What About True Love?
I saw Frozen at last over the weekend. It definitely stands as one of the best Disney animated features all time (though arguably not the best, I’ll grant, even if it is in the running) and is certain the best since The Princess and the Frog, easily eclipsing Tangled and whatever else slipped in there beneath my notice. What I found interesting about Frozen is, I feel, nothing different that what a lot of us found interesting about it: in the first place, a fantastic score and soundtrack, and in the second, an actually complicated and nuanced approach to the concept of ‘love’ – something that fairy tale style movies have almost never done. I feel this is important, since trying to show children that love is a simple concept is both erroneous and potentially hazardous to their emotional development. Nowhere is this more keenly observable than in the scores and scores of emotionally damaged adults who proceeded into the stormy waters of “true love” with all the same innocence that Anna does in the film.
I am no expert on love. I would say that, possibly, no such expert exists, but then again I’m no expert, so what do I know? All that said, what I can say about love is that it is a dangerous and complicated thing, not to mention elusive. When you think you have it, you often don’t. When you do have it, you often fail to realize this until it’s gone. Then, for those lucky few of us who get it, have it, and hold on to it, you are still constantly in doubt about it; you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop or, perhaps, wondering why it is constantly changing if this is the Real Thing.
Frozen cleverly illustrates this problem by constantly moving the goal-posts for Anna. Is she in love with Prince Hans? Kristoph? Well…no. Not yet, anyway. Obviously she loves her sister, Elsa. We take that as a given in the story; despite the fact that it is the central conflict of the film and the only thing in the movie of any permanence, we instinctually allow it to play second fiddle in our hearts to the good ol’ Princess and Prince falling instantly in True Love. We, like Anna, miss the good thing right in front of her in favor of the flashy new thing that gets waved under her nose. This is a grand metaphor for love itself – so easily missed and overwhelmed by simple infatuation.
A few years back I had a student submit to me an argument essay claiming that love didn’t exist – it was a myth and a fairytale. Love, she said, was simply chemical stimulation in the brain responding to basic physical attraction that was essentially unsustainable. You can’t be really in love, she claimed, as sooner or later you would come down from your ‘high’ and, therefore, no longer love that person. I pointed out to her that her perspective better demonstrated a misunderstanding of what comprises ‘true love’ than it did disprove its existence entirely. I asked her how she then described the love between parent and child, between siblings, and between those couples who have stayed together for decades. She equivocated. I didn’t press the issue; an 18-year old girl is entitled to be disenchanted with love if she wishes.
What the student had done was mistake eros for philia – the passionate desire for another for the loving respect and admiration of them (read up on the Greek definitions here). In principle, eros and philia combine to make what we call true, romantic love. We both desire our partner (considering him or her ‘ideally beautiful’ in the philosophical sense) and respect and care for them and their well-being (as we admire and are fond of them). Without some sense of both eros and philia, we can’t be said to be in Romantic Love. Among the sisters in Frozen, philia is the operative form of love at play and the movie (correctly, I feel) places greater emphasis on that than it does eros. Philia is the love that transcends time and self. It is the meal; eros is the spice.
To say that eros is superior to philia is to be completely blinded by the fairy tale mystique. Yes, being head-over-heels infatuated with someone is an incredible, almost indescribable feeling, but it’s a phase. Spend your life looking for it to perpetuate ad infinitum and you will get yourself in the wrong state of mind. Obviously we should desire our partners, but the person who truly loves you is not the one that you spend half an hour challenging to hang up while making googly noises on the phone. It’s the one who holds your hair out of your face while you throw up, the person who makes sure you make it home on time, the person who can’t wait to listen to your stories and laugh at your jokes.
To love another is to put yourself at their mercy – your desire and respect for them means their approval of you is of utmost importance. To be loved is to be at someone’s mercy and have that someone always grant it. It is to be infinitely exploitable yet never exploited. It is trust and friendship and (yes) desire. You don’t find it on every corner, and it doesn’t show up all at once; even the fastest love affairs have to grow into themselves before they’re mature and ready for the world. For this reason I love Frozen because it has the courage to tell us that Kristoph and Anna are not yet destined for one another but that Elsa and Anna already are.
Wayne Szalinski: Destroyer of Worlds
This weekend, I happened to catch Honey, I Shrunk the Kids on television. I probably saw this movie dozens of times when I was a kid, but this was the first time as an adult. It’s a fun, lighthearted romp of a Disney movie, great for kids, and so on and so forth. However, I started thinking about Dr. Szalinski’s little invention in realistic terms, and I must say I was quickly horrified at the implications. Horrified, I tell you.
It is a Death Ray
Essentially, Szalinski’s ‘shrink ray’ collapses the empty space in atoms, meaning they will take up less space. Okay, fine – assuming you can do this, that seems to have some uses. Let us not pretend, however, that any living thing undergoing this process would live through it. Just because you remove the space doesn’t mean you remove the mass – the kids would have the exact same number of particles and, therefore, act upon and be acted upon gravitationally the exact same way. The difference, however, is that they would lose surface area and volume. Do you know how many different things in your body rely upon surface area and volume to function? Your lungs and circulatory system, even assuming they could still function, would not have sufficient area to perform respiration effectively – your body would still have every bit as many cells to feed with oxygen, but lungs so small and arteries so tiny that it would be impossible to feed it all. The kids would have suffocated, too heavy to move (your muscles couldn’t function, either), as impossibly dense specks on the attic floor. Szalinsky probably would have broken his dustpan on their tiny corpses.
What About Non-Living Matter?
Okay, so what if we just don’t shoot people with the thing. Szalinski points out that he intends it to be used to save room in space vehicles, make denser fuels that burn longer, and so on. Seems like a good idea, right? WRONG.
