpse of their long-lost daughter, and tell them it’s all been for nothing? Flora, for one, cannot. She enchants the whole palace to sleep while they decide how to save Aurora. Hubert, ever oblivious, is trying to tell Stefan about Philip’s crush while they both fall asleep and Flora, overhearing, works out the Shakespearean misunderstanding that’s taken place. The fairies hasten back to the cottage to intercept the prince, but once again they are too late. Maleficent’s knock-off orcs, incompetent at all other things, can at least kidnap a prince when he’s more or less giftwrapped for them.

http://www.families.com/wp-content/uploads/media/1426capture_sleepingbeauty12.jpgWhat’s a trio of fairy godmothers to do? They haven’t the power to take on Maleficent directly, but by miniaturising themselves they sneak into her fortress undetected, flitting from one terrifying architectural outcrop to another until they reach the main hall. The minions are dancing fiendishly (probably the only dance they know, let’s be honest) while Maleficent looks indulgently on, petting her raven. She decides to have some entertainment of her own, going down to the dungeons to visit the chained prince. A hundred years will pass, she promises, before she’ll let him go – by the time he can pursue Aurora he’ll be a doddering old man, lucky to make it past the gates. Having left him suitably defeated, Maleficent sweeps out. “For the first time in sixteen years,” she tells her raven, “I shall sleep well.”

As soon as she’s gone the fairies are in there, busting Philip’s manacles and giving him weapons – a Shield of Virtue and a Sword of Truth. They are running through the fortress when the raven spots them and sounds the alarm. The minions attempt to pin them with boulders; the fairies transform these into soap bubbles, and the arrows that follow into flowers. Who says pretty magic can’t win a war?

Merryweather, who’s taken a passionate dislike to the raven, turns it into a statue. Maleficent is devastated and retaliates by conjuring a labyrinth of thorns around Stefan’s castle. Seeing Philip stubbornly hacking his way through, she then uses her final magic wildcard: transforming herself into a gorgeous purple and black dragon, accessorised with livid green flame. Philip scrambles a retreat, losing his shield in the rush. He’s soon backed up on the edge of a cliff. In their panic, the good fairies ditch pretty for some old fashioned fury. They enspell his sword so that when it is thrown, it embeds itself in Maleficent’s heart. She tumbles off the cliff, leaving behind only a stain of black and purple with a sword stabbed through the dirt.

Unimpeded, Philip hurries through the castle to Aurora’s chamber. The music swells. I’d buy the romantic moment more if she didn’t look so green and zombie-ish. Philip, nothing daunted (he’s a man in love, you know) leans in for the kiss and Aurora wakes with a smile. Arm in arm with her handsome prince, she descends to greet her parents with remarkable poise. Hubert watches on bewilderedly while his son and future daughter-in-law dance off into the clouds.

I think the clouds are allegorical but it’s hard to be sure.

Watching proudly from above, Flora suddenly notices that Aurora’s dress is blue and flicks her wand irritably, changing it to pink. Merryweather makes it blue again. The battle continues as Aurora dances on, oblivious, into her happy ending.

Merryweather totally wins, though.

Spot the Difference: The first two fairy tales Disney adapted stuck very close to the original plots, merely emphasising suitably cartoonish elements, but this one veers noticeably into new ground. The biggest difference is obviously, no hundred years of sleep – Aurora barely has time to take a nap before Philip comes to get her, and she met him first, so there’s plausibly implied consent to the kiss. Given that the film ends just before the marriage, there’s obviously no cannibalistic mother-in-law either – no mother-in-law at all from the look of things, and the queen’s role is depressingly slight.

On the upside, the fairy godmothers are much more proactive (though sadly they have no dragon chariots. You let me down, Disney). Raising a princess as a commoner is a familiar fairy tale trope but new to this particular story, and while Aurora may be stripped of agency in many ways, you can see she has a life of her own. Used to running wild in the forest, comfortable with the friendly muddle of her home and guardians, she’s a much-loved, well-adjusted girl. If you’re going to adapt a fairy tale, that’s a good place to start.

Disney Reflections No.2 – Rodents Are the Best Dressmakers

This is Disney Reflections, a series of monthly posts in which I compare Disney animated fairy tales to the original stories.

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/4/44/Cinderella-disney-poster.jpgThough Walt Disney had been tossing around ideas for a version of this fairy tale for years, Cinderella was eventually released in 1950. Cinderella’s hair confirms this fact.

The fairy tale: I covered three versions of the Cinderella legend for the Fairy Tale Tuesday project, from Jamaica, Russia and Germany, but not the Perrault version! It closely resembles ‘Ashputtel’ only with a fairy godmother instead of a vicious bird and considerably less gore.

The film: In a “tiny kingdom…rich in romance and tradition” – and presumably hard cash, to pay for the fancy houses – a widower with one young daughter marries a widow with two daughters of her own. She’s introduced looming at a window, flanked by sullen little girls and petting a large cat, like a Bond villain in disguise. When her husband dies, she lavishes all his money on her daughters Anastasia and Druzilla, while all the work of the household falls to Cinderella. Forced to abandon her bedroom in favour of a rickety tower room, running in circles to patch up the neglected house, the story pulls no punches about her storyline – this girl is being abused.

