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The Horrible Ordeal of Prince Adam’s Servants

As Disney is releasing a live-action version of Beauty and the Beast this weekend, I felt it pertinent to revisit this post from a while back. I’m curious to see how (and if) the new movie addresses this.

Auston Habershaw

Now comes the time where I once again journey deep into the land of Disney and discuss how ultimately screwed up it all is. Today’s topic: the servants in Beauty and the Beast.

THEY HAVE NO FEET, PEOPLE! AHHHH! THEY HAVE NO FEET, PEOPLE! AHHHH!

Have we ever paused for a moment to contemplate how utterly horrific their transformations are? I mean, sure, going from stuck-up boy prince to giant beast monster is bad for the self-esteem, but what the hell happens to you when you are (1) not guilty of any crime against any enchantress and (2) sentenced to ten years as a sentient teapot.

Holy shit, people. Think about it. TEN YEARS.

Ten years between the last time Mrs. Potts could hug her own kids and that hug on the balcony.

Ten years of Lumiere constantly, consistently burning away. How does he get a new face in a new candle? Does he even remember what…

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The Time Machine: A Tale of 635,972 AD

Richmond
October, 1895

Following my repast and confessions to the gentlemen that weekly gather in my home, I retreated to my bed and sank into its luxurious linens and flannels without further instruction for my servants. I slept, as they say, as one dead.

I awoke early with a troubling thought on my conscience that has compelled me to make this entry in my journal. Possibly the last entry, as I shall be too busy in the coming days to write overmuch, so consumed do I expect to become with my work.

The thought is simply this: I did not tell the gentlemen the full tale of my journey to the future. Indeed, my adventures with the Morlocks and the Eloi were only the most trying of my experiences. There was one experience that came before it and, whilst it may not have been quite so dramatic, it was, in its way, much more thoroughly troubling. I left it out simply because it is so unbelievable – much less believable than the carnivorous beasts of 802,701. Nevertheless, as a scientist I consider it my duty to record my experiences for posterity, and so herein I shall do, though I rather suspect this shall be discounted as the ravings of a man disturbed. I am not so certain they are wrong, truth be told.

During my headlong progress into futurity, I at length became fatigued and parched with thirst. I resolved to stop, albeit briefly, to see if I might secure refreshment in some far-flung future date. I moved the levers of my time machine until I came to a complete stop. The dials read 635,972.

My machine rested upon a flat green, mowed and manicured to precise length by a device of unknown but doubtlessly mechanical provenance. It was an altogether pleasant location – birds twittered calmly in the branches of geometric trees, a road of smooth and multicolored flagstones ran by to my left, and the sun shined merrily upon the countryside. I stepped out to go exploring.

No sooner had I journeyed ten paces than I was challenged by a denizen of this distant era. I might say he was a man, but he was the most wretchedly deformed man I have yet laid eyes on. His skin was black as pitch, his ears distended into massive discs planted upon his head, and his face elongated and unusually tan, the pigment of his skin for some reason having drained from his visage. He wore red breeches with white buttons and overlarge yellow shoes. He was horrifying to gaze upon – not human by any stretch of the imagination save one: his speech.

“Hey!” he called, quite merrily, “wanna come inside my Clubhouse?”

I was taken aback, but good manners enabled me to accept his hospitality. I feel I did little more than grunt affirmation, but the creature took it in side. “Well all right! We’ve got to say the magic words! Say it with me now: Meeska-mooska-Mickey Mouse!”

Perplexed, I consented to recite the odd phrase. As I did so, a structure materialized from the ground itself – a large, red domed house with a kind of tower at the center that was fashioned to basically mimic the physiology of my host, who identified himself as “Mickey Mouse.”

From the structure and various outbuildings emerged other bizarre anthorpomorphic forms – man with the face of a duck, a woman-mouse, a woman-duck, and various dog and cow people as well. They each introduced themselves to me by name, chanting in unison. It was all choreographed, as a stage play might be. For reasons I could not ascertain then and cannot now, it disturbed me greatly, though none of the creatures spoke to me in anything other than friendship.

I hesitate to speculate upon what dark path led mankind to this juncture.

I hesitate to speculate upon what dark path led mankind to this juncture.

I was invited inside. The furnishings appeared sparse, but at a word any manner of thing would emerge from a door in the floor – a promise, I felt, of what mankind’s future industry might bring us. I was offered water, which I drank with thanks, but very soon some manner of problem developed. The glasses, it seemed, were each of a different shape and color, but the proper trays upon which the glasses were meant to be stored had gone missing. This caused great tribulation among my strange hosts, and they insisted on questing out from their abode to find them. It seemed strange to me that apparent adults would suffer such distress over so minor an inconvenience, but I have since come to believe that this was a side-effect of their life of effortless comfort: as technology coddled them, smaller and smaller impositions upon their comfort were seen as greater and greater tragedies.

I assented to join the search, again acutely aware of how hospitable they had been and how little desire I had to offend creatures that could summon structures from the very earth by voice alone. Before departure, their leader (Mickey) chanted before a great machine. This had the effect of causing the machine to eject a small disk from which, later on, my hosts were able to summon up all manner of odd objects – a series of pillows, a length of ribbon, a bowl of dog food, and so on. These were employed to solve “problems” later on, though none of these problems were any more complex than the kind that could easily be solved by an eight-year-old of our present day. Surely this was evidence of the waning intelligence of man! I was disheartened.

