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Watching Princesses With My Princess, Part 1: Princess Protection Program

9 Jan

I have a confession to make: I’m a trained film scholar. That sounds more dangerous that it is, though for a while it threatened to kill my enjoyment of movies. This blog was conceived as to keep those critical, scholarly muscles toned while I pursue a career elsewhere.

Last year I flexed those muscles preparing and presenting a paper on film versions of Snow White. As an academic, my training and most of my work has centered around Latin American film and video, particularly feminist work and images of Jews. But now that I am not affiliated with an academic institution and have no pressure to build a curriculum vitae, I write about what I think about. And, as a mom, I think a lot about princesses. (As a scientific experiment, I’ve posted my conference paper here. I have little intention of pursuing publication, but welcome all comments.)

I’ve decided to kick off 2014 with a periodic series of reviews and rumination about princess movies, both animated and live action.

Princess-Protection-ProgramEarlier this fall I watched the Disney Channel original move Princess Protection Program (2009) with Culture Sprout.  She loves princesses and she thinks Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato are heavenly, so what better way to pass an easy 88 minutes with my kiddo?  I expected this Disney star vehicle to be a fluffy, silly movie that I’d probably keep half an eye on.  I won’t say I was riveted, but I will admit to being happily surprised at the film’s portrayal of teenage life and its deviation from the standard Disney princess format.

Princess Rosalinda Montoya (Demi Lovato) is rehearsing her coronation when her fictional country, Costa Luna (a sort of Latin American-Italian influenced place, in a Gomez Addams kind of way), is invaded by a despot from the island next door. She is rescued by the super-secret Princess Protection Program, an international agency that helps princesses imperiled by coups, crushes, and who knows what. Her rescuer, Joe Mason,  takes her to safety at his home in the bayou in Louisiana. He means to pass her off as his niece with the help of his daughter Carter (Selena Gomez).

Like most fairytales, this one is set in motion by the death of a parent, the king, and the arrival of a villain who wants to usurp power. The princess is doomed, if not cursed, to abandon her country in order to save her own life. She must rely on the kindness of strangers in a strange land. From here, the film actually exposes many tropes of fairy tales and pokes fun at our cultural obsession with royalty. You see, Rosie is ill-suited for a life without servants. She quickly learns that Carter will not help her get ready for bed, that she has to share a bedroom, and that not everyone sleeps in pink silk nightgowns. She must discover what it is like to live as a real person in a real world, including a high school full of nerds, jocks, and mean girls.

But there is another princess in this movie. The kind of princess Culture Sprout can relate to–an only daughter of  a devoted father. She also has to learn to share, and to trust.  Together Rosie and Carter have to face down the mean girls at high school, particularly Chelsea (Jamie Chung) whose sole preoccupation is with getting voted prom queen. Chelsea wants so badly to be prom queen that she’ll lie, cheat, and back stab her best friend. To beat her at her own game, Carter and Rosie enlist the help of all the wallflowers and the nerds. Shades of The Princess Diaries (Gary Marshall, 2001), to be sure, but not star-studded in the same way (you really can’t beat Julie Andrews as the Dowager Queen, unless you can get Maggie Smith.)

In the end the real princess teaches Carter that each girl has a princess within. That being a princess is not about gowns and jewels, but about being kind, caring, and thoughtful, and about taking care of the people who depend on you. The girls demonstrate pluck and courage, bringing down not just Chelsea (I’ll admit I cheered at her comeuppance) but also the general who invaded Costa Luna. In the process, they elevate the wallflowers and delight the nerds. The high school social order renovated and Rosie is successfully crowned queen of Costa Luna. (This is not a spoiler–it’s a Disney movie. It has to end this way.)

Of course, it was Disney-clean. These teens don’t smoke, drink, make out, or generally do anything more real than send text messages. But, just as there are stock good girl characters there are also stock mean girl characters. The movie is tailor-made for opening a discussion of the right and wrong way to treat people. And, while Disney princess movies (especially the older ones) generally annoy me, particularly when I enjoy them, this film tickled me. I’m not really sure why–maybe just because the feminist in me didn’t feel guilty about enjoying the film! Or maybe because if I had to define its genre, I couldn’t call it a fairytale. There is no magic, no curse, and no prince or fairy godmother to save the day. Rather, it combines the elements that make the best and most fun coming of age movies rise to the top–character growth, ingenuity, and pluck. While this isn’t quite Clueless, it also isn’t Little Mermaid (which I watched with Culture Sprout last week). Princess Rosalinda only lives happily ever after because she recognizes Carter as a friend, trusts her, and earns her respect. Together the girls prove that girls can do just about anything, or at least solve their own problems, big and small.