Fortunately, Disney bluebirds maintain their alliance with disenfranchised stepdaughters and act as friendly, feathery alarm clocks. Cinderella covers her head with a pillow, thereby endearing herself to me at once; the well-meaning wake up call interrupted a wonderful dream. When the nearby clock tower chimes in its two cents, she shoots a glare its way, like it has personally betrayed her. “They can’t order me to stop dreaming!” she declares defiantly. She means her step family, who would indeed order her to stop dreaming if they could.

Dressing swiftly, with the aid of the aforementioned bluebirds and a gaggle of drowsy rodents, Cinderella is almost ready to start her day when a pair of frantic rats come racing into the room. A new rat is in the house. Cinderelhttp://images2.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20121009234430/disney/images/f/f6/Cinderella-979.pngla’s first priority – picking out an appropriate outfit from her stash of dinky clothes – is sidelined when she learns the rat is stuck in a trap. She not only releases him, she gives him the name Octavius (quickly shortened to Gus) and places him in the particular care of Jaq, a more worldly wise rat familiar with the perils of the household. Chief of these is the stepmother’s cat, Lucifer. He’s a huge fluffy grump with his own canopy basket. Cinderella’s big, clueless dog Bruno dreams of chasing him, but in reality Lucifer has it all over him and Cinderella too.

She tries to make peace while preparing three breakfasts and feeding the chickens, throwing down extra corn for the mice. In order to reach this feast, they need to circumvent Lucifer; Jaq stages a ‘Great Escape’ style diversion but Gus overestimates his carrying capacity and draws the cat’s attention at exactly the wrong moment. Despite Jaq’s valiant efforts, Gus is cornered under a teacup. Cinderella unwittingly comes to the rescue once more; the teacup is one of three which she has to carry upstairs, and Gus is delivered right into the lap of an outraged stepsister, who runs straight to her mother for vengeance. Lucifer runs in the same direction, because if there is a side you want to be on in this house, it is the stepmother’s. She sits in the shadows of her bedroom, all death stare and heart’s blood lipstick, plotting terrible things. The rat in a cup incident earns Cinderella a lengthy list of jobs to add to her already hefty schedule. Even Lucifer feels she’s gone too far – probably because she wants Cinderella to bathe him.

Meanwhile, at the castle, the king is throwing a hissy fit and really anything that comes to hand. He’s desperate for grandchildren – as evidence of his terrifying paternal pride, he has a portrait gallery of baby photos culminating in a painting of his adult son that’s got to be about ten times life size – and is infuriated at the prince’s lack of co-operation. His friend/ lackey/ captive audience, the duke, tentatively suggests that maybe he should give the prince some space, letting him find love on his own terms. “Love,” scoffs the king. “Just a boy meeting a girl under the right conditions. So we’re arranging the conditions.” His son is due to arrive home today, so the king’s throwing a huge welcoming party – and inviting every eligible girl in the land.

Two of those eligible girls are Cinderella’s stepsisters, currently polishing their musical skills. They would not be ugly if they’d just stop scowling, but they’re certainly tone deaf. Outside, Cinderella is scrubbing the floor and singing sweetly amidst a cloud of psychedelic bubbles. Lucifer spoils her fun by gleefully prancing all over the clean floor with grubby little feet. This movie is going to a lot of effort to make the audience dislike him, but I will love this cat until the day I die.

Cinderella has to leave off scrubbing anyway to collect the mail and interrupts the music lesson to deliver the king’s invitation. She’s still in the room as it’s read aloud and declares her intention to attend the ball like everybody else. There’s a calm resilience to Cinderella, an undaunted willingness to stand up for herself, that you can’t help admiring. Unless you’re her stepmother, who smoothly agrees Cinderella may attend…if she gets all her chores done first and finds something suitable to wear. Cinderella plans on wearing an old ballgown of her mother’s, but it will take extensive modification and her family soon find a million other uses for her time.

The posse of girl rats who live in her room take over. They have her sewing supplies; they can do this thing. Jaq and Gus eagerly volunteer but the girls reject them based on outdated gender stereotypes and send them to forage for trimmings instead. This means another run-in with Lucifer. Undaunted, they return with a sash and blue beads, both abandoned by Cinderella’s stepsisters. They get to help out with the sewing after all and judging from the way they handle scissors, the girls had good reason to want them elsewhere. Together the rats and bluebirds whip together a stylish pink and white confection, then eagerly await Cinderella’s return.

She’s had a bad day. Having given up all hope of attending the ball, she bids her stepfamily goodbye with immense dignity and poise, and climbs to her tower…where she finds the rats’ present. With ecstatic cries of thanks, she dons the gown and rushes downstairs. Her stepmother, initially shocked, quickly recovers. Drawing her daughters’ attention to their repurposed accessories, she stands back and allows a sartorial bloodbath. The girls literally tear apart Cinderella’s clothes, it’s genuinely disturbing. They then flounce into the waiting coach, and Cinderella runs out into the garden to cry.

