Love Note series – Bonus Disney Women

This little Disney series has been so much fun that I felt that I needed a bonus post. Today, I’ve decided to give some honourable mentions to Disney women who have enriched the stories they are in, have given fantastic comic relief and whose characters have become even more indispensable with every new viewing.

Flora, Fauna and Merryweather, Sleeping Beauty, 1959

It pained me that in Maleficent, one of Disney’s best re-makes/re-tellings out of the thousands they’ve done, these women are reduced to squabbling, dim, clueless fairies. Of course, in the 1959 version, they also squabble and are crap at not using magic, see exhibits one and two:

Flora and Merryweather.gif

Fauna eggs

Yet, the three of them also end up holding the entire world together. They offset Maleficent’s curse on Aurora by ensuring she falls into sleep instead of death, they put everyone else to sleep, they fly to Maleficent’s castle to release Prince Philip even though it terrifies them and then help him to bring about Maleficent’s downfall. They are constantly busy saving the world and everyone in it and are integral to the film’s action. As such, Fauna, Flora and Merryweather ensure that in spite of some of the other problematic tropes in Sleeping Beauty, this animated film actually has the highest amount of female dialogue in the whole of the Disney oeuvre.[1] That is something pretty special.

 

Magnificent Marvellous Mad Madam Mim, The Sword in the Stone, 1963

This small dumpy woman, with her bright pink dress and purple hair, may not look like trouble but she is as feisty and frightening powerful as they come. I think of her as a pre-cursor to Winifred Sanderson from Hocus Pocus in many ways.

Mim sick

Winnie

Mim is ridiculous, darkly hilarious and appeals to all that is gnarly in ourselves. Obviously I don’t make it a habit to ‘destroy’ cute little sparrows for fun; but I find it funny just how funny she finds herself. She takes absolute delight in being grisly and her cackle cracks me up every single time. She is magic’s counter-balance to Merlin’s honourable, good-natured and learning-outcome wizardry, displaying considerable power and resolve. She doesn’t win the wizard’s duel, and rightly so, but she sticks two fingers up to Merlin’s borderline self-righteousness and I find her very enjoyable viewing.

Mim sunshine

 

Lady Kluck, Robin Hood, 1973

Klucky

Lady Kluck, or Klucky, is the real star of this film. She is Maid Marian’s lady-in-waiting and her contributions to the friendship and film include terrible badminton technique, Prince John impersonations, dancing and of course, her willingness to get stuck into a barney. She is loud, rambunctious, has a fantastic Scottish accent and her fearlessness in a punch-up is inspirational. Her best line comes during the carnage of the archery competition where she tells Maid Marian to ‘Run lassie, this is no place for a lady’, before rolling up her sleeves and slamming the Sheriff of Nottingham and a bunch of rhinos. This chicken is no wet hen and has excellent gif game.

Klucky funny

 

Kala, Tarzan, 1999

Kala

Disney as a creative institution is famous for severely lacking in representations of secure, loving mother figures. When Tarzan was released in 1999, Kala was brought to us by the divine Glenn Close, and became the overdue motherly role model that we had all been waiting for. At the beginning of the film, Kala goes through the unspeakable trauma of her baby being killed by a ferocious leopard called Sabor. When she hears Tarzan’s cries across the jungle, she discovers him alone, his parents also having been killed by the leopard. She rescues him and resolves to protect him from the dangerous world around him, whether that’s from leopards and other predators, but also the hatred of Kerchak, Kala’s partner who refuses to acknowledge Tarzan as his son. Kala’s love is boundless; she brings Tarzan into the safety of the gorilla family, teaches him that he isn’t as different to her as other gorillas make him out to be, and also embraces the grief-stricken realisation that she will have to let her son go. For me, this scene is up there emotionally with ‘Baby of Mine’ in Dumbo. Kala is warm, kind, brave and nurturing and definitely deserves some recognition.

Kala and Tarzan

 

Mama Odie, The Princess and the Frog, 2010

Gumbo

Mama Odie is a blind witch lady living in the bayou outside New Orleans, who Tiana and Prince Naveen visit to solve their frog problems. Mama Odie is friends with Ray and his firefly family and relies on the help of a snake called Juju to get around the place. The two form an excellent double act as Juju doubles up as a walking stick, plank and sous chef as Mama Odie makes her magical, clairvoyant gumbo. I think she’s brilliant because she introduces us all to the idea that what we want and what we need are very different things. I believe that what we think we want lies firmly in the realm of ego; it is often short-sighted, ruled by fear, lack and longing. What we need is something more deeply personal and actually evades us a lot of the time: the need for connection, boundaries, and the key self-awareness to know what makes us feel safe, comforted and loved. Mama Odie, with wit, an excellent gospel song and tons of energy makes that abundantly clear, paving the way for Tiana to reject Dr Facilier’s soul-selling proposition at the end of the film.