I’m not a physicist, right, but I do know a couple things. I know, for instance, that the reason atoms are mostly ’empty space’ (though that term is a bit misleading) is because atoms have massive amounts of electrical energy filling them – wave/particles called electrons, zooming around, causing massive amounts of charge. Now, we all know what happens if you split the nucleus of an atom – huge amounts of energy is released in the form of an atomic reaction. Now, what makes us think that if you collapse the energy of the electrons in upon itself, there won’t also be a massive burst of energy released? Granted, the nucleus contains its energy in a much smaller space, but basic physics and chemistry insists that electrons have the exact same amount of energy contained in their orbitals, it’s just more spread out. So, if you eliminate or somehow collapse that energy, where does it all go? In a giant goddamned explosion, that’s where. An explosion that would destroy the object you’re shrinking and probably all other objects for miles. BOOOM.
What Happens When the Military Gets its Mitts on This?
Fine, let’s assume that Szalinski manages to invent his machine without killing his family or blowing up his town. Do we want to live in a world where shrink rays are mounted on tanks or airplanes? Have you thought about how destructive that could be? A plane (or satellite!) could shrink a bridge, a damn, a nuclear power plant and cause untold mayhem and destruction with no possible means of defense. Commandos could arrive in secure locations via mail and expand into a killing team within defensive perimeters. Bombs would be every bit as effective miniaturized (probably – I think the same masses of chemicals reacting with each other would retain the same properties, regardless of their change in density. I easily could be wrong about that, though. Thoughts, chemists?), but they would be almost impossible to detect. Bodies could be hidden with little chance of them ever being found. The idea of ‘disappearing somebody’ would be disturbingly real. We could find ourselves entering a nightmarish future where nobody is safe at any time and there is nothing – nothing – anyone could do about it.
All because of some schmuck with an attic full of electronics and too much free time. Thanks, Wayne Szalinski. Thanks a lot.
My Top 5 Disney Villains
Disney occupies some interesting territory when it comes to constructing villains for their animated films. On the one hand, they’re making movies for little kids and our modern society generally frowns upon exposing our fragile youth to the face of true, terrifying evil. At the same time, however, their fairy-tale source material often includes some pretty nasty people as the primary villains in the stories and, indeed, good fairy tales can’t really function without good villains. To their credit, Disney has managed to walk this line in order to come up with some pretty stupendous villains – bad guys and gals that have occupied our imaginations every bit as forcefully as the likes of Darth Vader and the Monster Under the Bed. What follows are my top five, in the order of Least Evil to HOLY CRAP THAT’S EVIL.
#5: Cruella DeVille
To be fair, Disney didn’t create Cruella – she was born out of the novel upon which the animated movie was based – but she occupies a unique and loathesome spot in the pantheon of Disney’s Baddies, as she’s the only one actively trying to kill and skin puppies so she can wear them as a coat. Wow. Puppies. That’s pretty damned cold, especially when she goes to such (crazy) lengths to get such a coat.
Then again, puppies are still only animals, and what Cruella is doing might get her a few years in prison and some serious community service time, but she really isn’t any more evil than Michael Vick, and we all forgave him, didn’t we? Honestly, the worst thing about her in terms of society is her reckless driving and the second-hand smoke exposure. What she has making up for it, though, is panache – it’s hard to find a villain with quite the same dramatic flair as Cruella.
Evilness Scale: Pretty Evil.
#4: The Wicked Stepmother
Skinning puppies is one thing, but the systematic and conscientious emotional torture of a minor is a whole other kettle of fish. Cinderella’s stepmother makes her own stepdaughter into a domestic slave and deliberately attempts to destroy the young girls will to live FOR NO GODDAMNED REASON AT ALL. She doesn’t even really get anything out of it other than spite.
I really have to hand it to the artists and voice talent that made the stepmother come alive in the old Disney flick, because this woman is vile. You don’t laugh at her; not at all. There is nothing funny about the Stepmother. She is the very embodiment of horrible, petty meanness. From allowing her own daughters to rip off Cinderella’s dress in the front hall to locking the girl in her room just to prevent the merest chance of the girl escaping her power, kids and adults loathe this character from the moment she steps on the screen. Wow, evil.
But, again, not really off-the-charts Hitler-wanna-be evil, either. She belongs in prison (and needs to meet with a therapist), but she’s ostensibly still a member of the human race. Those higher on the list can’t really make that claim.
Evilness Scale: Wickedly Evil
#3: Ursula the Sea Witch
Honestly, Ursula makes this list because she’s exactly in the middle of the road. She is engaged in some classic, bottom-rung evil activity here (stealing souls, killing people, etc.), but she lacks a certain…panache? She’s well past emotional abuse and animal cruelty, certainly, but is she at a level much higher than ‘standard evil witch’? Not sure.
The thing that separates Ursula from other standard witch-archetypes (think the Wicked Queen of Snow White or even Mad Madam Mim in The Sword in the Stone) is her musical number. “Poor Unfortunate Souls” is a masterpiece of evil song-singing. Ursula blows to doors off most of her competition with that stuff, and the fact that she steals Ariel’s voice is fiendishly clever. Beyond that, however, I’m not overly impressed. I would rank the Wicked Stepmother higher were it not for the fact that she still provides for Cinderella’s room and board and seems to never indulge in physical abuse. It’s a near thing, though.
Evilness Scale: Textbook Evil
Okay, so say your neighbors don’t invite you to a party. You don’t really want to go, anyway, but you see the cars lined up around the block, hear the loud music, and think to yourself ‘I’m going to crash.’ Now add on the thought ‘and see if I can curse their infant daughter to die in sixteen years and watch the fuckers squrim for the next decade and a half trying to avoid it.’ Is that pretty evil or what?