Conversation with these degenerate creatures was virtually impossible. The art of free exchange of ideas was extinct, evidently replaced with the banal presence of plenty afforded them by their wondrous machines. Their stares were of the blankest sort when I asked how “Toodles” functioned or asked what had ever become of England or, indeed, of Europe as a whole. Were they alone in the world? Were there cities? Were there other “clubhouses” to see? No answers were forthcoming. The only thing they would say is “We’d better ask Professor Von Drake!” This professor (a duck-creature with a notably German accent – you can imagine my skepticism) insisted that the machine could answer my questions. I looked at it, massive, all-powerful, and felt deep terror in my bones. When they said it was time to “stand up and do the hot-dog dance” my revulsion could no longer be concealed.

I departed with haste and resolved never to return unless, by guile or force, I might destroy this machine that had so un-manned my distant descendants. So it is now that I pack several sticks of dynamite, a revolver, and a sledgehammer into my time machine. If the Toodles might be destroyed then, perhaps the Morlocks might never have diverged from the Eloi. Perhaps the future of mankind need not be so bleak.

Time grows short. I must make ready.

What Children’s Books Can Teach You About Synopsis

I’m in the process of trying to write a synopsis for book 3 in The Saga of the Redeemed in order to try and secure an agent to represent me for that upcoming project. For those of you who have never written a synopsis and, blessedly, may never be asked to, a book synopsis is basically a 1-3 page document that details the entirety of your novel’s plot to an agent or editor. The whole thing, more or less, from beginning to end, soup to nuts.

They suck.

No, that’s not enough. Let me rephrase:

THEY SUCK!

There, that about covers it. The “why” of their suckitude is largely due to the fact that you’ve got to condense 80,000-100,000 words into 750 or less without failing to convey the awesomeness of your work somehow. It is summary, but it needs to be a bit more complete than that – while you can’t bog down on the details, you also can’t leave out all the details or the book will seem boring or even confusing, and that isn’t good. So, you’ve got to figure out which details to convey. To do that, you need to know what makes your story great on a fundamental level. As the artist, who is so close to his or her work that everything seems both great and awful at intervals, this is a very challenging task. Synopses are why I laugh at my students who complain about summarizing a twenty page nonfiction article into a one page summary. (I know, I shouldn’t laugh, but in case you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m kind of a bad person)

There are a lot of resources out there on how to go about writing a synopsis (this is one of the better ones, I think), but I think it is probably easier to see it done than have it described to you. Also, in order to see it done, you need to be familiar with the thing being synopsized or you won’t fully understand the choices the author made when doing it. To this end, I recommend reading children’s books.

Read the whole plot of the Lion King broken down into ten pages with two sentences apiece.

Read the whole plot of The Lion King broken down into ten pages with two or three sentences apiece.

Not just any children’s books, mind you – children’s book versions of full-length movies, like Toy Story or Brave or The Empire Strikes Back. Now, if you’re like me and have kids and have watched Tangled a hundred thousand times by now, you know that movie inside and out – you can sing the songs, you know every expression on every face, you can recite the lines, and so on. Then you break open the kids version of the story and you read the story of Tangled, but with hardly any words at all. And the crazy thing is, for the really good kids books, the authors do this spectacularly well. They are simple enough so that a two-year-old can understand it, well written enough to adequately convey the story, and fast enough that the kid will sit through the whole thing. It can be really pretty amazing.

Now, obviously they leave things out, but what they leave out is very telling. For instance, in the broken-down version of Tangled my daughter has, Pascal (the pet chameleon) goes completely unmentioned. I think there’s (maybe) one picture of him sitting on her shoulder, but the writer never bothers to explain what he is, who he is, or why he’s there. Why? Because, while the character plays a useful supporting role to the character of Rapunzel (as sounding board for the lonely girl, as conscience, as a kind of Greek chorus, as comic relief), he has zero to do with the things that make the plot work. You fundamentally don’t miss him, even though if he were missing in the film, you’d be forced to watch about twenty minutes of Rapunzel talking to herself, which would be weird.

Children’s adaptations of full-length movies can also very quickly expose weaknesses in those same movies. My other daughter has the golden-book version of Attack of the Clones and, I’ll be honest, it doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense. Why? Because the plot involves everybody running around doing things for reasons that are largely unclear and, in order for it to make any sense at all, they have to leave out the parts of the movie that people seem to like, which is most of the lightsaber fighting, monster wrestling, and giant battles. Could it be synopsized better? Yeah, probably, but boy is it going to be hard to do.

Take this page from a Cinderella adaptation:

maxresdefault1Those two pages cover about fifteen minutes of film. The only reason there’s as many words as there are on the page is because of the need for dialogue. Cut that out, and the page becomes “the king was upset because the Prince wasn’t dancing with anyone. Then Cinderella arrived and she was so beautiful the Prince danced with her.” There you go – the ball scene, in and out. Throw in one more sentence for color.

You’ll find that children’s books do all of the things that Jane Friedman suggests in the article I linked to above:

  1. Don’t get bogged down in minor character names/details.
  2. Don’t break down/explain theme.
  3. Avoid/Economize character backstory.
  4. Cut Dialogue (This is the one these stories often violate, as they aren’t expressly intended as synopses)
  5. Don’t Ask Rhetorical Questions. (The kids provide those on their own, believe me)
  6. No Subheadings/subsections.
  7. Simple, direct prose.