Mama Odie and Juju

 

[1] Female Dialogue

Love Note series – Meg

Meg, Hercules, 1997

Hercules Meg

Hercules really is the unsung hero of the Disney oeuvre (if you excuse the pun). This film is a fun anachronistic re-telling of the Greek myth, which introduces Ancient Greece and its mythology to gospel music, American consumerism (Thebes is the Big Olive and Hercules fronts an Air-Herc mosaic advertising campaign) and Danny DeVito as Philoctetes. It also introduces us to Megara, whose friends call her Meg, or at least they would do if she had any friends.

Have nice day

Now, if you are familiar with the original Greek myth, you will be aware that Hercules actually kills Megara and all of their children when he is driven mad by Hera, thus initiating himself into completing the twelve arduous labours to redeem himself. Disney devolved significantly from the ancient myth, for obvious reasons, and instead of killing Meg off, the animators created a super sassy, fabulous woman who also has her fair share of emotional wounds to negotiate and free herself from. Meg combines witticism and fiery comebacks with deep-rooted pain and vulnerability. Prior to the main action of the film, we learn that she sold her soul to Hades, the god of Death no less, to save the man she loved, who then dumped her for someone else. Ouch. I mean, we’ve all had bad experiences in our love lives, but that is as about as shit as it gets.

Meg Wounded

Meg’s journey, in many ways, sees her learning to open up her heart and allow herself to be emotionally healed enough to accept the love being offered to her by a kind, emotionally available man who really bloody likes her. This may sound a bit patronising, melodramatic or wishy-washy, but is there any arena in human experience that feels as vulnerable and, sometimes, scary as being in a safe, loving relationship, especially when situations you have found yourself in previously left you hurt, distrustful and determined to close yourself off? I’m not sure. Meg is determined to keep up her walls up and her heart closed to Hercules, whose honesty and desire to help other people makes him one of Disney’s most endearing men. Ultimately, Meg proves that she is one of the most fearless Disney women when it comes to love. She throws herself under a column to protect Hercules when he is at his most vulnerable, putting her own life on the line for him; who then puts his life on the line to save her soul from the Underworld.

Now, I’m obviously not suggesting that we all start throwing ourselves under collapsing buildings or finding our way to Hell for the people we love, but if we look through a metaphoric lens here, I think there is very little difference. Healthy, loving relationships, no matter if they’re with a romantic partner, family or friendships, are absolutely worth protecting, require commitment to your own inner work and wellbeing, even if that means dragging yourself through the depth of your own personal hell to deal with issues like trust and intimacy, and embracing your loved ones with an open, accepting and trusting heart. If Meg taught me anything, it was about freeing yourself from the chains of low self-esteem; that the idea of a femme fatale can be a veneer for a huge amount of insecurity and emotional damage; and that allowing yourself to be loved fully by good, kind people around you, is the scariest but life-affirming thing in the world.

Love Note series – Mulan

Mulan, Mulan, 1998

Mulan with shan yu sword

Mulan holds a very special place in my heart. She begins the film as a slightly disorganised, hapless, disgrace (by ancient Chinese standards) and then channels her strength, determination and courage into saving the whole of China from the Huns, both as a soldier and, when she becomes a disgrace again for doing that, in a traditional hanfu dress. Even from a short synopsis, we can see that over the course of the film, Mulan effectively redefines what it means for a woman to bring honour to her family in China, and shows that placing women in arbitrary boxes based on gender and capability is not in the interests of individual women or society as a whole.

Mulan and Little Brother

One of the things I love most about Mulan is that she is resourceful, a creative thinker and easily comes up with ideas and solutions to benefit herself and others. Over the course of the film, we see her attach a bone on a stick for her dog Little Brother to chase whilst simultaneously spreading chicken feed; out of her whole army unit, she is the first to understand how to use two weights to climb to the top of a pole and retrieve an arrow; she uses a cannon to trigger an avalanche that destroys the vast majority of the Hun army whilst saving the lives of all of her comrades; and she devises a plan to rescue the Emperor by having her mates drag up. Her ingenuity coupled with the strength and combat skills she acquires (in particular during the song ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ where the main refrain is ‘we are men’, the irony of which is amazing), make Mulan an incredible force to be reckoned with. No wonder she seems so threatening and at odds with the confining moral and social standards that prevail.