The thing that Sleeping Beauty’s Maleficent has that the lesser villains lack is how she sets up her victims to create the maximal amount of suffering with the minimum amount of effort on her part. She could have just blasted the princess Aurora into ashes, but no – she figured it would be meaner to let the kingdom keep her long enough to fall irrevocably in love with her and then take her away. Wow, that’s cold. And patient, too, which is even more terrifying.
Take what she tells Prince Philip when he’s in her dungeons: I’m going to let you go…but only after you’re so damned old that claiming your princess with true love’s kiss will be robbed of all meaning. Your beloved will be shocked and disgusted by you, you’ll die shortly thereafter, and it will all be horribly, gloriously fucked up. And I, Maleficent, will be willing to wait that long for my evil punchline.
Evilness Scale: Daaaaamn….
#1: The Coachman
Any of you see Pinocchio, lately? Well, if you haven’t, let me remind you about the guy who, for my money, is the most horrifying villain Disney ever put in a movie: The Coachman. Here is a guy who rounds up little boys who misbehave, tells them he’s taking them to a theme park, and then, after encouraging them to act like animals, he turns them into donkeys and then either enslaves them or sells them to glue factories.
He doesn’t do this to one boy, either. Not to a dozen or a score, but to hundreds and hundreds of kids over a span of probably years. Himmler and Goebbels have nothing on this psycho. Why does he do this? That’s just it – whereas all those other villains have ostensibly understandable motives for their wickedness, this sociopath does this just for the hell of it, apparently. If he wanted to make money, he wouldn’t bother with this. If he just hated little boys, you’d think maintaining a theme park for them to play in would be a bit counter-intuitive. No, he just likes making little kids suffer horribly for his own psychopathic enjoyment and then, when he is no longer amused, he has them killed and melted down into glue.
Holy shit, people, we show this to our children. Jesus.
Evilness Scale: Nightmare Fuel
What To Do With the Lost Boys?
I realize I’ve been writing a lot about Disney, lately. Again, I will simply reference the fact that I’ve a three-year-old daughter and she loves the Disney Channel. Enough excuses, though.
I’ve been watching Peter Pan a lot, and one thing keeps getting to me. At the end of the film, Captain Hook gives the boys an ultimatum: Join my crew or walk the plank. To sweeten the deal, he throws in the offer of a free tattoo (on a side note, I can remember finding this offer sinister when I was a little kid in the 80s; now I think mostly “sweet, free tattoo!”). There’s a whole song and dance routine involved, to boot. The boys, for their part, are really very eager to join until Wendy, the perennial stick-in-the-mud, spoils the whole thing.
Here’s my question, though: Isn’t joining Hook the Lost Boys’ best career option? I mean, what else are they possibly going to do with their lives? Consider the facts:
The Lost Boys’ Resume
Work Experience: None
Skills: Tracking, Fighting, Hunting, Vandalism, Ambushes, Traps, Swimming, Climbing, taking orders from Pan
References: Cannibals and Aboriginal Islanders
Personal Objectives: To fight, lounge around, have fun, and go on adventures.
Job Listing: Pirate
Wanted: Courageous individuals wanted to leave civilization behind and sail to distant shores for the purposes of shaking down local populace for spare change, treasure, and supplies. Occasional battle against same requested, as well as boarding actions and naval engagements on the high seas. Must be able to take orders, work well in violent masculine pecking order, and adapt to and embrace extreme hazing rituals.
Required: Mean disposition, affinity for violence, cavalier attitude towards human life and property. No education preferred ability to swim preferred but not necessary. Proper recruits will show limited discipline unless threatened with physical violence as reprisal.
If interested, contact James Hook, Captain.
Let’s be honest, folks – it’s a Lost Boy’s dream job. Hell, its significantly more exciting than Neverland, anyway. I mean, how many times can you have fake battles with the same damned Indians? Yeah, you’re a perpetual child, but aren’t pirates, to a very large extent, also pretty childish? It’s hardly a mature profession, anyway; it’s thugs in boats stealing stuff. The Lost Boys would train up pretty damned quickly, plus they’d love the boozing, tattoos, and blood sports without a doubt. In the absence of any other reasonable occupation and the inevitable boredom that would have to accompany an eternity in Neverland, there really isn’t much of a downside. Besides, Hook is, by all accounts, at the top of his game. It’s like getting in with Goldman Sachs right out of school (actually, it’s disturbingly like that).
Heck, for all we know, Hook’s presence in Neverland might just be an elaborate recruiting scheme. Where could he find better replacements for a job that, given his penchant for shooting his employees, has got to have a pretty good turnover rate? I mean, granted, the guy starts to lose his marbles when that punk Pan cuts off his and hand throws it to a crocodile, but that’s a fairly reasonable reaction for a famed pirate maimed by a lowly boy who, simultaneously, happens to be a colossal little prick.
Anyway, I’m rambling, but the point is that the Lost Boys missed opportunity’s knock, I’m telling you. They have no idea the amoral, immature playground they’re missing.
The Revenge of the Mouse
Lots of people freaking out about Lucasfilm being sold to Disney today. Not that you asked, but here’s my take:
Everybody needs to chill out.
Seriously, this isn’t the end of the world. My argument goes as follows:
Disney Isn’t Such a Poor Steward
Disney, particularly in the last decade, has produced a lot of quality. You probably can’t accuse much of it of being ‘high art’, but neither is Star Wars, when you come right down to it. It’s space opera, which isn’t exactly rocket science (get it? No? Well…study your sub-genres, nerds) and is, exactly, melodrama. Do you know anyone consistently better at melodrama than Disney? Show of hands for all those who cried during Up (a Disney property)? How many of your hearts go all a-flutter when you hear the opening bars of “Circle of Life?”
Star Wars is melodrama; Disney has made melodrama a science. They got you covered.
