Review – The Rebirth of Rapunzel

The Rebirth of Rapunzel – Kate Forsyth

FableCroft Publishing, 2016

In this mythic biography, Australian author Kate Forsyth traces the famous fairy tale of ‘Rapunzel’ from its earliest recorded origins down through centuries of retellings into the inventive, irreverent and exciting incarnations of the modern day. How well do you really know the maiden in the tower?

I was given a hardback of this book, with its gorgeous cover by Kathleen Jennings, as a Christmas gift from my sister, because she knows me well and  fairy tale biography. It is a brilliant concept that Forsyth has researched meticulously and presented in a way that is immensely readable. Though I disagreed with some of her interpretations, the history and context of this fairy tale’s growth and change is so well presented that it allows the reader to form their own opinions based on those facts. Included in this book are some of Forsyth’s other essays about fantasy, science fiction and writing. There are spoilers for her ‘Rapunzel’ retelling Bitter Greens, so I would advise reading that first. I love fairy tales and have strong feelings about ‘Rapunzel’ in particular because I wrote a retelling of it myself; The Rebirth of Rapunzel is a book I am delighted to have on my shelf, and I would be thrilled to see more ‘mythic biographies’ like it.


Feminism in Fairy Tales Part 1: The Princess and the Flamethrower

With the sad news of SF Signal’s closure, I am reposting the first article in my Feminism in Fairy Tales series here on my own blog. It was originally posted on the SF Signal website on 13/06/13.

Tales are not lies, nor are they truths, but something in between. They can be as true or as false as the listener chooses to make them, or the teller wants him to believe.

– Juliet Marillier, Son of the Shadows

I don’t know if anyone else noticed, but I’m pretty sure 2012 was the Year of the Fairy Tale. There wasn’t an official announcement or anything, but the nod was clearly given in secret circles and the retellings spread outwards like ripples on the waters of speculative fiction. Novels such as Kate Forsyth’s Bitter Greens, Sophie Masson’s Moonlight and Ashes and Marissa Meyer’s Cinder were released, there were big movie adaptations Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman, there was even a TV series. Hell, there were two TV series! I’m a fiend for fairy tales; I was in paradise. And I was seriously impressed by the ingenuity of all these storytellers for finding something new to say about stories that have been retold over so many years.

But there was also a bitter aftertaste that’s been bothering me for some time. It was so subtle, and so pervasive, that it is difficult to pin down when exactly I first noticed it – in the reviews? The promotional interviews? The posts I read afterwards? What I noticed was this: that when people spoke about a fairy tale adaptation, the assumption was that it would be better than the original. Specifically, that the women would be better.

Because everybody knows women in fairy tales are weak. They are at the mercy of wicked stepmothers and nefarious kings! They always need princes to ride to their rescue! And that’s really pathetic, right? We of modern times are better than that. We know that what every princess really needs is to ditch the frocks and get herself a flamethrower. (Admittedly, I have not yet seen a fairy tale adaptation in which the princess literally has a flamethrower. It is the new dream of my existence that one exists.)

The popular impression of a fairy tale princess is a Disney beauty in a ball gown. The thing is that, like a lot of the other things that ‘everybody’ knows, it’s wrong.

I grew up on the fairy tales retold by Ruth Manning Sanders: a handful of loved-to-death ’80s reprints with missing pages and cracked spines. Manning Sanders covered classics like ‘Rapunzel’ and ‘Aladdin’, but she didn’t stop there. Through her, I discovered stories from Jamaica and Iceland, Sicily and Russia, Switzerland, Denmark and Italy. I read about girls who bribed themselves a better destiny, who freed slaves, who met and married wizards or witch’s sons as well as princes. I learned, not by anyone telling me but from my own insatiable reading, that women in fairy tales are not weak. They are not necessarily strong either. They are something more than either.

They are people.

And I kept reading. I found myself heroines like Tatterhood, the hideous elder daughter of a queen, who goes forth to fight witches and rescue her sister; Princess Blue-Eyes, the gorgeous ruler of her own kingdom who beats a Czar and all his three sons in battle; Tokoyo, daughter of an exiled samurai, who saves a sacrificial maiden by jumping off a cliff and fighting a sea monster. Where are their retellings? Why aren’t there movie adaptations of their stories, or an introduction to the Disney canon? If readers of the 21st century are so dissatisfied with the way women are written in fairy tales, why not look beyond the standard Grimm brothers selection pool?

But let’s take a look into that pool, since it is rather irresistible with its sparkling shallows and murky depths. The women in Grimm favourites tend to get the worst kicking, so stuck with labels you’d think they’d been mistaken for a corkboard. Passive! Submissive! Weepy, soppy, weak.

Why? Because they don’t get into swordfights with their evil stepmothers? Because they don’t take on all comers with a metaphorical flamethrower? Modern retellings often put an emphasis on their heroines physically or verbally defending themselves, which can be excellent and deeply satisfactory, but there are other ways of being strong. Surviving in an atmosphere of hatred without letting yourself get infected by it, like Cinderella does – that takes strength. Making a new life among strangers, like Snow White, takes courage. Being imprisoned with no resources for an escape, like Rapunzel, and keeping on hoping for something better anyway, takes fortitude. It’s a quiet bravery, easy to ignore, and so people do ignore it. They pretend that women in fairy tales don’t ‘do’ anything. But they are wrong.

It isn’t about the stories. It is all about the telling. There are very few fairy tales out there that can’t have excellent female characters if they are told by someone who wants them to be that way, and you don’t have to change the stories at all – all you have to do is understand and respect the characters in them. Women in fairy tales can be villains, they can be heroines, they can be ordinary and in between, but they all have individuality until a storyteller chooses to take it away.

Or gives it back.

As Aladdin could tell you, something new is not automatically better than something old. We need them all, the fairy tales that have been transmuted into shining unfamiliar shapes standing beside the ones that are as old as the path in the dark woods. There’s magic, and strength, enough to be shared without belittling either one.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go write a fairy tale about flamethrowers.

Feminism in Fairy Tales Part 2: The Demon’s In the Double Standard

Feminism in Fairy Tales Part 3: In Dire Need of Dynamite

Disney Reflections No.9: In Which Blondes Are Not Having More Fun

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

I can be quite demanding when it comes to fairy tales. Occasionally I go on impromptu rants about feminist princesses who should be household names but aren’t and I’ve written several retellings – including, as it happens, one about Rapunzel. When I first saw Tangled, shortly after its release in 2010, I was a little underwhelmed. As with The Princess and the Frog, this is my first rewatch.

The fairy tale: I reviewed the Grimm brothers version of this story for the Fairy Tale Tuesday project.

The film: We begin with a wanted poster for one Flynn Rider that you’d be forgiven for confusing with a pin-up, what with the roguish smile and good hair. I believe it to be the only one in the movie that doesn’t deliberately get his nose wrong. “This,” announces the voiceover, “is the story of how I died.” Flynn hastens to clarify that it is not as depressing as it sounds! Nor is it his, it actually belongs to a girl called Rapunzel. So it would appear he is already nicking the story.

Once, he tells us, a drop of sunlight fell to earth and where it landed, a magical golden flower grew with the power to heal the sick. When the pregnant queen of a nearby kingdom falls desperately sick, her subjects turn out in droves to search for the legendary flower. Unfortunately, someone else found it first. For centuries a woman called Mother Gothel has been hiding the flower under a cunning leafy basket. By singing over it, she calls on its power to restore her youth and beauty.

But the deluge of miracle-seekers takes her by surprise and despite her best efforts, the flower is found. The queen drinks it down, recovers at once and gives birth to a beautiful baby girl. In celebration a painted lantern is lit and floats away into the sky.

Magically assisted pregnancies always come with side effects, however, and in this case it is a creepy wannabe immortal sneaking into their daughter’s bedroom to take back the magic. Rapunzel’s hair glows like the flower when she hears the song, but the spell doesn’t last when a lock is cut off. Does that stop Mother Gothel? Not a bit of it! She takes the child and spirits her off to a tower deep within the woods, to bring her up in complete isolation. A more sophisticated version of the leafy basket, really. Refusing to give up hope, the king and queen send up thousands of lanterns every year on their lost daughter’s birthday, hoping that one day she’ll see them and come home.

Years pass. Rapunzel grows and so does her hair. Having found myriad uses for the endless blonde coils – from a lasso to a bungee cord – she’s technically capable of leaving the tower. In fact, frenetically active individual that she is, she needs to leave the tower, she’s painted all over the walls and has made enough candles to open a small shop, plus she’s driving her chameleon sidekick Pascal crazy with games of hide-and-seek. The world outside scares her, though. Mother Gothel has drummed it into her since infancy that no one out there can be trusted.

At this point Flynn Rider finally crashes into the movie, leaping across rooftops with some very large thugs in pursuit. They’re on the same side, nominally. Flynn wants his own castle, where he can pose dramatically on the battlements; the Thugs want the royal treasure. Letting him down through the roof – because OF COURSE Flynn thinks he lives in a heist movie – they acquire a heavily guarded tiara and leg it like mad.

Meanwhile, at the foot the tower, Mother Gothel has arrived for a visit. She doesn’t climb Rapunzel’s hair, that’s for losers, she lets her adopted daughter haul her up instead. She then proceeds to tear down Rapunzel’s self-confidence with carelessly unkind jokes that are excused with an ‘I’m just teasing!’ that actually make them WORSE. Rapunzel, though, has a plan. She turns eighteen tomorrow and she wants one thing: to go and see the floating lights that rise every year on her birthday.

Mother Gothel tries to brush her off. When Rapunzel persists, she’s treated to a litany of horrors that are sure to pounce on her the second she sets foot in the outside world, ranging from men with sharp teeth to the plague, and accompanied by rapid-fire criticisms, until Rapunzel is so distraught she’ll promise anything for a reassuring hug. “Don’t ever ask to leave this tower again,” Mother Gothel tells her, and Rapunzel agrees. It’s deeply disturbing to watch. Assured that her charge is sufficiently cowed, Mother Gothel departs again into the forest.

Which is unexpectedly full of soldiers, in pursuit of Flynn and his associates. Despite Flynn being distracted by a badly drawn wanted poster, they’ve managed to maintain their headstart, only to run into a rocky dead end. He convinces the Thugs to give him a boost up in exchange for the treasure-filled satchel, but filches it on his way up and runs off without them. The soldiers are hot on his heels, led by a moustachioed commander on the white charger Maximus. Flynn swings down from a tree, knocking the commander to the ground and replacing him in the saddle – but Maximus immediately skids to an outraged stop and does his level best to rip the satchel out of Flynn’s hands. It goes flying instead, hooking on a branch, swinging precariously over a clifftop. Flynn and Maximus brawl to get to it. Unable to bear their combined weight, the branch snaps and they fall from a great height.

Because this is a Disney movie, they survive it. Maximus springs up. The forces of justice cannot be stopped by so trifling a thing as a near-fatal fall! He tries tracking Flynn, but the thief has ducked behind a curtain of leaves and is hiding in a cave. From the other side it opens onto a flower meadow…and a hidden tower.