Mulan Climbing

Like Pocahontas and Esmeralda, Mulan also conveys incredible emotional sensitivity. She communicates with her dragon guardian Mushu, has a precious relationship with her horse Khan and is a deeply reflective individual. Her greatest desire, apart from saving the life of her father who is too old to fight in a war, is to become comfortable with her own identity. Her journey over the course of the film is to work out how she can be in the world and be comfortable within herself, whilst also serving the needs of her family and making them proud of her. Whilst, as is archetypal, she is met with set-backs and obstructions, where she takes the opportunity to assess what she has done and who she is. Ultimately though, her self-perception and her own sense of failure all fades in the wake of her needing to make a choice to do the brave and right thing, which she almost always does.

When shit hits the fan with Shan Yu and his allies surviving the avalanche and moving to attack the Imperial City, Mulan doesn’t think twice about gathering herself together and going to raise the alarm and fight back. In doing so, she carves out a place for herself and ultimately earns the respect and gratitude of an entire country. As such, Mulan shows us that in spite of the negative voices around us and within us that tell us that we are not good enough, that we don’t belong and that we have nothing to contribute to the world, we should stir up enough courage to carry on anyway. Ultimately we are defined not by who we or others think we are, but by the actions we take and the way we conduct ourselves in the world. If we live by this principle, of trying to be good and doing the best we can no matter whether it’s fighting in a war or feeding some chickens, that is enough. The rest of the world will fall into place around you.

Crowd bwing to Mulan

Love Note series – Pocahontas

Pocahontas, Pocahontas, 1995

download

Pocahontas is vastly underrated and one of my all-time favourite Disney films. I was transported from the very opening shots: America, covered in woodland and accompanied by indigenous drumming, makes me think of how truly astounding the continent must have looked and been before the environment and its native people were decimated and destroyed by white European colonial invaders. Pocahontas is not only an incredibly bittersweet interracial love story, but is a strong rebuke to colonialism and a love letter to Native American culture. Indeed, Russell Means, who voiced Pocahontas’s father Chief Powhatan, remarked that this film is the greatest representation of Native American culture and life ever seen in a Hollywood motion picture.[1] The screenwriters’ and animators’ attention to detail is second-to-none: from casting Native American actors, using indigenous language in the script, the inclusion of intricate jewellery and body art down to the positioning of the teepees at the beginning of the film, which all face in the same Eastern direction as they would have done in the seventeenth century, this film gives a sensitive and conscious platform to a beautiful culture. And at the figurehead of it all we have Pocahontas, described by the animators as Disney’s first depiction of a woman, not a teenager, in the animated title role.[2]

Pocahontas and John SMith

It does seem that Pocahontas operates on a different maturity level to most of the Disney princesses that precede her. I think this may have been because she was an actual historical figure, so extra sensitivity was required in the representation of her and her story, despite the heavy poetic license taken in the film. She risks a lot for the sake of a man she has fallen in love with, but the price for that isn’t losing her voice or developing Stockholm Syndrome (I’m so sorry Beauty and the Beast fans, I still cannot deal with that relationship dynamic!). She is presented as spiritual, closely connected to the animals, plants and people around her, demanding respect for her community whilst showing fascination for John Smith’s. She prevents a war and helps guide both sides to a place of tentative love and acceptance over hatred. And yet, she still manages to keep things light-hearted and sassy, as the situation requires.

Pocahontas lol

I love Pocahontas because she is playful, free-spirited and boundlessly curious. I love her relationship with best friend Nikomma who will happily tell her when she’s being a show off, which reminds me very much of my own relationship with my sister (I’m the show off). Indeed, my sister and I used to pretend to be Pocahontas and Nikomma when we were playing outside in the garden or on the beach (I was Pocahontas and Nicole was Nikomma, naturally). Pocahontas is deeply in tune with nature and her inner world, looking to the plants and animals around her, as well as her dreams for guidance and comfort. Her relationship with Grandmother Willow reminds me of mine and my sister’s relationships with our own beloved Grandma, and I love that she is willing to sit crossed-legged in front of her Elder to ask questions, heed advice and dialogue with her so that she might cultivate her own inner wise Self. Indeed, in many ways Grandmother Willow is Pocahontas’ inner wise Self, it depends on if you believe if she is actually real or just a figment of her imagination.