She’s sobbing so hard she doesn’t notice the little sparkles that presage imminent magic. Next thing she knows, her head is on the knee of an apple-cheeked old lady. Cinderella realises this is her fairy godmother – she has to work that out on her own, because her godmother is busy looking for her wand. I swear she plucks it out of midair just to show off.

http://www.toonswallpapers.com/user-content/uploads/wall/o/56/Cinderella-Look-Glass-Slippers-1280x960-Wallpaper-ToonsWallpapers.com-.jpg “The first thing you need,” she proclaims, “is a pumpkin.” Cinderella is skeptical, but her godmother gabbles gobbledygook with such authority that the vegetable blossoms into a glittering carriage. Next, she turns all the watching rats into shiny white horses, and the actual horse into a coachman. Bruno the dog becomes a footman. With that, she thinks Cinderella is all set to go – it takes a gentle nudge for her to remember the rags and tatters state her goddaughter is in. A flick of the wand fixes that. Clad in a sparkling dress and glass slippers, Cinderella is so far over the moon that she doesn’t even care all this magic has a very limited expiry date.

We’re in the middle of the film and still haven’t met the prince. We glimpse him now, on a red-carpeted stage, greeting a queue of single girls with the occasional discreet yawn and sarcastic look at his impatient father. He only wakes up when, over Anastasia and Druzilla’s heads, he glimpses Cinderella wandering around uncertainly at the far end of the room. He walks straight off the stage to meet her. The watching king stage manages some romantic lighting and a dreamy waltz. Sure that the evening’s end game has been won, he toddles off to bed, leaving the duke to settle final details. Since the prince dances off with Cinderella, that leaves the rest of the guests to entertain themselves. I hope the food’s good.

Floating together through the blue and white dreamscape of the royal gardens, Cinderella and her prince are sweeping each other off their feet. Just as they are about to kiss, the killjoy clock tower starts striking midnight and Cinderella leaps up. “I haven’t met the prince!” she cries, as a weak excuse. He tries bewilderedly to explain who he is, but she’s already racing down the stairs, leaving one shoe behind in her rush. The duke – noticing too late that the romantic moment has gone awry – wildly overreacts and sends a scary swarm of riders in black to catch her. Luckily, the carriage disintegrates on the last stroke of twelve and they are left with no trail to chase.

The king, assuming his son has proposed, greets the duke the next morning with cigars (HELLO 1950’s TOBACCO FETISH) and a knighthood. The duke unwisely explains the failure while his monarch has the sword raised. To say the king is disappointed is the understatement of the century: he goes on a rampage. “You were in league with the prince,” he howls, while doing his level best to cut the poor duke in half. He only calms down when he hears his son has developed an obsession of his own and sworn to marry only the girl whom the lost shoe fits. The duke is sent out to try it on the foot of every girl in the land.

Hearing the news, the stepmother wakens her own daughters. Very sensibly, they don’t see the point, since the shoe belongs to neither of them – their mother, clearly infuriated that her daughters have acquired this streak of common honesty, insists they make every effort to get the shoe and the prince too. They begin running about, throwing clothes at Cinderella in their haste to get ready. She has overheard the news; lost in giddy daydreams, she pushes the clothes back at her startled stepsisters and glides off, humming last night’s waltz. Her stepmother’s eyes practically glow with wickedness as she puts the pieces together. She follows Cinderella up to her tower room and locks her in. Then she calmly descends to greet the exhausted duke.

Jaq and Gus follow, committed to retrieving the key. While one stepsister and then the other attempt to squeeze into the tiny glass shoe – assisted by a truly committed footman – the rats steal away the key and haul it up stair after stair. This is the rodent equivalent of climbing Mount Everest. They are so close, right outside Cinderella’s door, when Lucifer pounces. He catches Gus, and therefore the key. The other rats charge forth, armed with forks and a lit candle; the bluebirds hurl crockery; all to no avail. Lucifer is impervious to their frantic attacks. Then Bruno comes charging up the stairs and Lucifer is so terrified he JUMPS OUT OF THE TOWER. We never find out if he’s okay. I am really properly upset about this. Setting dogs on cats is not normal and not funny. It is cruelty.

I just Googled the Cinderella sequels. (There are two.) Lucifer is all right.

I’m still angry.

http://img1.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20091219050226/disney/images/b/b6/Cinderella4.jpg Anyway. Unaware of the battle raging upstairs, the duke is about to depart when Cinderella runs downstairs. He takes in her teeny feet and excellent manners with a surge of optimism. The footman hurries forward and is deliberately tripped by the stepmother; the shoe flies off its cushion and smashes into fragments on the floor. Cinderella calmly reveals the other half of the set, slipping it easily onto her foot. The duke looks like he wants to marry her himself out of pure relief.

