Adventures in Feminism: How do the Disney Heroines Stack Up Against Their Original Counterparts?

Disney movies hold a special place in most of our hearts.  They have been delighting and engaging audiences for eighty years now with endearing characters, groundbreaking art work, infectious songs…Most remarkably they have managed to intrinsically capture the spirit and cultural ethos of their respective periods, becoming across the decades something of an ever-evolving time capsule of American culture.  However, this means that ingesting them becomes an inevitably more complicated process as time progresses and values change.  The feminine ideals projected by the early princesses are not generally the ones that most of us encourage in little girls now, and the plot devices surrounding them can spark no end of conversation about topics like gender roles or sexual ethics.  But these stories didn’t spring fully formed from the skull of Walt Disney.  Almost every Disney movie is an adaptation of an existing story, most broadly from the fairytale genre, which is famously pretty un-feminist in its own right.  As the plots are taken apart and put through the Mouse machine to make an original new product lots of elements change from the inspiration piece to the finished film, including and especially the heroines.  So how does Disney stack up when it comes to adapting the ladies and their adventures?  Let’s unpack some of the big ones.

Snow White

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The Movie You Know:

An orphaned princess touted as “The Fairest of them All,” is targeted by her murderously jealous stepmother, the Evil Queen (Fun Fact: She does actually have a name, and it is Grimhilde.  Kind of understand why she doesn’t use it much).  Eventually, Princess Snow White takes refuge deep in the forest keeping house for seven dwarves, until the day that a mysterious old woman stops by to offer her some fruit.  Long story short it was actually the queen in disguise, and this ends poorly for our heroine.  So, Snow White having been successfully murdered, the heartbroken dwarves interred her in a glass coffin.  In the Disney movie they’re there when the prince (who shared a really annoying love song with Snow at the beginning of the movie) shows up, they clue him in on the curse, he kisses it better and then he and his child bride (according to Disney canon she is only fourteen or so) ride happily off into the sunset.  The age of our heroine is a bit questionable here, but otherwise everything checks out as standard Happily Ever After fare.  Please note that kissing is not ever the appropriate antidote to a poisoning.  

In the Original

The dwarves don’t know that Snow White is cursed as opposed to actually poisoned, so they don’t say otherwise when the prince arrives.   For his part he just sees a hot girl in a glass box, and is so turned on by her seemingly dead beauty that he orders her coffin carted back to his castle so that he can stare at her whenever he wants (Seriously).  En route they hit a rough patch and the poisoned bite of apple jostles free of Snow White’s esophagus, breaking the curse, and allowing her to wake up (this is also not a reliable antidote to poisoning).  After presumably covering his disappointment as smoothly as possible, Prince Dahmer proposes to marry the newly enlivened maiden (way to hedge there, buddy), who, for some reason, is not at all creeped out by the circumstances surrounding their meeting.  Scene.

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“Who are you?”  “Oh.  You’re alive.  This is awkward…I mean Neat-o!  You’re alive!”

Feminist Rating?

Better.  Oh SO much better.  I mean, an essential central conceit of the story is still that a fairly passive character becomes housekeeper for a group of bachelors, and lord knows she doesn’t do much to affect the direction of her story (besides being soooooooo pretty), but at least she was given a smidge of agency in her love story.  She actually met the guy in question and reciprocated his interest in her before all the crazy cursed fruit business, so he had nominal reason to think she would be okay with him kissing her awake.  Eliminating the necrophilic undertones was a good move too, because there is absolutely no way to make that seem okay.  

Jasmine: Aladdin

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The Movie You Know

Jasmine, princess of the fictional sultanate of Agrabah, has exactly one future on her horizon: An arranged royal marriage to occur no later than her sixteenth birthday.  Angered by prospect of being forced into a corner, as it were, Jasmine impulsively runs away from home, and out on the mean streets of Agrabah a chance encounter with a handsome young pauper named Aladdin changes both of their lives forever.  Aladdin is the hero of this story; his instant love connection with Jasmine will be the impetus that motivates his adventures thereafter, from finding a magic lamp to taking down the evil royal vizier Jafar.  Jasmine is at his side to help as he saves the day, and as reward for their valor they are granted royal permission to marry in spite of Aladdin’s lack of genuine princely pedigree.  Their magic carpet sails off into the firework-spangled sky, and two movies later they get around to enjoying wedded bliss.  

In the Original

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Her name is Princess Badroulbadour, daughter to the Sultan of…China.  Yeah, I guess that’s a thing.  Notably, subsequent versions of the story moved its location to Persia, which makes slightly more sense.  Anyway, Aladdin sneaks a peek at her while she’s walking to the baths and falls in love with her beauty.  The original story from the 1001 Arabian Nights is pretty similar otherwise.  Aladdin meets the genie, wishes to become a prince, marries the princess, fights off an evil Sorcerer.  As in the Disney movie the princess helps a bit too at her husband’s behest.  In some versions she uses her “feminine wiles” to trip up the baddie, in others she cuts right to the chase and poisons him.  It’s nice when your spouse can bring something useful to the table, isn’t it?  

Feminist Rating?

So here’s the thing: Jasmine is alone in the ranks of the Disney Princesses in that she is the only one of them who is not a main character of her story; at best she’s second supporting behind Genie.  So while she shows some strong independent tendencies, her role in the narrative is still to be a part of the heroic spoils that Aladdin wins as the protagonist of the tale, and she has no sphere beyond that in the story.  Ultimately she’s only slightly more developed than her Arabian Nights counterpart, and I can’t really say that Jasmine is better than  Badroulbadour.  Their plotlines follow most of the same beats, and while both ladies are totally willing to help defeat the villain, they only provide supplementary service to Aladdin’s bigger daring rescue plan, and only after he asks them to.  I like Jasmine, she’s all kinds of fabulous, but I think this one falls more or less in the lateral category.   

Tiana: The Princess and the Frog

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The Movie You Know

In Jazz Age New Orleans a waitress named Tiana works her butt off 24/7 with a dream of buying an old mill and turning it into the best restaurant south of the Mason-Dixon.  Meanwhile, (broke) playboy Prince Naveen is in town to find a wealthy heiress when he runs afoul of the creepy Dr. Facilier.  One super spooky musical number later Naveen has been transformed into the frog that makes up one half of the titular duo.  Desperate to find the kiss that will change him back, he mistakes a costumed Tiana for a princess and convinces her to pucker up.  To the surprise and consternation of both the kiss only compounds the curse, amphibianizing Tiana as well, and binding their fates together in the bayous of Louisiana.  Now, naturally they dislike each other initially, but as their misadventures progress they learn to see past their differences, as one always does in these kinds of stories.  Tolerance turns to fondness, fondness inevitably grows into love.  When the moment comes for Naveen to break the curse he chooses not to so that he can spend his life with Tiana, even if it is a life as frogs.  Of course this act of true love turns out to be the conduit through which the curse is actually broken, and both Tiana and Naveen are returned to their human forms, joyfully married amidst family and friends, and set on the path to a happily ever after.  

In the Original

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A beautiful princess drops her precious golden ball into a pond, or maybe a well, and starts crying.  Drawn to the sounds of her sorrow a talking frog hops up beside her to chivalrously offer his aid…in exchange, that is, for her promise that she will take him back to the castle and feed him from her plate.  She says, “Deal,” and he duly retrieves her tchotchke, but no sooner is it in her hand then the princess goes sprinting back the castle and slams the door on the frog.  He’s not be deterred though.  Nope, Froggy takes the whole story straight to His Royal Fatherness, the King.  Interestingly nobody, not the king, not the guards, not the courtiers, seems perturbed by a talking frog seeking an official audience.  Kind of makes you wonder what kind of crazy stuff people in Fairytale Land are used to seeing.  Anyway, the King agrees that his daughter has behaved badly; a princess should always honor her word.  He forces her to uphold the bargain, which she does, begrudgingly, in hopes of putting the whole episode behind her.  However, the frog is not satisfied.  After supper he follows the princess to her room and insists on being allowed to sleep beside her on her pillow.  This is a bridge too far for the princess.  She hurls him against her wall in (I would say not unjustified) disgust when, to her amazement, she suddenly finds, not a slimy frog sitting slumped there, but a handsome prince.   Pretty standard stuff after that: Ticked off a witch, nasty curse, happy kiss, big wedding.  No-longer-Froggy doesn’t seem to mind that his hot wife is a total brat, and she likewise forgets about her now dreamy husband’s serious boundary issues.  

Feminist Rating?

There is no doubt that Tiana, a hard-working, independent young woman with a dream of business ownership is light years better than a generic spoiled princess.  What’s more, she remains strong, proactive, and goal-oriented over the course of her adventures, with a happy ending that is not solely bound up in landing a handsome prince.  True, the relationship between Tiana and Prince Naveen (who is also a far better character overall than his be-webbed predecessor) is still the central point of the story, yet the happy ending comes not just from a fairytale wedding, but from the achievement of Tiana’s dreams (which are not abandoned in favor of the proverbial M.R.S), and the implication that their union going forward will be as much a partnership as a romance.  Though the overall movie The Princess and the Frog may meander the middle road too much to be really great (it comes SO close, it kills me that it falls short), Tiana is an amazing character and little girls are lucky to have her in the princess lineup.  

Pocahontas

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The Movie You Know

The free-spirited daughter of Chief Powhatan dreams of adventure while she stands dramatically atop the coastal Virginia cliffs, her silken mane of raven hair billowing behind her.  Her tribe may be wary of the pale skinned invaders who have just arrived on their shores, but Pocahontas is curious, defying her father to seek out and learn the truth about them.  Enter John Smith, a handsome, if charmingly cynical, career explorer out to conquer the wonders of the New World.  Through a handy bit of spirit magic the two are able to communicate perfectly, and as Pocahontas shows him the natural splendor of her home Smith comes to realize that there is so much more than material wealth to be mined from the human experience.  However, these two people have the benefit of being attracted to each other to speed along their cultural compromise, which is not an advantage that either of their respective camps share.  Fighting breaks out between the two sides, blood is spilled, retaliations are planned, and Smith, a captive of the Powhatan tribe, is slated for execution.  At the last possible second Pocahontas valiantly throws herself between Smith’s head and her father’s club, delivering an impassioned speech about how we’re all not so different, we can live together peacefully, how fear and hate only lead to destruction (Yoda would be so proud)…only to be immediately ignored by de facto one-dimensional baddie, Governor Ratcliffe, and his itchy trigger finger.  It’s okay, John heroically takes the bullet, everyone realizes that it really IS all fun and games until someone is bleeding out, and they hastily declare a truce so that John can be taken back to England for medical treatment (It’s worth risking the months-long voyage and possible blood poisoning if you can get home to a proper English doctor).  Pocahontas professes that, though she loves him, she must stay behind to guide the peace process between their two peoples.  She bids a theatrical goodbye from the top of the cliff, as Smith’s ship sails off into the East.