Bugs Bunny at the Symphony or Lessons from Looney Tunes

29 Jan

Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, Porky Pig, and all the Warner Brothers characters played a large role in my childhood television consumption. I watched them with my brother, or later snuggled under a blanket by myself.  Elmer Fudd, Tweetie Bird, and Porky Pig dripped into our vernacular–“I’m hunting wabbits,” “I thought I taw a puddy tat. I did. I did see a puddy tat.”  “That’s all folks.”

Not until years later did I learn that the most of  “Saturday morning cartoons” we watched were, in fact, theatrical shorts originally produced to pair with feature films and to be shown in movie theaters. Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies were produced from 1930 to 1969, the earliest ones capitalizing on film’s exciting, new sound technology. While the animation is limited (at least by today’s standards), the sound design of these shorts is quite impressive. Just three short years after Al Jolson uttered the first synchronized speech and sang on screen, Bugs and friends were singing and dancing in perfect harmony and synchronization.

BB at Symph


A recent trip with Culture Sprout to Chicago’s Symphony Hall for “Warner Brother’s Presents Bugs Bunny at the Symphony” taught me so much more. A thoroughly entertaining concert by the Warner Brother’s Symphony Orchestra, conducted by George Daugherty, “Bugs Bunny at the Symphony” consists of  dozens of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies shorts, some screened alone, others screened with live accompaniment. In between , Mr. Daugherty talked about the history and music of the films.

Here’s what I found most fascinating:

Bob Clampett's Looney Tunes Porky Pig intro in...

Bob Clampett’s Looney Tunes Porky Pig intro in 1938–1939 Produced by Leon Schlesinger (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  • As the names imply, Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies had music at their core. With Warner Bros. vast music library to draw on, the films included swing, jazz, and the popular music of their day as well. Daugherty noted that many viewers experienced classical music and opera for the first time while watching these films. Certainly I did.  From Rossini to Liszt, from Brahms to Strauss to Tchaikovsky, Bugs and friends covered them all.
  • It was a sound editor for these animated shorts who perfected the “click track,” a kind of audio-metronome that allows the orchestra to synchronize its performance to the film in the sound studio.
  • I think my favorite tidbit–and movie–was about “What’s Opera Doc?” (1957), which parodies Wagner’s Ring Cycle (all of them) and two other Wagnerian operas, all in 6 minutes or so. In it Elmer Fudd chases Bugs around, Fudd trying to “Kill the Wabbit.” Bugs distracts him as an alluring Brunhilda. It’s the standard Elmer Fudd-Bugs Bunny conflict, with the expected interruptions and resolution. Culture Sprout laughed at the shenanigans; I laughed at the collapsing of I don’t know how many hours of heavy, tragic opera into 6 hilarious minutes.

For as many times as we see Bugs Bunny in drag, we also see him in a chorus line, conducting an orchestra, and reenacting our favorite musicals and hit songs. Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies largely followed a format similar to the American musical movie genre; they simply pared it down to the essentials of conflict and song, sped it up, and made us laugh.

It’s been a long time since I saw Tweetie Bird trick the Puddy Tat or Road Runner torture Wile E. Coyote. As a film scholar and mother, I  see them differently now. I suppose you could look at the role reversal in these duos as teaching children about using your wits to outsmart a bully. Or, just about sight gags. It was instructive to hear the audience laugh each time Puddy Tat’s gum bubble was burst by Tweetie Bird. Even though we knew it was coming, we laughed.

Of course, watching as a mother, in a city currently notorious for its annual murder count, I couldn’t help but think about the violence in these shorts. Violence creates the joke and in the end Wile E. Coyote and Puddy Tat live to entertain us another day. Culture Sprout did not recognize what she saw as violent–I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but I am positive that these musical marvels have not taught her that violence is a reasonable way to deal with conflict.

Culture Sprout did sit on the edge of her seat for two hours and was visibly disappointed at intermission, until she realized that the show wasn’t over yet.  In one two-hour period, she met my favorite childhood cartoon characters and experienced more classical music and opera than I could have wittingly introduced her to.  And she loved it. Mr. Daugherty, with his evident and infectious love of music and movies, introduced her to concepts of silent cinema (okay, she already knew about that), cadence, click tracks, the fourth wall, and the joy of listening.  He made sure she recognizes the names Chuck Jones and Kurt Stalling. And his two principal violinists showed her that women can lead a symphony orchestra.

There’s a lot of fodder for cultural discussion in these films–like Bugs Bunny’s cross-dressing, Porky Pig’s romantic failures, the above-mentioned reversals of natural prey/predator laws, parody as an art form, racism, just to mention a few. That scholarship abounds, I assure you, and it is quite interesting. But, for a glorious two hours, we got to think about the music, the form, and the function–rather than the sub or meta texts.

If you have the chance to experience “Bugs Bunny at the Symphony,” run, don’t walk, to the box office. You’ll have no regrets.

As for me, I am still waiting for Wile E. Coyote to finally get that smug little bird.