The good children’s adaptations will do this very, very well. You will feel as if you watched the movie, even though you totally didn’t and it took exactly eight minutes to read. Reading them has honestly inspired me to see how tight and yet, also, compelling a synopsis can be. So, here I go – off to write my own.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

The Horrible Ordeal of Prince Adam’s Servants

Now comes the time where I once again journey deep into the land of Disney and discuss how ultimately screwed up it all is. Today’s topic: the servants in Beauty and the Beast.

THEY HAVE NO FEET, PEOPLE! AHHHH!

THEY HAVE NO FEET, PEOPLE! AHHHH!

Have we ever paused for a moment to contemplate how utterly horrific their transformations are? I mean, sure, going from stuck-up boy prince to giant beast monster is bad for the self-esteem, but what the hell happens to you when you are (1) not guilty of any crime against any enchantress and (2) sentenced to ten years as a sentient teapot.

Holy shit, people. Think about it. TEN YEARS.

Ten years between the last time Mrs. Potts could hug her own kids and that hug on the balcony.

Ten years of Lumiere constantly, consistently burning away. How does he get a new face in a new candle? Does he even remember what his face looks like?

Ten years of Cogsworth having to constantly get someone to wind himself lest he run down and die.

I could go on. I wish this were even the worst of it. Because it’s not.

How Many of Them Are There?

Consider this: how many servants do you think were employed in the castle at the time of Prince Adam’s transformation? There are hundreds and hundreds of individual beings dancing around in that “Be Our Guest” number – could they plausibly be meant to each represent a transformed human individual? If not, then what are they? Who were they?

Some equally horrifying options:

  1. Getting dark? Keep reading...

    Getting dark? Keep reading…

    Collective Consciousness: A few of the servants (notably the kitchen staff) were turned into entire sets of tableware or what-have-you. One second you’re the servant who sets out the knives and the next second you are all the knives. Or beer steins. Or whatever. How maddening would that be? What would happen if one plate – one part of yourself – were broken by the beast in the midst of one of his rages. When you changed back, what would be left? Would you be missing an arm? Would you be, instead, insane or somehow broken? Could you go back, or would the poor victim of such a mind-bending assault spend the rest of his or her days pursuing ever more ghoulish body-alterations to get back to the sublime state of being nothing but blades?

  2. Granted Sentience: So, maybe all those dishes and plates and stuff were just plain plates before the transformation. Maybe the enchantress granted them life. So, then, does that mean the reversal of the curse takes life away? Wouldn’t that mean Belle and Beast’s love-affair would have resulted in the “deaths” of hundreds of intelligent beings? Is that something to even celebrate?
  3. Not Just Servants: Maybe the enchantress didn’t just transform the servants. Maybe she transformed the entire kingdom. Maybe everybody from the countryside was also made into stuff for Prince Adam to use like things. Perhaps this was the enchantress’s little joke. But once you start snickering, you have to admit that now even people who hadn’t even met the prince were punished with a decade of object-hood for no reason at all except for the giggles.

And another thing: do they age? They must not, because that would mean Chip – who is obviously less than ten years old – would never have existed as a boy. OH MY GOD: did Mrs. Potts give teapot-birth to a teacup who was never a boy and now is a boy? How screwed up is that? Even if not – say they don’t age – what does that mean for Chip? Here he is, supposedly 17 years old, but he spent a decade as a teacup and is now a…what? Can he mature now? Will he? How much did that mess up his growth and development cycle?

All this just to teach some rich brat some manners? Wow, lady. Get some perspective. That is some really dark rage you’ve got bottled up. Some of these people are going to wind up in therapy for a long, long time because of you, and that’s the lucky ones.

Who knows how many footstools or slop buckets threw themselves from the castle walls over the years. Oh, wait, you know who knows?

This guy. This guy right here.

This guy. This guy right here.

 

The Grand Princess Unification Theorem, Corollary One

I am the father of two small girls. I, therefore, watch a lot of Disney movies. I am also a science fiction and fantasy author as well as a literature professor, so when I watch Disney movies, I begin to analyze them in weird ways. A few years back I posited the Grand Princess Unification Theorem which linked Snow White, Sleeping BeautyBeauty and the Beast, and Cinderella into one shared narrative involving a couple fairies meddling in the lives of mortals to breed the ‘perfect’ princess for some purpose of their own as yet undetermined. There were, however, a couple princesses left out of the equation.

For the nonce, Mulan, The Princess and the Frog, and Brave clearly exist as a part of their own particular historical heritage and I see no real way to join them together with each other or any other of the stories thus far discussed. I have, however, devised a theory linking Frozen, Tangled, and The Little Mermaid. Ready? Here we go.

A Secondary World

See? I'm not crazy!

See? I’m not crazy!

The three films in question do not link up to the ones set in our world, since there is no mention at all of anything pertaining to it and the kingdoms depicted bear little to no resemblance to actual historical kingdoms of any kind. What this means to me is that these three films are set in a secondary world and, what’s more, they are all set in the same world. Now, with Frozen and Tangled this is no surprise, as Flynn (Eugene) and Rapunzel are guests at Elsa’s Coronation. This clearly places Arendelle and Corona (Elsa and Rapunzel’s respective home countries) in the same universe. What’s more, the two countries maintain diplomatic relations or, perhaps, are even distantly related by blood (Rapunzel could easily be a cousin of some sort).

How does The Little Mermaid fit in? Well, first let’s consider geography. All three countries, as depicted, are maritime powers, with shipping and boating being apparently key aspects of their economy. Corona seems to be situated on the mainland, as does Arrendelle (though Arrendelle is clearly further north). Eric’s kingdom appears to be island based. It fits. Heck, he is even very likely related to Prince Hans, who is said to be from “the Southern Isles.” He’s probably one of Eric and Ariel’s children (more on that later).