In the Original

As in, in history, because this is definitely no fairytale.  And it’s a different story entirely.

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On a personal note I just have to start with one thing.  My family’s go-to vacation spot for my entire life has been Williamsburg, VA (Not the Busch Gardens theme park mind you, but the Historic Triangle.  Yes, I’m from a whole family of nerds).  I have been in and out of the area around Jamestown for decades.  It’s a coastal plain, which means it looks like this:

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Notice something?  Like a lack of waterfalls and dramatic cliff faces?  That’s because we don’t have them in that part of the state.  They didn’t have them in 1607 either; it has pretty much always been a flat, marshy landscape be-treed by low, scrubby pine.  From the very first time I saw Disney’s Pocahontas that particular error has annoyed me more than any other.  Just had to mention it; getting back on topic now.

There are a lot of errors in this movie, but for the sake of staying on topic, we’ll focus mainly on the heroine.  Lets begin with the fact that “Pocahontas” (real name Matoaka, Pocahontas being a nickname) was still a child of roughly eleven years old when the settlers showed up in 1607, while John Smith was a bad-tempered former mercenary at least sixteen years her senior.  Whatever their relationship was (and accounts differ, with possibilities ranging from a respectful friendship to an uneasy, sometimes antagonistic, alliance) it was 100% not a romance.  However, Smith did recount his first contact with the Powhatan tribe, where he was, seemingly, to be executed until “Pocahontas” threw herself over him in a protective gesture.  In the wake of that experience “Pocahontas” then became a frequent presence in Jamestown, bringing in supply parties which staved off starvation in the brutal early years of the colony, and fostering the (initially) peaceful, cooperative relationship between the local tribes and the settlers.  Alas, eventually relations soured (white entitlement gets to everyone at some point), “Pocahontas” was kidnapped, pressured to convert to Christianity, married to an Englishman named John Rolfe (who agonized about the moral repercussions of marrying a “heathen”), and brought back to England where she died of smallpox, or pneumonia, or TB, or some other nasty illness that her immune system was not prepared to repel.  These latter events are highly fictionalized and very much glossed over in the animated Disney sequel.  

Feminist Rating?

I’m going with worse.  

True, the Disney version is absent a lot of the indignities (and possible horrors) that the actual Pocahontas suffered, and features a very nineties style kumbaya message of acceptance and tolerance, but I still think that it pays poor tribute to the actual historical figure it depicted.  

Again, remember that “Pocahontas” did everything she did, from potentially saving John Smith’s life (it may have just been a tribal ritual in which Smith was in no actual danger) to trying to smooth the path between the natives and the settlers, as a tweenage kid.  A child even by the standards of her own people.  Somehow this girl decided to throw herself between her own people and the foreign invaders, and broker a peaceful coexistence.  That bespeaks a courage, maturity, and wisdom that is so far beyond what most children of that age (in any era) are remotely capable of.  It is so much more inspirational than some bland hippie platitudes and a cross-culture love story.  Doing things for love is fine and all, but it’s well-worn territory in storytelling to the point of nearing cliché.  Such a rehashing is doubly disappointing when the real story is not only more interesting, but infinitely more remarkable.  A young girl stood between uneasy factions and tried to help create a world in which they could all flourish together.  And for a time she succeeded.  How often has that happened in history?  If Disney wanted to tell a feminist-leaning story about a strong, brave female leader they would have done so much better sticking closer to the actual historical facts.

Fun Fact: Disney once had big plans for a history-centric theme park in Northern Virginia, not far from where I spent my adolescence.  Pocahontas (details of which had leaked out in the development phase) was one of the many examples that the considerable local opposition used to build their case against the venture.  Like, literally, Disney has already proven how badly they suck at history, and shows no signs of improving, do we really want to give them a multi-million dollar arena to further miseducate people?  Yeah, we take history kind of seriously in the commonwealth.   Also our famously horrendous traffic.  If we’re being honest it was the traffic more than the history thing that defeated Disney in the end.  

Sleeping Beauty

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This is the closest to a date that any Princess is going to get for decades.

The Movie You Know

Despite everyone’s best efforts, Princess Aurora has unwittingly fulfilled the curse made by the overly sensitive Dark Fairy, Maleficient on the day of her christening and stuck herself with the spindle of a spinning wheel.  Now trapped in an eternal slumber from which only True Love’s Kiss ™ can awaken her, Aurora lies in state at the top of the highest tower of the castle.  Thankfully the humble woodsman she fell in love with five minutes after meeting him just happens to be her betrothed, Prince Phillip, who capably slays Dragon Maleficent, climbs the tower, and plants the Smooch of Salvation, awakening Aurora and saving the birthday/engagement/welcome home party that her dad laid out all that money for.  Everybody celebrates, except her fairy guardians who still can’t settle on a color for her ballgown.  This debate will go on to live in infamy (It’s blue.  Team Pink is entitled to their wrong opinion, but blue in unquestionably superior.  Disney only sticks her in pink for so many official appearances because Cinderella wears blue too).

In the Original

Aurora’s curse extends not just to her, but to her entire Kingdom, and so when she pricks her finger everyone within its bounds is thrown into the same enchanted slumber.  One hundred years pass, the castle is semi-reclaimed by nature, and everyone pretty much forgets about that one time an entire population and its ruling family just vanished.  One day a Prince, or maybe a King (accounts differ) is riding by when he intrepidly decides to explore the creepy dilapidated ruin.  There, in the topmost tower of that surely condemned building he discovers the sleeping princess, preserved at the bloom of her sixteenth year for all time and…Well…In gentler tellings of this story he kisses her, the spell is broken and she agrees to marry the total stranger on the spot because knowing anything about your spouse happens AFTER the wedding, silly.  However, there are variations of the story in which this guy is so taken by the beauty of a possibly dead, definitely comatose girl that he rapes her and takes off.  I mean, what would he stick around for?  After you’ve had your way with a corpse the excitement and mystery is just gone; on to the defile the next gravesite!  However, he did manage to leave our cursed heroine pregnant so that nine months later it is the pain of childbirth that finally awakens her from her slumber.

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“Oh baby, you’re so cold…Hot.  I meant hot.  Hot is good, right?  Hot is the less creepy one?”

Feminist Rating?

Again, SO MUCH better.  Like in Snow White, allowing the (passive, one-dimensional) heroine to meet and become attracted to her love interest restores some of the agency that the original fairytale robbed her of.  Also like Snow White the horror movie elements, in this case possible necrophilia and definite rape, are wisely erased from the story.  Again, there is no way to spin that original ending as a good one.  

Ariel: The Little Mermaid

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The Movie You Know

Ariel, a mermaid princess obsessed with the human world, falls in love with a handsome prince when she rescues him from drowning.  Unable to shake her passionate interspecies feelings for a total stranger, and at odds with her staunchly anti-human father, Ariel accepts an offer of help from Ursula the Sea Witch, agreeing to trade her voice for human legs.  However, there’s a catch: If she can’t win Prince Eric’s heart in three days she will return to the sea and be cursed to spend her life as one of Ursula’s…I’m actually not clear on what they are.  They look a bit like some kind of sentient seaweed.  Not the sort of thing you want to spend life as, though.   It’s all moot; even without her voice Ariel wins over Eric (sort of, I mean, there are obstacles, and Ursula gets all wily but, you know, eventually…).  After an epic sea battle and a sweet reconciliation with her father Ariel, voice and legs intact, returns to the shore and marries her heart’s desire.  Passing over the fact that the wedding night will probably be horrifying to a girl who spent sixteen years with very different below-waist business, it’s all good.

In the Original

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Firstly, it’s important to remember that Hans Christen Andersen was a depressed man who had immense trouble with personal relationships, was rejected by every woman he ever fell for, and died feeling utterly alone.  He often regarded The Little Mermaid as semi-autobiographical. With that in mind…

The mermaid, nameless in the original story, so we’ll call her TLM, does rescue and fall for the human prince, and does solicit help from the sea witch, who does offer to trade legs for a voice.  Here’s where we diverge.  It’s not just a matter of coaxing a glowing ball of music out of the mermaid’s throat, no, the sea witch straight up cuts out her tongue.  The legs that TLM receives in return function perfectly and all (she’s quite the dancer once she’s human), except for the fact that every step she takes on them feels like walking on knives.  Oh, and if she doesn’t win the Prince’s love and marry him then she will be turned into seafoam (which is doubly bad, because it means that she will lose her immortal soul, and never ascend to heaven).  Not since Shylock traded on a pound of flesh has anyone agreed to a worse deal, but there we are.  Still, TLM finally meets the prince, he is attracted to her sans tongue and all (it seems that Disney’s Ursula called that one, “You’ve got your looks, your pretty face…Men up there don’t like a lot of blabber.”), and everything seems to be going well…that is, until he falls head over heels for the princess from the next kingdom over.  A Royal Wedding is announced at once.  Now forgotten by her only love, TLM is contemplating suicide when her sisters appear, having traded their hair to the sea witch for a solution (what the sea witch is using all this stuff for is never specified, but that’s probably for the best): TLM has only to murder the prince and let his blood splash across her feet and she will be a mermaid again.  No muss, no fuss.  Of course she ultimately can’t do it, because she loves him too much, so TLM flings herself into the ocean as the sun rising, and dissolves into seafoam.  That’s not the end of the story though!  No, she ascends into the clouds where she is transformed into an air spirit and is told by her pneumatic comrades that because she strove so hard for an immortal soul that after three hundred years of doing good deeds for humanity as a spirit she will be allowed to enter heaven.  So…yaaaaaaay.

Feminist Rating?

You know, I don’t get why Disney bothered to so severely alter this story.  What with the mutilation, the masochism, the unrequited love, and the multi-century indentured servitude imposed on a girl who just wanted to be loved, I don’t know how they didn’t see that this story just screams Family Friendly Feel Good Movie of the Year!  

Hans Christen Andersen may have had some hang ups…

Yeah, the Disney version is a huge improvement, and, more importantly, represents the studio’s first real overtures to feminism.  It’s true, Ariel makes some poor decisions is pursuit of a boy, but she was the first Disney princess to be truly proactive in her own story.  She initiates action, she goes after what she wants, and she exhibits an independent streak that would make the Original Trinity clutch their collective pearls.  So yeah, it’s all for some guy, but in 1989 Ariel still represented a monumental step forward.  