Flynn doesn’t need magic hair. He scales his own way up and is promptly knocked out cold by a frying pan. Rapunzel has a perfectly reasonable freak-out over his unconscious body and shoves him in a cupboard. Once she gets over the panic and confused attraction, she zooms in on the really important point: one of those untrustworthy people Mother Gothel has been warning her about came into the tower and she handled it. Also, he has nice teeth.

Then she sees the open satchel, and inside, the sparkling tiara. It takes her a few tries to figure out what it’s for, but once it’s on her head…

Mother Gothel naturally chooses that precise moment to interrupt. Hiding the satchel and tiara, Rapunzel hauls her up as usual and tries to explain what happened, but at the first reference to their earlier argument, Mother Gothel flies off the handle. “You are not leaving this tower!” she shouts. “Ever!” Rapunzel stares at her with wide shocked eyes and right then makes the decision to lie. She pretends that she wants paints for her birthday instead, ensuring Mother Gothel will take a three-day trip away. As soon as she’s out of sight, Rapunzel cautiously approaches the cupboard. is still out cold, possibly with permanent brain damage from all the whacking. When he finally wakes up, he’s tied to a chair with suspiciously silky golden rope and a gorgeous girl armed with a frying pan is standing over him. Quickly sizing his captor up, Flynn tries out the charm card but just baffles her. She makes him an offer: he can have his satchel if he takes her to see the lights and brings her safely home. Considering he just robbed the royal family, that sounds a bad deal to him. But it’s that or be tied up with hair for the forseeable future, so he agrees to her terms.

For the first time ever, Rapunzel sets foot on grass and earth. She meets her first Disney bluebird! She alternates between dizzying joy at her escape and paralysing guilt at deceiving her mother, while Flynn looks on with stony resignation. He tries to exploit her conflict to make her go home, but Rapunzel turns contrary immediately. She is going to see those lights.

Meanwhile, Mother Gothel gets ambushed by Maximus. He backs off, disappointed, when he realises she’s not his quarry – but she sees that he’s a palace horse and hurries back to the tower. Of course, Rapunzel isn’t there. Mother Gothel finds the tiara instead…and a wanted poster of Flynn Rider.

Who is trying out another tactic to get rid of his unwanted companion. He drags her to a hardcore pub for lunch. It’s called the Snuggly Duckling, and is full of ruffians, rogues and generally the kind of armoured blokes who look like knock-off orcs. Turns out this was a terrible plan because they recognise Flynn (those wanted posters are inescapable!) and decide to hand him over for the reward money. Only everyone wants the reward money so he’s thrown from one thug to another while they bicker it out. Rapunzel finally catches their attention with a violent flick of her hair. It is not something you can ignore. “I don’t know where I am and I need him to take me to see the lanterns, because I’ve been dreaming about them my entire life,” she pleads. “Find your humanity! Haven’t any of you ever had a dream?”

Forget orc extras, these guys wandered off Les Miserables. THEY ALL HAVE A DREAM. From wannabe concert pianists to interior designers to that guy who makes ceramic unicorns, they all seize on Rapunzel as the eager listener they’ve been waiting for all their lives. Even Flynn (admittedly at swordpoint) joins in, though his dream is to be hideously rich on his own personal island. No one sympathises. Gothel arrives at the door in time to see her adopted daughter dancing on a table surrounded by cheering thugs. And look, she’s the worst in pretty much every respect, but that is a legitimate maternal nightmare. Rapunzel is having the time of her life, though, and Mother Gothel can’t get near. Instead, the door slams open for the palace guards. The Ducklings, having had a total change of heart mid dance number, spirit Rapunzel and Flynn out the back door so she can achieve her dream. They’re out of luck anyway because Maximus kicks in the door, reunites with his commander and tracks Flynn’s scent to their escape route. Flynn’s associates – who were caught but not very well restrained – grab the opportunity to free themselves and set off to catch their double-crossing partner.

Rapunzel’s attempt at bonding with Flynn over backstory is spoiled by soldiers thundering in pursuit. They fetch up in an abandoned quarry, cornered by the variety of enemies Flynn has acquired. Rapunzel swings to safety with her hair, leaving Flynn armed with her frying pan – it is an excellent weapon but not so useful against Maximus, a horse with a grudge and a knife between his teeth. Disarmed, Flynn is cornered until Rapunzel throws him a length of her hair and drags him to safety. Well, not actually safety. Maximus has kicked down a beam to make a bridge so he can get to them, but they’re already gone, swinging away on loops of hair. That’s when the floodgate collapses, water floods the quarry and they get stuck in a dark tunnel. With the water rising and no way out in sight, Rapunzel sobs out an apology. Flynn confesses that Flynn isn’t his name at all, his real name is Eugene Fitzherbet.

Smiling wanly, Rapunzel shares her secret: she has magic hair that glows when she sings. Realising what she just said, Rapunzel starts singing. By the light of her hair, they dig their way free of the tunnel and tumble out, scrambling up onto a riverbank. Rapunzel is blissed out on being alive. Flynn is still rather gobsmacked by the hair.

Mother Gothel, in the meantime, has caught the wrong escapees. She gets Flynn’s erstwhile thieving friends instead, and convinces them to join forces with her. They get the tiara and a promise of revenge.

Flynn has other problems right now. Rapunzel has wrapped her hair around his injured hand and he watches with increasing bewilderment as she literally sings him better. Flynn would really like to flail and flee for a bit, but Rapunzel is giving big sad kitten eyes so he forces himself to be cool with the glow-in-the-dark hair and she ends up telling him how her hair stops working when it’s cut, how Mother Gothel was afraid for her (HA) and that’s why she’s never left the tower before now. It’s obvious she is feeling guilty again. On the other hand, it’s less than a day since she left the tower and Flynn is already returning the kitten eyes. 

Rapunzel drops the subject of whether she’s going back home in favour of needling ‘Eugene’. He tells her that when he was a child, growing up in an orphanage, he’d read to the younger kids from a book of adventure stories and dream about a life of swashbuckling excitement. He swears her to secrecy. He has a reputation to protect. A bit awkward after all the oversharing, he jumps up to go get firewood and Rapunzel gazes after him fondly.

So obviously this is the moment Mother Gothel arrives to ruin everything. It’s a gift.

She takes her usual tack of maternal guilt-tripping, trying to pull Rapunzel into the woods, but Rapunzel digs in her heels and won’t go. She thinks something is happening between her and Flynn, something good. Mother Gothel’s reaction is instantaneously spiteful, mocking the very idea of anyone wanting Rapunzel, and tosses the satchel – complete with tiara – at her foster daughter, telling her to put Flynn to the test. If he gets what he really wants, he’ll leave. Rapunzel is standing there shell-shocked and alone when Flynn comes back. She quickly hides the satchel while he rabbits cheerfully on about superpowers.

The next morning he wakes to a dripping wet and utterly enraged Maximus looming over him like the Charger of Doom. Rapunzel wakes to Flynn howling blue murder as the horse hauls him off by the boot to face justice. She grabs his arm and they have a brief tug-of-war. The boot pops off and we discover Flynn Rider does not wear socks. He must have terrible blisters.

Of course Rapunzel doesn’t wear SHOES, so… her and Pascal and some authoritative babytalk, she gets Maximus to stand down. The sympathetic murmurs of ‘nobody appreciates you, do they’ probably help. She brokers a 24 hour truce between horse and thief for her birthday, though they squabble wildly behind her back. She doesn’t care – she’s arrived in the royal city and it is gorgeous.

Not, however, really designed for a woman with hair about treble her own height, so Flynn enlists a group of enthusiastic little girls to plait it all up. Able to walk freely, Rapunzel wanders about wide-eyed. A mosaic of the royal family – complete with the lost baby princess – catches her eye. Then she gets distracted by a group of musicians and kicks off a dance party. She’s adorable, and also one of nature’s leaders. No one sees saying ‘no’ to her as an option. Flynn watches on, trying to pretend he’s exasperated instead of totally besotted. Over the course of the day she paints sunbursts on the cobblestones, they eat sweets in alcoves, he shows her maps in the public library (I assume it’s public, he might have broken in) – and they dance, dance, dance.

It is the best birthday ever. When night falls, Flynn acquires a boat and they sail onto the water to watch the lanterns rise. As they wait for the light show to begin, Rapunzel wonders aloud what she’ll do after this. “Well, that’s the good part, I guess,” Flynn says. “You get to go find another dream.” the palace, the king and queen – worn down by years of hope and grief, so tired of waiting for their little girl to come home – step onto the balcony to light the first lantern. After that everyone joins in, sending a galaxy into the sky. Rapunzel is transfixed. Flynn surprises her with a lantern of her own and she responds by shyly returning his satchel. He doesn’t actually want it. He takes her hands instead. Leaning in for a kiss, he sees a terribly unwelcome sight over her shoulder – his ex-cronies waiting expectantly on the shore. Realising that he’ll have no peace until they have the tiara, he leaves a very confused Rapunzel in the boat while he heads off to hand over the satchel.

But of course they are working with Mother Gothel now, who doesn’t want riches, she wants her pet magic princess. Rather than letting him go, the thugs knock Flynn out and tie him to the helm of a ship so it looks like he’s leaving Rapunzel of his own free will – while she stares after him, devastated, the thugs bring out a sack. They know about her hair and they know how much that’s worth. She flees, but her hair snags on a bit of driftwood and while she’s desperately trying to tug it loose she hears the sounds of a struggle, followed by Mother Gothel’s familiar voice calling out her name. She turns back to find her foster mother standing over the unconscious thugs with a large branch. So relieved to be saved, Rapunzel agrees to return to the tower.

Meanwhile, Flynn’s boat knocks up against the castle walls. The tiara is tied along with his wrists, which makes no sense if he was trying to get away, but the castle guards are not looking for logic and lock him up on the spot. Maximus overhears Flynn frantically shouting Rapunzel’s name and realises everything has gone wrong.

The following sunset, the guards come to take Flynn to the gallows. At the same time, Mother Gothel has finished unbraiding Rapunzel’s hair and is trying to pretend nothing ever happened. “The world is dark and selfish and cruel,” she declares, but Rapunzel is looking at the world through different eyes. Thinking about the sunburst on the royal flag, she sees it everywhere in her paintings and remembers where she saw it first: dangling above her cot. She’s the lost princess and suddenly she knows.

(Memories do not work quite like that. But never mind! Revelations are afoot!)

On his way through the cells, Flynn spies the thugs and knocks aside his guards to plunge at them, demanding to know how they found Rapunzel. They tell him it was ‘the old lady’, and he works out what must have happened. As he fights the guards, Rapunzel confronts Mother Gothel, refusing to accept her weak lies. “I’ve spent my entire life hiding from people who would use me for my power,” Rapunzel cries. “I should have been hiding from you!” She sees now that Mother Gothel stopped Flynn coming back to her. Admitting that she sent her foster daughter’s boyfriend to the gallows, Mother Gothel tries to patch it up with another ‘mother knows best’ line.