Furthermore, the level of technology and even the fashions of the three countries are interrelated. We see a lot of doublets, for one thing, and the women’s gowns, while different, are different variations on an approximately contemporaneous style. They could easily, easily be from different corners of the same continental region in the same world. Even their soldiers seem to be operating using the same kinds of weapons, armor, and so on.

"Ship parked at the castle" screams maritime power, don't you think?

“Ship parked at the castle” screams maritime power, don’t you think?

Here’s Where It Gets Interesting…

Now, assuming these three settings are three parts of the same world, what happens when Elsa’s power is revealed? As I’ve mentioned before, Elsa’s power is simply unparalleled. It has the power to destabilize the whole world and, if this is a world with Corona and Eric’s kingdom, things are going to get unstable there, too. For starters, there is the inevitable war between Arendelle and Weaseltown which the courageous Duke of Weaseltown tried to prevent by assassinating Elsa (unsuccessfully).

Prince Eric is not “prince” by this time – he and Ariel have been married for a long time, and Ariel has borne fourteen children. This was done, wisely, as a guarantee for the small nation’s trading prowess. As his children’s grandfather, Triton, King of the Ocean, would never sink a vessel with one of his grandchildren aboard. Hence, Eric convinced Ariel to bear a number of children and raised them all as saliors – they traveled the world in Eric’s naval and maritime vessels, and they never encountered any kind of oceanic mishap. Triton loves his grandchildren, after all.

But you know who Triton doesn’t care for, apparently? Anna and Elsa’s parents, the King and Queen of Arendelle. Indeed, Triton doesn’t give a crap about any other humans at all. Ariel’s inhuman origins, though probably not well known as facts, are no doubt whispered as rumors. When one of Granddaddy Triton’s little darling boys is cast out and humiliated by some Arendalish sorceress, Triton is displeased. If Triton is displeased, you can bet Eric is also displeased (because if your father-in-law is King of the Ocean and you live on an island, you do whatever the hell he wants).

The Duke of Weaseltown is no dummy, and he would doubtlessly propose an alliance against Arendelle to King Eric. With his father-in-law in a froth, Eric sees it might be wise to back the Weasels (pronounced “wessels,” please!), even if his youngest son is a douchebag. He demands an apology from Queen Elsa. Elsa, having vivid memories of almost being hacked to death by Prince Hans, probably tells him exactly where to stick it. War develops.

What About Corona?

Trouble is coming, friends. Big trouble.

Trouble is coming, friends. Big trouble.

The war, however, quickly becomes a stalemate. Elsa can send no ships against Weaseltown or the Southern Isles, since Triton will sink them. Likewise, the Southern Isles and Weaseltown can’t come near Arendelle without being frozen solid. The contest becomes one of trade embargos and espionage–you either stand with the Southern Isles or bend your knee to the Snow Queen.

Corona is the tiebreaker. As evidently the wealthiest and most militaristic nation of the three, if they side with Arendelle or the Southern Isles, the other side stands a strong chance of losing. Furthermore, Queen Rapunzel’s legendary healing abilities (still retained, mind you, despite her loss of hair – that’s why we still have Flynn/Eugene to kick around, after all) are a potent ally in their own right.

But which side does Queen Rapunzel pick? On the one hand, she has some kind of pre-existing relationship with Queen Elsa. On the other, pissing off the King of the Ocean seems like a really, really bad idea. So, she remains neutral, but for how long? When Anna shows up in her court in the dead of night with a desperate plea for help, how can she refuse? When she accepts a state visit from Queen Ariel, riding atop a swell of the ocean big enough to swallow her city whole, how can she not be worried?

Well, anyway, it’s a pickle. A damned interesting pickle.

If Disney wants somebody to write a political intrigue-based novel set in this little world of theirs, they’ve got my number. I want to know what happens.


Publicity News

Hey, check this image out:

It's real! It's actually REAL!

It’s real! It’s actually REAL!

You can get yours on September 29th! Or Pre-order your copies now!

Looking for Inspiration?

Been down on myself about my writing lately. Can’t explain it except to say the novel I’m starting won’t start. Can’t call it writer’s block, exactly (I am writing things, just slowly and badly), but it does have me navel gazing and getting frustrated with my pace and lamenting the hours I lose to the vagaries of life and the hours I waste with pointless things (note: this category usually contains just about everything besides “writing” and “my wife and kids”).

So, I’m going to post here a couple songs that have always been good kicks in the pants for me. Some are new, some are old, some are from Disney movies. I hope you like them! If you don’t, well, then feel free to list your favorites in the comments. Maybe I missed one.

That one there has been my mantra for the past five years. It still is. I am not “there” yet.

Yet.

Hell yes, AC/DC. Hell yes it is.

Used to play this song a lot back when I bailed on my Secondary Education minor at college in favor of becoming a writer. Still a good song.

This one is a bit cheesy and somewhat overwrought, but it still gets me.

Okay, enough time-wasting from me. I’m off to climb Word Mountain. Hopefully today I’ll make it out of base camp.

 

 

 

Doing Star Wars Right

It should come as no surprise to any of you that I love Star Wars. It has shaped me as much as any other work of art or literature I can name and viewing its films (specifically episodes 4-6) count among my oldest and fondest memories. Which is why I want you to listen very carefully to what I’m about to say to you:

90% of modern Star Wars franchises are no good.

This was a seriously great season finale. So much fun.