Thats all folks

The Odd Life of Timothy Green, Fable or Fantasy? (Movie Notes)

4 Sep
The Odd Life of Timothy Green

The Odd Life of Timothy Green (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Odd Life of Timothy Green has been classified as a “fantasy drama” film, and I suppose that if you need to put a genre label on it, this works well enough.   Yet, for me, the magical, transformative, and moral qualities that make the film enjoyable (or not, depending on your taste) make it more clearly a fable than a fantasy, and perhaps closer to a fairytale. But, this is a fable meant to teach adults, not children, hidden in a film for the whole family.

This quirky little film has ignited interesting conversation and moving online video footage. People either love it or hate it. I found it sweet, charming, and, well-inoffensive. I agree with the reviewers who have noted that this could have, perhaps should have, been a breakout summer film and, sadly, just didn’t quite hit the mark to get there.

[SPOILER ALERT] The film is narrated as an extended flashback by Cindy and Jim Green, a happily married couple who are, as we meet them, being interviewed by an adoption agency official. She asks them what experience they have. Together they respond “Timothy” and then begin to tell a tale that even they know seems unbelievable.

Their story begins with the heartbreak as Jim and Cindy learn that no medical means are available for them to have their own child.  Devastated by the news of infertility, they return home and devise a grieving process. They write down the qualities that their child would have had–their hopes and dreams for their offspring–put the slips of paper in a box and, in the dead of night, bury the box in the vegetable garden that Cindy lovingly tends.

While they are sleeping, a sudden electrical rainstorm breaks out, and Jim is awoken by the heavy rains. He thinks he hears something in the house and gets up to investigate.  Eventually, he and Cindy discover a naked, mud-covered boy in their house.  Seeing the little leaves growing out of his calves (yes, that’s right), they run to the garden where they realize that their box of traits has sprouted a real, live boy.

Jim and Cindy are good, warm people, desperate  to be parents. So, when Timothy calls them Mom and Dad, they accept readily, even greedily.  The next day they introduce Timothy to their family–Cindy’s too-perfect sister with her over-programmed, over-achieving kids and Jim’s dad, who celebrates manly success, but ignores all other human behavior.

There are a lot of reviews of this film (see links below). My aim is to talk about this film as it relates to fairytales or fables. Fairytales are typically analyzed as an ancient way of teaching life lessons, perhaps about sexuality or worldly dangers. Fables have moralistic lessons, Mishnaic almost. In both instances, the stories (which began in oral traditions, and exist in some form in nearly every culture I’ve ever encountered, are intended to teach children.

The Odd Life of Timothy Green is quite unusual in that it is a fable about parenthood and community, about what a parent is or should be.  Witness: A lovely, young, hardworking couple is given a devastating diagnosis of incurable infertility. Unlike what we see in the news (or celebrity rags) there is no miracle. They have to work hard to adopt, after they have mourned their genetic child.

Meanwhile, Jim’s dad is a macho, insensitive father who, we learn, has never been unconditionally supportive. If the kid is on the bench, Jim’s dad leaves the soccer game.  Cindy’s sister has kids whose extracurricular activities have been chosen not because of their interests but with an eye toward getting them in to the right college. Her family doesn’t through a holiday party–they give a holiday concert, encouraging good cheer while demonstrating their musical prowess and magazine photogenic qualities. Both of these parental archetypes are focused on achievement and image. The contrast to Jim and Cindy seems intent on portraying them as having a certain kind of moral bankruptcy, or at least having very shallow reasons for wanting to be parents.

Cindy and Jim, on the other hand, receive Timothy without question and with pure love. They do try to change, then hide, his difference, but as parents this may be their biggest mistake.

Every now and then, the flashback stops and the adoption official interjects a comment or question meant to make Jim and Cindy (and us) question their fitness as parents, their ability to make decisions, to handle intense emotions. But, when we return to the narrative, the contrast of their openness and unconditional love to Cindy’s sister and Jim’s dad makes clear who director Peter Hedges (writer What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, dir Pieces of April) thinks is the better parent.

Timothy’s friend Joni provides another touchpoint for understanding Hedge’s message about community and interpersonal relations. Timothy first sets eyes on her during one of the moments when the emergence of the sun has caused him to stop in his tracks and tilt his face up, as plants do. Joni’s presence interrupts his meditation and he watches her ride away on a bicycle strewn with leaves. Perhaps her recognizes her as a druid of sorts, a spirit of the trees. Though she seems to be several years older than he, they develop a special friendship, eventually creating a secret world in the woods decorated with all kinds of canopies and furniture they have crafted out leaves, flowers, and tree bark. When it is time for him to go, he explains it first to Joni.