(By the way, for those of you playing the home game, the original story was written in 1837, which means that TLM is only a little more than halfway through her 300 year sentence.  Good stuff.)

Anna and Elsa: Frozen

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The Movie You Know

You know how it is.  Your ice magic gets out of control, you freeze your entire kingdom in an eternal winter, and then you have to flee to the mountains in shame.  Elsa, newly crowned queen of the Nordic land of Arendelle, is in just such a fix.  Possessed of powerful wintery magic from birth but unable to control it she has lived in fear of it ever being discovered, hiding away from the entire world including her beloved little sister Anna.  Anna herself has led a lonely life in a closed up castle with only the servants for company, and is eager to get out into the world and fall in love.  However, her own plans are derailed when she must trek into the mountains surrounding her home fjord to retrieve her sister.  In the end the two girls save each other.  Sacrificing her own life, Anna thwarts the villainous Prince Hans (her would-be-fiance) in his attempt to murder Elsa and seize Arendelle as his own, and through love for her sister Elsa is able to bring Anna back from the brink of death.  In the end she finds that self-acceptance is the key to mastering her powers.  The kingdom is saved, Summer is restored, and the royal sisters finally find the happiness that they have both so longed for.

Oh, there’s also a supporting cast comprising a ice man raised by trolls, his reindeer sidekick, and a magical snowman, all of whom play a significant role in the above.  They are charming.    

In the Original

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Hans Christen Andersen’s 1844 fairytale (yes, that guy again) The Snow Queen centers on two children, Kai and Gerda who live next door to each other and keep a window box garden in the space between their two roofs.  When Kai is enchanted and abducted by the Snow Queen, Gerda undertakes a daring quest to save her friend.  Traveling great distances alone, overcoming many obstacles through a mixture of gumption and oddly placed religious messaging, she finds the Snow Queen’s frozen palace (where the Snow Queen is…not in residence, apparently), rescues Kai through the power of her love, and, with the help of some obliging reindeer, brings him home safely.  When they arrive they discover that not only has Summer has returned, but that they are now grown up (kind of a strange thing to miss).  Kai’s grandmother reads the Bible, and everyone lives…happily ever after?  We’re not told otherwise, so I’m going to assume so before Andersen can throw in any depressing twists.  

Feminist Rating?

Lateral.  

Frozen bears almost no resemblance to the story that inspired it but there is a strong feminist tone present in each.  The Snow Queen is unique among fairytales in that it sends a little girl off alone on a heroic quest to save a boy.  The boy himself plays an almost entirely passive role.  There is no romance in the equation (at least, not initially, it’s kind of hinted at having developed at the end), just a little girl’s courage, conviction, and platonic love for her best friend.   I can’t think of another fairytale story that allows a female, particularly a young one, to occupy such a strong role.  

Frozen does integrate a love story into its narrative, but the central relationship, the one by which the entire story turns, is the one between the two sisters, and from start to finish it is made clear that no bond can be more important than that one.  The movie even has a good time turning old Disney tropes on their heads by openly calling out the nuttiness of being willing to marry a complete (if handsome) stranger.  I mean, you don’t know if you’re even compatible, or what kind of guy he really is!  He might have terrible taste in music, he also might try to murder your sister and mount a palace coup.  Dating is an important step in the process, girls.  

Anna and Elsa also prove to be worthy successors to enterprising Gerda.  Anna is adventurous, spunky, and big-hearted, while Elsa is all quiet strength,wisdom, and, ultimately, powerhouse confidence.  People over the age of six might be a little fed up with the Frozen mania that swept in with the movie, I think it’s a story that’s going to age well, and I am glad to have both this adaptation and its dual heroines in the official Disney canon.  

Cinderella

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The Movie You Know

Rich girl is reduced to house maid when her father abruptly dies leaving her at the mercy of a classically “Wicked” stepmother.  Several years later the local royal family announces a mating ritual in the form of a grand ball and, with the help of a Fairy Godmother, a clutch of rodents, and a shapely gourd Cinderella attends in disguise, instantly capturing the heart of the handsome, if dimwitted, prince.  Alas, the stroke of midnight marks the end of the enchantment.  Facing the imminent demise of her clothing Cinderella bolts with such haste that she loses one of her distinctive glass slippers.  Thought the Prince had not thought to make introductions at any point during the night, he is at least able to surmise that if they can find a foot to fit such a bizarre, eccentrically impractical shoe then the girl attached to it just might be his mystery love.  A door to door campaign proves the theory correct; Cinderella is rescued from a life of drudgery (by the Grand Duke, not the Prince, because connecting the dots about the shoe exhausted just about any mental capacity he had, and a complex search operation was beyond him), and wedding bells sound across the kingdom.  

In the Original

Actually it’s not super different, give or take a couple tiny details in alternate tellings of the tale.  It’s nigh impossible to alter this story significantly, just about every culture in the world has some version of it and they’re all eerily similar.  Sometimes there are a series of balls instead of just one, sometimes the makeup of Cinderella’s animal squad is a bit different, sometimes the stepsisters…hack off their toes and heels to squeeze their feet into the unrealistically dainty glass slipper…

Oh yeah.  

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Rendered in black and white to minimize the impact of gory puddles everywhere

Really, people shouldn’t have been startled by the French bloodlust displayed during the Reign of Terror, their fairytales provided ample proof that they had lizard brains every bit as gruesome as their German neighbors (Blue Beard, anyone?).  Yes, you see in the original Charles Perrault telling of the story Cinderella’s stepsisters, raised their entire lives with the single minded obsessive goal of making a royal match, are so desperate to get into that glass slipper and win the prince that they are willing to brutally mutilate themselves in hopes of achieving the feat (HA!  Feat!  ‘Cause it sounds like…Never mind).  I lay the blame solely on their mother, who has clearly driven her daughters to psychosis after a lifetime of pounding her unrealistic expectations into them.  This is why it’s important to raise little girls with personal goals other than finding a guy.  

Feminist Rating?

It should be lateral if we’re dealing solely with the heroine- I mean it’s still the story of a girl who slaves away for her stepmother, her sweet nature undiminished by years of abuse, until a Fairy Godmother and a handsome prince rescue her from an endless cycle of laundry, cooking, and housework (the life of most women in any era, actually, so at least we know where the fantasy comes from).  However, I’m going to score Disney in the improved column based on the treatment of the much maligned stepsisters- they may SEEM awful, but what chance would you have of being an empathetic, functional human being if you’d been raised by their mother?  I mean, self-mutilation stemming from a severe mental illness linked with a desperate fear of inadequacy is a REALLY dark fate.  I appreciate Disney’s judgement of this particular story element as just plain unnecessary.

Meg: Hercules

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The Movie You Know

Meg, the obligatory love interest to the titular hero, had previously sold her soul to Hades, Lord of the Dead to save the life of a boyfriend, who then turned out to be a cheating μαλάκας (I confess I relied on Google Translate for that epithet, it may be wildly inaccurate, and/or grammatically incorrect).  When our wholesome demigod arrives on the scene, thwarting her master’s plans for cosmic domination at every step, it is Meg who is sent to distract him and emotionally sabotage his heroics (you have to admire the sophistication of Hades’ tactics here).  Of course it doesn’t work.  Herc’s unimpeachable goodness melts Meg’s cold, jaded heart, they fall in love, and it is Meg who provides the motivational oomph as well as the incentive for him to actually save the world (proving to quite heroic in her own right, by the way).   When rewarded with immortality, Hercules turns it down on the spot to return to Earth and live out his days with Meg.  The muses sing a celebratory song, and everybody goes home happy.  

In the Original

Hercules murders her.

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“Oops.”

 

Yup, straight up slaughters Meg, and their two children in a frenzy of madness inflicted on him by Hera.

Oh yeah, she’s not his loving mom here.  Zeus wasn’t what one would call a slave to fidelity.  In mythology he spent a lot of time running around on his wife, siring hundreds of children with his mortal paramours.  This, rather understandably, put Hera’s back up, and a number of Zeus’ illicit offspring became a target for her jealousy over the years.  Her relationship with Hercules is a particularly extreme case.  She spent years messing with him to one extent or another, until she finally cranked it up to eleven and drove him to massacre his family.

Feminist Rating?

Better in every possible way.  In Meg Disney gave us one of their greatest heroines ever; she is gutsy, sassy, sexy, and absolutely overflowing with moxie.  This as opposed to a myth (from a not particularly lady-friendly ancient culture) where she has no development or role other than “Wife of Hercules,” and exists purely to die tragically.  No, there is no question that Meg is one of the biggest improvement over her original counterpart in the Disney canon.  Plus, I mean, most of Hercules’ myth doesn’t exactly come across as Family Friendly, and opening a film with the devastating destruction of a family is just not part of the Disney vision.

That’s Pixar’s job.

Mulan

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The Movie You Know

With the Huns threatening China’s borders the Emperor needs every man that can be spared to defend the country.  He sends a proclamation across that land that every family must supply one to serve in the Imperial army.  Unfortunately for the Fa family, the only man they have to send is their patriarch, an aging war hero who already bears persistent wounds from his previous service.  His daughter, Mulan, does the only thing she can think of: Dressed in her father’s armor she assumes a male identity, and rides off to join the army in his place.  After a bumpy start Mulan begins to excel in training, showing a talent for both leadership and combat; by the time the Huns are upon her ragtag unit she is ready to do some serious damage.  Though the discovery of her true gender is a momentary setback, Mulan, undaunted, takes on the imperial city and the villainous Shan Yu with a daring, improvised plan, ultimately saving both her Emperor and her country.  After politely refusing the Emperor’s offers of power and riches, Mulan returns to her home secure in the only thing she ever really wanted: To bring honor to herself and to her family.  It also helps that she secured the heart of her hottie hot hot commanding officer, Captain Li Shang.  Cue the super nineties 98° /Stevie Wonder collaboration, and roll the credits.  

In the Original

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Believe it or not, she’s actually MORE badass.