Pocahontas

Nowhere is this exploration of wisdom and connection with the natural world better explored in the film than during the song ‘Colours of the Wind’, written by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz. The song is accompanied by some of the most stunning animation that Disney has ever produced, and sees Pocahontas effectively deconstruct racist colonial narratives of who is considered civilized and who is considered savage. It is beautiful because the pithiness of the white colonial small-minded and deeply destructive dualistic ideology is visually dwarfed by the outstanding and overwhelming beauty of the natural world and the deep connection that Pocahontas sings of. My favourite line is ‘Come run through the hidden pine trails of the forest / Come taste the sun-sweet berries of the earth / Come roll in all the riches all around you / And for once, never wonder what they’re worth’. In other words, get over your racist capitalist bullshit John Smith and connect to something more powerful, more beautiful and more unifying.

 

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RoHTikVNvbU [09:19, accessed 2nd July 2019].

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RoHTikVNvbU [12:53, accessed 2nd July 2019].

Love Note series – Disney Women (part one, Esmeralda)

Before I went on holiday last week I had a burst of writing energy and, before I knew it, had four posts ready to be published. They are quintessential Harping On taking-silliness-seriously, and I am very excited to provide a little bit of light relief for myself and anyone reading this. I didn’t post last week because I was busy reading, swimming and sunning myself (more thoughts on that coming soon), so I hope that this Love Note series will more than make up for it.

As some of you will know, Disney holds a particularly big place in my heart. Fantasia is one of my top five favourite films of all time; Disney films in general are veritable nostalgia-fests when you need them; they provide the ultimate songbook for shower sing-a-longs; and can be hot topics for debate whenever the situation arises. Deconstructing Disney has long been one of my favourite past times (see here for an example), and I think it is a worthwhile endeavour. Like the fashion industry, such is the Walt Disney company’s power and reach that whatever its commercial and creative decisions, both good and bad, it affects us all even if we don’t care about them. I’d rather keep my eyes and ears open to Disney and what they are doing than to keep myself ignorant.

In light of this, and on a lighter note, I have written my series of blog posts on four of my favourite Disney leading women. They are each inspiring, interesting and courageous in their own ways and have taught me a lot about what it looks like to be a woman with conviction, especially in the face of patriarchal bullshit. I hope you enjoy them!

First up…

Esmeralda, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, 1996

Esmeralda featured image

Harping On legend has it that when I met Esmeralda at Disney World on my 5th birthday, I ‘lost my shit’. Esmeralda was very, very important to me. I had two Esmeralda dresses, a Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame pencil case, an Esmeralda doll and a tambourine. She was my absolute hero. She stood up to a repressed, privileged prick, Claude Frollo, who spent his entire life and career persecuting Roma gypsies like her, and actively abused and encouraged abuse of Quasimodo, whose mother he kills at the beginning of the film, who then hides behind his rampant sexual desire for her by calling her a witch. Like I said, a prick. She derides Frollo for his cruel treatment of those who are vulnerable and refuses to back down when told to do so. Esmeralda is uncommonly brave, standing up for what is right even though it comes at a great risk to her own personal freedom and safety.

Esmeralda

One of the most moving parts of the whole film comes during her song ‘God Help the Outcasts’, with music by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz. Whilst every around her prays for glory, wealth and fame, Esmeralda declares:

‘I ask for nothing, I can get by

I know so many, less lucky than I

Please help my people, the poor and down-trod

I thought we all were children of God’.

Here, she clearly declares that she doesn’t want to ask for anything for herself because she knows of people who are much more desperate and worse off than she is. Esmeralda is selfless in spite of her own hardship, putting the needs, trials and suffering of her community before her own.

What is interesting is that whilst she addresses ‘God’ throughout most of the song, Esmeralda actually begins the song by speaking directly to a statue of Jesus. She demonstrates that in spite of the way she stands up for others and for what she believes in, she has internalised some of the xenophobic elements of medieval Paris, providing the caveat:

‘Yes I know I’m just an outcast

I shouldn’t speak to you

Still, I see your face and wonder

Were you once an outcast too?’