The appearance of Timothy is not just a gift to Jim, Cindy, and Joni. As he appears, Stanleyville is in the midst of a long drought and its major employer, a pencil factory, is about to lay off hundreds of workers. The town itself seems to have lost its fertility.  Jim and Cindy restore this when they Timothy’s innocent wish that they invent another kind of pencil. When they succeed, the plant owner’s son tries to take credit. Timothy, uncowed, grabs a microphone at a town meeting and declares his parents the inventors. He tells his story–leaves and all–to set things straight. The lesson here, as with the contrasting parent examples, seems to be that it is the focus on personal achievement that has left Stanleyville dry and that community and humility will jumpstart the econonmy of the town.

With the factory’s acceptance of the new pencil, Timothy’s season of change ends. Leaving gifts of his fallen leaves to remind people of what he brought, he disappears as mysteriously as he arrived. Mud to mud, as it were.  His truth, however, remains.

As several commentators point out, watching film that “stuns you by breaking your heart seems to be a sort of rite of passage for children of a certain age.” Culture Sprout didn’t see it that way.  She didn’t think of Timothy as having died. Rather, she understood that he was a plant, of sorts, a fabulous creation, who, like trees, had a cycle to complete. When I asked if she was sad at the end, she said, no, that Timothy had done what he came to do and that, like he said, it was time for him to go. Perhaps her life experience has made her differently sensitive than other children, but it was in fact, her reaction, her innate understanding of the destiny Timothy had come to fulfill, that got me thinking about this film as fable rather than fantasy.

This is a lovely family film. Culture Sprout enjoyed it as did Culture Grandmother.  But, it is not a fable or a fairytale in the usual sense. Its lessons are for us–the middle-aged custodians of our children’s future. As a good fable tries, it teaches us that there is another way to make our towns (our economy, our families) creative and fertile again, that we need to look beyond striving to get our kids in to the right schools or only cheering for the varsity soccer team.  It wants us to find value in nature and in the natural affinities that make us a community. It is, actually, a bit schmaltzy. It’s also a lovely film to contemplate as we enter the preparation period for the Jewish high holidays and in the run-up to the November elections. Ultimately, it teaches as Aesop himself might have, to contemplate that it is our job, each of us, to make our world a better place. Or, perhaps, as Voltaire might have, “That we must cultivate our gardens.”

Princess Mononoke (Movie Notes)

29 Jul
Gene Siskel Film Center

Gene Siskel Film Center (Photo credit: Thomas Hawk)

Moving 800 miles for the second time in as many years is not my idea of a good time. But if you’re a cinephile, and you’ve already spent two decades in Chicago, moving back to the Windy City has its distinct pleasures.

One of these is the Gene Siskel Film Center at the School of the Art Institute.  The programming is always cutting edge, and you can count on a steady diet of new Asian cinema, the Black Harvest Film Festival, classic Hollywood favorites and forgotten gems, and films you might never otherwise have the chance to see. I  had the privilege of teaching at the Film Center in the early nineties. My students and public audiences challenged me–many were quite knowledgeable and they kept me on my toes–and introduced me to the great public conversation around film fostered by the Film Cener.

Studio Ghibli

Studio Ghibli (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Our corporate housing is just over the river from the Film Center so it was with glee that I picked up the July program and saw that the month includes a series of Studio Ghibli films.  Culture Sprout is a big fan of Ponyo (2008*) and My Neighbor Totoro (1988). And, of course, we loved The Secret World of Arietty (2010).

Princess Mononoke

Princess Mononoke (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, last Saturday Culture Sprout and I walked to the Film Center to see Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke (1997), written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki.

Princess Mononoke is an allegorical fantasy that tackles the looming issue of the destruction of the natural world by human progress. Produced two decades before Wall-E (2008), Pixar’s post-trash-Apocolyptic  tale about humankind fleeing a planet they have (literally) trashed, Princess Mononoke‘s conflict and lessons seem prescient. Yet, it doesn’t treat odernization and manufacturing as inherently evil. Instead, the film tries to find a way to balance the inevitable “march of progress,” and its disturbing repercussions for nature, with our desire to preserve nature.

The film opens as evil approaches the long-isolated Amishi village. Amidst swirling clouds, the elder scout and the young prince sense, rather than see, evil approaching. When danger finally emerges from the trees, it is in the form of a giant boar who seems possessed by a covering of worms that ooze from his body, forming devilish shapes as they torment him and cause him to rage. In order to save his vilalge, Ashitaka (Billy Cuddup) fights and kills the demon-boar. As it lays dying, it curses the Amishi people to know the hatred and evil that have consumed it. This opening 10 minutes is awash in suspense, action, and foreboding.

When the spot where the boar touches him burns, the wise woman tells Ashitaka that the poison will eventually kill him. She counsels him to travel to the West, from where the demon came, see “with eyes unclouded by hate” what has caused the giant boar to turn from god to demon, and perhaps learn to live with his fate.