This was a seriously great season finale. So much fun.

Yes, yes, yes–there are notable exceptions, and I can’t claim to have read all or even most of them. That said, since Return of the Jedi, though, I have only seen/read a tiny handful that do true and honest justice to the original. Of those, the best I’ve seen is a current Saturday morning cartoon on the Disney Channel called Star Wars Rebels.

What does it do right, exactly? Well, to do that, perhaps it is easiest to explain what I think everything else has done wrong.

Misconception #1: The Star Wars Universe is Inherently Fascinating

Incorrect. Sorry guys, but it just isn’t. One of the errors made by most of the Expanded Universe and by all the prequels is the presumption that we actually care that much about the continuity and complexity of the Star Wars Galaxy. Folks, there really isn’t much there to be fascinated with.

No, I mean it! What’s the one thing that everybody complains about in Episode1? It’s that the primary conflict is over a trade dispute. “Trade Dispute?” we scoff, “how boring is that?” Well, you know why it’s boring? Because we don’t give a crap about the Star Wars Universe. We. Don’t. Care. If we did – if we actually found the Star Wars Universe interesting all by itself – we would be riveted by a tale about a trade dispute. We would be aghast at the predations of the Trade Federation and proud of the noble people of Naboo. However, since we don’t know these people from Adam, we don’t give a shit.

The world of Star Wars has always been one of larger-than-life stories and over-the-top settings that really require no practical explanation. It’s a city in the clouds – that’s all that really matters! The world is just a colorful, exciting backdrop to what happens with the characters, which is really where it’s at. The good Star Wars out there knows this.

In this regard, Star Wars Rebels does a great job – it gives us fun and engaging characters with just enough backstory to make us love them and keep us watching. The world exists only as backdrop, not as main show. You don’t need to know much of anything about Star Wars to enjoy it, and those things it does reference are only relevant to the characters themselves.

This. Always more of this, please.

This. Always more of this, please.

Misconception #2: The Rebellion Against the Empire is So Done.

No, no it is not. Star Wars was made great by telling the story about a team of underdogs who took down a big evil Empire. Every other story that has tried to tell something else has been missing something essential. This is related to misconception #1: we thought the Star Wars universe has other, better stories in it, but it doesn’t, or not really, anyway. It always, always comes down to stormtroopers bearing down on our heroes as they try to find some desperate avenue of escape. The Jedi of the Old Republic? Boring. The Clone Wars? Boring. The New Republic and its flavor-of-the-month villains? Boring!

Every one of those stories is trying to recapture that lightning in the bottle when it was Han and Chewy and Leia and the droids against the whole Imperial Fleet, and it never quite works. Star Wars Rebels simply shows us the rebellion again, except from an earlier point in its history and with a different group of freedom fighters. It works, because it is doing what we originally loved all over again.

Misconception #3: Lightsaber Battles are Inherently Interesting

I sometimes wonder if people who say this actually watched Episode 2 at all. There were about a billion lightsaber duels in that movie and they were all spectacularly dull. The reason? You need context for battles to be interesting. Just fighting some random guy for the heck of it is not interesting. Darth Maul? Who is that guy, anyway, and why do we care that they’re fighting with him? We don’t.

Go back and watch the lightsaber duel between Vader and Luke in Empire. It wholly lacks the kung fu acrobatics of the modern lightsaber fight, but it is twenty times more riveting than any other. Why? Because we desperately care about Luke and we are actively terrified of what Vader has planned. Without that context, we just don’t care.

Again, Star Wars Rebels does this well. We come to care about the characters before they go into deadly duels with the villains (whom we also know and despise).

All this, coupled with solid characters and fun action sequences and broad, larger-than-life storytelling makes Star Wars Rebels my favorite Star Wars franchise in ages, despite the occasionally clunky dialogue and mid-level CGI animation. It’s fun, and that’s what Star Wars is supposed to be: fun and fast and painted in broad strokes.

You know, just like a Saturday morning cartoon.

In Defense of Weaseltown

As I’ve mentioned many times before, I spend much of my time watching Frozen. As of a few months ago, my five-year-old’s interest was finally waning, but now the 2-year-old has gotten into it and, well, let’s just say I might never stop watching Frozen. I wonder, honestly, if this is how my parents felt about Star Wars.

Yeah, you heard me: HERO

Yeah, you heard me: HERO

Anyway, since I watch the damned movie all the time, I’ve spent a lot of time analyzing (over-analyzing, really) the world of Arrendale as portrayed in the film and, at the end, I have come to the following conclusion: The Duke of Weaseltown is not a villain. No, scratch that – the man is actually a courageous patriot and defender of his people and they should make goddamned statues to him, whereas the rest of those diplomats and heads of state are mealy-mouthed cowards who are selling their people’s well-being up the river in exchange for their own safety and comfort.

Now I know what you’re saying: That guy?! He’s an absurd, cowardly, underhanded weasel!

First of all, calling them “weasels” is racist, you Arrendalish bigot, you. Call them Wessels, please. Second of all, the Duke is the only guy in the whole damned movie who seems to understand what is actually going on in Arrendale with the advent of Elsa’s powers and he is the only person who acts to prevent what will, eventually, result in the complete reordering of their world for the worse as a result of Elsa’s sorcery.