It Isn’t Like Star Wars Was Doing Anything Good, Anyway
Let’s face it, George Lucas has become more machine now, than man. Twisted and evil. Is the Mouse better? I don’t know; I don’t really ascribe to those who accuse Disney of being the Great Satan. It’s a giant production company that churns out feel-good stories about self-discovery and adventure, that’s all. Lucas, however, has degenerated into ‘that guy who shoves more and more random effects into his otherwise decent movies.’ He hasn’t made a good movie in decades and I rather doubt he has one in him. What he has spent most of his time doing these past few years is seeing who will pay him to use his Star Wars franchise. We were never going to get an Episode VII out of the guy, so why are we complaining that someone bought him out and is now going to give us what we (presumably) want?
What’s that? You’re worried it might suck? Well, yes, it might. Then again, Star Wars sucks right now. Are you going to try and sell me on the argument that the prequel trilogy hasn’t already bled away any warm feelings we still had towards the original trilogy? Bah. Stuff and nonsense. I would provisionally make the argument that Star Wars hasn’t produced a top-of-the-line entry since Return of the Jedi. Some of the books were okay, the Clone Wars cartoon series was fun, but nothing has successfully caught that lightning in the bottle since. Disney probably can’t, either, but so what if they don’t? Disney can’t do any worse than has already been done.
It Is Physically Impossible For Star Wars to Become Any More Commercial
If you want to make the argument that Disney will ‘cheapen’ the Star Wars brand, you need to throw yourself out a window. That simply isn’t possible. Star Wars has sold itself out in every single conceivable way it can think of. Hell, that’s probably much of the reason Disney bought it; they looked at it and said ‘hell, our work’s already done!’ You’ve eaten the breakfast cereal, worn the underoos, and bought all fifteen versions of the same damn movie; you have no dignity left to sell, guys.
It Might, Maybe, If We’re Really Lucky…Be AWESOME.
This is a new day for Star Wars. Change for this bloated, stagnant, decaying franchise is a good thing. All of that nostalgia we feel for Lucasfilm is just so much rose-tinted glass and all-too-human fear of change. Get past it. If you really love Star Wars, you know something like this was bound to happen – had to happen, dammit. Yeah, we would have preferred Lucas, in a fit of socialist madness, made the whole damned thing Open License (then I’d get to do this or this), but we all know that was about as likely as Santa Claus kicking in our door and giving us an actual flying pony for our 40th birthday. Passing the torch is the next best thing. There are talented people at Disney and it’s affiliates – young, hungry people with stories left to tell and the imagination and funding to make it happen. Let’s sit back and watch – it may just be the best thing ever.
Now, if you want to argue about whether Disney owning all the fun is a good idea in general, that’s a slightly different discussion. Just because they have all the good IP, that doesn’t mean they’ll mistreat them while under their care. It just means they’ll sue us if we mess with them.
Or, I guess, unless we pony up 5 billion dollars and put in a phone call.
Fighting Giant Monsters
Dragons, Giants, Hydra, Titans, the Kraken: all monsters of superhuman size and strength, and all popular foes in much of specfic literature, and frequent guest stars in role playing and video games. When done well, facing these incredible beasties is some of the coolest, most exciting moments of the story. When done poorly, they suddenly don’t make a whole lot of sense.
One of my favorite scenes like this is an oldie but a goodie and, thanks to my daughter, I see it a lot. Disney’s Sleeping Beauty reaches its climax as Prince Phillip finds himself facing the evil Maleficent in the form of a giant black dragon. Immediately both Phillip and the viewing audience realize he is out of his depth. The dragon has no fear of his puny sword, his enchanted shield is barely sufficient protection, and his triumphant ride to his sleeping love becomes a desperate retreat through burning thorns and up jagged cliffs. Driven to the edge of a precipice, deprived of his shield, almost losing his balance, Phillip, but for some timely sorcerous intervention, is pretty well doomed. Now, while there are some holes in the battle (like ‘how does his horse survive’ and ‘how does he avoid going over the cliff with the dead dragon’?), generally it captures exactly what a battle with such a massive opponent ought to look like: it’s tense, terrifying, and you really don’t see how Phillip is going to get out of it until the fairies show up. There are other stories that do the giant monster battle pretty well, too (Luke Vs Rancor in Jedi is pretty decent; Sam Vs Shelob in Return of the King is pretty fabulous, etc.), and all of them follow a few basic rules of engagement:
- Monsters Don’t Fight Like People: You don’t stand toe-to-toe with the beastie and swing your sword like it’s an orc. Honestly, unless you’re really lucky, your sword is almost worthless, your armor isn’t really that useful, and most of your martial arts training isn’t going to help very much (Legolas excepted).
- Monsters Chew the Scenery: If you think you can have a fight with a twenty foot giant and not destroy a lot of property, you need to have your head examined. If you’re in a house, even money says its coming down.
- Monsters Can Move: You know how we are able to move around, turn, jump, run, and all that stuff? Monsters can do that, too. Sometimes they can do it even better than we can. Unless you’re a Jedi, don’t bet on running between its legs.
With these rules in place, it becomes rapidly obvious that, in order to defeat the beast, the hero or heroes will need to think outside the box. This isn’t a case of simply ‘hit it with your sword until it dies’ (a flaw in logic I’ve examined before); the toe-to-toe engagement is unwise. The heroes need to run around, hide, use their small size to their advantage, strike the weak points, and so on.
Too often, in video games and RPGs especially, the battle with the giant monster becomes more of a case of surrounding it and plinking away until it falls down. Never mind that most of your weapons are only hitting its shins and never mind that it can just as easily step on you to kill you as anything else and there is no way you can impede its movement. Not only is this unimaginative, it’s also dull. These conflicts can and should be among the most memorable and terrifying of the story; they should be set pieces, major plot events, and they should be given the time and attention they deserve. Recognize that if your hero faces a dragon on an open field, there are few plausible ways they ought to survive outside of technological or magical power enhancing their normal human capabilities. Like any good fight scene, you need to plot out how this can go down so that you build tension without violating reason. Heroes that face such enemies without forethought or who are surprised should find themselves in retreat or defeated, as a hero who summarily slays a dragon without much thought or substantial effort means both the dragon and the hero aren’t being used to their full potential. It begs the question ‘why use a dragon at all?’