The actual wedding takes place at once. Cinderella loses her shoe again on the church steps, fleeing a rain of confetti; her adoring father-in-law returns it. Climbing into the honeymoon carriage, she finally gets to kiss her prince.

No word on how the stepmother takes this emotional blow.

Spot the Difference: Again, Disney sticks fairly close to the fairy tale plot. In both the original story and the movie, the godmother transforms everyday things into a party ensemble, including rats – they unsurprisingly get more screen time in Disney’s version, chewing up the scenery with several separate chase scenes and cute Donald Duck-esque babbling. Lucifer is an original character, of course, and the king, while he certainly exists, had nothing like the narrative presence. He basically writes the romance so he can get grandchildren. Still, with their matching levels of mild sarkiness, Cinderella and the prince are not the worst couple ever. I just hope they swapped names before they got married. It seems an important detail to overlook.

Disney Reflections No.1: Miss Adorable 1937 Is Making Friends and Influencing People

"Snow White 1937 poster". Via Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Snow_White_1937_poster.png#mediaviewer/File:Snow_White_1937_poster.pngThis is Disney Reflections, a series of monthly posts in which I compare Disney animated fairy tales to the original stories.

Released in 1937, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the first feature length animated film from Walt Disney. I should begin this post with a caveat: Snow White was never my favourite Disney fairy tale. I don’t  think I’ve actually rewatched it this millenium and the copy I’m using is the same VCR tape I watched as a child, which has a promotional prelude advertising The Lion King as ‘now showing at a cinema near you’.

The fairy tale: I’ve covered the Grimm brothers version in detail here, as part of the Fairy Tale Tuesday project.

The film: The first character we meet is the wicked queen, looking fabulous in purple and demanding her mirror confirm that. It is a scary mask floating inside the glass, not looking at all like a trustworthy source, and it tactlessly tells her that she’s been surpassed – little Snow White, her neglected stepdaughter, is now the leading looker in the land. This is basically a beauty pageant with the mirror as judge and the entire female population of the kingdom as unknowing participants. The queen is all rage.

Segue to the princess, dressed in rags and scrubbing the palace steps, making the best of things. Having befriended a flock of pigeons, she tells them that the castle well is a wishing well, and starts singing about her hopes for the future. True love features prominently. Totally by chance, the prince of her dreams happens to be riding past and decides to jump over the wall so he can join the singalong.

http://i2.cdnds.net/13/10/618x450/movies-snow-white-and-the-seven-dwarfs_1.jpg Snow White, very reasonably, is scared and runs inside. The prince’s dreamy baritone soon wins her over, however, and she gives him a blushing pigeon as a token of her affections. Unfortunately, the queen bears witness to the budding romance. She orders her huntsman to take Snow into the woods to pick wildflowers…and there, to kill her. She even has a sinister little jewellery box, with a golden heart stabbed through by a knife on the front, for holding the princess’s heart as evidence.

Perhaps it’s been a while since she was permitted outside the castle, because Snow goes a bit wild in the woods, leaping from one patch of wildflowers to another and flirting with bluebirds. She could not be more shocked and terrified when the huntsman looms over her, knife raised – but he can’t go through with the queen’s orders and instead tells Snow White to run. The poor girl is in a mad panic. Her fear turns the wood into a nightmarish death trap. The animation here is incredible, transforming branches into grasping hands and broken logs into crocodiles. (Probably alligators, actually. This is a very American forest.)

She eventually falls in a sobbing heap. When she recovers, she’s surrounded by nervous woodland creatures trying to be sympathetic. Apologising for her freak-out, Snow White leads an impromptu song party with her new friends. When she explains her situation, they lead her to a delightful little cottage that she assumes is occupied by orphaned children, based on its teeny furniture and appalling state of disorder. Deeply sympathetic, she convinces her friends to help her clean the place up. The squirrels, in particular, take to dusting like naturals. The stag is less impressed by his role as clothes rack.

I’m being won over. Can you tell? Snow and her fluffy woodland entourage are one powerful cocktail of cuteness.

But who really owns the cottage? In a mine not too far away, seven dwarves are packing up their tools and setting off with a cheery ‘hi ho, hi ho, it’s home from work we go’. And I just realised I’m spelling ‘dwarves’ the Tolkien way, though that is not how it is spelled in the movie title – nor am I going to stop spelling it the Tolkien way, because it just looks wrong with an ‘f’.

By the time the dwarves get home, Snow and co. have not only cleaned the whole house from top to bottom, the table’s laid for supper and there’s a pot of soup bubbling on the fire. The exhausted princess has crashed upstairs across about three of the dwarves’ beds, with all the other beds claimed by the woodland entourage. They are lighter sleepers than Snow and flee the house when they hear the dwarves returning.

Seeing the lit windows and smoking chimney, the dwarves consult in a frightened huddle. They end up filing inside, picks raised, and Snow’s bluebirds – who have stayed behind up in the rafters – can’t resist scaring them with decidedly un-bluebirdish hoots. Once they’ve demolished much of Snow’s good work in their mad scramble, and after that, reassembled their collective courage, the dwarves creep upstairs to deal with the monster that has invaded their home. What they find is an adorable, china-doll-pretty princess.

