Disney Princesses—No Short Supply


Since its release in 2013, Frozen has become the new benchmark for Disney princess movies. But what happened to Tangled? The film certainly hasn’t disappeared, but Rapunzel pales somewhat compared to her princess cousins from Frozen. Next time you watch Frozen, pay attention to the coronation scene: you can see a brief cameo by Rapunzel and Flynn Rider.
Tangled, unlike Frozen, attempts to adapt a fairy tale into film. I’ve heard repeatedly that Frozen is based on Hans Andersen’s “The Snow queen,” which is a stretch. It may have been the inspiration for the film, but Frozen bears little or no resemblance to Andersen’s dark, strange, and stylized story of Gerda and Kai. Tangled may not accurately represent the Grimms’ “Rapunzel,” but since when did Disney ever attempt accuracy? The film contemporizes the fairy tale in its language and relationships, and Mandy Moore gives a convincing performance as a conflicted princess. Disney often kills off parents early, but the parent-child relationship is one that informs most of its films—this one being no exception. The controlling, passive-aggressive Mother Gothel is unlike any villain Disney has ever given us, and she’s repellant in a way that many villains can’t manage. She’s psychologically realistic in her concern for Rapunzel, right up until she turns. Less the evil witch than Snow White’s stepmother, and less the parental caricature than King Triton, Mother Gothel strikes an interesting balance between villain and caregiver. She’s no doubt a more frightening villain for parents watching than she is for kids.
I recently watched Tangled with my youngest daughter. Even though both of my kids are in their twenties, they often prefer watching Disney movies with their dad rather than something adult. It’s still better than teenage hood. The list of films I was allowed to watch during my daughter’s teenage years was strictly controlled, and it was always better if I knocked when approaching the TV-room door. I’m not complaining. We all love Disney movies, and we watch them again and again. This time, it was tangled.
I was happy to watch the film again, even if just to get Frozen out of my head. Flynn Rider is a bit of an ass, and the details get convoluted—the hair, the flower, the floating lights unnecessarily complicate the story. But I was impressed all over again with Mandy Moore. She’s no cookie-cutter Disney princess. For years, by which I mean before the Internet (was there really such a time?), I was convinced that Ariel, Belle, and Jasmine were played by the same actress. That’s what I mean by a cookie-cutter princess. Disney princesses aren’t just types; they’re personalities. Mandy Moore is not such a personality—thank god. She brought life to a type that hasn’t seen much innovation since Jodi Benson’s performance as Ariel in 1989.
Apart from interesting characters, Tangled is a conventional film—prince (in this case rogue) and princess meet, they variously rescue one another, and then they marry. Tangled’s Rapunzel is certainly more active than her fairy tale counterpart: she, at least, gets herself out of the bloody tower. And remember, she doesn’t need help to escape; she needs a guide to the floating lights. She doesn’t have twins, as does the Rapunzel in the fairy tale, but that seems a forgivable omission. Try explaining why Rapunzel has twins in the wilderness the next time you read the story to a child. Hopefully, you won’t have to.
Aside from its conventionality, Disney’s Tangled will hold up for a long time yet to come. It’s unlikely the corporation will top Frozen for a while, so forget about Anna and Elsa, and go back to some of your older favourites. I always offer a comparison between a fairy tale and its Disney adaptation as an essay topic for my children’s literature students. Tangled has been a popular choice since its release in 2010—with good reason. It’s a good film.

“11 Awful Truths behind Disney Movies that will make your Inner Child Scream” – Really?



“11 Awful Truths behind Disney Movies that will make your Inner Child Scream” recently appeared on Bustle, a lifestyle and Entertainment website. What are these truths? Perhaps not so awful, after all.
It’s a popular thing to rag on Disney, one of the handful of corporate giants, such as Microsoft, Apple, Coca-Cola, and Monsanto’s, that influences our lives on a daily basis. I have no problem with corporate bashing. But remember to take care where you point the finger
Let’s look more carefully at a couple of these apparently hair-raising truths behind Disney movies to see if they warrant packing your inner child off to bed. If you want, have a look for yourself first.

The Little Mermaid. “In the original story, the Little Mermaid doesn’t get the guy in the end, and she kills herself. So. There’s that.”