It is a moment of complete vulnerability as she enters a conversation with Jesus and subsequently God, a divine power that is bigger than her and whose help and comfort she needs. By adopting the language of her persecutors, with the label ‘outcast’, it suggests that she holds an internal belief that she is not worthy or good enough for finding refuge in prayer or communicating with God so candidly. However, she then goes on to draw a line of comparison between the two of them, demonstrating a sophisticated knowledge of Christian doctrine by suggesting that because Jesus was also considered an ‘outcast’ in his time, and especially in the run-up to his death, then it must be appropriate for her to speak to him. He was vulnerable, tried to help the needy and stood up to and threatened power structures, just she like she does. It is a beautiful, heartfelt moment, giving us a window into her internalisation of her ‘outcast’ status as a gypsy but also her ability to appeal to that which is vulnerable and considered by society as ‘unworthy’ in others, thus rendering everyone truly equal.

Esmeralda’s kindness and humility, coupled with her fiery resistance, her don’t-give-me-shit attitude towards future honey Phoebus, and her divine friendships with Quasimodo and goat Djali, make her one of Disney’s all-time greats. She is one of the most important and indispensable characters in the story and a true inspiration. She taught me that resisting injustice and standing up for others who are more in need of help than I am requires an immense amount of courage and bravery; never easy to do, but important beyond measure.

Esmeralda and DJali

Love Note – Fantasia

Last week there was a Saturday matinee viewing of Disney’s Fantasia at Broadway cinema in Nottingham and I missed it. This was slightly devastating because Fantasia is a film that I have loved for a very long time and the prospect of seeing it on a big screen was very, very exciting. It is a stunning love letter to both the art of animation and classical music, which I’m sure were both sweeping in their scale on the big screen. And I bloody missed it.

It was through Fantasia, and the ingenuity of the art and story-telling teams that helped to create it, that my interest in classical music was sparked. As a child, and even now as a (more or less) adult, classical music has sometimes felt kind of ‘beyond’ me. When I was younger, it reeked of ‘posh’, of older people driving around in Volvo estates or wearing suits and nodding along knowingly to some movement of this piece by that dead guy. The classical music I enjoyed when I was little was music that explicitly told a story, for example Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf (even though, interestingly, the grandfather and wolf parts both scared me shitless) or that I could dance to. Fantasia captured my imagination and, subsequently, each of the pieces of music brought to animated life now has a special place in my heart.

Pastoral symphony

The combination of high musical art with the low brow familiarity of cartoon animation, rooted as it is in child-friendly bright colours, humour and anthropomorphic animals, is highly effective. Bringing both forms into conversation with one another undoubtedly broadens the way in which we think about both. The mass production and appeal of cartoon animation offers a friendlier introduction to the obscure and privileged world of classical music. Similarly the drama of classical music, and the requirement of animation to creatively and accurately interpret inflections, time signatures and important ideas within the pieces’ structures, elevates the artistry and production of animation.

Toccata and Fugue in D Minor EDIT 1

It’s hard to narrow down which segment of the Fantasia programme I like the most: I have a very soft spot for The Nutcracker Suite by Tchaikovsky, Dance of the Hours by Amilcare Ponchielli and Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony (I really wanted to make friends with a pink unicorn or a flying horse, and my sister and I used to shelter all our cuddly toys under blankets during the storm).[1] As I’ve grown older, I have a renewed appreciation for Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in B Minor, which I initially thought was slightly boring but now find completely captivating.  However, I think it is Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring that has been the most enduringly important piece of music that Fantasia introduced to me.

fantasia_pdvd_852

I remember listening to Deems Taylor’s introduction of the piece and referring to the music as originally written for a ballet, displaying ‘a simple series of tribal dances’. Listening and watching the unfolding animation had me begging desperately: How on earth could you do ballet to THIS?! My conception of ballet as a world of tutus, pointe shoes and graceful arabesques, incidentally seen elsewhere in Fantasia, was completely at odds with this frightening, stompy music. Music that helped to depict violent volcanic eruptions, a T-Rex fighting and killing a slow and considerably weaker stegosaurus, the eventual death march and extinction of all the dinosaurs, and an eerie eclipse hovering over this pockmarked, burnt out planet. The pained and wailing face of a diplodocus trapped in mud and burning in the heat is seared into my memory. No, this, whatever this was, was not conducive to ballet at all.