Rapunzel turns spitfire. She will not be used any more.

Back at the palace, doors are suddenly slamming shut, locking Flynn and his guards in a small corridor. It is an ambush – this time in Flynn’s favour, as the dreamers from the Snuggly Duckling come swinging in to the rescue. AND THEY BROUGHT THE FRYING PAN. The whole army mobilises to face the threat. The Ducklings calmly catapult Flynn out of the courtyard and onto Maximus’s back. The horse may not like Flynn much, but Rapunzel is in trouble and if that means organising a prison break? Maximus has a MISSION, people. They go whirling off in a mad gallop towards the forest.

Arriving at the base of the tower, Flynn calls for Rapunzel to let down her hair (it had to be said!) and a golden cascade spills out the window. He catches hold and climbs up – only to see Rapunzel chained and gagged on the floor. Mother Gothel knifes him in the back. “Now look what you’ve done, Rapunzel,” she says dismissively. As she hauls on Rapunzel’s chains, Pascal bites her skirt and is kicked into a wall for his pains. “For every minute for the rest of my life,” Rapunzel swears, “I will fight. I will never stop trying to get away from you. But if you let me save him, I will go with you.”

Mother Gothel agrees. She chains Flynn up instead and Rapunzel flies to him, ignoring his feeble attempts to make her stop healing him. It means she’s not paying attention when he grabs a shard of broken mirror off the floor and slices away Rapunzel’s hair. Without it, Mother Gothel doesn’t want her; without it, she can’t save him. The magic fading, it all turns her natural brown and Mother Gothel’s years finally catch up with her. In a frenzy, she reels backwards – and tumbles from the tower window, to her death.

Rapunzel stares after her, horrified, then goes back to Flynn. She sings the magic song hopelessly, holding his limp body in her arms. But magic is a part of her, and cutting off her hair doesn’t change that. When her tears fall on his face, they melt into his skin and flare gold. He wakes up groggy and flirty. They kiss passionately on the floor. after that, a guard bursts in on the king and queen with the news they have been hoping to hear for so, so long. They run to the palace balcony, where Rapunzel and Flynn turn to meet them. The queen is the first to step forward – incredulity gives way to joy and before you know it there’s a huge family group hug underway. Flynn watches on smiling until the queen holds out a hand and hauls him in.

With Rapunzel restored to her true home, dreams start coming true left, right and centre. The Ducklings give up banditry in favour of performance art and romance. Maximus becomes chief of police. Pascale eats a lot of fruit. As for Rapunzel and Flynn…well, he goes by Eugene these days. Still tells outrageous stories about his life and occasionally nicks her tiara. And they are living very happily ever after.

And just for the record, there’s no reason to stop lighting the lanterns just because the princess is found. She wants to CELEBRATE.

Spot the Difference: Well, there’s hair. And towers.

Look, it’s not got much common ground with the fairy tale and that bothered me on the first watch, but to be fair to Disney there’s a lot of non family-friendly content in the original story: the wild tower-room love affair, the resulting pregnancy, the prince’s eyes being put out with thorns, Rapunzel wandering the wilderness with twins. The Disney version steers clear of all that, opting for a lovable rogue instead of a prince and a princess instead of a bartered peasant girl. As with many retold fairy tales, this one tweaks the traditional structure (well, more yanks violently) to make each character’s motivations more understandable. Rapunzel’s parents desperately need the plant and are unaware of the consequences that will ensue from taking it; Mother Gothel wants something specific from Rapunzel; the magic in the hair is probably why it’s so ridiculously long.

What’s delightful about this version of Rapunzel is how she uses that hair. It could easily be a terrible hindrance to her adventurous personality, but she grew up with it and makes it work for her, and Flynn helps her come up with a sensible solution when she really needs it out of the way. In fact, Rapunzel has a tendency to use stumbling blocks as launching pads. The naivete Mother Gothel mocks is tempered with fierce determination; she expects the best from people and usually gets it, but she’s prepared to deal with danger too, even when it comes from someone she wanted to trust. She and Flynn are a well suited couple: outgoing, exuberant, personable, cause havoc wherever they go.

As for Mother Gothel, she is…unnerving, because she’s so believable. It’s difficult to say for sure how much of her relationship with Rapunzel involves genuine maternal fondness, however twisted and abusive, and how much is just possessive pride in Rapunzel’s power. Dominating and vicious when crossed, Mother Gothel gas-lights her foster daughter to keep her obedient, and it’s terrifyingly effective. It takes explicit certainty of her ill intentions for Rapunzel to finally break away, and it’s hard. That’s an important story to tell.

I can’t tell you how glad I am that both Rapunzel’s parents survived to the end of the story and that we got to see traces of Rapunzel’s personality in her loving father and brave, open-hearted mother. There are not enough mothers in Disney.

Maximus is obviously fabulous. The Ducklings are adorable in a weird, unhygienic sort of way. This version of ‘Rapunzel’ may not stick as closely to the original as I’d have liked, but it is irrepressibly good fun with a respect for emotional realities, and anyone who can look at Rapunzel’s big sad eyes without wanting to give her the moon is probably evil. One thing that still irritates me: did her eyes have to be that big, and her waist that small? Disney princesses have always had unlikely proportions, but the principal female characters in Tangled have only-in-animation measurements while the men – even the stupidly handsome Flynn Rider – have more natural shapes. It’s a trend to discourage.

Disney Reflections No.8: Never Trust a Wishing Star

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

Made in 2009, The Princess and the Frog marks the beginning of a new era. It is Disney’s first fairy tale to be set post-1900, the first to be set in America, and of course stars Disney’s first black princess. I was an adult when this one came out and only saw it once. Let’s see how it holds up to a rewatch.

The fairy tale: This movie is based on the fairy tale ‘The Frog Prince’ which I reviewed for the Fairy Tale Tuesday project alongside three other amphibian-themed stories. There are more of them than you might think. film: It begins in New Orleans, in a house that’s pretty much a palace, in a bedroom that is the frothy pink dream of six-year-olds everywhere. Two little girls perch side by side, watching a seamstress finishing off a matching frothy pink costume while telling the story of a princess who kissed a frog and ended up with a handsome prince. Girl No.1 is Lottie, the intended owner of the dress, who cannot contain her delight at the happy ending. Girl No.2 is the seamstress’s daughter Tiana, who thinks kissing frogs is revolting. A chase ensues when Lottie traps her poor pet cat inside a frog mask and tries to make Tiana kiss it, while Tiana valiantly resists. Tiana’s mother wins my heart by rescuing the cat. Seriously, Disney, bullying cats is not amusing.

Tiana and her mother leave the sprawling mansions behind, catching the tram home to their own cramped little house, where Tiana focuses her remarkable powers of concentration on making the perfect pot of gumbo. Her dad, a passionate cook himself, is so impressed that he shares their dinner with the whole neighborhood. Later, he shows Tiana a picture of a glamorous restaurant and tells her one day they’ll be running a place like that. To prove it, he writes ‘Tiana’s Place’ across the top. She remembers one of Lottie’s fairy tales and scrambles to the window to wish on the evening star. All she gets is a frog. The universe has a childish sense of humour.

As an adult, Tiana has not given up on her dream, but she’s not relying on stars any more. Though her father has been lost to war, she is determined to open that restaurant and is working all hours to get there. The city of New Orleans gets in her way at every turn, from wannabe flash dancer musicians parading across her path to the dismissive cook at the diner where she waitresses. Her customer service ethic, and self-restraint in not dropping a coffee pot on the cook’s head, are awe-inspiring.

In direct contrast, Prince Naveen of nowhere-you’ve-ever-heard-of arrives in New Orleans to escape a fight with his parents, posing his handsome self for the waiting media then sloping off with a banjo to check out the local music scene and chat up pretty girls. His valet/ manager/ general dogsbody Lawrence trots sullenly in pursuit with the luggage. Lottie, who has not given up on her dream of snagging a hot prince, bursts into Tiana’s diner to share the glad tidings. Tiana’s had her own run-in with royalty, though she doesn’t know it – it lasted the two seconds it took for Tiana to roll her eyes at him.

She’s honestly not having a great day, what with the zero sleep and her friends trying to bully her into a social life she doesn’t have time for, but Lottie’s exuberant glee is an unstoppable whirlwind. Her doting father has invited the prince to that night’s masquerade party and Lottie, struck by inspiration, throws a small fortune at Tiana as payment for last-minute extra catering. The windfall is precisely what Tiana needs. She finally has enough money to buy her restaurant. is not to say she can afford prime real-estate – the building she settles on is sort of a wreck. When Tiana’s mother arrives to celebrate the moment, giving Tiana her father’s beloved gumbo pot, all she can see are the cobwebs and rotting beams. Like Tiana’s friends, she thinks her daughter is working too hard and should be going out more, maybe finding a man…Tiana, though, is no stranger to fixer-uppers and sees an art deco masterpiece in the making. She patiently brushes off her mother’s hints. True love can wait – she’s got work to do.

Naveen, meanwhile, has pretty much the same thoughts only his version of ‘work’ is ‘run off with a bunch of buskers’. He’s the same brand of charming feckless as Lottie, only without the funds to back it up because his parents got sick of it and tied up the purse strings. Nor is Lottie the only one with designs upon the prince. A tall, mysterious man in a really menacing hat has been stalking Naveen all over town and now pounces, offering to read his future. Naveen holds true to form and bounces off down a dodgy alleyway with puppy dog enthusiasm. Lawrence tries to dissuade him, without success. Then he stops trying, because Mr Tall, Dark and Sinister – otherwise known as Doctor Facilier – is playing a double game. Laying out cards that promise a a financial windfall for Naveen, he deals a second hand to Lawrence, showing a life of ease and wealth…for a price. Both men agree. But as the spirits rise up to answer the fortune teller’s spell, Naveen realises just how dreadful a mistake he’s made.

The masquerade ball begins with no sign of its much-anticipated guest. Tiana is dressed up as a medieval handmaiden, dishing out cakes, while Lottie wears a grown-up version of the pink froth and panics over Naveen’s no-show. Her solution: wish on that star REALLY, REALLY hard. Tiana starts to point out,1.jpgthis may not be the most effective strategy ever when, because Lottie’s life works like this, Naveen appears from nowhere. Lottie whistles up a spotlight, tosses off some glitter and sashays off for her waltz. Tiana watches fondly, happy for her friend even if she doesn’t understand the dream at all.

Then her own dream is abruptly, brutally crushed by a pair of penny-pinching businessmen who calmly tell her that they’ve got a better offer for their property. She tries to chase after them, but gets knocked into her own cake stand instead. When Lottie dashes over to squee about Naveen, she sees her friend is splattered in icing and takes her upstairs, giving her a different dress. Too caught up in her own happiness to recognise Tiana’s misery, she then hurries back to the party. Tiana wanders onto the balcony, taking another look at that star. It’s got to be worth a try…

She gets a frog.