I’ve written about this before, but just to reiterate: Have you considered just how terrifyingly powerful Elsa is? If you haven’t, think about it. This is a girl who is able to freeze a salt-water harbor by accident by merely touching it. That is an incredible amount of energy. The number of joules of energy needed to freeze a swimming pool volume of water is about 10.5 Gigajoules. How many swimming pools of water would it take to freeze an entire harbor to the thickness of ice we see in the movie? We are talking atomic bomb levels of power here – all without Elsa even exerting herself overmuch. Terrifying, terrifying, world-unbalancing stuff. For a country that clearly relies on trade as its primary means of prosperity, a super-power Arrendale could spell disaster for Weaseltown and Wessels. Something has to be done, and the Duke is the man to do it.

It is my considered opinion that the Duke’s entire purpose for attending the coronation is to assess the possible threat Elsa poses to his home and to the region in general. The whole “I’m a greedy goofball” act is just that – an act, designed to throw off suspicion from his true purpose and, given Weaseltown’s reputation, one that everybody buys without question. He uses it to get close to the queen, and the queen is his primary objective.

It is clear from the film that this kind of sorcery is not unknown – when the trolls ask Elsa’s father whether she was “born or cursed” with her powers, he immediately answers “born.” He doesn’t need to think about it because he knows. This power is passed down in the blood, clearly. It is rare, of course, but not so rare that the king and queen aren’t aware of it and know where it came from – not a curse, a bloodline.

The Duke comes prepared.

The Duke comes prepared.

So, when Weaseltown hears that the King and Queen of Arrendale have shut the gates and kept their eldest daughter in seclusion, the Duke gets suspicious. When the opportunity arises for him to be in the young queen’s presence, he leaps at the chance. It is telling that the Duke is the only guy to bring muscle to the festivities. These goons aren’t armed with swords or overt armaments (as a pair of soldiers might be), but are packing crossbows – assassins’ weapons – for the possibility that they will need to shoot Elsa dead.

Sure, it all sounds very dire and not-very-heroic, but consider what is at stake here. The world of Arrendale shows us a quiet, prosperous, and evidently quite peaceful region (none of the diplomats save the Duke come with bodyguards, remember). This would seem to mean that things are pretty well balanced – each nation has its place in the Big Dance, nobody is capable or inclined to conquer their neighbors, everybody is similarly wealthy and well-off. It is, from what we see, a little slice of utopia just south of the Arctic Circle.

Think of what Elsa being on the world stage does to that little picture. Arrendale becomes inviolate – nobody can invade, nobody can deny, nobody can do anything to Arrendale if Elsa doesn’t wish it. Elsa can, upon a whim, destroy any one of the surrounding kingdoms. No navy and no army could be marshaled against her and live. Basically, an Arrendale with Elsa places the rest of those peaceful, prosperous nations at Elsa’s feet with no prospect of rising again. That is bad for regional stability, bad for the liberty and self-determination of the surrounding nations, bad for trade, bad for everybody. Hell, it’s even bad for Arrendale – Elsa, who is not shown as taking criticism well, can and very well might just kill anyone or any group of someones who defies her.

So, the Duke does his damnedest to nip this in the bud – he stirs up mistrust for the sorceress, dispatches his assassins to kill her, is the first to criticize Prince Hans when he is pro-Elsa, and is the first to back up Prince Hans when he becomes anti-Elsa. He does all of this in the name of peace and regional stability. It may seem cruel, but it is realpolitik at its most basic. Sure, Elsa might seem (or even be) a nice person, but does her life outweigh the thousands of other lives she could ruin on a whim if she is allowed to become a head of state? You’re all pro-Elsa now, but how might your attitude change when her army of snow-monsters marches into downtown Weaseltown and starts slaughtering innocents? Or what about what happens when the Southern Isles pardon Prince Hans for his (stupid) plan and then *poof* – here comes the Snow Queen to lock them in winter until they decide to hang their little brother from the city gates by his thumbs.

Pictured: sycophants and dimwits.

Pictured: sycophants and dimwits.

The thing that really clinches the Duke’s status for me is at the end. Prince Hans on the frozen fjord, standing over a prone Queen Elsa, sword in hand. On the battlements of Arrendale Castle are all the foreign dignitaries, the Duke excepted, watching the drama unfold. They are too far away to hear what is said, so all they know is that Prince Hans is there to kill Queen Elsa like he is supposed to, as she was responsible for her sister’s death. Now, granted, it seems as though Anna is actually alive, but she is clearly freezing to death and, in actual fact, does become an ice-person. Hans seems to have lied from their perspective, but doesn’t seem to have lied that much. So, what happens when Hans is kept from doing the duty that all those guys agreed to? They cheer. Why? Because they have just switched sides to the side of the winner – the side of Elsa, their new Empress, whether they realize it or not.

Only the Duke has the integrity to stay just as anti-Elsa as he always was. He never applauds the new Queen. He never says he’s sorry for trying to have her killed. He says he was a victim of fear, sure, but that’s true. What he doesn’t add is that his fear is entirely justified and wise. What pleading he does at the end is to attempt to salvage a trade deal with Arrendale, which he does not secure. This, of course, is devastating news for the Duke, and not because he loves money, but rather because he loves peace. If the new superpower in the region won’t deal with Weaseltown, war is coming to Arrendale. A war they can’t win, know they can’t win, but will have to fight anyway. Thousands will die. Weaseltown will become a starving shadow of its former self.

If only the Duke had acted more quickly or, perhaps, even more ruthlessly, all of that could have been avoided. Alas.

God Help Disney’s Outcast

Clearly it is topsy-turvy day.

Clearly it is topsy-turvy day.