The contours of the story are all the same.  China is in danger, every family has to send a man to serve in the army, Mulan’s father is too old and infirm to go, and her brother is a small child (Yeah, she has a little brother in the folktale, I guess to assure ancient Chinese people that Mulan’s mother wasn’t a total failure as a woman).  Mulan takes up her father’s armor and, with the full knowledge and support of her family (who let her study martial arts, swordplay, and archery growing up), rides off into battle in his stead.  Where she serves for twelve years, acquitting herself as a hero again and again.  Also, she never bothers to hide her real identity.  She fights openly, and kind of nonchalantly, as a woman, though her comrades in arms are painted as rather dim, since they don’t notice that little detail until after Mulan has retired and started wearing (female) civilian clothes.  When they realize that their fierce friend is, in fact, a woman, the conversation goes something like this, “Wait, you’re a chick?”  “Yeah.  Duh.  Now hand me my spear.”  “Oh.  Cool.”  It’s actually kind of incredibly progressive for a folktale originating in an ancient, famously patriarchal society.  Now, there is a version that dates from the seventeenth century that backpedals some of that (there’s more tragedy, suicide, and sexual harassment), but we’re going to ignore that one for purposes of smashing the patriarchy and whatnot.  

Feminist Rating?

Points to Disney for their great movie, but, improbably,  the ancient Chinese actually smoked you here.

It’s hella impressive that there’s an ancient story that is MORE feminist and kickass than the very feminist, kickass Disney movie that was adapted from it.  

Rapunzel: Tangled

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The Movie You Know

When a girl is possessed with a mane of hair that has magical healing powers, she just can’t be too careful.  Alas, raised in total seclusion at the top of a tower by an overprotective “mother,” Rapunzel only wants one day of freedom to find the source of the floating lights that appear in the sky every year on her birthday.  Flynn Ryder only wants to steal a fortune and retire to a private island.  When he breaks into Rapunzel’s tower she and her handy frying pan press gang the smoldering thief into service as tour guide, and with her reluctant new friend in tow she finally sets off on the adventure she has always dreamed of.  There are emotionally complex ruffians, chase sequences, lively street festivals, and, of course, eventually there is the bloom of young love, but it can’t all be sunshine and daisies.  Rapunzel’s “mother,” actually a centuries old witch who kidnapped the infant (Spoiler: Princess) Rapunzel for her magic hair, pulls out every nefarious trick in the book to regain control of her human fountain of youth, even attempting to murder Flynn Ryder.  It all works out okay though, the witch is foiled, falls out of the tower and explodes into dust, Flynn is saved by Rapunzel’s Fawkes the Phoenix healing abilities (Further Spoiler: Even though her hair loses its power after its been cut, there’s a handy deus ex flora revealing that her tears will still do the trick), and the heroine is reunited with her birth parents to the jubilation of all.  Happily Ever After.  

In the Original

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If Rapunzel had any strong desire to get out of that tower it doesn’t really come up.  She kind of just passively accepts that she lives hidden away from the rest of the world, with her only human contact coming from the witch that she hoists up once a day using her obscenely long hair.

This isn’t because of any magic powers, or special defining features of Rapunzel’s, by the way.  It’s solely and entirely because the witch caught Rapunzel’s dad stealing cabbages from her garden (for his pregnant wife) and decided to take his child as payback.  I understand that people get very protective of their gardens and all, but…I mean…wow.  How does one make the jump from “Get off my lawn,” to child abduction?  It’s a big jump, is all I’m saying.

So there’s Rapunzel, hanging out in a tower, singing to herself, not bothering to develop any personality or interests, when a passing prince is entranced by her voice, and convinces her to pull him up.  Being the first man she’s ever met, it doesn’t take long for the hormones to take over, and soon Rapunzel is in love (and in bed) with this total stranger.  They’re planning to elope when the witch discovers them.  Not pleased is an understatement.  She defenestrates the prince, shears off Rapunzel’s hair, and casts the girl that she has raised for 16-18 years into the wilderness.  Because, as established earlier, the witch has exactly two modes of operation: Regular and ballistic.  It’s not so bad though, the prince didn’t die.  He broke his fall with a thorn bush.  And his face. So he’s just blind.  He wanders around as a sightless beggar until he stumbles upon Rapunzel and the TWO CHILDREN HE KNOCKED HER UP WITH living out in the wastelands, and the couple is joyfully reunited.  Luckily, Fairytale Rapunzel ALSO has Fawkes-like powers; her happy tears restore his sight allowing the prince to take his poorly-socialized young love and their twins back to his kingdom to live out their days in uncloistered happiness.

Feminist Rating?

Disney wins by virtue of taking a story full of simple-minded idiots (or lunatics in the case of the witch), and making them into fully fleshed people with personalities and motivations.  That’s always going to make for a better story, but it took Disney a little bit to really figure that out when it came to their classic fairytale love stories (Beauty and the Beast, notably, is not a part of the same canon).  Glad they finally made it, though.  Their Rapunzel is a sweet, caring, brave girl who definitely has eyes bigger than her narrow world.  She is utterly charming, and serves as a nice bridge character between the traditional princess model and the wonder women of some other movies, providing another shade in the ever broadening spectrum of female types represented by the Disney animated features.  

Belle: Beauty and the Beast

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The Movie You Know

Belle is a beautiful, brainy girl with big dreams who is trapped in a provincial town when her father’s sudden disappearance leads her to a mysterious enchanted castle. The master of the house is a towering man-beast with a volcanic temper, who is keeping dear dad in a tower prison as a punishment for home invasion.  At the young woman’s insistence he agrees to take Belle as a hostage in exchange for her father’s freedom, which hardly seems like the basis for any kind of positive future association.  However, after saving each other’s respective lives, relations between Belle and the Beast begin to warm, each lonely individual finding in the other an acceptance that they have never known from anyone else.  Despair fades, hope flourishes, the Beast’s temper and selfishness melt away to reveal his better nature, and against the odds the pair gradually fall in love.  Though the Beast is nearly murdered by a Belle’s no-doesn’t-really-mean-no suitor, Gaston (and the village mob he has riled for good measure) her last second confession of her feelings saves his life, and breaks his curse.  A shimmering rain pours down on the castle revealing the Beast to be the handsome Prince Adam, the castle and its occupants are freed from their enchantment, and the pacified villagers (feeling very silly, I’m sure) flood into the ballroom for a grand wedding.

In the Original

The basic plot is similar while the specifics differ; some parts of Beauty’s narrative arc are oblique, most are not.  Her courage at least is very much in evidence.  In the original version her father, a formerly-wealthy merchant fallen on hard times, runs afoul of the Beast trying to cut a rose in the garden of his enchanted castle as a gift for Beauty.  The Beast goes ballistic for reasons that the fairytale never makes clear, and tells the merchant that he will keep him as prisoner unless he agrees to bring one of his daughters back to the castle in his place (the merchant has a few in the original version).  To the merchant’s credit, he doesn’t initially plan to actually follow through on his agreement with the Beast, but Beauty, worried about what might happen to her father, insists on returning to the castle to fulfill the bargain.

However, that brave integrity is the only one of Belle’s admirable film qualities that’s in evidence in the original story.  She’s definitely not the feisty bookworm that she was in the Disney movie, and her life at the castle is fairly passive.  She lives in enormous luxury (which the fairytale makes clear that she is unimpressed with), and sees the Beast once each day at dinner, when he proposes to her.  Every.  Day.  Starting from day one.  Now, the Beast comes off better in this one than the Disney film, because, the original conniption over the rose aside, he is never anything less than a perfect gentleman, but Beauty still doesn’t particularly want to marry him.  Each time he proposes she refuses, only to dream each night about a handsome prince.  Her days are spent searching the castle for him because she is convinced that the Beast is hiding him somewhere.  Still, we the reader are told that she is happy with her life in the Beast’s household, despite the fact that there doesn’t seem to be much to it.  Eventually though Beauty gets homesick and begs the Beast to let her go visit her family, which he allows in exchange for her promise that it will only be for a week.  He gives her a magic mirror and sends her on her way.  At home Beauty’s sisters are jealous of her exquisite clothes and the luxurious life she leads, and pretend to be devastated by her upcoming departure so that she will break her promise to the Beast and he will retaliate by eating her alive (And you thought your siblings were petty).  Alas, Beauty does overstay the agreed upon week, but, riddled with guilt, she uses the mirror to check in on the Beast and finds him lying in the garden dying of a broken heart.  She immediately returns to him, tearfully tells him that she loves him, and *poof* it turns out that he was the handsome prince in her dreams all along.  Her sisters are turned into statues, and birds eat their eyes.  

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“We’re being just a touch dramatic here, don’t you think?”

Feminist Rating?

I’m actually torn between whether or not the Disney adaptation is a lateral or positive move.  The LePrince de Beaumont version certainly leans pretty feminist for the time that it was written; as in the movie it inspired it allows its heroine to be the savior of several characters.  Both versions also give ample time for the titular couple to become acquainted and to fall in love organically, which is almost unheard of in classical fairytales.  (Though yes, we must acknowledge that both versions feature a dubious beginning to the romance with Beauty/Belle choosing to join the Beast’s household under coercion.*)

However, as mentioned above it is impossible not to prefer Belle’s personality to Beauty’s.  While Beauty is brave, and honest, and gracious, Belle is all that with a feisty independence, and voracious intelligence on top.  She spends her days in the Beast’s castle cultivating friendships with everyone from the master of the house to the sentient footstool, and tearing gleefully through the INCREDIBLE library (that scene is nothing short of bookworm porn; I get the tingles just thinking about it).  While LePrince de Beaumont’s Beauty does spend some time teaching the Beast to read, it comes with a bizarre commentary about book learning not mattering as much as, like, purity of heart or something (shouldn’t we teach children that ideally one should be both educated AND good?), and her main pastime at the castle is hunting for her dream prince who may or may not actually exist.  Of the two Belle is definitely who I’d want to spend time with.  

I kind of want to class this movie as latero-positive.  The Disney heroine is ultimately better, stronger, and more feminist in the modern sense, but the story structures supporting her, while different, are comparable.  So…latero-positive?  Can I do that?  Can I just make that up?  Of course I can, this is my post, and I’m Queen here.  

* Okay, it has become popular to glibly refer to the relationship that develops between Belle/Beauty and Beast as Stockholm Syndrome, but I think that that ignores the context of the original, and the complexity of the adaptation.  

As to the former: Remember, most fairytales were supposed to teach lessons to children (Don’t accept food from strangers is a big one in the genre), Beauty and the Beast, written in the eighteenth century, was very much targeted at girls who would likely face an arranged marriage in an attempt to help lessen their potential anxiety.  It tells them to go into this situation that they have little or no control over with an open mind and a sense of  their filial duty; given time love and happiness can follow.  It’s quite depressing to the modern mind, where we tend to see the ideal marriage as a romantic love match between soul mates (a trope that can be damaging in its own right, by the way) but in a world where most upper class girls had their spouses chosen for them, and eventually left their families to move in with a man who who was essentially a total stranger, it’s not the worst message to give them.  