A talking, mildly lecherous frog. Reacting on behalf of all of us, she backs off and hurls Lottie’s old soft toys at it. Finally convincing her to stop, the frog explains himself – he is Prince Naveen, enchanted. If that’s so, Tiana wants to know who’s out there dancing with her best friend. Naveen doesn’t know – his priority is turning human again, and since he was also a fairy tale addict as a child, he has an answer. Tiana has to kiss him.

T’s feelings on kissing frogs have not changed, especially not over-confident, pouty ones, but he’s a prince and she needs extra money to outbid her competitor so she screws up her nerve and goes for it. Poor Tiana. She has no idea, the movie’s only a third of the way through. Instead of turning Naveen human, the kiss turns her into a frog.

She is extremely not happy about this. The force of her rage sends both frogs spilling off the balcony, right into the middle of the party (and accidentally down Lottie’s dress). They escape on some balloons, and not a moment too soon, because the fake prince is none other than Lawrence and while he doesn’t particularly want Naveen dead, Doctor Facilier has no such compunctions. As long as Naveen’s blood marks the mask Lawrence wears around his neck, the enchantment will hold – but a free Naveen is a complication. And now, of course, Tiana is too.

Drifting around above a swamp, the prince and the waitress clear the air. He’s broke, she’s not a princess, they have absolutely no use for each other, and oh, while all that sniping is going on, the balloons have blown into a tree. A few seconds later, the frogs are face-first in the lagoon. This doesn’t improve their tempers. They try to continue the fight but everything wants to eat them and a grudging truce is in both their interests. They spend the night hiding in a hollow log, then in the morning Tiana builds a raft and Naveen makes himself another banjo from twigs.

His playing attracts the attention of an alligator. He does not want to eat anyone – he wants to fanboy over jazz. Naveen adopts him as an instant BFF, and expertly manipulates him into helping them find a more kindly disposed voodoo practitioner. After all, if a man can be turned into a frog, an alligator can be turned into a man, and then Louis can become the saxophonist he’s always dreamed of being. Tiana finds the pair of them very annoying. So do I. Naveen was sweet as a human being, but as a frog he’s a smarmy chauvinist with stupid pick-up lines. It almost makes Lawrence look good.

Except the power is draining from that mask and while Lottie is about as self-involved as they come, she does notice when her suitor’s ear pops out to twice its usual size. He distracts her by proposing marriage. Wouldn’t you know, it works. She shoves him off to revel in the moment, then dashes off to start planning her wedding. Lawrence reverts to his own form and Doctor Facilier broods over his failing plan. He’ll have to ask for help from his friends on the ‘Other Side’…

Back in the swamp, Naveen is enthusiastically experimenting with catching mosquitoes while Tiana’s frog tongue betrays her chef brain and follows suit. They go for the same insect, their tongues get all tangled up and a very chatty firefly called Ray comes to the rescue. Calling up a cloud of friends, he leads them down the river towards voodoo queen Mama Odie.

His spell failing, Doctor Facilier makes a bargain with the spirits: once Lawrence has married Lottie, Doctor Facilier will kill her father and claim control over New Orleans through his money, allowing the spirits to take as many souls as they choose. They send monstrous shadows to track Naveen down.

They’re not the only hunters looking for the unfortunate frogs – a trio of incompetents more or less accidentally ensnare Tiana. Naveen employs his natural superpower of being unbearably annoying to distract her captors. The flush of success inspires previously unheard-of levels of amicability. While Ray and Louis recover from their own encounters (Louis had a bad run-in with a thorn bush), Tiana puts her own superpower to use and whips up ‘swamp gumbo’ with Naveen as her unwilling kitchen hand. He’s never had to cook for himself before, let alone anything else, and now he’s cut off from his parents’ wealth he’s feeling his lack of education keenly. Tiana gets over her initial amusement and shows him how to mince a mushroom.

While they’re eating, Ray introduces them all to his girlfriend Evangeline – who is that highly unreliable evening star everyone’s been wishing at, and not a firefly at all. No one has the heart to tell him this. His happy clueless adoration wakes a warmth in Naveen too, who ignores Tiana’s protests and teaches her how to dance. There’s finally an advantage to amphibian living: they can waltz underwater! Even as a frog, Tiana is gorgeous and Naveen lets himself get swept away by the moment, but Tiana slips out from his attempted kiss. Lucky for her, because the spirit shadows have caught up to them. Seizing Naveen’s ankle, they haul him off into the woods.

And are promptly crisped by several well-aimed bolts of lightning from the promised Mama Odie, a little old lady with a big attitude who lives in a boat stuck in a tree. She’s cooking gumbo too, in a bathtub for some reason. Maybe she has a lot of neighbours. She can do all sorts of magic things but won’t, since she thinks ‘it doesn’t matter what you look like, doesn’t matter what you are’ – as long as you have love you’ll be FINE, is her attitude, and she all but shoves the two frogs together in a ‘now kiss’ gesture. Naveen gets what she means. Tiana doesn’t. Her eyes are still on the prize, her restaurant.

Mama Odie finally gets down to business. To be human again, they require one kiss of princess. It just so happens that Lottie’s dad has been chosen as King of the Mardi Gras Parade, which temporarily makes her a princess – just as she’s always wanted! – but only until midnight. Louis tries to bring up his own desire to be human, but Mama Odie tells him that’s not what he needs and shoves him unceremoniously out the door. I really don’t like her.

It’s fortunate they have Louis along, though, because he suggests they hitch a lift home on a steamer and while he’s aboard, he runs into a group of musicians who think he’s a really awesome saxophonist in a really awesome costume. He runs off to play with his new friends. Naveen, meanwhile, is fretting over his romantic feelings for Tiana. Showing an unexpected streak of creativity, he makes a ring out of wire and beads, manufactures a romantic table for two and plans a proposal. He doesn’t want to marry Lottie – probably wise, they’re way too much alike – but Tiana doesn’t realise he wants to marry her, distracted from the conversation as they pass the building she plans to be her restaurant. He sees that to make her happy, she needs that place – and to give it to her, he needs money. In short, he needs to marry Lottie after all.

Both women would have a thing or two to say about that thought process if they knew.

No sooner has he left Tiana alone than Naveen gets kidnapped by shadows again and brought to Lawrence, to feed the mask with his blood. Meanwhile, Ray spills the beans to Tiana, telling her about Naveen’s planned proposal. She shows a lot of enthusiasm for someone who could barely tolerate him twenty four hours ago and immediately assumes he’ll be on Lottie’s float, getting kissed human. Well, there is a prince there. Getting married to Lottie.

Tiana is heartbroken and when Ray tries to cheer her up, she lashes out, telling him Evangeline is only a star who can never love him back. He refuses to give up, going back to buzz in the fake Naveen’s ear – while the real Naveen, locked in a box at Lawrence’s feet, kicks up the biggest fuss he can. Just before the wedding vows are completed, Ray sets Naveen free and they trip Lawrence off the float. Naveen yanks off the mask; Ray flies away with it. Seeing the shadows pursuing his friend, Louis drops the sax and rushes to help.

Ray throws the mask into Tiana’s lap, triumphant. Telling her to take it and flee, he bounces wildly at the shadows, burning them with his light – but he is small, and Dr Facilier is not. Ray is swatted and stamped on. Louis finds his broken body. How is this G rated?

Running from the shadows isn’t working for Tiana, so she switches tactics and threatens to shatter the mask. Dr Facilier reacts by conjuring an illusion of her dream restaurant, promising she’ll have it if she hands over his talisman. He shows her father, who worked hard yet never got his dream…but for all that, Tiana’s father was loved. He was happy with his life. Also, it’s fundamentally immoral to enable identity theft.

Tiana tries to smash the mask, but a shadow intercepts it. Dr Facilier gloats. He’s stupid. She’s a frog; she has a tongue. Flicking it out, she recaptures the mask and this time breaks it into shards. D Facilier can no longer fulfill the bargain with his ‘friends from the Other Side’. He has no souls to give – so they take his.

The spell is broken. Lottie corners her groom to find him short, balding and more than twice her age. He runs before she has time to get angry, and gets arrested by her dad. Meanwhile, Naveen applies his winsome voice to explain the situation. Lottie whacks him with a book first, because she is Tiana’s best friend, but the magic word ‘prince’ catches her attention. She’s happy to deliver the kiss. Tiana gets there first, though; she understands why Naveen’s doing this, but while she wants her restaurant, she wants him there too. Far from getting upset about being excluded from the big romantic moment, Lottie gets all the feels and offers her congratulations. “I’ll kiss him,” she says. “For you, honey.” It’s so grown-up! Like, finding solutions and things!

Only they’ve left it too late. It’s past midnight – Lottie isn’t a princess any more, and they are still frogs.

Ray is dying. He gets to say his goodbyes, and dies with his eyes on Evangeline. His friends return him to the swamp, and to his family of fireflies. A new star flickers to life beside Evangeline. It would seem she loved him after all., Mama Odie performs a swamp wedding and the frog lovers kiss as husband and wife. More importantly, as prince and princess. That’s enough for the magic! They are transformed back into humans, in fancy wedding attire what’s more. They’re pretty casual about it, all things considered, more interested in getting back to the kissing. They have a second wedding for their human friends and family, attended by Naveen’s approving parents and a delighted media circus. Then, because this is Tiana’s wedding day, they go straight to work on fixing up her restaurant. Turns out she didn’t need extra money, she needed an alligator bestie to stand over the real estate men while they got over their sexist, racist uselessness and handed over the damn keys.

Once the restaurant is the big shiny palace Tiana always knew it would be, she puts Louis on centre stage to play for an admiring crowd, sets Naveen waiting tables (though she knows he’ll slope off to play ukelele with Louis) and saves tables for all her friends and family. Lottie finally gets to dance with a real prince, Naveen’s brother…who is six, but you can’t have everything! Tiana whirls off in Naveen’s arms, surrounded by a swirl of fireflies. You can take the frogs out of the swamp, but some friends are for life.

Spot the Difference: Basically everything.

I am not fond of ‘The Frog Prince’. It is a punishment fairy tale, a young girl’s ingratitude taken as cause to trample all over her right to say no. Her father makes her take a creepy talking frog into her bed. It needs a lot of adaptation for a modern audience! And Tiana is perfect for that, because she is the kind of heroine who generally stars in punishment fairy tales – sure of what she wants, not apologetic about it, no patience to spare for time wasters – the kind of heroine I want to hug and make tea for.

Which makes it doubly frustrating when the story keeps critiquing her for being that driven. I mean, love is wonderful and overwork certainly is not, but Tiana wants to start a very ambitious small business and she’s almost there. This is when she needs support from her friends and family, not loud pressure to go out and look for a boyfriend too. She shouldn’t have to justify herself! The best thing about her friendship with Lottie, to me, is that Lottie – darling narcissistic cupcake that she is – has zero judgement when it comes to any of her friend’s life choices. Tiana can relax and be herself in her company, in a way she can’t with anyone else.