          This doesn’t strike me as such an ‘awful truth.’  It’s always good to know from where Disney gets its material. And if anything, it might be more shocking to read Andersen’s original story after watching the Disney film.
The Jungle Book. “The Disney version is incredibly racist, and in the original, the animals kill everyone.”
          That someone finds Disney racist is hardly surprising. The corporation’s use of racial stereotypes is often appalling, but hardly shocking. And again, pointing out what happens in Kipling is a comment on Kipling, not Disney.
Sleeping Beauty. “You have to be awake to give consent, for your information.”
          A fair point. However, and also to be fair, Disney is attempting to represent the folktale. Reading either the film or the folktale in terms of date-rape does both something of a disservice. Kissing sleeping and apparently dead princesses is an issue for folktale princes, it’s true, but it’s more a folktale issue than one for Disney.
And one of my favourites.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame. “When you really break this one down, Quasi Modo is a guy who is needlessly ostracized for having a physical deformity who’s enslaved by a religious guy who feels conflicted by his rape fantasies about a stripper. You’re welcome.”
          I don’t disagree, and I might say something similar to my children’s literature students. But such a point comes from critical watching, and again, seems hardly appalling. Admittedly, though, this film stayed on the Disney PG list for my own kids.
I love Disney films—not all of them, but most of the animated classics (as the corporation calls them). The corporation itself is a different matter. I still watch these films with my grown-up daughters. And yes, Disney films do some pretty weird things. Having said that, it’s possible to note the weirdness while enjoying the films at the same time. My point is that the Bustle article exaggerates these ‘awful truths.’ They are hardly awful, and they never sent my inner child running anywhere.
Enjoy the films. Watch them for what they do, and talk about why they fail. If you don’t like Disney, then you have the option to not bother. But if you return to these films as an adult, then all you need do is watch them as an adult. Talk about them, think about them, and don’t be afraid to address them as critically as anything else. But if you watch these films to recapture something of your lost or abandoned childhood, then you might be disappointed.

Red Riding Hood, Again Revisited

Red stepped briskly along the path. It was early, and she thought she could get to Granny’s by late morning. Granny hadn’t been feeling so well this past week, and Red was bringing her a few things to lift her spirits.
The forest was deep and dark, but Red knew she would be fine as long as she stuck to the path. That was the first rule of travelling through the forest—stick to the path. The second rule was not talking to strangers, especially large, hairy strangers who pretended to be kind and helpful. But in case she did meet such a stranger, Red had just what she needed in the pocket of her cloak.
Red came to a giant oak in the path. It was a tricky spot because she couldn’t see ahead or behind as she came around the tree. The path went down into a little dell, and came up and around the far side of the oak.
Red reached inside her cloak and pulled out her phone. If she was going to have company, then she would have it here. Sure enough, Red saw a tall, slouching figure come onto the path just ahead.
Red stepped quickly back behind the giant oak. She thumbed her phone.
“Hello, Red,” came Granny’s voice. “Are you on your way?”
“Yes,” said Red in a half whisper. “But I have company on the path.”
“You know what to do, dear,” said Granny. “I’ll see you soon, and we can have tea.”
Red repocketed her phone, and once again stepped out onto the path. Reaching again under her cloak, she took the can of bear-spray in hand. This stranger was about to get a surprise.
Looking wide-eyed and innocent, Red walked along the path towards the wolf that waited. He tried to smile ingratiatingly. Red almost felt sorry for the big brute.
“Good morning, little girl,” said the wolf. “And where are you off to this fine morning?” He was working his jaws hard to hide his slavering chops.
“Good morning,” said Red. “I’m just off to visit my Granny.” And with that, she pulled the bear-spray from beneath her cloak and let him have it full in the face.
Well, that wolf howled and yowled, and stumbled back off the path. Red repocketed her spray and carried on, and for a long time she heard the wolf yammering and crashing through the forest.
That’s the end of that, thought Red, smugly. But little girls are not as wise as old grannies in the ways of Wiley wolves.
The wolf found a pool in the forest and ducked his head repeatedly until the sting lessened in his eyes and nose. “The little wretch,” he said to himself, grimly. “I’ll have that little brat—and her granny as well.” And with that the wolf loped through the forest in search of Granny’s house.
By that time, Red had reached Granny’s, and she was busily unpacking her basket and telling Granny all about her adventure in the forest. But Granny was less impressed than Red expected. Remember that grannies are wiser in the ways of wolves and other unpleasantness in the forest than little girls.
Granny patted Red’s cheek. “Very good, dear,” she said. “But we have more to do.”
Granny had Red help her with a large cauldron that they maneuvered onto the fire. They filled it with water and stoked the fire. Soon the water in the cauldron was roiling and boiling, and Granny’s face took on an expectant expression. They didn’t have to wait long.
A knock came at the door. Red looked with alarm at her Granny, but the old woman simply sat on by the fire.
“Oh please, old granny,” said a plaintive voice from outside the door. “Open up and let in a poor, starving stranger.”
Granny rolled her eyes. “Always the same trick,” she muttered.
The wolf, for it was indeed the wolf outside the door, stared in disgust at the little house. He knew the old lady was too cunning to just open the door. He thought of huffing and puffing, but that one didn’t always work. Eyeing a tree beside the house, he thought of a better plan. He scrambled up the tree, and with a swing and a grunt, he stood next to the chimney.
He didn’t like the look of the smoke coming from the chimney, but he was bent on revenge and a meal, so in headfirst he went.
Red was still standing watching Granny by the fire. She heard the wolf on the roof, and feeling suddenly afraid, she heard him scrambling down the chimney.
Now, if you know anything about chimneys, you will know they are full of smoke and soot. That gave Granny her edge. When the wolf popped his head out of the chimney, he shook his head and gave a terrific sneeze. Quick as a flash, Granny reached out and gave his ears a terrific tug. The wolf fell straight into the pot of roiling, boiling water. And that was the end of him.
When the local woodsman, swinging his great, sharp axe came striding through the forest, he knocked at Granny’s door. There he found Granny and Little Red having tea and cake at the table. He was a little disappointed not to have a shot at the wolf, but he was very glad to join them for tea.