Six of the dwarves are immediately smitten. Grumpy, your friendly neighbourhood misogynist – only not the friendly bit – tries to convince the others that as a woman, Snow will have ‘wicked wiles’. At this point, Snow wakes to see she’s surrounded by short bearded men. She recovers her poise with admirable speed and after politely introducing herself, she proceeds to correctly guess each dwarf’s name based on the names carved into their beds. Unexpectedly, they’ve heard of her. Grumpy, at least, has also heard of the queen. He tells his friends that Snow’s stepmother is an expert in the black arts and will kill them all when she finds out where her victim is hidden. Snow has more confidence in her retreat and offers to become a housekeeper/ mother figure if she’s allowed to stay. Promised all their favourite desserts, the other dwarves are very quick to agree, even though that means being sweetly bullied into developing table manners and personal hygiene. Grumpy maintains his bad attitude by mocking their willingness to please. They respond by throwing him in the water trough.

Meanwhile, back at the castle, the queen has her heart box in hand and is anticipating a good gloat, but the magic mirror gives it ALL AWAY, right down to Snow White’s current address. Filled with cloak-swirling fury, the queen descends to her wicked lair. It’s full of skulls and potions and a wannabe evil raven who is actually scared stiff of her. The queen whips up the potions for a foolproof disguise, transforming herself into an elderly woman. The secret ingredient is lightning. Frankenstein would love this.

Snow suspects not a thing – the dwarves are showing off their music skills after supper and she’s having a marvellous time. Dopey stands on Sneezy’s shoulders to dance at the princess’s height; Grumpy channels his foul mood into organ playing. When it’s Snow White’s turn to perform and she tells the story of how she met the prince (it’s a pretty short story), the dwarves reveal they are closet romantics by demanding all the details. It never hit me before, Snow White never got the prince’s actual name. That’s why she calls him Charming.

The movie then devotes several minutes to show us everyone going to sleep. Except the queen; she’s busily poisoning an apple and monologuing about death. With a maniacal laugh, she sets off for the dwarves’ cottage.

http://d.ratingmovies.com/servlet/Main/CoverDisplay/Snow_White_And_The_Seven_Dwarfs_%281937%29.jpg?film_rn=7137The next morning, the dwarves warn Snow White not to open the door to anybody and set off to work. She starts baking, assisted by adoring birds. They go on the attack when a scary old lady appears suddenly at the window; Snow White, being Snow White, comes to the old lady’s rescue and leads her inside to rest. She also believes the queen’s story that the reddest apple in her basket is a ‘magic wishing apple’. The woodland entourage stampede towards the dwarves’ mine, but in the time it takes to get the message across, Snow has bitten the poisoned fruit.

She stops breathing. She falls.

It begins to storm. Emerging from the cottage, the queen sees the rescue party thundering towards her and runs. She climbs a cliff and tries to roll a boulder over her pursuers, but instead the rock ledge crumbles and she plunges to her death.

The grieving dwarves lay Snow White in a glass casket, in a clearing where her woodland friends can see her too. The prince, who has been looking for his ideal duet partner all this time, arrives and strides straight up to kiss the dead girl. IT IS SO INAPPROPRIATE. But it also works, since Love’s First Kiss is the only antidote to the poison and no sooner has he brushed her lips than Snow sits up. She’s thrilled. Everybody’s thrilled. The prince carries her off to his horse but proves he’s maybe okay underneath the Ken-doll blandness by lifting up each dwarf so Snow can kiss them goodbye. The couple then ride off into the sunset like the storybook royalty they are.

Spot the Difference: The Disney version ages up Snow White and trims off the other murder attempts. It also avoids the more gruesome deaths some versions inflict on the queen. The dwarves get to have separate personalities, albeit rather simplistic ones, and of course there’s the woodland entourage chewing up scenery (sometimes literally). Overall, though, it’s a pretty faithful adaptation. That said, it is very American. From the raccoons and alligators in the forest to Grumpy’s drawl and Snow White’s hair cut, there’s no missing Disney’s stamp.

It’s still not my favourite, by a long shot, but I like it better rewatching as an adult. There’s an interesting streak of stealth feminism I missed the first time round – pretty much every time Grumpy says something sexist or tries to shame the other dwarves for their obliging behaviour, the narrative makes him look an idiot. Snow White’s romance is also given a touch more legitimacy by introducing her to the prince before he brings her back from the dead. She remains every inch a royal even in exile, commanding the loyalty of woodland creatures and convincing complete strangers to do what she wants by force of sheer adorableness. By that I don’t mean just good looks; she’s an enthusiastic, optimistic, surprisingly egalitarian girl who wants to adopt everyone she meets. I find it very easy to imagine her ruling a country.

Vignette No.24 – Mirthless

Mirthless

She stopped laughing for a reason. She could not forget what she had seen.