At the time, I had no idea that this type of music required an entirely different type of dancing, which I later explored at length in my Master’s dissertation. Indeed, I wouldn’t have written that dissertation at all if my interest hadn’t been piqued at such a young age. Fantasia rearranges the music of the original ballet quite significantly, but it is still an exceptional introduction to a truly staggering piece of music. I will no doubt bring The Rite of Spring to my blog at a later date, because it is such an important piece of music to me that has followed me around for many years. But for now, I want to appreciate just how wonderful Fantasia is and how grateful I am that, in spite of its limited commercial success in 1940, it has endured.

And I bloody missed it last week.

 

[1] I want to acknowledge here the problematic nature of Disney’s visualisation of The Pastoral Symphony in particular. This segment featured heavily racist stereotypes in the first production, which have since been edited out, and a beauty contest where the ‘pretty’ (read: not black) centaur women strut about and are picked one at a time by handsome centaur men to be their lovers. The racism and sexism is obviously unacceptable and makes for uncomfortable viewing.  

Disney devours his children: deconstruction or unoriginality?

This essay was first published on Cloudbanks and Shimbleshanks in November 2014

For the relatively short time that cinema has been in existence as a medium of expression, one of the most prominent genres that has endured is the fairytale. This was largely, and most famously, spearheaded by Disney with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in 1937 but came to encompass work by Powell and Pressburger, Guillermo del Toro and Terry Gilliam amongst others. The common trend in the past 5 years or so has been an emphasis on the re-interpretation of traditional fairytales, which have included amongst others The Princess and the Frog, Frozen, Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman. Disney however, the ultimate motion picture fairytale factory, has recently taken this trend to an entirely new level by re-making live-action versions of its own animated films. From the newly released Cinderella to the live-action re-makes of Beauty and The Beast, Mulan, Dumbo, Tink (based on Peter Pan) and The Jungle Book, Disney is ploughing its way through its own archive material to produce new films. As the company effectively consumes itself, there are important questions to be asked about what this means: do these films embody a progressive deconstruction of Disney’s oeuvre or a cynical money-grabbing exercise in one of the most explicit forms of mechanised unoriginality to ever exist?

One of the most important ideas associated with deconstruction, a word adopted by Jacques Derrida in his various tracts on linguistics and metaphysics, is that texts exist beyond their authors: they undermine the possibility for authorial intent and exist in the world as a product of the cultural values in existence. Whilst it is inaccurate to say that Disney has deconstructed its own films because, according to Derrida, it is in the nature of language to deconstruct and not be deconstructed by any sort of force, there has been an attempt to undercut the idea of the author. This manifests in the way in which films are not treated as sacred, untouchable objects made by Walt Disney but produce other meanings to be explored and visually represented.

The best example of this is can be seen in Maleficent, a new story born from the 1959 animated film Sleeping Beauty that focuses on the quintessential villain Maleficent over Briar Rose and her relationship to Prince Phillip. The fourth wave of feminism has helped to encourage the production of fairytales where much more complex stories about women and women’s experiences are presented, and nowhere is this done better than in Maleficent. Where we once saw Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty sitting pretty waiting for their princes to rescue them, the new films have seen an emphasis on female empowerment; from Kristen Stewart and Charlize Theron as Snow White and Ravenna and Brave’s Merida taking up arms to save themselves, to a greater emphasis on emotional and financial self-sufficiency in Frozen and The Princess and the Frog. Maleficent, I would argue, does this in the most radical way, taking the tired narrative of 1959, producing new meanings about the characters in both films whilst simultaneously creating much more engaging and interesting female characters for men and women to understand.

In an unusual non-heteronormative move for Disney, who loves a good monarchy, Maleficent takes place in the Moors, the magical domain of fairies that explicitly rejects the idea of a king and queen and comes under constant attack by the kingdom next door. The film explores what is effectively date rape when the ambitious servant-boy Stefan tells Maleficent, the fairy with the biggest wings who protects the Moors from bombardment, that he loves her, before drugging her and cutting of her magnificent wings as bounty so that he can become king; thus forming the basis for her revenge. It explores the unexplainable but beautiful relationship that exists between Maleficent and Aurora, whom when she curses, Maleficent feels inextricably bound to;  where Maleficent’s capacity for both hate and love, and good and evil become inter-changeable, and where it is actually OK for her to tend to all of these; it explores the madness of a paranoid and guilty King Stefan(‘uneasy lies the head that wears a crown’ if I ever saw it- Henry IV Part 2 III.i.31) and almost completely casts aside the role of Prince Phillip, whose character verges on farcical, attacking the idea that love at first sight exists.