As for Naveen…well, both he and Tiana are considerably more enjoyable characters as humans. The prince is introduced a footloose, boyishly naïve charmer. As a frog, he’s pushy, selfish and kind of lecherous. It’s not clear how much of his condescension stems from sexism and how much is classism, but you can hardly blame Lawrence for hating the boy if he’s like that all the time.

Don’t get me wrong, Naveen is not a terrible character. He makes sense in context and grows up over the course of the story, gaining a sense of responsibility without losing that happy-go-lucky charm. His friendship with Louis is particularly sweet, and both end up actively supporting Tiana’s restaurant dream. There’s a risk in portraying this type of character in children’s media, though. With sexist male protagonists omnipresent in popular culture, are children going to pick up on the nuances of what is and what isn’t okay about his behaviour? It’s surely pause for thought when the hero of the movie comes out with rhetoric quite similar to that of classic Disney villain Gaston.

That said, Tiana is not obliged to calmly accept his presence in her life the way the princess in the original fairy tale does. She challenges, mocks and expects better of him, and even judgmental Mama Odie can’t make her change her mind about her priorities. I want more heroines like her.

Review – Winter Rose

Winter Rose – Patricia A. McKillip

Ace Books, 1996

Rois Melior was born on her father’s farm, but her heart belongs in the wood. She wanders there freely, familiar with its secrets and gifts, until one day a stranger emerges from a fall of light to claim a place in her life. His name is Corbet Lynn. Long ago, his father became local legend by killing Corbet’s grandfather in the old manor house and vanishing into thin air on a winter night. It’s said the Lynns are cursed. Corbet does not seem anything out of the ordinary – but Rois knows better. Entangled in Corbet’s terrible secrets, she soon realises the curse is all too real, and it endangers everything she loves most.

I will read really anything written by Patricia A. McKillip, who has the most gorgeous, lyrical style and a delightful wry wit. This is not one of her best books. The plot meanders, backtracking too often over the same ground, and crucial points are a little too mysterious to hold it all together – but for all that, it’s beautifully written, flavoured with several different fairy tales without being a direct retelling of any. It has a sequel of sorts in Solstice Wood.

Disney Reflections No.7: She’ll Bring Honour To Us All

Mulan has the distinction of being the first and only Disney fairy tale to star an Asian protagonist – given it was made 1998, that’s a bit depressing. Like a fair few items on the Disney back catalogue, it’s currently in the works for a live action remake. I was BESOTTED with this movie as a child, I borrowed the video repeatedly from the library and wrote atrocious fan fiction for a sequel. This was before I realised Mulan 2 already existed and it was terrible.

The fairy tale: Well, to begin with, it’s not exactly a fairy tale. It’s a ballad, and as such I suppose it does not strictly qualify for this project but I love Mulan too much to leave her out. The version of the story I’m using is a 2014 picture book by Li Jian, translated by Yijin Wert, a dual telling in English and Chinese characters.

Mulan is a well-educated child, trained in calligraphy and literature by her father and weaving by her mother. She also learns martial arts and takes to riding as a natural. I approve of this parenting. Then her peaceful world is broken by the arrival of an imperial messenger; her elderly father has been drafted into the army. The only other male member of the family is Mulan’s brother, who is too young to fight, so Mulan dresses herself as a boy to take her father’s place. Her family not only know, they support the decision – her brother and sister help her pack up all the necessary supplies.

She rides away to the frontier, where the army is encamped by the Yellow River. They march on to the northern mountains the next day. Mulan takes no time at all to distinguish herself as a remarkable fighter. Over twelve years of service, she manages to keep her secret and also impress all the soldiers she serves with. The emperor tries to reward her success, but she refuses to accept the offered position and won’t take his gifts – all she wants is a good horse, to go home.

Her parents are thrilled to see her safely returned, even with some army friends in tow; her sister prepares a feast, and her brother cleans her room. Her whole family gather to greet her. Now that the war is over, Mulan discards her warrior’s clothes and dresses as a girl again. When she emerges in a pretty dress with full make-up, her male friends are astonished. Whether it’s that easy to discard one life and slide back into another remains to be seen, but if anyone has the determination to do it, that would be Mulan.

The film: We begin on the Great Wall of China, which is…not doing so great a job, actually, as one unfortunate guard discovers when grappling hooks come flying out of the dark during his patrol and he turns around to find armed Huns storming the watch tower. With great heroism, he manages to set the warning beacon ablaze. Further along the Wall, flames leap up as the signal spreads. “Now all of China knows you’re here,” he snarls, fully aware he’s about to die.

He’s right on both counts.

In the imperial city, General Shang’s first priority is to protect the Emperor, but the Emperor himself is thinking like a winner and planning his counter-attack. He orders a massive recruitment drive across the nation. “One man,” he says, “may be the difference between victory and defeat.” If you are at all familiar with this story, you’ll see a certain irony there.

Outside of the city, word of the invasion has not yet spread and the biggest worry looming on Fa Mulan’s horizon is an appointment with the matchmaker, an event which seems to be a mixture blind date and big exam. She’s prepared by scrawling virtues all over her wrist in case she forgets them. Familiar with Mulan’s inventive streak and her corresponding tendency to wreak unintentional havoc, her father prays devoutly to the ancestors that she’ll make a good impression; waiting in town, Mulan’s mother is having similar doubts. Not so Mulan’s grandmother, she’s invested in a lucky cricket and proceeds to test that luck by crossing a road with her eyes covered. Chaos skipped a generation, I think. I’d like to include a picture at this point, but my internet access is rubbish today and it’s simply not worth the bother. I may come back later.

The second she shows up – late, with straw in her hair – Mulan is hauled off to be scrubbed, polished, painted and coiffed into bridal elegance. She keeps getting distracted, drifting off to advise on chess games and rescue a little girl’s doll, but at last she’s ready to join the queue of hopeful girls standing outside the matchmaker’s house. At this time, in this place, boys bring honour to their families through acts of courage in war and girls bring honour by marrying well. Mulan is committed to getting this right.

Hers is the first name called. During the ensuing interview – and hell, is it like an exam – the ‘lucky’ cricket escapes its cage and and in her increasingly frantic efforts to recapture it, Mulan manages to spill tea everywhere, cover the matchmaker’s face in ink and then there’s an incident with the brazier…long story short, it goes about as badly as it possibly can. Humiliated, Mulan slinks home and hides in the garden. Her father tracks her down, gently assuring her that all she needs is the time to grow into herself.

The adorable moment is ruined when imperial officials ride into town, issuing conscription notices to each family. Mulan’s father is a good man and a loving father, but he’s proud and he accepts the summons despite a bad leg that clearly disqualifies him from service. When Mulan protests, he turns on her with a despairing anger, telling her to learn her place. Through the long night she circles helplessly around the immoveable facts: her father can’t fight, but someone must answer that summons. A girl can’t fight, but someone must answer that summons.

Mulan makes up her mind.

She takes her father’s sword. She puts on his armour. With her hair cut short and the conscription notice in hand, she rides from the courtyard, and by the time anyone realises she is gone it’s too late to fetch her back – if the deception is revealed, she will face execution. Her grandmother prays fervently to the family spirits to keep her safe.

Little does she know, Mulan has been causing debate among her dead relatives as well as the living. Some offer support, others are horrified, most just latch on to the bone of contention to kickstart old grievances (“we can’t all be acupuncturists!”). It’s eventually agreed that one of the family guardians must be woken and sent to protect the Fa family’s wayward daughter. Pint-sized dragon Mushu, disgraced and demoted after failing spectacularly at his last mission, hopes this might be his chance for redemption. Instead he’s sent to wake the Great Stone Dragon, greatest of the guardians.

He does try – the dragon stubbornly refuses to wake and when Mushu gets a bit over-enthusiastic with his gong, the statue promptly falls to bits. Panicked, he flees the scene to go protect Mulan himself.

She’ll need it. The Huns are steadily advancing from the north, leaving a trail of wreckage behind. I find it a little ridiculous how all the ferocious Shan Yu’s men are highly suspicious looking characters with terrible haircuts while the stock standard imperial soldier is a male model.

Anyway, Mulan has reached the army camp and is lurking on the hillside above, practicing being manly. So far the best intro she’s got is “I see you have a sword! I have one too,” which…is probably not an intentional innuendo, but is also not the way to introduce yourself to anyone at all. And she keeps dropping the sword anyway. “It’s going to take a miracle to get me into the army,” she tells her horse. “DID I HEAR SOMEONE ASK FOR A MIRACLE?” Mushu roars.

He puts on a great show with fire and smoke for her, only none of it is his, and she’s less than impressed when she realises he’s about ankle height. Her skepticism does not daunt him. “I’m travel-sized for your convenience,” he assures her, then goes on about his awesome powers. When that fails, he starts howling about dishonour and she hurries to shut him up.

His first advice is on how to walk like a man. It’s terrible advice. Mulan totters into camp and, following a whispered masculinity crash course, proceeds to start a massive brawl. Her commanding officer, the devastatingly gorgeous Captain Shang – son of General Shang – takes one look at the tangle of recruits he’s expected to lead and starts plotting a sadistic training program on the spot. He rightly rests most of the blame on Mulan. As she didn’t consider the need for a male name, she stammers wildly at him before producing one. Thus Ping signs into the imperial army.

Shang’s first act of training is to fire an arrow to the top of a smooth wooden pole and challenge his recruits to retrieve it – the catch being, they have to climb while wearing weights on their wrists. No one succeeds. The following days are a haze of sticks, stones and running. Such a lot of running. Also, Shang does most of this shirtless, showing off his amazing abs and making everyone feel inadequate.

With the rest of the recruits still bearing grudges after the brawl, her own inexperience a constant burden and Mushu’s efforts to help only making things worse, Mulan is actually told to go home. It’s perfect…except it’s not, because she wants to succeed. Figuring out how to wrap the weights around the pole, she retrieves the arrow and earn a second chance. This leads to a rather improbable montage of everyone becoming lethal fighters. Mulan manages to punch Shang on the jaw, making him smile approvingly. The others are warming up to her too, after the display with the arrow, but her life is still one of constant risk. Washing in the river one night, Mulan’s evening is gatecrashed by a trio of fellow recruits wanting a swim. Having chosen the most inconvenient moment possible, they introduce themselves: the thin, chatty one is Ling, the calm giant is Chien-Po and the sarcastic bruiser is Yao. There’s way too much nudity for Mulan’s comfort level and Mushu stages a distraction so she can escape.

On the way back to her tent, she overhears Shang arguing with the imperial official who has been reporting (unfavourably) on their progress. Shang thinks they’re ready to join his father in the mountains; the official disagrees. Dismayed at the thought Mulan won’t prove herself in battle – thereby proving him to the other ancestors – Mushu commandeers a panda, turns a suit of armour into a complicated sort of marionette and pretends to be an imperial messenger so that the official’s hand is forced and the troops are sent out to war.