To provide a counter-example to the one I mentioned above, do you folks remember the movie Willow? Ah, who am I kidding, of course you do! Anyway, the two-headed monster that shows up in the Tir Asleen battle is a great example of extremely lame monster-fighting. Now, granted, many of the problems are related to the fact that the film’s budget was only so large and they didn’t have CGI to make this thing really move, but still we have a whole battle in the middle of the movie with a giant monster that doesn’t really move, doesn’t really destroy anything, and that is killed just by stabbing it in the head. I mean, it’s sort of scary, but it doesn’t really steal the scene at all. In fact, a lot of the battle keeps going on while this whole giant monster is sitting there, eating Nokmar soldiers. Now, while I do approve of the idea of sticking a monster in the middle of an unrelated battle, this one doesn’t really do much more than act as scenery. The soldiers just kind of surround it, it sits there, and we patiently wait for Mad Martigan to kill it. It’s a fun scene, yes, but it’s nothing compared to the Cave Troll in Fellowship or the first time Paul faces a sandworm in Dune. This monster isn’t working to its full potential.
In the end, all I’m really saying here is that the massive monsters of mythology ought to be given their proper due when facing our heroes. There is just too much potential there to be wasted.
Wherein I Dissect Disney’s Beauty and the Beast
By all accounts, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is a fine film. The characters are engaging, the music is enthralling, the animation is beautiful, and the story is a perennial classic – what’s not to like? There is, however, some material inherent in the film that raises some troubling questions about the appropriate roles of men and women in modern society and that is not immediately obvious at first glance. This should hardly be a surprise, of course, as Disney is rather famous for doing this sort of thing. Rather than ascribe sinister motives to Disney, however, I think it perhaps more apt to see how our own preconceptions of gender roles and social order are reflected within the film and how we are correspondingly blind to these same preconceptions. In brief: Belle and Beast’s relationship is not perhaps the most positive or realistic model to be held up before our children’s eyes as a demonstration of ‘true love’ and our belief in Belle as a modern, liberated feminist model is also, perhaps, somewhat misplaced.
Let us examine first what it is that we see in Belle that makes her seem such a strong female character. In the first place, she is inquisitive and not moved by popular opinion – she thinks for herself. She sees right through the arrogant Gaston, she ignores the townsfolk who find her odd, and she defends her father against critics even when it is socially unacceptable to do so. There can be little doubt that Belle is brave. She’s also ambitious and headstrong. In the clearest exclamation of her personal goals, she sings the following immediately after turning down Gaston’s marriage proposal:
I want adventure in the great, wide somewhere,
I want it more than I can bear.
And for once it might be grand,
To have someone understand,
I want so much more than they’ve got planned.
This is a girl who wants to escape, a girl who wants to do something with her life. She isn’t going to marry that ‘boorish, brainless’ Gaston and massage his feet before the fire like a good little woman – she’s going to go out there and experience things, see it all, learn and grow. This is inherently admirable in our current society and, even though the film is twenty years old, we believe and want these traits in our daughters and sisters and in ourselves (as case may be).
Consider, however, how the action of the film serves to co-opt Belle’s dreams even while we cheer along the way. Belle, in the end, does not get the adventure she bargained for at all. If we are to assume that ‘they’ plan for Belle to wind up settled down with a good, strong man in the state of holy matrimony (a reasonable assumption, given the society depicted), then the only thing they don’t anticipate is which man it is she settles down for. Yeah, she doesn’t marry that jerk Gaston and live in that village, but she does marry some other jerk and lives easy commuting distance from that self-same village. The primary difference is the level of wealth, ultimately; the Beast is rich and has a massive library and a staff to serve Belle’s every need, while I doubt Gaston can offer similar accommodations in his rustic hunting lodge. We, the viewing audience, are meant to interpret the ‘adventure’ of Belle’s life as being kidnapped by a bitter, selfish man and then spending all her waking hours ‘repairing’ his personality by, essentially, mothering him into decency. Then, with her man thus repaired, she can marry him and live in his giant house with all the books and fine meals. Belle’s tale, then, is not one of freedom from societal concerns and social equality as it is one of domestic self-determination; she gets to pick and shape the man to spend her life with, and nothing more.
It must also be understood that Belle’s relationship with the Beast is not a healthy one. Remember: the Beast kidnaps an old man for trespassing and seems perfectly content to let him freeze to death in his tower until his attractive daughter shows up. The deal then becomes ‘I let your father go, you live here as my prisoner.’ Let’s skirt around the fact that this is a criminal act in and of itself and get to Belle’s reaction to this: She gives her word, and thereby binds herself to a man who is brutish, who denies her food, and who even threatens her for almost touching his stuff to such a degree that she flees into the night in terror. He, of course, saves her from the wolves, which makes her forgive him for his earlier misdeeds and decide he is misunderstood. They then have a snowball fight and everything is okay. Later, the Beast releases her from an imprisonment he had no right to levy in the first place so that she can save her father. She then proceeds to defend the Beast’s reputation to the townspeople and, in the end, decides to stay with her captor. Now, besides the fact that what I’ve described involves a lot of the tell-tale signs of an abusive relationship/Stolkholm’s Syndrome, we can see that the film is operating under the assumption that a woman can and, indeed, should expect to ‘fix’ her man and readily make excuses for his anti-social behavior. People, though, aren’t like cars or houses – one should not have to ‘renovate’ them to make them safe partners and, furthermore, one can’t reasonably expect such renovation to hold.