Regarding the latter: The Stockholm Syndrome identifier disregards the fact the Belle and the Beast are developed in that movie as opposite sides of the same coin.  They have both lived life as lonely, misunderstood outcasts, desperate to be a  part of a wider world in some sense.  Their love develops from the realization that at heart they are far more similar than they are different; two odd puzzle pieces finding an improbable match.  And yes, the Beast’s temper in their initial encounters is a bit of a sticky point, but if we’re being fair we have to take into account that this is a guy beset by a terrible fate (which he may not have actually deserved given some eyebrow-raising revelations in the later prequel),who has been living in heavy isolation with only the furniture for company for a very long time.  Ten years for his despair, his anger, his guilt to gnaw away at him relentlessly.  By the time Maurice and Belle show up the window for salvation is closing rapidly, and he has reverted almost entirely to a bestial internal state that mirrors his appearance.  It really is remarkable that he has ANY socialization left, or that it takes so little (comparatively) to bring him back from the brink.  Notice that after the near-disastrous consequences of his untamed rage in the West Wing he is able to pull a total 180, and become a much more measured, moderated individual practically overnight.  To look at the Beast’s actions in isolation, yes his behavior is inexcusable, but when put in the context of the backstory and experiences that put him where he was at the top of the movie a much more nuanced picture of depression emerges.  When put in concert with his nearly instantaneous commitment to changing for the better I think it becomes grossly unfair to examine the story and character in such black and white terms.  

Full Disclosure: Beauty and the Beast is, to this day, my absolute favorite Disney Princess movie, and in my all time top five Disney films.  I allow for the possibility that I may have a blind spot where it is concerned, but I have also spent A LOT of time thinking about the complexities of the story.  I try to be fair in my assessments.  

Also: I gave Disney kudos for treating Cinderella’s stepsisters better in their movie than Perrault did in his fairytale, but I’m not doing the same for saving Beauty’s sisters by virtue of omission.  Nope, Beauty’s sisters had no reason whatsoever to be the jealous bitches that they were.  They tried to get their sister murdered for having better clothes than them; let those birds eat their eyes.   

Esmeralda: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

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The Movie You Know

The gypsy Esmeralda is one impressive lady.  She can dance, she can sing, she can handle herself in a fight, and when the misshaped bell ringer Quasimodo is attacked and tortured by a drunken mob she leaps to his defense without a second thought.  As a gypsy she is familiar with injustice, and she will fight it wherever she finds it.  Unfortunately this particularly stand sends some trouble her way.  Namely, trouble takes the form of Judge Claude Frollo, a gypsy-hating racist in a position of enormous power who develops a psycho-sexual obsession with Esmeralda thereafter, and tries to burn Paris to the ground to get to her (the implication being that he either wants to rape her or execute her, possibly both…Disney went dark on this one).  However, with a little help from her friend Quasi and from her strapping love interest, the heroic Captain of the Guards, Phoebus, Esmeralda helps ensure that Frollo gets his just desserts (plummeting from the top of the cathedral into a river of flaming oil, which is absolutely the way to handle sexual predators of his ilk).  The three heroes burst triumphantly from the cathedral of Notre Dame to where the city population is waiting, ready to embrace a new era of acceptance and tolerance in Medieval Paris.  

In the Original

It takes a lot of mental effort to deal with this character in her original form.  Okay.  Deep breath.  Here we go.  

To begin with, much is made of the fact that Esmeralda may LIVE with the gypsies, but she is not HERSELF a gypsy.  No, she’s a beautiful white girl originally named Agnes, who, as an infant, was tragically stolen from her mother (a fallen woman seduced to sin by a philandering nobleman) BY the gypsies.  So.  No worries about sympathizing with some dirty brown-skinned heathen or anything, book readers, the heroine of this piece is a lily-like victim of circumstance through and through, so sympathize away.

It’s not that she hasn’t got some proactive traits, mostly motivated by a compassionate nature.  Though she is deeply disgusted by him, Esmeralda does approach the pilloried Quasimodo to offer him a drink of water and ease his suffering.  When a lost poet mistakenly wanders into the Court of Miracles (gypsy underground) Esmeralda agrees to marry him on the spot to save him from execution.  So.  Yeah, nice girl.  And I do mean girl; she is fifteen years old in the novel.

However, I would argue that her true purpose in the book is purely to show just how twisted everyone around her really is.  Did I mention that when Quasimodo was in the pillory it was as a punishment for attempted kidnapping?  Of Esmeralda?  Yup.  Frollo sent the bell ringer to snatch her off the street for him.  It wasn’t TOTALLY traumatic though.  Esmeralda DID get to meet hunky Captain Phoebus during that particular misadventure.  What girl wouldn’t want to meet a babe in shining armor like that?  Phoebus, like his boss, was not blind to the physical appeal of the dancing girl.  He might have been engaged and not looking for anything “serious,” but that’s no reason to pass up such a hot little piece.  Far less gallant than his film counterpart, Phoebus seduces the girl (through a galling dose of emotional manipulation that is textbook Fuck Boi), and he’s just about to get up her skirt  when…Frollo bursts in from where he’s been watching behind the door.  Seriously.  Now he does Esmeralda the favor of stabbing douchebag Phoebus to death, but then he frames her for the murder, so…

Oh, and as if she weren’t already dealing with a lot, at this point Esmeralda has also been accused of witchcraft by the late Phoebus’ pissed off fiancée, and has all kinds of trouble looking for her.  Sounds like a girl could use some sanctuary right now.  If only there was a giant church nearby.  

Indeed, like the Disney movie, Esmeralda does seek refuge in Notre Dame, where, moved by the kindness of her former would-be kidnapper, she finally overcomes her revulsion of Quasimodo and forms a friendship with him.  It’s actually kind of a nice, quiet life the two have got going for a little bit…until Frollo tries to rape her.  Yeah, he didn’t take the church’s stance on sanctuary as a deterrent so much as a challenge.  Quasi is there to save the day, but things really do go downhill after this (because they were going so well before).  Esmeralda’s sweetly naïve husband, Gringoire is manipulated (by Frollo) into storming the Cathedral with a crew of gypsies in a bid to liberate his embattled wife, and Quasimodo, believing that they are coming to hurt his only friend, turns all his attention to fighting them off.  In the confusion Gringoire is able to spirit Esmeralda to a waiting boat, where she passes out, only to wake and find that her husband has vanished and that she is alone with the boatman, who is actually…Frollo in disguise, because DUDE, ENOUGH ALREADY!  Under these circumstances it is 100% understandable that, when offered the choice by Frollo to stay with him or to be handed to the mob and executed, Esmeralda asks to be hung.  Frankly, that’s the first truly rational decision that a main character has made in this book.

Hey it’s not a TOTALLY depressing ending though.  Once Quasimodo learns what Frollo has done he throws him from the top of Notre Dame, which is nice.  Of course then the heartbroken bell ringer tracks down Esmeralda’s corpse whereupon he lies in the street clutching it until he dies of starvation.  Centuries later their intertwined skeletons are discovered, and Quasi’s bones crumble to dust when they are separated.  

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Victor Hugo is another one who may have had some issues.

Feminist Rating?

Oh God, is this even a question?  Better.  Better, better, better, better.  A thousand times better.  

Don’t get me wrong, book Esmeralda is particularly relevant to our modern world.  She’s a poignant avatar for the very extremes of the #MeToo movement; a young girl, just living her life until she is destroyed by the men who were filled with an obsessed desire to possess and control her.  A victim of violence, intimidation, and injustice at every turn.  Even in death she is not accorded the dignity of her own personhood; she is quite literally in the possession of one of those men until he turns to dust, which he feels justified in doing simply because he desired her so much in her life.  No thought is ever given to Esmeralda’s feeling in return, either by the characters themselves or by the author who created all of them.  It’s just REALLY depressing the more you think about it, but, as I said, deeply relevant.

The feisty, fiery, independent woman who is able to fight for and define her own fate is a far more inspiring character.  So, good job there, Disney.

Yes, it’s undeniably true that some of Disney’s heroines and the stories they occupy raise a feminist eyebrow, as well as plenty of debate and new exploration (which I think is fantastic; society can and should constantly reexamine itself through the lens of both past and present culture).  However, I feel confident is saying that the overall trend of their work is very positive.  Each film has represented a step forward for female representation in the genre, and nearly all have taken an existing heroine and improved her depiction in degrees small (Snow White) and great (Esmeralda).  These days the studio gives us its boldest ladies yet, characters like the newest princess, Moana, a strong, driven young women whose story features hefty heroics and exactly zero romantic subplot, and there is no reason to believe that equally inspiring young heroines won’t follow her.  Because the undeniable truth that is evident at the heart of the Disney creative vision is an impulse for progress, for reinvention, for uncharted territory.  Also for world domination.  Strong women help their cause on both accounts.  

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Five Groan-Inducing “Romantic” Movie Staples, and What You Should Watch Instead

For some reason the air waves this last week have become choked with no end of romance movies.  Romantic comedies, romantic dramas, romantic dramas that come off more like comedies…I’m less concerned as to why they are proliferating my viewing experience and more concerned with the ones that seem to be the top go-to films when our culture goes looking for some fictional lovin’.  Now some of them I am more than willing to get on board with, but there are others, ones that, especially in my generation, are often pushed to the forefront of cinematic romance that I can’t help but roll my eyes over.  What are they, you might ask?  And what would I recommend instead?  Why, I’m so glad you asked!

  1.  What you’re watching:

 

The Notebook

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An elderly man tells his Alzheimer’s-inflicted wife the story of Noah and Allie, two crazy kids from opposite sides of the tracks who fall in love over Summer vacation in early 1940’s South Carolina.  Of course her parents don’t think he’s good enough and separate them.  A world war passes, and a lot of water goes under the bridge; when they are finally thrust together again, Noah and Allie will find out once and for all if their long-burning passion is meant for more than a rosy memory.  

No thought is spared for the happily ever after of James Marsden, mind you.  James Marsden stands forlorn and forgotten in a corner.  That poor, beautiful man.

What you should watch instead:

Ever After

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An elderly noblewoman tells the Brothers Grimm the story of Danielle de Barbarac, the daughter of a wealthy French merchant who tragically dies just after bringing home his noble-born second wife and her two daughters.  The Edict of Fontainebleu is passed, and a lot of water goes under the bridge, and years later we find Danielle reduced to servitude in her own home as her stepmother squanders the riches of the manor.  When a chance encounter puts her in the path of Henry, the heir to the throne, the unexpected attraction that sparks between them will have to withstand an obscured identity, the political maneuvers of the kingdom, and the machinations of Danielle’s wickedly ambitious stepmother if they’re going to find a happily ever after.  