Cue another montage as they tramp through the countryside, distracting from themselves from their sore feet by dreaming about the girls they plan to marry when they get home. While they don’t say anything really dreadful, it’s awkward for Mulan, who cannot call out anyone on their unrealistic expectations. There’s also several clichés in this section that make it a bit wince-worthy to watch.

Then they reach the mountain pass where General Shang was stationed with his men and it’s wincing of an entirely different sort, because the village is a burnt ruin. Searching for survivors, they stumble across a battlefield littered with imperial soldiers, all dead. Shang is devastated to realise his father fell with them. He makes the only memorial he can, thrusting his sword into the snow and placing his father’s helmet reverentially atop it. Mulan silently lays an abandoned ragdoll beneath it, a tribute to all the innocents who died in this place.

There is no more time for grieving. The Huns are moving onward to the imperial city and Shang’s recruits are the only force standing in their way. As they continue through the pass, the Huns ambush them in a hail of arrows. Shang attempts to launch a counter-assault with his cannons, but the Huns have chosen their position too well. Realising this, Mulan aims her cannon at an outcrop of mountain instead, triggering a landslide.

Good news: the Huns get buried in snow! Bad news: Mulan and Shang do too. She does her best to hold his unconscious body aloft and her friends spot her, throwing a rope to haul them to safety. When he wakes up, Shang is exasperated but impressed at the same time, assuring her of his unequivocal trust. She smiles vaguely and collapses.

As her injury is treated, her true identity is revealed. The bureaucratic official wants her executed, her friends want to protect her, and Shang compromises by leaving her behind as the troops move on. Unequivocal trust doesn’t get you so far these days.

Mulan goes well past misery into the icy calm of self-loathing while Mushu mourns lost opportunities and confesses his own deception. There’s nothing to do now but go home. Whatever happens, Mushu promises they’ll do it together.

What actually happens is a sudden resurgence of Huns as the apparently indestructable invaders break through the snow. Mulan takes her life in her hands to go warn the army. They are in the middle of a celebratory parade and not particularly inclined to listen. Shang is having trust issues; Mulan has no patience for it. “You said you’d trust Ping,” she reminds him. “Why is Mulan any different?” He can’t answer that.

Shang meets the Emperor on the steps of the imperial palace, offering up the sword of Shan Yu as a symbol of their victory. The Emperor tells him his father, the general, would have been proud. Except no, not really, because Shan Yu has not been defeated at all – he’s lying in wait on a nearby rooftop. In a frankly ridiculous reveal, the dancing dragon from the parade is peopled with his soldiers, who promptly take the Emperor captive and hustle him inside the palace. Shang is dashed to the ground in the first attack and the huge palace doors are clamped shut against his frantic pursuit.

Together with Ling, Yiao and Chien-Po, he’s trying to batter down the door with a repurposed statue when Mulan interrupts them with a better idea. Shang doesn’t get much choice in accepting since his men dash off after her straight away. Dressing up her friends as imperial concubines (only Shang gets to keep his armour), Mulan teaches them her climbing trick and they scale the columns at the side of the palace.

The Emperor, meanwhile, is being terrorised by Shan Yu who wants his complete capitulation and isn’t getting it. This is happening on a balcony so that everyone gathered in the square below can see; the stairs are heavily guarded but the Huns hesitate when approached by a trio of rather thuggish concubines, giving Mulan’s friends the chance to take their enemies apart. It’s a distraction to allow Shang access to the balcony. Just in time, too. As Shan Yu swings his blade towards the Emperor’s head, Shang blocks it; Chien-Po bodily lifts the Emperor and swings down on a rope into the square, followed by Ling and Yao, but then Shan Yu gets the better of Shang and Mulan cuts the rope rather than allow him the same route down.

He turns on her, and recognises her as the soldier from the mountain. When he pursues her onto the rooftops in a frothing rage, Mulan uses her fan as an unexpected shield and Mushu sets off a firework – trapped between them, Shan Yu is blown off the roof in a shower of pretty death sparks. Mulan leaps down and crashes straight into Shang. Together with her friends, he shields her when the angry official comes stalking over to be loudly chauvinistic, and Shang gets loudly defensive. The schoolyard scrap is broken up when the Emperor strides out of the smoke in that impressive way only lifetime royals can achieve. He reels off Mulan’s crimes, gesturing pointedly at the burning roof where Shan Yu was just fireworked, while Mulan’s friends make awkward faces in the background.

“AND,” the Emperor concludes, “…you have saved us all.” He smiles and bows. Everyone else follows suit. It’s a bit overboard, but sweet too. The Emperor wants Mulan to become a counsellor; she politely refuses, saying she just wants to go home. He gifts her with an imperial seal and Shan Yu’s sword as symbols of her victory, and Mulan trips over a dozen protocols to give him a huge hug. She, in turn, gets wildly enthusiastic hugs from her friends and an uncertain pat on the shoulder from Shang. The Emperor, who plays matchmaker when he’s not ruling vast empires or sarking at kidnappers, gives Shang a pointed shove in her general direction.

Mulan has finally started figuring out who she is. She’s just not sure her family will accept it. She kneels at her father’s feet, hastily showing him her trophies, hoping to at least delay his anger. He throws them aside to pull her into his arms, just grateful to have her safe. Presumably she saw the rest of the family first because they are calmly watching from the sidelines; her grandmother eyes the sword critically, remarking that Mulan should have brought home a boyfriend instead, and at that precise moment imperial pin-up Shang arrives looking for Mulan. He proceeds to stumble through a terribly obvious excuse for his presence until Mulan, grinning, asks him to stay for dinner.

The ancestors admit Mushu did a pretty decent job and reinstate him as a guardian. It’s a good excuse for a great party.

Spot the Difference: The version of the ballad I read was very simple, therefore it’s hard to draw comparisons. The time scale is the most obvious difference – the Mulan of the ballad serves over a decade in the army and doesn’t reveal her identity as a woman until she gets home. She also has a larger family and no smart-mouthed dragon giving her advice, which might explain the longevity of her deception.

The thing I love best about this movie is, even though it is about Mulan carving out a place in a traditionally male sphere, she has fantastic relationships with her mother and grandmother, and they in turn have a marvellous rapport with each other. Until this point there had been incredibly few mothers in Disney fairy tales, let alone grandmothers. Mulan may not feel comfortable in her own skin through most of the story, but it is shown time and time again that her family love and support her in every way they can. Even the dead ones (considerably more judgmental than the living) have her back.

Mulan’s male friends have rather less nuance. Why would they need it? Their expectations of the world, up until they meet Mulan, have never been challenged – but once they do realise who Mulan really is, they back her up, even when her plan is basically ‘put on dresses and hope the guards here are really stupid’. They trust her judgement. There’s a strong romantic element to Mulan’s relationship with Shang, of course, but she wants his respect more than his affection and at the end he chooses to come find her, in full knowledge of the person she really is.

The story is quite a tangle from an adult’s perspective, bringing up issues of gender norms and toxic masculinity as well as issues of cultural translation. The representation of China is…well, really clumsy in parts, and rather clichéd, but doesn’t seem actually offensive. I’m certainly not in a position to say for sure and if anyone has a different perspective on that, please talk to me about it in the comments.

There’s some concerning censure about Mulan being a ‘cross-dresser’ with a ‘drag show’ – the terms are not inherent criticisms but the way they’re said makes it clear these are negative descriptions and that’s deeply unhelpful. Fortunately, both instances of cross-dressing end up being treated with immense positivity by the narrative. Hyper-masculine attitudes are gently (and sometimes not so gently) mocked, while the heavy policing of femininity is refuted at every step.

I don’t think Mulan has really decided who she is even at the end of the movie – but she’s not ashamed of that uncertainty any more. She knows she’s respected, and trusted, and loved.

Plus, she knows now that she is excellent with explosives. That’s an important life skill.

Disney Reflections No.6: A Judgement of Tigers

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

Made in 1992, this movie has several notable distinctions: being the first Disney fairy tale to both draw on a non-European story and take place in a non-European setting, for one thing. It also features the first Disney prince and princess of colour – admittedly with the wrong accents and slightly Anglicised features, but it’s a start – and is the first Disney fairy tale to centre around a male character.

The fairy tale: Well, this is awkward. I deliberately did not review ‘Aladdin’ for the Fairy Tale Tuesday project because I knew it would be part of the Sharazad Project, only I have not yet reached that part. This post is going to be ENORMOUS.

The telling I’m using today comes from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ A Book of Wizards and begins in ‘an eastern country’, which is about as non-specific as it can be. Aladdin is the son of an impoverished tailor but totally disinterested in the trade or, in fact, anything resembling work. The stress of his footloose behaviour takes its toll on the family; Aladdin’s father falls ill and dies and his mother is left to scrape by as best she can alone.

One day a wizard passes in the street, sees Aladdin skylarking and decides he’ll do for a very special job. The wizard inquires with a nearby butcher to find out the boy’s name and life story, learning enough to come up with a plan. Aladdin is astonished when a stranger comes over and embraces him; when the wizard announces he’s Aladdin’s long-lost uncle, come home to share his financial good fortune with his ‘brother’, it seems like a miracle. The wizard offers help to his widowed ‘sister-in-law’, agrees to set Aladdin up as a shopkeeper and generally acts the part of a godsend.

After a while he takes Aladdin into the country, allegedly for a little uncle-nephew bonding trip, but eventually they get to the point of it all. In a valley close to the city, the wizard performs a piece of simple fire magic to reveal a trapdoor. Freaked out, Aladdin tries to run. He’s hauled back. “Obey me, and your fortune is made,” the wizard declares, “but I will have nothing to do with cowards!” Okay, you go down the scary hole in the ground then.

Aladdin doesn’t say that. Promised that fabulous riches lie below, he descends into an underground palace, armed only with a ring that he’s told will protect him from harm. He passes through a subterranean orchard where gems grow instead of fruit, into a terrace, where an ordinary lamp sits in a niche. That’s all the wizard wants. Aladdin fills his pockets with the jewels, not knowing they’re valuable but thinking his mother will like the pretty colours, and climbs back up to the trapdoor. As he reaches for the wizard’s hand to be pulled out, his ‘uncle’ demands to be given the lamp first. Aladdin can’t get at it given his position, but the wizard goes quite wild at his refusal and scrabbles at Aladdin’s hand in an attempt to retrieve the ring. The frightened boy’s grip is too tight for him to succeed. Instead, the wizard seals him down in the vault and flies off to brood in Africa.

Abandoned, Aladdin beats his fists on immoveable rock and searches desperately for another way out, to no avail. He sobs hopelessly in the dark. What he doesn’t know is that the lamp is a magical artefact of extraordinary power, but that this power could only be the wizard’s if it was passed willingly into his hands. He also doesn’t know that the ring is magic too – he pulls it off, intending to throw it away in a gesture of disgust, but the touch causes a sudden flash of light and a genie arises from the ground, asking his will. Aladdin begs to be freed from the cavern. The genie duly deposits him in the valley and Aladdin runs all the way home.