Red Riding Hood Revisited


He preferred the dream. In the dream, he could run, he could play, and he could watch the fall of water through the canyon and smell the scent of growing things as he joyously pelted through the forest with the others. But when the dream ended, he would get pulled once again into the story, and there his choices would cease. He would be compelled once again to play out the story to its end. And the end was always the same—the screaming, the taste of blood, the running, and finally being hunted down by the man with the axe. And the man always killed him—every time, the same ending to the same story.
He never minded the end. Meeting the man with the axe meant that once again he would dream. He would again run with the others through the forest; he would feel the joy in his heart that came with the forest smells and the silence beneath the trees. And he would be free from the terrible appetite that drove him whenever the story took him.
He never remembered dreaming while he was part of the story, but he always remembered the story while he dreamed. Many others lived this dream with him, old men and old women, handsome young men—barely more than boys—who strode through the trees looking wonderingly at everything about them. There were maidens, too. Young girls with serene expressions, untroubled by desire, who occasionally stopped to look at him and smile. Not often, but sometimes he would trot up to one of these maidens, and they would exchange a silent greeting. The maid would scratch behind his ears, and he would close his eyes in rapture. But he often felt an uneasiness at such times, remembering the story and what it did to him. And not just him, but all of the others who dreamed the same dream.
And it never lasted. The dream always came to an end, and in exactly the same way. He would feel the pull of the story. It caught him like a trap, like a fist around his heart—clenching and constricting.
He would feel himself being pulled out of the dream to emerge in another forest. But he was no longer himself. He had forgotten the dream, and his mind had shifted into something more savage, more primitive and cunning, filling him with the desire for the blood of young girls.
In the story, he was no longer four-footed. There was usually just enough of himself left upon entering the story to register his two-footedness. But then he simply stood tall, quivering with the hunger that burned him through and through. He stepped from the trees onto a path, just as a young girl came around a bend beneath the shadow of a giant oak.
She was young, barely more than a child, and still carrying baby fat in her face and belly. Her blonde hair was braided tightly over each shoulder, and the red cloak she wore was ill-fitting. A basket looped one arm, and her blue eyes were wide and curious as she walked along.
The blood-lust filled him, causing his mouth to run with saliva. Dissembling carefully—dropping his head and slouching his shoulders—he stepped forward to greet the little girl, to pretend concern for her well-being, and hungering all over again for her sweet, young flesh, to once again follow the story to its unwavering conclusion.

Is Listening to an Audio Book Still Reading?