Similarities?

Both films are historical fiction (pre and post World War II in the coastal American South, and Renaissance France respectively), and both are framed as a story within a story.  Both feature pairs of lovers who are nearly torn apart by misunderstanding and family interference.  

Where they Differ

Well.  Danielle and Henry’s relationship begins when she tries to bail an old family servant out of jail and ends up arguing Utopian ideals with the prince, who happened to be passing by.  Noah and Allie’s starts when he threatens to kill himself if she won’t go out with him.  When Danielle vanishes, Henry goes to a lot of effort asking around about her.  When Allie vanishes Noah writes a whole bunch of unreturned letters, because no one had a phone in 1940s South Carolina.  And there were no buses.  Or trains.  Danielle and Henry develop their romance by going on a trip to a magnificent library, debating intellectual convictions, and gently teasing each other.  Allie and Noah get into smack down, drag out screaming matches, because they’re so “passionate.”

I think The Notebook hits a lot of people’s sentimental spot because of the framing device with the elderly couple, and it certainly gets a boost from the superlative cast, but ultimately Nicholas Sparks’ saccharine-drenched piggy bank is a cliche-heavy portrait of two ill-suited personalities who spend years separated for reasons that really boil down to laziness (also a world war.  I’ll give them some leeway for the world war).   

Basically, Ever After is the story of two people who fall in love with each other’s minds, ideals, and principles, while The Notebook is the story of two people who are super attracted to each other despite not being compatible in any other significant way.  Ever After jumps off from the most famous of fairytales and gives us a lush, romantic reimagining with two main characters who find their true match in each other.   The Notebook…lets us ogle Ryan Gosling for a couple hours.  

 

  1.  What you’re watching:

Twilight

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Ah the classic tale of interspecies love.  

Shy and klutzy Bella Swan moves to the tiny town of Forks, Washington where her novelty renders her the hottest thing on two feet.  Despite her sudden popularity she is instantly, magnetically drawn to the one boy who seems to be trying with all of his might to avoid her, the mysterious and beautiful (though often chagrined) Edward Cullen.  Through some obsessive sleuthing Bella soon deduces that Edward is, in fact, a vampire; when confronted he admits that her blood is more powerfully tempting to him than any he has ever encountered.  Undeterred by predatory appetites, the concerns of Edward’s vampire family, or the threat of a rival vampire with a similar nose for Bella’s blood, the two fall into the throes of virginal teenage love and a franchise is born.    

What you should watch instead:

Stardust

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Ah the classic tale of interspecies love.  

Shopboy Tristan wants nothing more than to win the heart of Victoria, the village beauty.  When a falling star lands on the other side of the town’s mysterious, never-to-be-crossed Wall, he embarks on an adventure in a hidden fantasy world, determined to bring the star back as a gift for the young lady.  However, remarkably, the star is less star-like and more cute-girl-like than our hero had imagined, and, with the addition of several other interested parties seeking the star, Yvaine, getting her back across the Wall proves to be far more challenging than initially anticipated.  Undeterred by cannibalistic witches, bloodthirsty princes, or snooty English gentry (and with a boost from some awesome sky pirates), Tristan and Yvaine fall into the throes of (not so virginal) post-teenage love and a great adventure is had.  

Similarities?

Both are supernatural/fantasy love stories wherein only one party is human.  Both feature quirky small towns, and at least one villain whose greatest desire is to eat one of the main characters.  

Where they Differ

Bella is a self-absorbed sad sack with no personality and no interests- except for classic literature, and her vampire crush.  Edward is a controlling stalker (he hides in her bedroom to watch her sleep.  Hides.  In her bedroom.  To watch her sleep) who, though rightfully disturbed by his primal urge to drain his new girlfriend of her blood, is not at all concerned by the fact that he is about 86 years older than the delectable morsel.  Half the movie is spent on the irritating will-they-won’t-they-I-want-you-but-I-can’t dance, one quarter goes to some truly humorous attempts at romance (hard to tell what’s more comic, the actions themselves, or the god-awful special effects around them), and one quarter goes to the outsider vampire threat.  Throw in two leads who seems to be actively trying to sabotage the movie with their eminently mockable acting choices and what we have is one hilarious spoof.  Too bad this was earnestly meant as an epic romance.  

By contrast Stardust is a delightful fairytale very much in the vein of The Princess Bride.  It is clever, deliberately funny, and quite sweet in its depiction of the growing regard between the two leads.  Both Tristan and Yvaine begin as intelligent, strong-willed individuals, and both make substantial personal strides as they journey across the land of Stormhold together.  When they finally face the villains it is as a team, fortified by their own individual strengths and bonded by the love that has organically developed between them.  Vibrant with adventure, excellent characters, a taste of danger, and the sparkle of fantasy magic, Stardust is a marvelous (sadly underrated) story that delivers a good deal of genuine warm-fuzzies, even as it always keeps a bit of tongue in cheek.  

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This is a thing that happens in this movie.  If Stardust were a bad movie, this element alone would save it.

  1.  What you’re watching:

Annie Hall

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A neurotic New York nebbish falls in love with a quirky free-spirit.  Things end badly.  He tries to figure out what love even is, and why his couldn’t last.  

What you should watch instead:

(500) Days of Summer

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An idealistic Los Angeles greeting card writer falls in love with a quirky free-spirit.  Things end badly.  He tries to figure out what love even is, and why his dream girl didn’t feel it for him.  

Similarities?

The brief synopsis above should give you insight into how similar in theme and concept both movies really are.  Both story lines jump between present and past.  Both feature meditations on the nature of love, what it is, why it happens.  Both feature a classic Manic Pixie Dream Girl as the love interest (though in the case of (500) Days of Summer this characterization seems to come more from Tom’s inability, or refusal, to truly acknowledge the reality of Summer).  

Where they Differ

I KNOW that Annie Hall is considered a great classic.  I KNOW that it shows up on all these “Best of” lists.  I KNOW that a lot of people really love this movie, and that this entry is probably the most divisive one on this list.  

But come on.  I can’t be the only one that finds Woody Allen completely insufferable, can I?  Except for Midnight in Paris (which I do really love) I have yet to see a Woody Allen movie that didn’t irritate me with Allen’s fetishistic enshrinement of his own neurosis.  

(500) Days of Summer features a main character, Tom, with more than his fair share of issues, especially in his idealistic approach to romance, and to the girl who is the object of his desire.  However where Annie Hall’s Alvy is unable, or unwilling, to confront his shortcomings (preferring, instead, to wallow in them), Tom makes an active effort, after a lot of mourning, moping, and raging, to get his life together and try to make some positive personal changes.  It is really refreshing to see a male lead get his heart smashed into pieces and eventually come to the place where he’s able to say, “Hey, maybe I am partly to blame for what happened.  Maybe I can try to be better…”  And then go out and BECOME better.  You know, grow as a human being.  What a concept.  

Also, (500) Days of Summer’s expectations vs. reality sequence is one of the most strikingly true depictions of unrequited feelings I’ve seen played out on screen.  The whole movie is creatively and evocatively shot, the story is intelligently portrayed, and Joseph Gordon Levitt is infinitely more pleasant to spend two hours with than Woody Allen.  

 

  1.  What you’re watching:

Titanic

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Poor-little-rich-girl Rose Dewitt-Bukater and Bohemian expatriate artist Jack Dawson meet on the stern of the most hubristic advertising scheme in history as she contemplates throwing herself into the ocean.  In their brief time together he teaches her how to live life to the fullest, she teaches him that gorgeous naked women wearing massive diamonds are the best portrait subjects, and then the ship sinks.  Jack dies.  Rose ditches her mother and cartoonishly terrible fiance to embark on a life of artistic self-fulfillment.  None of this should have been a spoiler to you.  

What you should watch instead:

Atonement

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Content little rich girl Briony Tallis harbors a secret crush on her family housekeeper’s son, Robbie Turner, oblivious to the Cambridge student’s own secret passion for her older sister, Celia.  When Briony witnesses a series of encounters between the pair her jealousy and confusion lead her to falsely accuse Robbie of a terrible crime, resulting in his incarceration and Celia’s estrangement from the family.  Years later, in the midst of World War II, the young lovers struggle to find a way back to each other as Biony, riddled with guilt, is forced to finally confront the full weight of her childish actions.  

Similarities

Both are tragic love stories of passion found only to be ripped away by unfair forces beyond the control of the lovers involved.  Both are well-costumed historical dramas set against the backdrop of vast human tragedies.  Both will deliver you a tear-jerking finale that isn’t so much emotionally satisfying as brutally bittersweet.  

Where they Differ

Mostly in terms of the quality of the writing and the stories.  Titanic was a landmark film, unparalleled at the time of its release in terms of its scale, its visual richness, and its technological achievement.  The story though…well, story has never been James Cameron’s strong point.  Between hackneyed dialogue (that ONLY plays without being COMPLETELY ridiculous because Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio are damn fine actors), cliched story beats, and characters reduced to ham-fisted caricatures Titanic is very heavily style over substance.  

Not to mention the fact that no matter where you land on the “Door Debate,” Jack totally could have survived if Rose hadn’t gone leaping out of a perfectly good life boat like a moron.

In contrast, Atonement is an exquisitely written AND exquisitely shot masterpiece of a film that relies, to some extent, on the viewer’s ability to connect some dots on their own.  With a creative approach to the structure of the story, a fascinating central character in Briony Tallis, and a truly devastating final reveal, Atonement is the gut-wrenching romantic tragedy that your soul really needs.  In fact, far beyond just being a story of a tragic romance, it becomes a wider meditation on guilt, on the nature of love, and on the importance that stories hold on a personal as well as public level.  

 

  1.  What you’re watching:

Fifty Shades of Grey

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Narcissistic billionaire stalker Christian Grey meets narcissistic clueless klutz Anastasia Steele, and their mutual fascination quickly evolves into the early stages of a text-book abusive relationship (the nature of which has exactly NOTHING to do with Christian’s BDSM fetish) in a blatant plagiarism of another terrible “romance” series.

What you should watch instead:

10 Things I Hate About You

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High school bad boy Patrick Verona is paid to woo the school shrew, Kat Stratford as part of a wacky scheme to help the sweet-hearted Cameron get a date with Kat’s popular younger sister Bianca in a modern (far less problematic) retelling of Williams Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.