Once he’s told his mother of his dreadful adventure, he gives her the lamp to sell, since they don’t have an evil benefactor to buy them things any more. Aladdin’s mother starts cleaning the lamp to make it more presentable and a second genie appears from nowhere, ready for her commands. Utterly freaked out, she wants him to go away, but Aladdin has a little more experience and asks for the genie to fetch them a meal. They get a veritable feast on silver tableware that Aladdin later sells for more food. With his two magic slaves, Aladdin is sure all their problems are over. His mother just wants him to get a decent job, but that’s sure as hell not happening.

For a few years all goes well. Aladdin grows up a bit, starts taking an interest in trade and realises how much those stones he collected are worth. While he’s walking around the city considering his options a herald strides through the street demanding everyone close their windows so that the sultan’s daughter can pass unseen to the bath house. Aladdin, who’s still not a great person, hides behind the bath house door so that as she takes off her veils, he can see her beautiful face. So beautiful, in fact, that Aladdin falls for her on the spot and goes home to plot their marriage.

His mother thinks it is a pipe dream. Aladdin thinks he has magic slaves for precisely this sort of thing and sets them to work right away. He fills a dish with the jewels from the cavern and sends his mother to the palace with them the next morning. The sultan is thrilled with the present but his vizier was hoping to get the princess married off to his own son and tells his boss he can give a better offer. Aladdin’s proposal is put off for three months while the sultan waits to see if that’s true. He honestly doesn’t care who gets his daughter as long as they make him really rich in the process.

The vizier’s a bit desperate. He sells off all the land he’s got in order to match Aladdin’s offer and the sultan accepts his gold, though in secret so he needn’t give the jewels back. Neither understand yet quite what they’re up against. The force of gossip, for one thing; word spreads and on the day of the wedding Aladdin’s mother brings home the news. Straight after the wedding feast, Aladdin has the Slave of the Lamp bring the couple to his house. The groom is thrown outside, leaving the terrified princess alone. Aladdin promises to ‘guard’ her, which means standing in the doorway all night with a sword. A+ wooing, Aladdin, would you like to set fire to the bed too?

In the morning he has the slave take the couple back, and the princess tells her mother everything, but of course is not believed. When the same events take place the next night, however, the vizier’s son asks for a divorce and the sultan grants it.

Aladdin sends his mother back to the palace to repeat his proposal.

The sultan sees an opportunity and demands his daughter’s new suitor prove his worth – financial worth, that is, the bridal gift being a procession of slaves loaded down with forty trays of fine jewels. The Slave of the Lamp provides a suitably glittering assembly and the sultan is so pleased he accepts Aladdin’s proposal on the spot. Aladdin gets the genie to work right away on preparing fabulous outfits for himself and his mother, plus another procession of slaves to accompany him and carry his conjured wealth. Crowds turn out to watch him go past, cheering under a rain of gold coins. Not satisfied with this display, Aladdin asks for a piece of land and has the genie construct a glorious castle within twenty four hours. Only then does Aladdin ask the princess herself for her hand, and marry her.

The first few years of their marriage are as happy as limitless luxury can make them. The wizard, however, has not forgotten the lamp. Upon hearing that Aladdin escaped his tomb, accessed the lamp’s power and married into royalty, he decides it’s time to make a move. He returns to the city, setting himself up with a tray of shiny copper lamps and walks about offering “New lamps for old!”. Aladdin himself is absent on a hunting trip. The princess hears the mockery of the crowd outside her palace and is amused, sending out a slave with an old lamp to exchange for new. It is, of course, the magic lamp she gives. How could she know?

That night, the wizard summons the Slave of the Lamp. He orders that the palace and everyone inside be taken to Africa, and his will is duly done.

The sultan may not be a great dad, but he reacts with suitable outrage when his daughter and her entire house disappear overnight. Capitalising on that rage, the resentful vizier suggests Aladdin’s execution. He’s seized on his way back from the hunt and is about to be killed, without even knowing what’s happened – but all that largesse pays off and a mob descends on the palace to rescue him. The sultan is forced to pardon him and finally explain what’s wrong. “You have done away with my daughter!” he shouts. “Is it not just that I should have your head?” Aladdin asks for forty days grace to find his wife and sets off. It takes him four days of misery to remember he has another genie.

His first demand is obviously for the Slave of the Ring to bring back both palace and wife, but that’s against the Genie Code so he settles for second-best and has himself transported to where the palace currently stands, right under his wife’s window. A slave recognises him and tells the princess. She sneaks him in through a side door for a joyful reunion. By now the princess knows of the lamp’s power, the wizard carries it about constantly, but Aladdin is riding high and determined to get it back. He heads into a nearby city, swaps clothes with a random passerby and buys poison. He brings this back to the princess, then hides in a cupboard.

She dresses up in her loveliest clothes and invites the wizard to eat with her, to all appearance a woman making the best of her new situation. When she asks to taste the wine of his country, the wizard is only too delighted to oblige her. While he’s absent fetching it, the princess pours the poison into her cup and her own wine over the top of that. She suggests they exchange cups as a gesture of goodwill. The wizard downs the poisoned wine and falls dead.

Aladdin springs forth from the cupboard to take back his lamp and return everyone home. The sultan is overjoyed to have his daughter safe, asks Aladdin’s forgiveness and declares ten days holiday for the whole city. And they all live happily ever after, except the hundred or so slaves Aladdin conjured up, and the captive genies who have to obey his every whim, and the vizier, who is presumably broke.

Happy endings are entirely a matter of perspective.

The film: The story is set somewhere in the Middle East, and we know that because the intro is a musical number too full of clichés to be as catchy as it is. Having been reviewing Sharazad’s stories for six months now, I’m amused to note that the first character we meet is a merchant. It’s always a merchant. He’s speaking directly to the camera, it’s very fourth wall, and as it pans away in apparent disinterest he brings out his ace: a mysterious lamp. He begins to tell the story…


It begins one night when two men meet up in the desert: a vizier and a thief. The thief has acquired one half of a golden scarab and is reluctant to hand it over without concrete payment, but the vizier’s parrot swiftly filches it and when the two halves are joined together the beetle turns abruptly animate, flying away. Where it lands, a sand dune transforms into a vast feline maw. Is it weird that I kind of want to pet the big sand monster? Yes, probably weird.

This is the entrance to the Cave of Wonders, which the vizier has spent many years seeking, and with one purpose in mind. He desires only ‘the lamp’. Once it is in Ja’far’s hands, the thief may claim everything else. That sort of offer really should be ringing warning bells, as should the giant pissed-off pussycat who rumbles out that one person alone may enter safely: the diamond in the rough. But the thief goes in anyway. Apparently he’s no diamond, because no sooner does he set foot in the cavernous mouth than it clamps shut and he’s buried alive. Ew.

The parrot, dropping his innocent avian accomplice act, throws a violent tantrum. “I’m so ticked off I’m moulting!” he shrieks, collecting the pieces of scarab. Jafar is more circumspect. He’s a politician, after all. “I must find this diamond in the rough,” he muses.

The unfortunate dead thief is not the only one making a dishonest living on the streets of Agrabah. We next meet a young man called Aladdin, who is on the run with a loaf of stolen bread and a pet monkey named Abu while a gang of thuggish guards pound hot on his heels. His escape through the marketplace involves acrobatics, cross-dressing and ruining the day of several innocent street performers. He uses a rug as a parachute, landing safely in an alley, but his heart is several times bigger than he can afford and the sight of a pair of hungry children inspires him to give up his hard-won breakfast. A few minutes later, he has to rescue them again when they run in front of a visiting prince’s horse. They have no survival instinct.

Neither, it would seem, does Aladdin, who mouths off to the rich mean guy on a horse and is kicked in the mud for his pains, dismissed as a ‘worthless street rat’. He trudges sadly home, brooding over the names that have been hurled at him through the day. From his rooftop, he looks at the palace, dreaming about what it must be like to live there. brilliant, actually, not if you are the princess Jasmine. Her latest suitor, Mr ‘I Can Run Down Small Children If I Want To’, storms out of the place with a large hole ripped out of his trousers, courtesy of Jasmine’s pet tiger Raja. They snicker together like conspirators while the sultan frets. There is a inconveniently specific law insisting she be married to a prince before her next birthday and she only has three days left. The sultan could presumably change this law any time he wanted, but he’s getting on and would like to see her settled. Jasmine has other ideas. She wants to leave the palace walls, meet people, make friends. Furiously she pulls open the dovecote, freeing its prisoners.

Giving up on the conversation, the sultan goes to play with his model city. Jafar looms up at his elbow, requesting the use of a ‘mystic blue diamond’. When the sultan hesitates, Jafar just hypnotises him with his serpent-headed cane. He and his parrot Iago can barely hide their hatred.

That night, Jasmine escapes the palace walls with loyal Raja’s assistance. This is a bad decision because it makes the tiger look sad. Stop upsetting your tiger, Jasmine!

Another day, another theft in Agrabah. Abu acts as a decoy while Aladdin steals breakfast and this time they actually get to eat. Jasmine is wandering around the marketplace, wide-eyed, but she’s clueless about how the economy works and when she sees a hungry child she just grabs a piece of fruit off the nearest stall without realising she has to pay for it. The stall’s owner doesn’t take that well. Aladdin leaps in like the overenthusiastic puppy he is and convinces the angry man that Jasmine is his mentally unstable sister. Jasmine plays along beautifully.

Meanwhile, Jafar is conjuring up a fake storm in a huge glass orb, the blue diamond being involved as some sort of power source, and discovers his ‘diamond in the rough’ is Aladdin. Who is trying to have a romantic moment with Jasmine, showing off his roof-leaping skills en route to his hideout in an abandoned building. They both talk about how trapped they feel without realising the other one is having a different conversation but just as they’re beginning to connect, Jafar sends in the guards. “Do you trust me?” Aladdin demands urgently just before he jumps off the rooftop. Jasmine follows. It is all no use, however, and they are caught.

“Unhand him, by order of the princess,” Jasmine snaps. She goes straight to Jafar, demanding her new friend be freed. Jafar says that Aladdin has already been executed. Jasmine runs into the garden to cry her heart out and Raja puts a comforting paw on her back and if that doesn’t give you overwhelming feels, I don’t understand you.

Aladdin is not dead. He’s chained in a dungeon, actually, moaning over his romantic mistakes. Abu comes to rescue him, though he’s pretty snippy about it, doing Jasmine impersonations while he picks locks. This a seriously talented monkey. They are not, however, alone: an elderly prisoner totters from the shadows, full of stories about a magical cave full of extraordinary treasures. “You’ve heard of the golden rule, haven’t you?” he wheezes. “Whoever has the gold makes the rules.” If Aladdin comes along as the brawn in this enterprise, he’ll be richly rewarded.