Ashitaka sets off on his quest with solemn determination, riding his red elk, Yakul. The film slows down to the lovely, thoughtful cadence we’ve come to expect from Studio Ghibli. The animation expresses the fable through its pen and ink-like renderings of the historic setting (the latter part of the Muromachi Period).

Along the way, he passes a village being pillaged by Samarai warriors. He looses an arrow to help and discovers that his poisoned arm has superhuman powers.  A monk named Jigo(Billy Bob Thornton)  tells him the story of the forbidden forest in which live giant animal gods. Jigo leads him to believe that the spirit of this forest might be able to cure Ashitaka.

Eventually Ashitaka comes to Iron Mountain, on the edge of the forest, where he encounters Lady Eboshi (Minnie Driver), whose workers toil at mining iron which she turns into rifles and ammunition. He realizes that the iron ball which destroyed the boar god came from this mountain. At the same time, he encountars Moro (Gillian Anderson), the wolf god, her two cubs, and San (Claire Danes), a human girl whose spirit Moro has possessed as payment for crimes committed by the girl’s parents. The wolf tribe is determined to destroy Eboshi in order to save the forest.

He finds himself suddenly at the center–physically and morally–of the struggle between the gods and spirits of the forest, and the humans who consume the forest and want to destroy its protectors. Ashitaka’s eyes are unclouded by hate, as the wise woman instructed him. Moreover, his people have been exiled to a remote corner of Japan, where they have lived for more than five centuries, forgotten by time and culture. He knows nothing of hate, war, or deceit. In fact, when the boar-demon first attacks the village, he tries to reason with it. Ashitaka is a pure soul. He sees the good in each person, doesn’t judge, and tries to find a balanced solution.

The deligthful art will keep you engaged, even at the slowest moments (occasionally the film feels like it could have been edited for a slightly faster pace). The film’s orchestral soundtrack conveys the historical and fabular nature of the film. At times it swells  menacingly, other times it tinkles both gleefully and slighty ghoulishly when the kodama or spirits of the trees (kind of like Druids) appear.

Kodama in Princess Mononoke.

The kodama were fascinating to me.  Like the Wil’o Whisps in Brave, they lead Ashitaka through the forest.  He has to trust that they will guide him safely and that they are friendly as they don’t talk. A small lesson about letting nature guide our human behavior.

There is a lot to unpack in this film about industrialization’s toll on the natural world. Beyond that there are all of the folkloric connections to Japanese culture and the fascinating ways in which we can see the same characters and themes in Western culture. And wonderful commentary to be made about a tale full of magic in which the prince and princess become good friend, but respect each other’s dreams and part, as good friends, at the end of the film. Princess Mononoke, for that is who San is, is a princess we can cheer–she is fierce, strong, determined, kind, smart, and loyal. She falls for Ashitaka, sort of, but I think what really happens is that she recognizes her own humanity in his and is able to empathize.  Certainly we can aspire for our own daughters to have such qualities.

Happy Feet and Wall-E also have strong environmental lessons and questions embedded in engaging stories. As a film scholar, I know there’s a paper in there somewhere.  As a mom, I wonder if kids take these ideas to heart more than the generations that precede them has done.

As we left the theater and got smacked by +100 degree heat, I couldn’t help but think about global warming, Charlotte’s concern with it, and what kind of world we’re leaving to her generation. The folks at Studio Ghibli have been thinking about this for more than +20 years. Too bad the rest of us haven’t caught up with them.

I was worried that Princess Mononoke would be bit too long for 7-year old Culture Sprout, but she was riveted. We definitely recommend seeing this if you have the chance.

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La Luna, A Fable about Family and Imagination (movie notes)

9 Jul

Since Georges Méliès took us on A Trip to the Moon (Le voyage dans la lune) in 1902, we’ve been returning there in the movies.  We are perpetually fascinated by the moon, wondering about its surface; the “man in the moon;” and how it affects our lives on earth. Many films, like Méliès’, depict the moon as something we should conquer, or at least master. In 1969, our fantasies were fulfilled when the first astronauts walked on the moon and planted an American flag. Now we know the moon. And, yet, the moon still figures largely in our imagination, a source of wonder, magic, and fascination. Though we know why its shape shifts across the course of the month, we continue to gaze, awed by the shape and color we see each night.

And, so, it is not surprising that a film would focus on the moon and its wonders. But it is heartwarming that a film could capture the magic we attribute to the moon despite the realities we know about it.