Similarities?

They both…take place…in Seattle?

Where they Differ

Seriously?  Well one is about a terrible human being who takes his need for control to psychotic levels, and the terrible human being who allows him to strip her of her agency, her independence, and any vestiges of self-esteem that she might have had because he’s hot and rich.  It is a stunningly accurate depiction of a deeply unhealthy abusive relationship with a narcissistic sociopath, while also being (from what I understand) a stunningly INaccurate depiction of responsible BDSM behavior.  Despite the much-touted kink, somehow the sex scenes are not even sort of hot.  This might have something to do with the fact that the two lead actors don’t actually seem to like each other.  At all.  But it’s probably also due to the fact that this is a movie based on a book by an idiot Twilight fan girl who has no concept of good writing, American vernacular, or why so many women are so viscerally repelled by the psycho that she’s been selling as God’s gift to orgasms.  The fact that there is ALSO a large contingent of women who consider Christian Grey to be their ideal man is very, VERY troubling.  

Then there’s 10 Things I Hate About You.  The anti-Fifty Shades of Grey, if you will.  If Kat Stratford ever met Christian Grey, Bobby Ridgeway’s testicle retrieval operation would look like a day at Disneyland.  Smart, tough, and fiercely independent, Kat Stratford would have NO tolerance for Christian Grey’s bullshit.  Kat Stratford needs no one’s approval, let alone their permission, she just needs them to get out of her way while she blazes her path as the brilliant badass that she is.  The man who pursues her heart, Patrick Verona, is able to make inroads precisely because he meets her on her own level and appreciates her exactly as she is, sharp edges and all.  Kat and Patrick, in their matching Doc Martens, and having brought out the best in each other, would kick Ana and Christian’s ridiculous asses all the way to Vancouver.  

10 Things is sharp and funny and feminist (despite the classic ’90’s setup device for all the romantic action).  10 Things is all ABOUT a strong female lead.  10 Things will make you glad that you are alive.

The One Big Reason Why You’re Not Watching The 100, and Five Reasons Why You Should

Avast, matey, minor spoilers ahead!

Let me set the scene for a little television show called The 100.  

On a dilapidated space station 97 years after the nuclear ruin of Earth a scarcity of resources has rendered any and all crimes, no matter how minor, punishable by execution.  Juvenile offenders are locked up pending a case review on their eighteenth birthday.  Clarke Griffin is several months short of that date when she is suddenly marched out of her cell and boarded onto a drop ship with 99 other young offenders (making up the titular 100, in case you didn’t catch that).  They are returning to the Earth.  If it is finally survivable the rest of their station will follow them, if not…well, they probably weren’t going to live long anyway.  

However Earth, as it turns out, IS survivable; a feral, unpopulated Eden of natural splendor just waiting to welcome humanity back from whence it sprung.  Except that it’s not…actually…unpopulated.  And the locals are not exactly pleased with the new arrivals.

Don’t you hate it when thousands of people survive the nuclear holocaust and forget to tell you?  

Suddenly the 100’s original fact-finding mission becomes a battle to survive against a much larger hostile force, the natural disasters of the ground, and a shadowy threat only ominously alluded to as “Mountain Men.”  Meanwhile, back in the sky, the space station’s life support is on life support and the people on board must face their own fraught decisions if they are going to see the back end of three months.  

Now, I don’t know if this little summary has piqued your interest.  It may have, or it may have just sounded like the fairly typical post-apocalyptic fare that is so en vogue these days.  However, for those of you who like this kind of story but have never tuned in to The 100 I’m willing to bet I know the biggest reason you’re abstaining.  Because it’s the biggest reason that I almost didn’t bother with it back when it premiered in 2014 (and I honestly don’t remember what swayed me, but I’m very glad it did).  

The 100 airs on the CW.  

Yes the station has had a good run of nerd cred lately with shows like Arrow and iZombie, but the fact is that its programming slate has been dominated for years by teentastic dramedies so soapy that they should come with a rinse cycle for the credits.  I spent my teen years rolling my eyes at the likes of One Tree Hill and 7th Heaven, briefly got on board with Gossip Girl as a guilty pleasure until that spun off into insane territory about three years in, and was ready to devil-egg the network headquarters after the history-rage-inducing debut of Reign (you may have caught the Gilmore Girls reference there, a show that ran on WB/CW, but I only discovered and came to enjoy it once it hit syndication on ABC Family, so for me personally I’m not giving the CW a total win on that account).  

HOWEVER.

I am here to tell you as someone more than slightly prejudiced against the CW that The 100 is not reflective of its traditional programming.  In fact it’s not typical of anything on network television (not that I’ve seen, anyway).  If you feel even a flicker of interest for the premise of the show, but aren’t watching because of the network that hosts it I have five reasons why you should allay your misgivings and start watching immediately (on Netflix.  Where the first three seasons are available in their entirety.  Don’t just jump in mid-stream on the current fourth season).  And if you’re NOT at all intrigued by the premise, then these are five reasons why you should spare The 100 a chance.  

5.  Impressive, Immersive World-Building

It’s a tricky business throwing an audience into a world that is not their own.  They have to be initiated into the rules, mores, and institutions of the story, but doing so in a way that doesn’t feel ham-handed and expository is a hurdle that has thwarted storytellers across all mediums.  

In the case of The 100 the world of the story WAS ours, and so it bears some familiarity (especially among the denizens of the Ark), but after a massive nuclear disaster, and nearly a century’s struggle to preserve the species the rules of the game have definitely changed.  The 100 communicates this, with the exception of a little voice over at the top of the pilot episode, through a method that is more heavily show rather than tell.  The reactions that characters have to an event or a piece of information says everything necessary without attempting to spoon feed to the audience.  When important details are directly presented they are often integrated seamlessly into plot-specific dialogue rather than thrown out for the sake of explicitivity.  History and backstories come to us in bits and pieces as they relate to the situation at hand.  This refreshingly assumes a level of intelligence in the viewership that is sadly lacking in so much network television; “Here is the world: Listen, watch, keep up.”  

And what a world we are presented with.  Our stage is set with a dying space station known as the Ark, and a post-apocalyptic Earth returned to a state of nature.  How would humanity navigate such a stage?  Thus far we have seen three very specific factions seeking to demonstrate how, all with their own specific cultures that have grown up around their circumstances.  The main characters, of a faction later known as the Skaikru (Grounder speak- literal meaning: Sky People.  No one said Grounders were creative), hail from the the Ark.  They have spent their lives in orbit, functioning on severely limited resources but with advanced technological amenities.  Everything they have looks slightly worn, handed down many times, used and repurposed until it cannot possibly serve any further function.  They have survived through ingenuity and sheer willpower, and so, while ultimately pragmatic, as a group they tend to be more idealistic than their ground-side counterparts (“If we just think about this some more we can discover a solution that works for everyone”).  

Ruthlessness is often the name of the game when it comes to the humans who were left to survive on our decimated planet.  The Grounders, though distinct in the specifics of their twelve clans, share the same general culture, one carved out of humanity’s desperate struggle to survive post-nuclear holocaust.  In that culture we see the ruin of ours (sometimes literally); old remnants of the world as we recognize it integrated into a new pre-industrial tribal society.  Listening carefully the audience will even recognize some of our modern vernacular reshaped into the Grounders’ unique language, while recognizable items of clothing, furniture, and crockery appears throughout their settings as salvaged goods.  Their mores are also familiar, albeit more archaic to the modern eye; they are a violent society, more formal and ritualistic, heavily honor based, and holding firm to a strong sense of balance and retribution.   

Meanwhile, in a sealed underground bunker, a faction of humanity nearly identical to that of modern America continues to exist.  Our pre-nuclear world literally entombed for a century; preserved by methods far more brutal and amoral than any we see enacted by the other two primary groups.  

As much as we are given to digest on screen, one gets the sense that there is infinitely more to see and know.  The 100 has created a future that feels as expansive as present reality; a viewer can easily imagine a richly developed, complex world that extends far beyond the frame of the television screen.  However they don’t need to reach out and wave at their audience.  By the simple act of leaving the door open they invite us in, trusting that it won’t be long before we are lost in their world amongst them.  

4.  Diversity as the Rule

Did you know that when human beings start intermarrying regardless of race or ethnicity, most of us wind up being some shade of brown?  Also interesting?  When your species has been nearly annihilated your chances of saving are vastly improved when you don’t get stupidly picky about the pigmentation of your procreative partner.  

The 100’s showrunners did nothing more radical than embrace the logic of their story construct, and they did it in time when a commitment to diverse casting policies could be seen as progressive in the most matter-of-fact sense.  In a day and age where producers are starting to have to get really creative to defend non-inclusive casting choices, the team over at The 100 simply didn’t bother trying.  Their principal cast features several caucasian actors, yes, but also Bob Morley (half Filipino), Christopher Larkin (Korean American), Henry Ian Cusick (half Peruvian), Ricky Whittle (of West Indies descent), Lindsey Morgan (Mexican American), and Isaiah Washington (African American).  Similarly, the supporting players and ensembles of The Ark, the Mountain, and the Grounders are filled with people of all shades; the factors that divide The 100’s people into their various camps are primarily geographical and never racial.  It’s almost like humanity is actually just a big melting pot and that race is more of a social construct than anything (the luxury of which would be hard to justify when you’re just trying to ensure the survival of the species overall).  

Also encouraging is the total lack of any kind of sexual politics in the story.  Characters who are homosexual or bisexual simply…exist…as a normal part of the human landscape; if anyone ever comments about the romantic and/or sexual relationships of other characters it’s never because of the genders of the people involved.  Since we, out here in the real world, can’t seem to get over our bizarre Puritan inclination to police everybody’s bedrooms it’s frankly refreshing to experience a fictionalized version of humanity’s future where no one spares a second thought for anyone else’s sexual preferences.   I would really like to believe that, even if humans can never get away from our seemingly instinctual tendency to destroy each other, one day we might just realize that we have more important things to focus our concerns on than who does what with whom and which naughty bits.  

3.  Subversion of Tired Character Tropes

You’re watching a show whose primary cast is all super-attractive twenty-somethings  meant to be in their late teens.  Boy meets Girl, Boy and Girl work to lead their peers in a bid for survival, Boy and Girl fall for each other, oops, Boy already has a Girlfriend (okay, one that he thought he’d never see again), Girlfriend suddenly shows up.  We all know what happens now, right?  There will be a love triangle, confused Boy will ping-pong between the two of them, and then will come some passive aggressive contests of will devolving into outright bitchiness as Girl grapples to win Boy away from Girlfriend, who in turn tightens her grip on him in equal measure.  They will hate each other forever after.  Right?