Her father only realised how badly wrong things were when she took to her bed and no one could make her leave it. When he came to reason away her lethargy, she turned her face into the pillows and covered her ears until he went away. When her friends came to coax her, there was a chest of drawers wedged on her side of the door. It took the combined efforts of a master locksmith and two burly royal guards to force it open, and still the princess wouldn’t talk.

Lies taste sweet. They are addictive. The truth is bitter enough to drive you mad.

A physician was summoned. He spoke of temperament and humours and prescribed a restorative tonic that the princess refused to touch. The king came to her with fruit and sweetmeats, explanations and apologies, but it was too late to take back what he had done. In truth, both he and his daughter knew he would not undo it even if he could. All he would change was her presence there, a white-faced girl on the dungeon steps, a candle falling from her hand in a pool of wax and dying flame.

She could still see the blood. The red splatters on the hem of her nightgown had been bleached white, but the stain on the inside of her eyelids could not be washed away.

When the princess at last left her bed, her behaviour was erratic. She alternated between long apathetic silences and violent outbursts of tears. Things that had once brought her pleasure – her daily singing lesson, watching the guardsmen at archery, taking long morning rides with her father – were the things she now would not do. The high notes of a song became a scream in her ears. The red painted target became a man’s bleeding eye.

If her father was in a room, she was not.

Alone one morning at her window, she saw an odd tableau playing out below on the road outside the castle walls. A boy was loping along in the dust, pursued by a motley of the most unlikely characters, all of whom seemed to be haranguing him. This only made him run faster. Under his arm, something fluttered, and shone. The princess felt her curiosity stir for the first time in months and leaned forward across the sill the better to see. No bird she had ever known before had feathers that glinted in the sun, gold as a new-minted coin – how could it be a living thing?

But it was. As she stared, too astonished to move, the golden bird fluttered from the boy’s arms up into hers. And she laughed.

The king would have had her keep it, had he known, as he had kept so many golden things that were only his by his royal word. The princess thought differently. She carried the shining goose down to where its owner pleaded with stony faced guards at the castle gates. He fell silent at the sight of her, blinking dazedly. His thoughts showed in his face clear as clouds in a summer sky.

“I think this bird is yours,” she said. “Where did she come from?”

The boy told her everything. About his brothers, who had battled with a tree and lost. About a little grey man with a weakness for brown bread. Secrets spilled from his trusting tongue like jewels and the princess marvelled at their brightness. She came close to put the bird into his arms and whispered in his ear, “Will you take me there?”

“I will go anywhere you like,” said the boy, devoutly, transparently, not caring if he looked the fool. The princess laughed again and the guards were so dumbfounded by the sound that they did not think to protest when, instead of leading the boy into the castle, she joined him on the other side of the gate. By the time they realised what she was about, she was running along the dusty road towards the woods, beside a boy who did not know how to lie, following the golden trail of an impossible bird, and laughing for no reason at all.

This is a very brief and rather dark interpretation of ‘The Golden Goose’, told from the princess’s perspective. It summarises two of my strongest impressions of fairy tale logic: a) never trust a king, they usually have a gold addiction, and b) princesses have REASONS. The point of retellings, for me, is to work out what those reasons are.

© Faith Mudge 2013

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.35 – The Stolen Brides

It is a rare fairy tale indeed that does not involve a marriage. They exist, but it takes some looking to find them. I have explored the problematic side of this in a previous post, Three Men Not To Marry, in which I talked about three different fairy tales that show women actively escaping terrible relationships. This week I’m talking about the ones who weren’t so lucky.

Version 1: The Sea Maid

This first story comes from the 2005 reprint of Michael Scott’s Irish Folk and Fairy Tales, in which Brendan the fisherman is wandering along the beach searching through the debris thrown up by the sea in the hope of finding something valuable. He certainly doesn’t expect to find a woman. She is tall, beautiful and unmistakeably alien, with webbed feet and fingers. Climbing from the water, she unfastens a cloak from around her shoulders, and Brendan remembers the stories of water women who rely upon their cloaks to move between one element and another. If you possess such a woman’s cloak, you control her.

The young woman falls asleep on the sand, believing herself alone and unobserved. Does Brendan leave her be, satisfied with his glimpse of magic? Sadly, no. He creeps up behind her and drags the cloak from underneath her before footing it for the cliffs. She wakes up with a vengeance then, running after him, her nails scoring down his back as she almost catches up with him. But the pebbles at the base of the cliffs cut her bare feet, slowing her down, and so Brendan reaches his cottage with the skin still in his hands. She staggers up behind him, holding out her hands in a silent plea. She even dredges out a fragment of human language to beg him for mercy. In his obsession, he has none.