La Luna  (dir. Enrico Casarosa, 2011) is a fable about a little boy who is welcomed by his father and grandfather into the family business. He’s not quite sure what they do or why they’re in a rowboat on the water at night. Papa and Grandpa present him with a newsboy cap that matches theirs. As he puts it on, they argue over whether he should wear it the way Papa does or in Grandpa’s style. Slowly, he learns that they are not fishermen, but moonsweepers, a magical profession that also drives one of my favorite children’s books.*

The boy looks in awe at the moon reflecting on the horizon of the water. (Credit: 84th Academy Awards)

Once he arrives on the moon, aided by old-fashioned tools like a ladder, rope, and  an anchor, the boy discovers hundreds of glowing stars, some still warm.  He watches in awe as a shooting star lands near him. When his grandfather and father join him, they take from the tool shed the tools they use to sweep the stars. Each urges the boy to use his technique. While they argue, a huge shooting star lands.  It’s too big for them to dislodge and sweep and the grown ups are stumped. Finally,  the boy figures out the secret and takes care of the big star. He uses a rake. Gently. I’ll leave it at that.

The film glows with the boy’s anticipation, curiosity, and ingenuity.

After the boy solves the problem, each person picks up his own tool and they sweep and shape the stars.

Like so many children’s stories, La Luna is about generational conflicts, and how families find ways to continue their traditions while simultaneously allowing each member to express his individuality. Without spoken words, the film conveys a broad range of emotions, expressing–sometimes quite humorously–the complexity of relationships between these three people.  It captures a child’s sense of wonder, both as he observes the moon and stars; and as he watches his papa and grandpa bicker.  His eyes couldn’t be wider or warmer.

It did not surprise me to learn that Casarosa was a storyboard artist on Up and Ratatouille. The openness of the character’s faces reminded me of both films. Moreover, the film’s focus on intergenerational family relationships, finding balance, and maintaining a sense of wonder, certainly dovetail with themes from Up.

I also wasn’t surprised to learn that one of Casarosa’s first film memories were of seeing E.T. as an eleven-year old child. This experience, Casarosa said in his Academy Award questionnaire, showed him that films could generate powerful emotions in their viewers. It seems to me that he was marked by E.T. in another way: He clearly has an affinity for fables and for celestial mystery. Casarosa uses the fable to find the magic of family; I think that is what makes the film so heartwarming.

The connection between family and fable, family and mystery has long been a part of how we use stories to teach children about the social groups they occupy. Certainly, Brave and other animated films touch on intergenerational conflict and resolution.  Typically, however, in our more known fairytales, the older generation has to step aside for the younger generation. Not in Brave (stay tuned for Culture Bean’s thoughts on that). And, not in La Luna.  It is refreshing to see a film focus on finding a way to live together; share our strengths and similarities; and savor our differences.


*The Moon and the Night Sweeper by Mai S. Kemble is a must-read picture book about a boy’s flight of fancy and dance with the little-known man who sweeps the stardust each night. I reviewed it for (the now-defunct) Book Buds KidsLit Review in 2008.  Check it out by clicking here.

Mirror, Mirror On the Wall, Who Is Snow White, After All? (Movie Notes)

16 May

When I walked out of the theater after seeing Mirror, Mirror, all I wanted to do was turn around and go see it again. I don’t have this reaction to many films. Starring Academy Award-winner Julia Roberts as the aging Queen and Lily Collins (The Blind Side) as the beguiling Snow White, this take on the classic fairytale upended my expectations; offered twists in just the right places; and was equally enjoyed (perhaps for different reasons) by me and Culture Sprout. In a season of heroines who push gender barriers, Snow White stands out as a character who is wholly (and wholesomely) feminine and actively defining her own destiny. Being a girl does not mean that this princess is going to get pushed around.

You know the story, of course, of the young princess, whose mother dies in childbirth and whose father remarries and then dies, leaving Snow White in the hands of the beautiful, vain, psychopathic stepmother.  Who better to cast as the “bewitching beauty with a towering temper” than Roberts, whose own breakout moment was the Cinderella-esque Pretty Woman (1990)? Roberts is certainly still gorgeous, but she can no longer command the ingenue roles, much as the evil Queen can no longer claim the “fairest in the land.” She brings delicious irony to the role, clearly enjoying the Queen’s over-the-top temperament.  In this way, she is reminiscent of Helen Bonham Carter’s Red Queen in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2010). The costume and special effects render her evilness simply sublime.

Collins, like Snow White, is a young, relatively unknown starlet. Mirror Mirror fashions her in the style of Audrey Hepburn in her own princess movie, Roman Holiday(William Wyler, 1953). The allusion is apt: Snow is a bit naive at first, but once her eyes are opened, she takes charge of her own destiny.Like Anya, Snow sneaks away from her guard. She is not out to experience a day as a regular person; Rather, she wants to see what has happened to the people her father ruled joyfully and kindly. Unlike Hepburn’s Anya, Snow is not uncomfortable with her royalty. Once she sees the desperation her stepmother’s selfish vanity has wrought, she fights to reclaim her throne.

Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday (Wyler, 1953)

Lily Collins in Mirror, Mirror (Tarsem Singh, 2012)

Mirror, Mirror turns the tale on its side to make this the story of a princess who earns back her crown, rather than being a victim saved by “true love’s kiss.”  When Brighton (Nathan Lane) cannot bring himself to follow the Queen’s orders to dispose of Snow, Snow becomes a rogue warrior princess, leading a gang of bandit dwarves.