No, this post isn’t about The Black Cauldron. That wasn’t a good movie, it just had a magic sword and skeletons and we saw it when we were seven or eight years old. No, rather this post is going to be about what I consider to be one of Disney’s most underrated animated features, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I figure if I’m going to rant about overrated movies (see previous post), I may as well mix in some positivity, too, and keep the tone even.

Anyway, nobody saw Hunchback, and it’s something of a shame. While I’m not here to claim that it is the best Disney feature ever (and it certainly isn’t quite that), I am going to defend it as being a very good or, at least, a notable and ambitious one. Because it is all those things, you see – notable, ambitious, and very good.

The Problems

People who hate this movie love to harp on the fact that it ‘tromps all over Victory Hugo’. This accusation, if stripped of all vitriol, is strictly accurate – the film changes the story significantly to fit its purpose. Most notably, the ending is not a tragic one. However, Disney isn’t really telling the same story Hugo is, anyway, and tragedy is never their aim here. Hunchback is a story about accepting and embracing difference and diversity, and that it does. Indeed, I’d say it does a better job with its central theme than The Lion King does with its own (adolescence and maturity) and, indeed, I would go further to say that the Lion King would be the movie better suited to a tragic end. That, though, is an argument for a different post.

Even beyond the lament that this two hour movie does not manage to encapsulate a 500 page French romantic novel, the other problem is that the movie seems to shift in tone rapidly. On the one hand, you have themes of genocide, lust, inhuman cruelty, and isolation and then, on the other, you’ve got wisecracking gargoyles and pithy dialogue from Kevin Klein. The shift is jarring and sometimes too much. I would argue, though, that this particular critique is not in any way unique to this particular Disney film, but rather present in all of them. The only difference is that the themes most other Disney films attempt to tackle are significantly less intense and, therefore, the juxtaposition is less obviously obnoxious. For example, Mushu (of Mulan) is every bit as idiotic as the gargoyles, as is Timon and Poomba (The Lion King), as is Jacques and Gus (Cinderella), as is the little hummingbird and racoon in Pocahontas. They are silly comic relief and, while they are often better managed than in Hunchback, I’d argue not substantially so. It’s just that we have trouble accepting that people might tell lame jokes while some lunatic judge is burning people alive inside their homes.

I would argue that Disney’s primary problem with this film is that they didn’t go far enough, honestly. They wussed out on telling a really, really powerful story for fear of terrifying children. This is a sensible fear, I suppose, but I think that Disney underestimates children (and always has). I think they could have cut the silly gargoyles and made an even better movie. All that said, the movie they did make is a fairly impressive work, especially considering the strictures under which Disney movies are forced to operate.

Ambitious Theme

The movie is *also* pretty to look at.

The movie is *also* pretty to look at.

As adults, we are aware that the world is full of horrible things happening to innocent people for horrible reasons (I gesture vaguely in the direction of the Middle East). We live in a world full of hatred, fear, bigotry, and violence. Few Disney movies have ever bothered addressing this or, if they do, they have cleaned it up and dumbed it down to the point where the message is empty and meaningless, made to play poor second fiddle to some uninspired love story. Hunchback doesn’t do this. Its violence is unapologetic; its villains are not just evil, but realistically evil. This film explores racism better than Pocahontas, explores the evils of patriarchy better than Mulan, and has a main character who copes with his own self-loathing far more convincingly than Simba in The Lion King.

I’m not going to give a synopsis here, but I will mention a few points of note:

  1. Our villain, barely five-minutes in, is about to commit infanticide because a baby is both ugly and a member of an oppressed minority. He is only stopped by the threat of God’s judgment, and resolves instead to support the boy by keeping him in exile and telling him he’s a horrible monster for his whole life. If you think crap like this doesn’t actually happen, turn on the news.
  2. The movie unflinchingly examines the importance of looks (both beauty and ugliness) in how society treats you. Esmerelda is molested and (basically) sexually assaulted. Quasimodo is subjected to incredible cruelty by the general population in one of the hardest to watch scenes in a Disney animated feature.
  3. The villain plans genocide. The climax of the movie deals with him trying to burn gypsies alive, one after another, in front of an audience (wow). It shows children the wrongness of treating different people as less than you, and does so both powerfully and accessibly.
  4. There is a distinct appeal to the divine in this move (obviously – it’s a cathedral!), but it is worth noting that this is the only Disney movie I can think of that overtly discusses religion in both its positive and negative senses. The cathedral is both a place of punishment and isolation as well as protection and salvation. That is a pretty nuanced and (I feel) pretty accurate way of thinking about organized religion.

Artistry

See? Pretty.

See? Pretty.

Beyond that, the film is beautiful. The animation is spectacular and contributes to the themes. In the opening number, the cathedral of Notre Dame is presented as a character, and the imagery that surrounds it supports its role as central moral axis of the film. Now, in the absence of any other substance, this might fall flat. However, the cathedral and medieval Paris serves as an excellent backdrop to the difficult themes already discussed and the filmmakers know this, and they use it. When Frollo trembles before “the eyes, the very eyes of Notre Dame”, the effect is heart-stopping. We simultaneously are given a glorious musical and visual image, but also gain greater insight into Frollo’s character – a man living in terror of his own dark soul. At the end, when boiling lead (or oil, but I assume lead, since that would make more sense) is pouring from the rainspouts of the cathedral, the religious imagery and themes of the film could not be more clear or more harrowing.

The music, likewise, is sophisticated and interesting (well, mostly – a couple songs are just there to be happy, and I refer you to the tone problems the movie has as described above). “God Bless the Outcasts” and “The Bells of Notre Dame” are particularly good.