So the girl becomes his wife, living in his house and bearing three children. Brendan has no illusions that she loves him; he moves her cloak around from hiding place to hiding place over the years to make sure she never reclaims it, and one summer while rethatching the roof he thinks he has found the perfect place, burying it between the reeds. What he has forgotten is that his wife is not the only one who might be watching. The next day, as he sets off for the beach and the sea girl stares longingly out at the sea, their son Brian drags out a ladder to try and get up to the roof. When his mother asks him what he’s doing, he tells her of the shining cloth Brendan hid away in the thatch. She knows at once what it must be. That night, she is distracted and clumsy; her husband mistakes it for the first signs of another pregnancy. It is only when she goes out to get water and never comes back that he realises what has happened.

He runs down to the sea and finds her there at its edge, wearing her cloak, her daughters in her arms. Little Brian is at her side. Brendan screams at them to stop; his wife looks up in fear and dives into the sea with her daughters. He catches his son before the boy can follow mother and sisters into the water. But the girls are not sea maids; they are human, and they drown.

This fairy tale isn’t even going to pretend there’s a happy ending.

Version 2: The Heavenly Maiden and the Woodcutter

This one comes from 1995’s Korean Children’s Favorite Folk Tales, published by Saem Toh Publishing Co. It begins by introducing us to a hard-working single woodcutter whose introduction reads like a dating profile. One day while he’s at work in the woods a talking deer comes racing past, fleeing a hunter, and the woodcutter hides it under his pile of firewood, misdirecting said hunter to allow the deer to escape. In reward for his kindness, the deer tells him where the Heavenly Maidens come down to bathe, in the lakes of the Diamond Mountain. If he takes one of their robes, one girl will have to stay with him.

I don’t know about you, but I just lost all my sympathy.

The woodcutter gets up early the next morning to go do a bit of mountain climbing. The Diamond Mountain is very beautiful and very isolated, the sort of place celestial maidens would be sure to get a little privacy if it wasn’t for a certain peeping tom deer. As it is, the woodcutter is there behind the bushes the whole time they are bathing, and takes the robe of the youngest Maiden while no one is looking. When the others return to Heaven, she is left behind, bewildered and abandoned. This is when the woodcutter emerges from his hiding place, apologises for his behaviour, begs her forgiveness, and asks her to move in with him. AS YOU DO.

Well, she marries him. She seems very content with her domestic lot, but after the birth of her second child she asks her husband to return her robes, and he refuses, afraid she will return to Heaven with both children. After their third child is born, though, he believes she can’t possibly carry them all and feels safe enough that he finally shows her where her robes have been concealed. The moment she puts them on, her magical powers are restored and she soars out of there, carrying all three children with her. Because, magical powers. And formidable innate juggling skills.

Her husband is distraught. He returns to the place where he met the deer in the hopes of more advice, and by good luck on his part it happens to be passing through. “Since the day you hid the Heavenly Maiden’s robes,” it tells him, “they do not come down to bathe there any more.” (Gee, I wonder why?) “So if you wish to find your wife and children, you must go to them yourself. Happily, there is a way.” It goes on to explain about Heaven’s plumbing system, which is terribly advanced and magic and involves a bucket on a string. If the woodcutter returns to the same lake and climbs into the bucket, he will be pulled up to Heaven before anyone realises there has been a switch.

This he does. It turns out his wife is the youngest child of the Heavenly King, but the King’s not holding any grudges about robbery and coercion – he lets the woodcutter stay, reunited with his wife and children and living a life of luxury. Eventually, though, the woodcutter gets homesick. He worries about his mother, left alone in the world below. His wife has a bad feeling about this. When she sees he is determined, she obtains him a dragonhorse, and tells him that he must not dismount or he will never be able to return to her.

The reunion is a happy one. Mother and son chat happily from horseback. But then the woodcutter’s mother presses a bowl of her pumpkin porridge on him as a farewell, and it is so hot he drops it on the horse’s back. The horse, reasonably enough, rears. Thrown from its back, the woodcutter lands on solid ground and is in that moment exiled from Heaven forever. He grieves for the remainder of his life, and at the end of it, turns into a rooster, crowing each day at the unreachable sky.

Version 3: The Bird Wife

This Siberian story comes from the 1983 reprint of A Book of Cats and Creatures by Ruth Manning Sanders. Its protagonist is Marek, a young man with a less than functional relationship with his mother. She is a bad-tempered sort, and he escapes her scoldings by just not being in the house all that much. One day, walking by a nearby lake, he witnesses a cloud of birds alighting on the shore who turn into laughing girls and jump into the water. He calls out to them, but they won’t pay him any attention, and he responds to this with the immense maturity of nicking all their clothes, which he won’t return until they talk to him. So they do. “We are bird women. And if you won’t give us back our feathers how are we to fly home? Would you have us stay here all night, shaking and shivering? Oh, how cruel you are!” “No, I am not cruel,” Marek tells them, “only curious,” and he starts giving their feathers back. Only then he gets to the last girl. And he changes his mind. He takes her home and marries her instead.