You read that right: Once through the scary forest, Snow charms the dwarves into helping her. They are not miners with cute names. And she is not a simpy, singing girl playing house in the woods with seven little men. These dwarves are outlaws, exiled by the queen because they are “ugly.” Napoleon, Half Pint, Wolf, Butcher, Chuckles, Grub, and, in a lovely nod to the original tale, Grimm, rebel against the Queen by robbing the rich along the forest trails. They do not, however, return the gold to the people. Instead, they hoard it; they are dwarves after all! But, Snow White, knowing the poverty and desperation caused by her stepmother’s rule, convinces the dwarves that they can re-enter society with her if they are willing to be a bit more like Robin Hood. In turn, they train her to use a sword and, in a hilarious sequence reminiscent of a Disney film, help her create a costumed persona for her bandit-self.

My favorite versions of princess stories remake the tale so that the princess takes charge of the situation. Often, as in Tomie de Paola’s Mexican Cinderella, Adelita, this means that magic is not needed to save the day. Love, wit, and intelligence are the qualities fostered by the kind of retellings I relish.  Mirror, Mirror is no different. That’s not to say there is no magic in Mirror, Mirror. And, it doesn’t dismiss the power of true love, either.  There is a prince. And there is a happy ending. But, the trajectory to that place does not involved a poisoned apple, deep sleep, and liberation by a kiss. Not saying the kiss and poisoned apple don’t happen. It wouldn’t be Snow White without them, but they don’t happen in any way you can predict. When Snow finally breaks the Queen’s spell, all kinds of beautiful things happen. No spoilers here: The magic of this film is in how it portrays magic and love . True loves kiss comes from an unexpected place and, in a surprising twist, there is more than one kind of true love to be saved.

As a heroine, Snow White has grit. She has agency, power, and intellect. I can’t help but think of A.O. Scott and Mahnola Dargiss’s “conversation” in the New York Times about The Hunger Game’s Katniss Everdeen as a “Radical Heroine from Dystopia” (April 4, 2012). Like the female heroes they discuss, Snow is not the heroine of yesterday–a poised (poisoned, sleeping) princess waiting for her destiny. She’s not quite the radical heroine they discuss, but she is one who makes her own decisions and choices. Though gowned and gorgeous, Snow is not bound by the constraints of a fairytale femininity. She can swashbuckle with the best of them if it means reclaiming what is rightfully hers. The comparison to Katniss, Lisbeth, and Ripley can only go so far.  But, Snow indicates a continuation of the new kind of female hero Scott and Dargiss discuss.  Perhaps her next incarnation, Kristen Stewart in Snow White and the Huntsman will prove out the theory.

The Secret World of Arietty: Floating with the Borrowers (Movie Notes)

27 Feb

Countless people have rhapsodized about the joy of movie going. One of my favorites quips is attributed to Alfred Hitchcock, “For me cinema is not a slice of life, but a piece of cake.”

In that spirit, I was enchanted to see the (formerly known as) Kodak Theater dressed up as a classic movie palace, complete with “cigarette” girls (serving popcorn) for last night’s 84th Academy Awards ceremony. The icing on the cake was made by 5 awards each going to The Artist and Hugo, two films which celebrate the history, artistry, legacy, and magic of the movies.

I try to find each film’s individual meaning, the message it conveys to me or what it says about the culture in which it was produced. I ask my students, “If a movie projects in an empty theater, does it have meaning?” For me, the answer is a resounding “no.”

I also ask them if we can find that a movie is “good” even if we don’t particularly care for it for one reason or another. Their answer is generally “yes” as they can find great cinematography in the service of a mediocre story or a great story misserved by underwhelming acting.  I’m not so clear on that question.

I don’t go in for overarching statements like “movies should transport you,” or “the book (movie) is always better than the movie (book),” or “animation is just for kids.”  As the Academy Awards show every year, the essence of any film is nuanced and layered.

With all this in mind, I thought I’d kick off Culture Bean’s movie discussions with a few words about The Secret World of Arrietty (dir. Hiromasa Yonebayashi).

The previews for Arrietty enchanted me.  I loved the fantasy of miniature people living inside a home’s walls, making their own home, borrowing only what they need to survive.  The expressive round eyes of the main characters stuck with me from that preview until our family outing this weekend.

Photo Courtesy of Disney

Arrietty  tells the story of the Clock family, 4-inch tall people who live inside the walls of a suburban home.  Small enough to hide under a leaf as they traverse the yard for the rare trip outdoors, they fend for themselves by “borrowing” from the Beans (regular-sized human beings) only what they need. They live in fear of being detected, and worry that they may be the only Borrowers left on earth.  When a new Bean, a young boy named Shawn, comes to the house, Arrietty is intrigued. Her parents, Homily and Pod,worry that her curiosity (and his) will cause devastation.