Now, of course, the film portrays the change in Beast as genuine. There is no indication that Belle is in danger of a resurgence of his terrible former self, for he has finally ‘learned to love’. Furthermore, in Gaston we can see true selfish wickedness and we are never given any reason to suspect his personality might be otherwise. This, for some, stands as proof-positive that the concerns expressed above are just so much academic hand-wringing, but that more indicates our acceptance of the potential reality of such a story than it does the inaccuracy of the critique. What I mean is this: we believe this story as reasonable because we believe such stories are plausible and, indeed, ideal, even though reality shows us this isn’t true. We accept the fact that Gaston – the rustic, self-made, hardworking man – is the villain while the Beast – the spoiled, selfish, rich kid – is the hero without reservation or doubt simply because the story shows it to be so, without ever thinking about what the story is getting us to agree to in the first place. When stripped of the story’s ‘spin’ (or so to speak), we can see that Gaston is not, necessarily, the worse choice. He is portrayed as such by the writers, who have chosen Beast as the victor because that’s what the original story has laid out. This original, of course, was written in the 18th century and primarily serves as a moral guide for what kind of husband a woman should seek and, furthermore, the kind of rewards she will receive in exchange for obedience to said husband and father.
So it is that we blindly accept a story that is, essentially, not so far removed from the centuries-old original. In it there is the window-dressing of female liberation, but what is really shown is a changing understanding of how women ought to find themselves a husband to support them. Now, this doesn’t mean the movie is a bad one – as said above, it is a wonderful tale – but we should be careful to allow our daughters to view it as a kind of ideal; it is not. The Beast is not the kind of man that should be married after a mere weekend’s courtship (and neither is Gaston, for that matter), and to suggest to our children that such behavior is ideal or even normal is potentially destructive. Like all fairy tales, it needs to be understood within a kind of cultural context that children aren’t necessarily equipped to understand. That doesn’t mean they can’t view and enjoy such tales, but parents should take care to present other and more positive role models for girls by way of comparison.
Disney: The Real Headlines
I have a toddler, so I watch a lot of Disney movies. They get me thinking sometimes about how the rest of the world must view the activities of the characters in these films and, furthermore, what the news headlines would look like if people actually tried this stuff. So, just for fun, here are my takes on the news headlines for all those Disney flicks that happen in times and places where they have newspapers.
#1: 101 Dalmatians
Eccentric DeVille Heiress Torn Apart By Dogs
#2: The Jungle Book
Wild Child Institutionalized
“The Monkeys Want Our Fire”, Claims Boy
#3: Peter Pan
Darling Children Fall to Deaths
Parents Used Dog as Babysitter, Authorities Claim
#4: Alice in Wonderland
Innocent Girl Addicted to Opiates
Governess Under Investigation
#5: Lady and the Tramp
Wealthy Couple Under Investigation for Child Endangerment
Wild Dogs, Rats Found in Infant’s Room
Deranged Woodcarver Arrested for Kidnapping
“He’s a puppet I brought to life, honestly!” claims accused.
Cut-rate Circus Bankrupted by Elephant-Lifting Crane
Ringleader still insists ‘Dumbo’ can fly.
#8: Blackbeard’s Ghost
Local Track Coach Murdered By Mob
I could go on. Got any of your own?
Savaged by Lions
I am probably the only person on Earth who finds The Lion King underwhelming and not particularly moving. Yes, yes–I can hear you booing and hissing, and I don’t care. I think it’s an adequate tale. Not bad, by any means, and worlds better than the likes of Pocahontas and Mulan, but hardly worthy of the popular adoration it’s been enjoying the past fifteen years or so. So, where to start my little rant…oh, I know:
It’s Disnified Hamlet
I am certainly far from the first person to point this out, but in case you’ve never realized, The Lion King is Shakespeare’s Hamlet with all the sex removed and with a happy ending. Told by lions. It sounds crazy, but think about it for about twenty or thirty seconds. Ready?
The plot of Hamlet: A young prince who lacks direction returns home after being away when he is told his father has been murdered by his uncle who has married his mother. The ghost of his father asks him to seek vengeance, and the young prince spends the balance of the action doing so, all the while learning how to be ‘the man’ of the house.
The plot of the Lion King: A young prince who lacks direction finds out his uncle has murdered his father and de-facto married his mother and, after chatting with his ghostly dad, returns to make things right by avenging his father’s death, all the while learning how to be ‘the man’ of the house.
Same. Damn. Thing.
Simba is Hamlet, Mufasa is Hamlet Sr., Scar is Claudius, Nala is Ophelia, Timon/Poomba = Rosencrantz/Gildenstern, Zazoo is Polonius…etc, etc.
What Disney changes, though, and one of the things that pisses me off about it is that they (1) remove Laertes (bad move, since it’s Laertes that really makes things interesting), (2) never explore Simba’s uncertainty about taking out Scar, and (3) the only person who dies is Scar, and that not even by Simba’s hand/paw. Granted, it’s a Disney movie–I get it, no super-duper tragic ending–but even still, it sours me on the film a little. That, however, isn’t the main problem I have. The main problem is that…
The Movie Wastes Time
Yes, it does. Seriously, it does. Stop arguing–go and watch the movie again. Did it? Now, let me ask you two questions:
1) What is this story really about. In other words, what’s the conflict?
2) How much of the movie is actually spent resolving or exploring that conflict?
My answers are this: 1) Simba’s journey from child to man through the process of securing justice for Scar and saving the Pridelands. 2) 40 minutes of a 90 minute movie.
The useful and important parts of the movie are the opening song, the Elephant Graveyard scene and Simba’s talk with Mustafa afterwards, the Death of Mustafa, the reunion with Nala, and the final fight with Scar. Altogether, a minimal portion of the movie. What’s the rest?