Somebody asked the question on Twitter recently, is listening to an audio book still reading? I appreciated the question. My first response is an emphatic, yes. But the question itself raises other questions around accesibility and literacy that are, I think, worth asking. But perhaps later.
For now, think of your favourite book. Book lovers are lovers of books—not just the stories they discover, but lovers of the books they hold in their hands—the ones they take to bed, the ones they take on the bus, and the ones they read at every opportunity. Many people have an intense, physical relationship with their favourite books, something which I’ve always envied.
I remember spending time in libraries as a kid. They were quiet places where you never wanted to fool around. Sometimes I never got further than staring at the shelves—those rows upon rows of books. And sometimes I would get dizzy from looking at the endless spines until I finally pulled one down to leaf through its pages.
I’ve been totally blind since the age of ten, but I still have a similar experience inside a library today. I stand at a shelf and run my hand over the books, and I recapture that early sense of wonder at the endless stories and wealth of information that would take more than a lifetime to absorb. But my experience doesn’t end there. All of these books, all of this information is so much paper that I can’t access without the help of technology or another person.
Which brings me back to my opening question. Is listening to an audio book still reading?
Again, I would answer with an emphatic, yes. But I would add something else. Books are no more defined by their physicality than I am defined by my blindness. A recorded book is still a book; a Kindle book is still a book.
According to a friend of mine, as technologies go, a book is difficult to beat. They are affordable, easily stashed in a bag or coat pocket, and they always work. On the other hand, a book is more than just its physical pages. How do I know? Because a book continues to occupy your inner landscape long after you’ve read it, and long after you’ve returned it to the library or lost it in a move. Does how it get there matter?
One of the first books I read as a newly blinded ten-year-old was on an old open reel tape recorder. That was J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. These days, I download audio books from Audible and talking books from the CNIB Library. I get books from the Internet, and I download books to my IPad from Kindle. Suffice it to say that I’m operating on a number of electronic platforms.
As an instructor at a university, I use all of these formats in the classroom. And in every class I make sure somebody reads out loud from whatever we are studying. Ask yourself this, is being read to still reading?
People read audio books for many reasons. they read them while they drive, while they cook, or while they walk. I read audio books because I have to, and that has become one of the ways I define myself—as a reader. And reading is reading, however you manage it.

Summer Reading: Be a Literary Tourist


Summertime is a time to read—a time to read new books, reread old books, or finally get to that series you’ve been wanting to read for months. You can travel to half-imagined places, and never get stuck in an airport.
Summer reading comes with a freedom that I don’t experience at any other time of year. Since I teach children’s literature at a university, much of my reading during the fall and winter months is dedicated to kid’s and young adult books. But now it’s July. That means I can read what I want. My MP3 player is my mini-library, so I read where ever I am—and whatever I want.
Two summers ago I decided to read everything in the Dune series by Frank Herbert. I read the original six books by Herbert, and then I read the rest of the Dune saga written by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson. It was bliss. I told someone at the university what I did, and he thought it was such a good idea that he read everything by Philip K. Dick the next summer.
I spent part of last summer reading Bernard Cornwell’s The Warrior Chronicles, and I ended August with Stephen King’s Under the Dome. No offense to Stephen King fans, but I thought the ending ridiculous. Far too much like The Squire of gothos in Star Trek, the Original series.
Here are some of my picks for this summer:
Margaret Atwood, The MaddAddam Trilogy
Why haven’t I read this series? I’ve mostly been avoiding it up to now. All part of my Atwood eversion.
Trudi Canavan, The High Lord
I’ve read the first two in the trilogy, and I want to finish it. The series has a slower pace than most, but I highly recommend it.
Robert Galbraith, The Silk Worm
In case you didn’t know, this is J. K. Rowling. I read The Cuckoo’s Calling, the first of the Cormoran Strike books. The big reveal at the end was painfully convoluted, but I still liked the book.
Guy Gavriel Kay, The River of Stars
I’ve read one of Kay’s books every summer for several years now. It’s something of a tradition, so I’m happy to revisit Kay’s world. The River of Stars follows Under heaven, which I read last summer.
There are some of my summer picks. Where ever you are this summer, whatever you are doing, remember to pack a book. And if you read something good, then convince your friends to read it too. Books change people’s lives, so never deny someone the possibility of a new life by keeping your best reads to yourself. And, of course, enjoy.