Shawn  is a lonely, sickly boy who needs a friend. His divorcing parents have sent him to his aunt in the country for care and relaxation before heart surgery. Aunt Jessica seems reserved and detached, though caring. Her housekeeper, Hara, is a scheming busy-body. Both have heard tell of the small people who live in the walls. Jessica’s father built a dollhouse for them hoping they’d appear. She and Shawn’s mother had romantic notions about the miniature people and she now thinks that perhaps Shawn’s mother won’t come back to their childhood home because it was a place where “so many dreams didn’t come true.”  Hara, voiced by the incomparable Carol Burnett, only wants to capture a mini-person so she can prove that they exist and that she’s not crazy. {By the way, she’s nuts!]

Arrietty is a preteen in search of adventure and human contact. She is spirited, brave, and thoughtful. Her mother, Homily, is hysterically (in both senses, perfectly played by Amy Poehler) terrified of Beans and her father, Pod, is a man of few words. When she realizes that Shawn has seen her, she knows that she has changed her family’s life forever. She will eventually change Shawn’s life as well.

As rendered by Studio Ghibli, The Secret of Arrietty is a stunning visual treat. The Japanese approach to animation conveys a calm serenity. The gardens combine the colors of Monet’s Giverny and the subtlety of Japanese Ukiyo-e painting and woodblock prints. Like Ukiyo-e, the film conveys the impermanence of our reality, the fleeting nature of beauty. Most often translated as “pictures of the floating world,” Ukiyo-e art isolates a moment in time, drawing it out for our attention, entertainment, and consideration. Arrietty‘s “floating world” is Aunt Jessica’s home and garden during one summer week. For Arrietty, that world is inhabited by predators–from Beans to Mina that cat to hungry birds, crickets, and rats. She hides under leaves, tosses a dung beetle in her palm, and is followed by a lucky ladybug. For Shawn, it is a world where he is alone with Mina the cat who is at first dismissive of him; Hara, who urges him to rest; and a garden or bed in which to read. Discovering that Arrietty is real gives him, literally, something to live for. The animation does not minutely recreate reality as we’ve come to expect from Pixar and others. Rather, it slows us down, pulls us into the image, and causes us to consider each frame as a painting.

This sense of contemplation is aided by the calm rhythm of the editing and sound. While our pulse quickens when something threatens a Borrower (no spoilers here), both the music and the editing maintain a steady beat meant to lessen our excitement, much as Shawn must be kept calm prior to his surgery.

The Secret World of Arrietty has so much to recommend it. And as one of my favorite film reviewers, Bob Mondello, has eloquently written about it, I want to talk about it more as a parent than a critic.

In a world where children’s films show role models that I don’t necessarily approve for Culture Sprout (think of nearly any Disney Princess–no matter how spunky she is, the goal is to end up with the guy, married and “happily ever after”); or missing parents replaced by evil steps (even the kind who turn good like Gru); or car chases, violence, and trash-talking (Toy Story and Cars, I do love you, really!), The Secret World of Arrietty is a refreshing coming-of-age tale about two children who, for very different reasons, are forced to recognize their own mortality and who find in each other renewed compassion and empathy. It is a story that sparks the imagination rather than directing it. And, it leaves behind a sense of joy and peace.

When Shawn asks Arrietty if she is afraid that she and her family are the only Borrowers and that they might soon be extinct, she is amazed at his prescience. She doesn’t say so, of course. It is evident in her face, in the shot-reverse shot sequence that grows increasingly intimate between the two of them, and in the way the audience draws its breath. He speaks of death e corrects himself to say that it is he who might die soon, talking about his upcoming heart surgery, and his lack of faith that he will survive. These are heady thoughts for a kid to manage. And, yet, I was thrilled to hear them voiced because they are thoughts that kids have, about themselves and others. And, it’s not often that my kid, a heart patient, gets to see herself on-screen.

In the end (spoiler here, sorry), we learn that while Arrietty and her family do move away, that she begins a friendship with a more appropriate playmate (a Borrower), and that Shawn survives to visit the house another summer, at least. They have entered each other’s hearts and are each the better and braver because of it. This is the stuff of lasting friendships–the impact we have on each other’s lives even if our moments together are fleeting.

The Secret World of Arrietty is a lovely floating world in the sea of (really fun) loud, fast, crazy kids’ movies. It’s a celebration of animation, of film, and of friendship, and of children’s books, much as the Academy Awards were last night. I wonder, as does Bob Mondello, if its quiet meditiative nature will appeal to U.S. children. But I take heart in the fact that it’s been kicking around the world since 2009, translated from the Japanese by the British, the French, and now by Disney.

I’ve somehow missed Mary Norton’s children’s book, The Borrowers, from which the film was adapted. I’m on my way to the library right now!

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