Maleficent, therefore, presents a progressive re-reading of an old text. Like with Maxine Peake’s recent turn in Hamlet, where the famous ‘To be or not to be’ speech was postponed until much later on in the play, the original 1959 film of Sleeping Beauty has not been rendered untouchable and sacred; a thing belonging to Walt Disney that should be unprivileged and left un-open to questioning. Rather, new readings have produced new meanings, which result in new representations that are much more in tune with the active, complex roles that women have in society. One other good example of this kind of attitude that Disney has adopted towards its own animated fairytales is Enchanted in 2007. Despite the presence of talking animals, people unpredictably breaking into song and a romantic ending, the film critiques the sensational way in which Disney has presented its fairytales; in particular the idea of characters wanting to marry as soon as they first meet. It has been possible for Disney to shine a lot on its own material and I think the results have been extremely promising.

With the new announcement only last week that Disney are preparing to make another live-action re-make (this time of Winnie The Pooh) however, the argument that Disney’s producers and accountants want to create new meanings from the texts they already have becomes slightly shaky. Of course this will happen anyway simply because they will be producing new texts; however, these serve to underline Disney’s authority over the production fairy stories, appealing directly to the nostalgia of audiences. Derrida describes in Spectres of Marx that deconstruction and the ideas involved with deconstruction can be seen as a certain radicalization of Marxism. As one of the most capitalistic Western corporations in existence, it would be ridiculous to think that Disney in any way is associated with the left. This can be seen in the way in which the company has become increasingly obsessed with making money at any cost. It began with the costly box office flops The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, John Carter and The Lone Ranger which lost the studio millions of dollars each. As a result, Disney has turned to low-risk, safe, tried and tested franchises and films; films they know already have big followings and will keep the money rolling in. First we heard the news of Star Wars being resurrected and then slowly more and more live-action re-makes of their animated films.

In his 1933 essay on perennial jazz, Theodor Adorno critiques the mechanization of the culture industry and the emphatic lack of originality in cultural production. I would argue that this is being unashamedly realised in Disney’s film schedule with its reduction in the number of original films due for production and release. Helena Bonham Carter, who plays the Fairy Godmother in the re-make of Cinderella and known for more off-beat film choices, expressed her scepticism at the beginning of filming as to whether ‘a straight version would work’; questioning the extent to which a film that effectively just brings animation to life could be interesting. To Kenneth Branagh the twist of the film is that it is ‘classic’ and not a re-imagining or re-reading like Maleficent; however, regardless of how well the script is written, how good the acting is or how they have best made use of special effects the fact remains that this is not an original film idea. Resorting more and more to resurrecting and perpetuating old sagas, including Pirates of the Caribbean alongside Star Wars, in addition to its archive of animated classics, Disney panders more and more to old, previously successful formulas at the expense of imagination: creating new characters, stories and predicaments for audiences to admire and engage with.

All of this is problematic because Disney is setting a dangerous precedent: that films are fluffy, nostalgia fests to transport us away from the troubles of everyday life, instead of tools for critiquing culture. I saw the latest Cinderella and against my better judgment absolutely enjoyed being reminded of the film I saw in childhood: from the song ‘A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes’ to the comic fights between Lucifer the cat and Gus and Jaq the mice, to the awful singing from Anastasia and Drizella and that dress transformation. There were some parts of the film I really liked, for example the extremely sensitive portrayal of the prince’s relationship with his father; however, wouldn’t it be better to explore those relationships in other situations or contexts instead of using an old formula that you know will work? Disney, for better or worse, was a pioneer in animation and the live-action re-makes that are going to litter our cinematic landscape over the next few years don’t seem to be very brave ventures to me.

I would argue that a breaking point will be reached in the future where the cultural regurgitation of re-makes and sequels will no longer be creatively sustainable. There has to be an endpoint: where can Disney go after re-making everything it has already made, when it has rinsed its herd of cash-cows? If the studio wasn’t making so much money of this industrial unoriginality, I’d find some kind of enjoyment in the fact that Disney is consuming itself: it is the embodiment of paranoid capitalist culture doing what it can to preserve itself, by gobbling up everything it has ever produced.

saturn-devouring-one-of-his-children-1823

‘Saturn Devouring His Son’, Francisco Goya, 1823