It’s not made clear how the girl feels about that. Like the women in the two previous stories, she soon has two children to look after, binding her more than ever to the man who took her feathers. But confinement to earth is not the end of her troubles. Remember Marek’s mother? Well, she hasn’t turned any the nicer since her son’s marriage. The opposite, in fact – she is horrible to the bird girl and a hellish grandmother to boot. Marek knows his wife is not happy, but he can think of no way to fix things, so he does absolutely nothing at all. Then one day his mother tells the bird girl to go fetch some willow leaves for soup. She doesn’t care that it’s the end of winter and the willows are bare – she kicks mother and children out into the cold and slams the door on them.

They are going to die of the cold if they stay out in this weather. Weeping with despair, the bird girl wanders with her children clinging to her skirts until they come to the lake where all this began. There are birds sweeping in over the water and the girl calls out to them for help. “Sisters! Brothers!” she cries. “Take me home!” They gather around her, protective, and in taking feathers from their own bodies their give their poor grounded sister and her children the wings to fly away.

Marek comes home that night to find his mother waiting alone with supper. She calmly tells him that his silly little wife got it into her head to go out hunting willow leaves and hasn’t come back. When Marek stutters out his disbelief, she goes into a rage, demanding if he thinks his own mother is a liar. Well, she is. And he knows it. But he won’t say so. Instead he eats his supper in his nice warm house and waits, hoping his family will come back on their own. All through that night he listens out for them, but of course they don’t come. Early the next morning he goes down to look by the lake, and finds no birds there at all apart from one eagle, who tells him his wife has returned to Bird Land. Their conversation goes something like this:

EAGLE: Your little wife was shedding tears – such pretty little tears, they glittered like the morning dew. But her tears ceased to fall when she turned into a bird. I think she was glad to be a bird again.

MAREK: No, no, no! She was not glad! She could not have been glad to leave me!

EAGLE: (shrugging) You young men think so much of yourselves.

What you said, Eagle.

Given directions to Bird Land, Marek sets off, taking a magical canoe that doesn’t like him much. He manages to get to his destination in one piece, emerging into a land of steep cliffs and high trees, where the only sound is birdsong. Marek jumps out of the killer canoe and runs into the forest, calling. In time he comes to a spot where a group of children are playing – among them, a boy and girl who comes running to him. They are his own children and are only too happy to show him to the house of woven grass where his wife is sitting, halfway between bird and woman. She is halfway between love and fear too, missing her husband, terrified of his mother.

To Marek it is simple. He is here, she will come home. The King of the Sea Birds thinks differently. “Our sister is better here with us,” he snaps. “With us she is honoured; with you she is tormented by your old hag of a mother.” Hard to argue with that. But the bird woman decides to go with Marek all the same, and despite the fury of birds that descend to stop him he carries her to the canoe with the children running at his side. As it takes them away from Bird Land, her feathers fall away, leaving only a woman behind. Marek is thrilled. His wife, less so. What to do about his mother? “She shall no more trouble you,” Marek promises. “I will build us a separate house.” Brilliant idea, Marek! Maybe you could have thought of that BEFORE?

The canoe brings them back to the lake, where they meet again with the Eagle. He kindly offers to give the entire family a lift to their house. Marek’s mother, seeing them coming, shrieks at them to go away, and that is exactly what the Eagle does – he goes away, taking her with him back to Bird Land. Where she becomes a bird too. In short, the Eagle does a better job of looking after Marek’s family than Marek does. For the bird girl’s sake, I do hope he sticks around.

These stories are confronting. They depress me, and none more so than the last, because even the all-around excellence of the Eagle and older-brother protectiveness of the Sea Bird King cannot detract from the fact that Marek is a terrible person and he is rewarded for being so. The men in all three stories are the opposite of the chivalrous fairy tale ideal; instead of being the ones riding to the rescue, they spy on vulnerable young women and entrap them in situations they are unable to escape. They profess love when what they mean is obsession. If they really loved those women, they wouldn’t just let them go. They would never have trapped them in the first place.

In the end, though, the women do get away. Even when they are bound into a mockery of domestic bliss, you know it won’t last. You can steal a skin, but happy endings are earned.

Review No.68 – Tales from the Tower, Volume One: The Wilful Eye

Tales from the Tower, Volume One: The Wilful Eye – Isobelle Carmody and Nan McNab (editors)

Allen & Unwin, 2011

Fairy tales have always held a strange fascination to the storyteller, lingering long after childhood’s end. In this collection six authors find new meanings in the old tales, retold in their full dark glory. A soldier turns his war on the unsuspecting world. A monster lies in wait inside an empty mansion. A lost girl searches an icy urban wasteland. Love faces despair, magic meets betrayal. The dark forest is never so very far away…

I stumbled across this book in the random treasure chest of a library catalogue and could not believe I hadn’t heard of it before. The contributing authors include Margaret Mahy, Margo Lanagan and Carmody herself, with the stories a rich selection ranging between the wry and the gruesome. It is always enjoyable to see familiar fairy tales through the prism of someone else’s eyes and this collection offers some very interesting interpretations. It is the first half in twelve retellings, continuing in Tales from the Tower, Volume Two: The Wicked Wood.