Because we waste SO MUCH TIME with Hakuna Matata, ‘I Just Can’t Wait to be King,’ and a bunch of other completely pointless stuff that doesn’t advance the story, doesn’t sufficiently explore Simba’s character with any degree of depth, and means the *really interesting stuff* (i.e. the main plot of Hamlet) is essentially squeezed into the last 20 minutes or so of the film. Because of that, the film lacks pathos. I am not fully invested. I feel like the movie just is getting started and then, all of a sudden, it’s over. Boooo!
Oh yeah, one more thing:
The Songs are Lame
They are. They really are. Not the score, mind you–that’s pretty good–but the actual songs are generally boring. “Circle of Life” is great, but the rest? “Hakuna Matata” is mildy diverting but uninspired, “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” is actively annoying, and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” is completely terrible in all ways. Even the controlling metaphor of the song is strained. When following up such acts as Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and The Little Mermaid, I was frankly expecting more. Even Pocahontas’s songs are better.
So, there you have it. I think the Lion King is lame. Have at me, Disniphiles!
(oh, and as a side note, the Julie Taymor Musical version is much, much better than the animated film. I actually recommend that one)
The Grand Princess Unification Theorem
Okay, let me preface this by stating that my two-year-old daughter has been watching various Disney movies on loop now for the past month or two, so I’ve at this point watched Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, and Sleeping Beauty each at least twenty-five times in the past 8-10 weeks. If this post seems weird, that’s why.
After watching these movies as much as I have, one stops paying attention to the plot or music and you even stop thinking about the disturbing psychological underpinnings of the fairy tales themselves (Sleeping Beauty is about a woman’s maturation and need to accept defined female roles despite the efforts of other women to prevent it; The Little Mermaid is about a single parent alienating their youngest child and driving her into the arms of thugs and murderers; Beauty and the Beast is part Stokholm Syndrome, part abusive relationship, part ‘the nobility are better than the commoners’; and I could go on…). No, after viewing 63 or 64, you start trying to synthesize some kind of unifying timeline between the various films. You start scratching your head and ask yourself ‘exactly when is this supposed to be taking place’ or ‘why are all these princesses good with animals?’ Then, if you’re like me, you come up with a ridiculous theory to connect them all together.
This is that theory.
With some Disney movies/princesses, setting and place are established or, conversely, they are obviously self-contained. For instance, princesses like Mulan or Jasmine are obviously placed in space/time and, therefore, don’t cry out for justification, exactly. Likewise, Simba or Ariel live in their own, fanciful, self-contained settings that don’t seem to overlap with the others. This is not so, however, for four major Disney films in particular–Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Beauty and the Beast. All four of these movies are central European, usually with distinctive French overtones, in a realm awash in mountains, forests, valleys, and farmland. These four movies will be the focus of the theory, though others can (and probably will) be appended on to it as we go. The central idea here is that all four movies are, essentially, set in the same general area and that many of the characters in the films are related to one another by blood. What we are witnessing in these films is the multi-generational tale of a single royal bloodline and its interactions with the Fairie Kingdoms.
The first thing we need to establish is the order in which these movies are set in history. Chronologically in real life, the order was Snow White (1930s), Cinderella (1950s), Sleeping Beauty (1960s), and Beauty and the Beast (1990s). This isn’t the ‘historical’ order, however.
The only film given a precise date during the film is Sleeping Beauty. When speaking to his father, King Hubert, Prince Phillip insists ‘this is the 14th Century, father!’ This, backed up with art direction clearly inspired by the illuminated manuscripts of the high middle ages, places that movie there. Cinderella and Belle, however, live during a later period, as evidenced by the presence of firearms in Beauty and the uniforms and general style of Cinderella. Which comes first really comes down to fashion, in my opinion. The chosen dress of the Beast, once he regains human form, is late 18th/early 19th century, whereas the formal wear of Cinderella’s world is conspicuously more modern, placing them in the middle of the 19th century, possibly later.
With this in mind and, given the general darkness and lack of civilization present in Snow White, leads me to place them thusly: Snow White takes place in central Europe around the 11th century or so, give or take a few hundred years. Then comes Sleeping Beauty in the 14th, followed by Beauty and the Beast in the early 19th and then rapidly by Cinderella in the mid 19th. This gives us a workable framework to build a cohesive narrative from, and so I’m choosing this as my starting point.
This whole mess starts with a girl named ‘Snow White’. For reasons not explained, she posseses a particular power over animals and an unearthly voice (seriously–listen to her sing. Did a person really make that odd noise?). We can infer that somehow, someway, Snow White has been gifted with certain powers from the fairy world. Perhaps there’s some fey blood in her, or perhaps she’s been blessed at birth (as is a custom, as we will see later). It doesn’t really matter. The point is that she has this power and the Evil Queen wants it.
From this point we should all know the story–the Evil Queen, in her haggard form–is thrown off a cliff by the dwarves (who live in a woodcutters cottage, which is important later). Snow White marries a prince, and they produce children.
The thing is, though, that the Evil Queen doesn’t actually die. She manages to survive somehow, makes pacts with the
dark powers, and the castle she once lives in gradually falls into ruin. She becomes
Maleficent, the fey witch and queen of all evil that afflicts Sleeping Beauty.
Take a look at their pictures–tell me you don’t see the resemblance! They’re the same woman, just changed slowly over the ages by hatred, collusion with evil, and very poor skin care.
This brings us to part two: Sleeping Beauty.
Sleeping Beauty (1300-1375)
Sleeping Beauty, or Aurora, is born to King Stephen and his unnamed Queen. Stephen, you’ll recall, has the same striking black hair as his ancestor, Snow White. His daughter, however, inherits her mother’s long blonde locks.
More importantly for Aurora, however, is the fact that she also inherits that certain fey gift. She is able to sing like no other, partially due, no doubt, to her being gifted with this power by Fauna, the Green Fairy, upon her birth. Phillip, upon overhearing her in the woods, even compares her voice to that of a ‘wood sprite’ simply because he can’t imagine a mortal with so beautiful a voice.