Nuanced Characters (well, a few)

Phoebus and Esmerelda are pretty stock characters, I will agree. Esmerelda is the more interesting of the two and has better lines, but she’s still just the ‘feisty gypsy woman’ for all that, and Demi Moore’s dialogue delivery is a bit wooden. That, though, is more than made up for by the protagonist and antagonist of the film, Quasi and Frollo. Quasi is very well drawn and his gradual climb to self-confidence is inspiring to watch, primarily because he doesn’t realize he’s doing it until the end which, to my mind, is how most of us change anyway – without self awareness or that crystal clear moment of epiphany. Then there’s Frollo. He’s a simply fantastic villain, and no mistake. Evil, twisted, and actually understandable. History is full of his analogues – a man so convinced of his self-righteousness that he becomes a monster and, even as he realizes it, cannot and will not do anything to change. He prays for help but asks for the wrong things. He is a victim of his own bigotry and lust, and this only makes him more evil. He’s great fun to watch, even as he makes your skin crawl.

The idea is often advanced that this stuff is too much for children – that they can’t, won’t, or shouldn’t understand it at their age. I think that idea is wrong. Children can watch this movie and understand enough – Frollo is cruel and evil while Quasimodo is good and kind. The heroes in this film treat everybody (even Gypsies) kindly and believe everybody deserves the same chance. Does this miss a lot of the overtones and deeper themes? Yes, of course, but so what? It is enough for them  to see it and maybe, just maybe, set some seeds in their mind that grow into the kind of things we want our kids to be: even-handed, just, inclusive, and merciful.

 

Don’t Mess with Arrendale

I have been watching Frozen on loop now for the past several months. I have listened the soundtrack a million times. My daughter insists we sing “Love is an Open Door” as a duet, making sure I don’t edge in on the Anna part, since I’m supposed to just sing the Hans part.

The movie has been on my mind a lot.

Piss her off, and kiss your crops goodbye, folks.

Piss her off, and kiss your crops goodbye, folks.

Among the many, many things to say about this movie (and it is a great Disney movie, mind you), one comes to mind: How screwed is everybody else in the Frozen universe? I mean, seriously, Queen Elsa has just thrown down the geopolitical gauntlet. Think about it – this is a young woman who dropped her entire country into the depth of winter in the middle of the summer and she did this by accident. Holy shit.

Here’s how every negotiation with Arrendale goes from here on out:

Ambassador: Your Highness, we think these trade agreements are unfair.

Elsa: Oh, really? Because I think it’s rather nice of me to let your country have any liquid water at all. You know, if you catch my meaning.

Ambassador: These trade agreements look great! Boy, howdy, what a deal!

If Elsa learns to control her powers (which she seems to at the end), this is going to be great for Arrendale in the short term, sure. What appears to be a rather small, isolated country now needn’t fear foreign invasion and stands to have a lot of political weight to throw around if another country decides to play dirty.

Of course, as any historian can tell you, having some kind of overwhelming power while everyone else lacks it might be a recipe for regional hegemony, it also often leads to military conflict. One can see a group of nations banding together to take down the Witch of Arrendale if for no other reason than they are tired of living in terror of Queen Elsa’s foul moods. I mean, just how many ambassadors can you have shipped back to you in a block of ice with a note reading “sorry, he was rude.”

This could be avoided by Elsa not using her powers, naturally, or sharply curtailing their use. However, since she spent most of her youth being forbidden to ‘be herself’, now that she can use them (and her people love her for it), how can she not? If Weaseltown makes a shady move to box Arrendale out of some kind of trade market, hurting her citizens, do you think Elsa isn’t going to send a blizzard to make those Weasels rethink their decision? Not likely.

War is certainly coming, one way or another, or, to borrow the Starks words, Winter is Coming. For Arrendale and everybody else in the region, it’s likely to be a long one, too. No one can put up with one country having a weapon of mass destruction and not having one themselves unless those nations are willing to play second fiddle to Arrendale’s new superpower status. Sure, they may do this for a while, but not forever. And what happens, then, when Elsa dies? Do the vultures come to feed then? Do old scores get settled? Even worse to consider is this: what happens if Elsa’s gift propagates to her offspring? Now Arrendale controls a bloodline of super-weapons, and now it becomes a geopolitical struggle to control and contain them. This means dead and kidnapped babies, everybody – dead and kidnapped babies.

This guy sees the writing on the wall.

This guy sees the writing on the wall.

One can scarcely blame the Lord of Weaseltown, then, from looking to eliminate Elsa immediately. He’s an old guy and, despite his goofy appearance, he clearly knows his diplomatic business. He doesn’t just want Elsa dead because she’s scary, but also because her very existence will destabilize a region that, up until then, seems to be fairly peaceful and prosperous. Killing Elsa is the best thing not only for Weaseltown, but arguably for Arrendale, as well. Heck, even if he doesn’t manage killing her, demonizing her as a monster will keep her off the throne, and that’s enough to keep the world on an even keel. What he’s doing, while underhanded and reactionary, could very likely avoid generations of terror and violence in the land. He, in a certain sense, is doing us all a favor.

Then again, who knows? Maybe Elsa is wise enough to use her power sparingly, to keep it out of the geopolitical spectrum, and to control it carefully and conscientiously for the good of all. Then again, you know what they always say about absolute power, too. I’m not so sure Elsa is going to beat the odds there. If you live in one of Arrendale’s neighboring countries, I’d start stocking up on firewood and, for God’s sake, get the hell out of the ice business.