The ‘prisoner’ reveals a secret tunnel and before long they reach the Cave of Wonders. The giant sand tiger accepts Aladdin but warns him to touch nothing except the lamp. That’s no easy ask. Within lie vast chambers heaped with gold and jewels. Aladdin is curious but cautious; Abu finds it harder. And once again, they aren’t alone. A sentient flying carpet flutters along behind them, pranking Abu repeatedly until finally Aladdin notices it too. He is charmed and asks for directions to the lamp. The carpet eagerly obliges.

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Within a pool lies a rock stair, and at the top of the stair, in a dramatic ray of light, lies the lamp – but while Aladdin’s back is turned, Abu gives way to temptation and lays paws on a huge jewel. The cavern disintegrates around them, the ground swallowed by molten gold. It is only with the carpet’s help that they reach the cavern’s entrance. Aladdin gropes for the old man’s hand. Forced to hand over the lamp first, he is betrayed; Jafar (because of course it is Jafar) raises a dagger but Abu bites his wrist and instead they fall.

Abu did more than save Aladdin. He stole the lamp back. He has skills.

Aladdin comes to trapped in a dark cavern. With nothing better to do, he studies the lamp, rubbing at the grimy metal for a better look. It bursts with sudden light. Blue smoke wells out, resolving into an enormous genie. He’s gone a little stir-crazy from too long in the lamp. He puts on an extravagant song and dance show to display his awesome for Aladdin but it comes down to this: he can grant three wishes. Only three wishes, and he has a few caveats. He won’t kill people outright, make them fall in love or bring them back from the dead. Everything else is fair game.

He may be fantastically powerful, but he’s dealing with a team of con artists. Aladdin loudly doubts the genie’s abilities, suggesting that he could not even get them free of this cavern, and the genie, pride stung, whisks them all off to the nearest oasis.

Back at the palace, Jasmine has taken her story to the sultan, who chews out Jafar. Not because he’s particularly opposed to young thieves being executed without trial, but because it’s upset his little girl. Once Jafar has issued a deeply insincere apology, the sultan happily insists the two of them kiss and make up. He cannot read a situation accurately to save his life.

“When I am queen,” Jasmine tells Jafar on her way out, “I will have the power to get rid of you.” Iago mimics her rudely, but is unsettled by the truth of that statement. He suggests Jafar marry Jasmine instead, thereby taking a sideways route to the throne. They plot together with much maniacal laughter.

In the oasis, the genie is triumphant – until he realises he’s been had. He has a great sense of humour about it though, and acknowledges that Aladdin is entitled to the full three wishes. Aladdin can’t decide where to start and asks what the genie would choose. The answer is obvious: his freedom. He’s trapped in service to the lamp until someone wishes him free. Eagerly, Aladdin promises to do just that with his third wish and while the genie is very doubtful, he wants to believe it too.

They get down to business. Aladdin’s instinctive wish is to be with Jasmine, so he asks the genie to make him a prince. A la fairy godmother, the genie obliges with a fabulous outfit, and even turns Abu into an elephant. Abu doesn’t appreciate this.

Jafar wastes no time in his wicked plotting, running to the sultan with a law he’s just invented and written down to make it look official, insisting that if the princess does not marry within the allotted time she must wed the royal vizier. It’s no stupider than the original, I suppose. The sultan is not convinced so Jafar starts hypnotising him, but a blare of trumpets interrupts the moment and the sultan hurries to see what’s happening. A colourful procession is sweeping through the streets of Agrabah, swordsmen and dancers and a veritable menagerie, all preceded by a bright blue spin doctor who takes on different shapes to spread outrageously flattering stories of his master, ‘Prince Ali’. Jasmine, looking on from her balcony, thinks it’s overkill, but Aladdin is hot and wealthy and the city is happy to welcome him.

His entourage bursts into the palace. Jafar is of course very unhappy to see him and tries to point out the gaping flaws in his backstory, but the sultan just wants to play with the magic carpet. Aladdin is incautiously optimistic about his chances within the princess’s hearing. “I am not a prize to be won!” Jasmine shouts, storming back to her chambers. That night, Aladdin paces back and forth in the garden, trying to think of a way to charm her while the genie and magic carpet play chess and Abu sadly contemplates all the bananas he can’t eat. The genie advises Aladdin to be himself, but that’s exactly who Aladdin doesn’t want to be. The ‘street rat’ jibes are still a sore point.

He floats up to Jasmine’s balcony on the magic carpet. She considers that an invasion and so does her tiger, who stalks him to the edge. During Aladdin’s nervous blathering, however, Jasmine sees something familiar. She exchanges a suspicious look with Raja. Realising he’s stuffed everything up, Aladdin apologises for bothering her and jumps off the balcony. Jasmine is temporarily shaken, until he floats back into sight on his carpet and tentatively offers her a ride. “Do you trust me?” he asks, and she’s suddenly sure. She climbs aboard the carpet and they swoop off into the night sky, across the city, into the clouds – past the pyramids and on to China, where they land on a rooftop to watch romantic fireworks. Jasmine makes a casual reference to Abu and when Aladdin unthinkingly replies, demands an explanation. She wants the truth.

Aladdin lies again, saying he’s as restless with palace life as she is and pretended to be a commoner – making him a commoner to be a prince pretending to be a commoner. He flies her home and gets to kiss her goodnight. Things are looking good! So of course the next thing he knows, he’s getting kidnapped by Jafar’s thugs, tied up and thrown in the sea.

As he hits the seabed, the lamp tumbles out of his turban and falls against his hands, summoning the genie. He can’t help Aladdin unless it’s an official wish (what happened that first time, then?) but bends the rules a little and takes the unconscious lolling of Aladdin’s head for an order. They return to the palace, where Jafar has hypnotised the sultan into letting him marry Jasmine. She is outraged and incredulous. Aladdin breaks Jafar’s staff and in so doing, his spell, but Jafar gets a glimpse of the lamp and changes plans abruptly. He vanishes in a puff of smoke. The sultan flails with fury at the near-miss, only to be rapidly derailed at the sight of Jasmine and Aladdin falling into each other’s arms. He sets about planning the wedding straight away, promising to hand over power to the couple once they are married.

Aladdin panics. Everything he has is the direct result of a wish; he dares not free the genie as he promised. Betrayed, the genie retreats to the lamp. Aladdin wrestles with his conscience and decides he has to tell Jasmine the truth before it’s too late, but unluckily for him, it’s already too late. The sultan announces Jasmine’s engagement to the people. While Aladdin waves awkwardly from a balcony, Iago sneaks into his rooms and takes the lamp.

Jafar’s first wish is to become sultan. The genie is deeply unhappy about the switch in command but is incapable of resistance. Jafar’s next wish is to be the greatest sorcerer in the world, so that he can make his erstwhile employers kneel before him. He also reveals Aladdin’s true identity and exiles him to the ends of the earth.

No idea where that is, but there’s a hella lot of snow. Aladdin wraps the meager protection of his jacket around Abu, trudging stubbornly uphill. He’s not quite without allies – finding the magic carpet in the snow, he frees it and they rush back to Agrabah.

The new regime is making itself felt. Iago has strung up the sultan like a puppet and is stuffing him with crackers in vengeance for a lifetime of ‘pretty Polly’ jokes, while Jasmine has been shoved into a skimpy harem outfit accessorised with manacles. Jafar makes his third wish, ordering her to fall desperately in love with him. As the genie tries to explain he really doesn’t do that kind of thing, Jasmine catches sight of Aladdin and quickly pretends to be under the spell. It’s disgusting. Everyone thinks so except Jafar.

Aladdin comes within a finger’s length of stealing back the lamp. Unfortunately, Jafar spots his reflection and flashes around his sorcery in retaliation, trapping Jasmine in a giant hourglass. The ironic Sharazad aesthetic really doesn’t suit her. As for Aladdin, Jafar toys with him, transforming himself into a giant cobra and squeezing his rival slowly in his coils. That gives Aladdin time to think. He taunts Jafar, reminding him that whatever powers he may have all stem from the genie. No sorcerer can ever match that.

Jafar makes his final wish: to become a genie himself.

While he’s revelling in his newfound cosmic powers, Aladdin dashes to free Jasmine from her prison. It looks like he’s made a terrible blunder, but Jafar never bothered chatting with the genie and so never learned of one big drawback – there are limitations. Namely, shackles and a lamp. Iago gets sucked in there with him until someone’s stupid enough to set them free. The genie hurls Jafar’s lamp into the Cave of Wonders to make sure that’s a long time in coming. that everyone’s safe, Aladdin apologises to Jasmine for his deception. Being a big adorable softie, the genie is willing to give up his chance at freedom and make Aladdin a prince again, but instead Aladdin wishes him free. The bonds on his wrists break. The lamp falls, hollow. Beside himself with excitement, the genie tells Aladdin to wish for the Nile just so he can say NO. Amidst all the celebration, the sultan gets a grip and figures out he can change his own damn laws, allowing Jasmine to marry whoever she wants – that, unequivocally, being Aladdin. Everybody has feels. The genie pulls them all into a group hug then plunges off towards…Disneyland, if his Goofy cap is any indication. Aladdin and Jasmine, meanwhile, go forth on their magic carpet to find more fireworks. It’s a whole new world, after all.

Spot the Difference: There is an actual Ja’far in the Thousand and One Nights but I adore him and would whole-heartedly support any bid he made for power. Also, he doesn’t have a parrot minion. As for Aladdin, well, he may have a more felonious lifestyle in the Disney film but he’s far and away a better person. You really see how much the accusations of ‘street rat’ hurt him, and how desperately he tries to prove his worth to everyone he meets. Though that compulsion leads him into a spiral of lies, his heart is in the right place. Even when he betrays the genie, it takes him about five minutes to try and make amends. Jasmine is a somewhat stereotypical ‘feisty princess’ surrounded by laws that make no sense, but I like her poise and choice in pets. She gets a raw deal compared to the other Disney princesses, that’s for sure. She’s the love interest in this movie, not the lead, playing the prince’s role in many ways but without the same illusion of control. Even while imprisoned, Prince Philip never had to fake attraction to his captor; even while enchanted, Prince Eric got to keep all his clothes on.

Loss of free will is, of course, a big theme in Aladdin. The genie is literally the slave of the lamp and that’s acknowledged in the film in a way it couldn’t be with the original story, coming as the latter does from a time when slavery was a social norm. There’s no magic ring, the flying carpet seems to have taken that narrative space – there’s actually a delightful friendship between the carpet and the genie, who seem to have known each other for millennia, and both make the deliberate choice to side with Aladdin. Yes, the genie’s free will is limited, but his role in Aladdin’s life is much more akin to a spin doctor/ life coach than a servant. He’s an all-singing, all-dancing anachronistic force of nature with a solid moral code to prevent the worst excesses of his masters, and the story is not over until he’s free. In this version, Aladdin earns his happy ending. And the genie does too.

Even the tigers approve.