Furthermore, Aurora is able to speak and commune with animals like few others (except perhaps Phillip, though we can presume his bond with his horse, Samson, is simply one of years of practice. He isn’t performing duets with owls and squirrels or anything).
Aurora’s bloodline and Maleficent’s unending hatred of the same brings into
the picture the three good fairies, Flora (red/pink), Fauna (green), and Merryweather (blue). They pose as the defenders of Aurora, but it’s very possible it’s simply the bloodline they are seeking to defend. Being immortal beings, they could (and possibly do) have long-term goals for this child that we are unaware of.
Also possible is that, over the sixteen years they spend raising her (in the very same woodcutter’s cottage in the same dark forest that the dwarves used with Snow White, mind you), they develop a deep bond with her and, by extention, her progeny. They take on the roles of ‘fairy godmothers’ for the rest of time. In any event, they are instrumental in Maleficent/the Evil Queen’s final destruction at the hands of Phillip (and the enchanted sword they had given him just a few minutes earlier).
In the end, Aurora marries Phillip and, presumably, they produce offspring. Of note here, in the vein of genetics, take a
good look at Phillip’s father, Hubert.
Note the man’s bell-shaped body, bulbous nose, distinctive facial hair, and the ruddy complexion–that’s going to show up again, just you wait.
Anyway, the destruction of Maleficent keeps the faries’ interests safe for some time after this–about five centuries, anyway. During this time, the bloodline gets diffused and spread across the land (again, somewhere in eastern or south-eastern France, I’m guessing–possibly Switzerland). What the faries do during this period is unclear, but Merryweather apparently takes an interest in animating a puppet named Pinocchio in Italy at some point. This fits with her own apparent magical predilections, as she is seen transmuting flesh to stone and animating brooms and dishes and such during Sleeping Beauty.
Anyway, on to step three: Beauty and the Beast
Beauty and the Beast (1777-1835)
Belle is the daughter of an inventor; she’s intelligent and dreamy and doesn’t seem to have unusual powers regarding animals, though she does have a pretty solid singing voice. She lives with her father (who bears a striking resemblence to King Hubert) in a small village. This is either the exact same village located outside the gates of King Stephen’s castle in Aurora’s day or, perhaps, it is near either the honeymoon castle built by Hubert for Phillip and Aurora (as referenced during the wine-drinking scene) or near Hubert’s castle itself. In any event, it is probable, if not likely, that Belle’s father is indirectly related to the fey-touched line that the faries are so interested in for some reason.
There is, however, another branch of that line–the direct line, actually, which is in a bit of a pickle. The Beast or, more accurately, the prince that becomes the Beast is the direct heir to Aurora and Phillip’s bloodline. Aware of this, Fauna, the green fairy, pays him a visit to see how he’s doing after the death of his parents (one presumes they died suddenly, given his age at the time of Fauna’s visit; we don’t know for sure). anyway, Fauna visits and, true to form, disguises herself as an elderly mortal woman. She is treated very badly and reacts accordingly (or maybe overreacts). Beastification ensues.
Further evidence that this ‘beautiful enchantress’ is Fauna is backed up by her name–Fauna, or ‘animals’. Making the prince into a beast that mirrors his beastly temper and ugly personality is fitting with her personal idiom (and she clearly has the ability to change everybody else, too, though that’s less her style. Perhaps the prince caught Fauna on a bad day).
Now, we might think that Fauna just abandons the Prince to his fate, but she has a better idea (and is far too sweet for that, anyway). It is not an accident that Belle’s father gets lost in the woods and finds himself before the castle of the Beast. Indeed, the wolves are her tools in this (note that they only attack when doing so will drive Belle and the Beast closer together and at no other time). Fauna is trying to kill two birds with one stone–teach the prince a valuable lesson and strengthen the bloodline by combining two of Aurora’s descendants together). In the end, her plan works, but things don’t work out as well as she’d hoped. Cue our last installment: Cinderella
The faries lay low as the Napoleonic wars rage across Europe. They probably watch carefully and keep tallies of the members of the blood who survive and die. They watch in frustration as Belle and the Prince’s only son seems to have inherited all of the least desirable qualities of the line. He looks like Hubert and Belle’s father, he’s got the Prince’s temperment, and he can’t sing or talk to animals worth a damn.
The one stroke of good news is that the guy’s a pretty solid soldier, and he manages to defend his tiny kingdom in the foothills of the Alps and keeps a degree of independence from both France and Germany and Austria/Hungary. We can see, by looking at his kingdom, that it has been influenced by all of those great nations of 19th century Europe but hasn’t quite been consumed by any of them. This works to the faries’ advantage, as it makes their little breeding experiment somewhat easier to manage.
To their great luck, the genes carrying the gifts granted to Aurora and Snow White before her fall to a young girl born
to a low-ranking noble family. Cinderella is a veritable chosen one–she sings like Aurora did (well, almost as good, anyway), she speaks to the animals better than any of them–she’s exactly the one they need.
Of course, there’s no way a girl of her station gets to marry a prince under normal circumstances. Much meddling has to take place–they need to keep the Prince, Belle’s Grandson, occupied so as not to get him snagged by another girl. They need to aggravate the king with the prince’s behavior so that, finally, they force the King into a desperate course of action.
Then, and most importantly, they need to make sure Cinderella grows up humble. They arrange the marriage between her father and the Wicked Stepmother, then they bump him off. They are pleased how she keeps her sweet disposition (indeed, killing off her father might have been a test of her worth), and they wait for the opportunity to make their move.
It comes when, finally, the ball is held and the wicked stepsisters rip Cinderella’s dress to bits. Enter Flora, pink bow and
pink-lined robes and all, in the role of Fairy Godmother.