Wrong.  When the above scenario was teed up in early-mid Season One I braced for the cliche impact that never came.  Girl immediately backed off, with some tension and awkwardness she and Girlfriend moved forward as allies in the greater struggle, each with great respect for the other’s abilities, Boy’s emotional confusion was met with a resounding, “We have more important stuff to deal with,” from both ladies.  

Not one but TWO young women, on a network TV show, who understand that relationship drama is a petty distraction when you’re most immediate hurdles are things like acid fog and murderous adversaries?  TWO young women who maturely put their emotions aside to focus on the precarious and dangerous circumstances around them?  Am I dreaming?

Nope.  Not dreaming, and thrilled to find it so.  This was not the very first time that The 100 swerved from the expectations of a CW drama, but it was the first one that really caught me as a viewer.  This was the point at which I really started to take the show seriously.  They had proven that they were more committed to telling a complex, interesting story (with similarly complex and interesting characters) than going for easy plotting on the back of tried-and-tested genre tropes.

This is a commitment that the showrunners have reaffirmed again and again in the three seasons of the show, both in terms of actual plot points and the pawns that enact them.  Character are allowed to be multi-dimensional and to act in ways that are messy and human;  while their reasoning is usually clear (and mostly comes from a desire to do right) they screw up in huge ways, they make bad choices, and we as an audience are not always asked to like them, or the things they do.  Actions have very real, and sometimes very permanent, consequences.  Damage alters their character makeup.  Most uniquely, it stands apart from a lot of other teen-centric programming in that none of the character development ever feels like it’s coming from a need to create drama, but rather arising organically from the never ending onslaught of impossible circumstances our cast must contend with.  

In short: You, as a viewer, may not agree with (or even like) some of these people, your opinions on them may shift back and forth a dozen times…but you will always be interested to see where they are going.

2.  Female Agency as Far as the Eye Can See

          If you’re looking for strong, kickass, Bechdel-test-acing women on your TV screen then The 100 is your one-stop shop for some serious girl power.  Where to begin with this show?  There’s the central figure of Clarke Griffin, a medical student before her arrest, who shoulders the burden of leadership ground-side and faces one shattering decision after another in her ongoing efforts to protect her people.  There’s Octavia Blake, Warrior Princess, a second child born illicitly in defiance of the the Ark’s oxygen-conserving one child policy, and subsequently hidden away under the floor of her family’s quarters for fifteen years.  Once freed Octavia’s development takes her from giddy butterfly-chasing girl to bona fide sword-wielding badass as she stakes her claim on her own independence.  There’s Raven Reyes, the brilliant mechanic with a no-nonsense attitude, and seemingly limitless brain power that is integral to the continued survival of the Skaikru.  There’s Lexa, the fierce and pragmatic Commander of the Twelve Clans, and Indra, the fire-eyed Trikru general, and Luna with her remote pacifist enclave.  There’s Abby, and Maya, and Hannah, and Anya, Emori, Dr. Tsing, Harper, and Charlotte…it’s such a long list and every one of them brings a new and enriching layer to the show.  Even more importantly, while many of these women do have love interests those aspects of their stories are rarely central to their arc, or their role in the story, but rather a little meat of the side (no…pun…intended?) to give more dimension to already complex characters.  

Best of all is how many of these women hold significant leadership positions where they are respected by the men around them.  Now I heard some grumbling on the message boards back in the first season about how realistic this was really, especially when it came to very young women like Clarke and Lexa who are the driving voices among their respective peoples despite their youth.  I’m here to say that I think it actually makes perfect sense considering the realities of the world in The 100  (and also to point out that no one rolled their eyes about Bellamy Blake, a similarly young and less experienced guy, being accepted and respected as a leader).  

Among the Grounders, whose lives are harsh and seemingly short (very few elderly Grounders ever appear, even in non-combative villages) skill is the only metric that matters.  If the pretty teenage girl is the one who Samurai’d her way through all her (heavily armed) opponents to claim the top job in the land…well yeah, in an extremely violent and fractious society that’s probably who you’d want to follow regardless of her age or her sex.  Of course, when she’s also got the military and political acumen to unite the twelve clans for the first time in living memory that would only cement her authority.  

On The Ark, where age, formal training, and seniority carry more weight, brains and skill are still recognized, and rewarded, for their own inherent value.  Raven may have been junior on the engineering team’s totem pole technically, but everyone acknowledges her mechanical genius.  Clarke, with her cool head and diplomatic instincts, was a steadying presence when the original 100 first hit the ground and established a rapport with the Grounders that uniquely positioned her to work as a mediator between the two sides.  And Octavia?  Well lots of people on The 100 are pretty dismissive of Octavia.  Then she rolls her eyes, does what she wants, and usually ends up playing an important part in saving some detractor’s butt.  

Indeed, The 100’s entire approach is very much like Octavia’s.  They don’t bother questioning whether someone is unfit for their position of authority based on age or sex, instead they show you why they are exactly the right person for the job regardless of the above (and, believe me, if they’re not suitable they’ll show you that too, usually with devastating consequences for everyone involved).

  1.  Juicy Moral Conundrums

As you may have surmised by now, The 100 doesn’t deal in easy.  Nothing about the world or the people who populate it can be boiled down to black or white; every choice, every motivation, every event is sketched out in myriad shades of grey.  There are no right answers, only less wrong ones, and the less wrong is often heavily dependent on the perspective of the character making the call.  

When the person you love commits a truly horrific crime do you protect them?  Or do you deliver them to justice?  What is more important, your alliances, or your own people?  Can you rightly sacrifice a few to potentially save many?  These maddening, impossible questions (and many more like them) throw both audience and characters into devastating moral quagmires on a non-stop basis over the course of The 100’s three seasons.  As a result it is likewise impossible to truly discern heroes from villains.  As everyone scrambles for survival in a harsh and merciless world 99% of the people we encounter in The 100 are acting out of a genuine, passionate desire to make life better for the ones they care about most.  

Basically, The 100 is not here to reassure its viewers.  Its most relentless message is that life is hard.  It’s complicated, it demands sacrifices, and when the struggle for your own survival is on the table you will be forced to reckon, again and again, with which parts of yourself you are willing to lose in order to live.  The true struggle is in maintaining your humanity, fighting the urge to devolve into the worst form of our species.  Trying to find the bigger picture even in the most ethically fuzzy circumstances.  The questions that the show forces a viewer to confront are thorny, wrenching, and deeply riveting, a veritable feast for thought both in terms of the story line and in the broader debates of moral relativism.   

However, fascinating commentary on humanity (both present and future) aside, the thing that keeps us watching is the characters who form the heart of the story.  As much as we as viewers relish all the elements that make this show interesting, our most immediate concerns are ultimately with these fictional people that we have been allowed to know and care for.  

How will these characters ever make it to the peace they so richly deserve?  

Do they actually deserve it at all?

 

The 100, having just debuted Season Four, airs Wednesday nights at 9pm EST on the CW

Jess Mariano: Oy, With the Schmuck-Head Already

I have a confession to make.

I cannot get excited about the Gilmore Girls movies that have come to Netflix.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Gilmore Girls. Due to a skeptical aversion to anything produced by the WB (now CW) I was a late-comer to the fandom, but once I found Amy Sherman-Palladino’s fresh and witty series about a fast-talking mother-daughter duo and their extended circle of oddballs I was hooked. It’s great to have a show like Gilmore Girls out there in the public awareness; it’s fun, it’s clever, and it’s got a strong feminist message. Yet I can’t get pumped for more.

Some of my misgivings are probably due to the general calamity that was final season; however the biggest cause of my apprehension is a specific one that I can pinpoint exactly.

Jess. Motherfucking. Mariano.

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“Here’s some emotional baggage for you; don’t worry, I’ve got more in the back.”

Jess Mariano slouched broodily into the series in its second season with a bad-attitude scowl, and giant salty chip on his shoulder. He was instantly set up as competition for, and foil to, Rory’s then-boyfriend, Dean Forrester (whose character, unfortunately, underwent a brutal hatchet job in order to create contrast between the two guys). Where Dean was a wholesome puppy dog, Jess stole, he skipped school, he started fights. He was emotionally wounded! Rebellious! Unpredictable! The fans went nuts for him. As of now (nine years after the final episode aired) he, of all Rory Gilmore’s love interests, remains the most popular by a wide margin.

I don’t get it. Not just Jess, but the cultural penchant for sticking Bad Boys on a pedestal and selling them as romantic paragons. I’m sorry, you wanted to date a self-involved asshole with emotional issues, who treats you badly, and gets along with exactly no one in your life? Come on, we’ve all been involved with THAT GUY at some point; was it fun? Sure, he might have been hot, the physical stuff was probably good, but did that cancel out the anxiety he caused? The mood swings he inspired? The general havoc wreaked on your life and mental state? So why, why, WHY are we so obsessed with romanticizing this kind of person? Why, generation after generation, do we enshrine a number of these dicks as our fantasies? (I’ve actually got thoughts as to why, but that’s a topic for another time)

Jess Mariano, with his good looks and shitty personality epitomizes this phenomenon to me. He’s absolutely terrible, and yet the majority of the fans swoon every time he skulks his way onto the screen. It’s because of this bizarre, misplaced mass affection for an awful character that I’m unenthused at the idea of the Netflix addendum. The movies themselves are a fan service, and further to servicing the fans I have a creeping feeling of trepidation that Jess Mariano (already confirmed to be returning) is finally going to wind up as endgame.
Not because it’s good storytelling, mind you, because, frankly, it’s not. Who the hell goes off to the Ivy League, embarks on a high-powered journalism career (face it, with Rory’s charmed life she’s Obama’s very own CJ Cregg by now), and then winds up with the asshat who broke her heart at seventeen? Come on. No. Terrible though Jess is, terrible though he was for Rory, the creators could so easily give in to an easy rom-com write-off just so his legion of fangirls can have something to squee themselves to death over.

I can’t reiterate enough that I. Do. Not. Get it. Jess started their relationship by stealing…sorry, borrowing *huge eyeroll* Rory’s copy of Howl, ostensibly to make some notes in the margins. I think that that single action is the indicator of all the reasons why he was a terrible love interest. It is presented to the viewer as his bad boy method of sharing his common sensibilities with Rory, but as a fellow bookworm let me just lay down some truth: Books are personal. Some people write all over theirs, dog-ear the pages, bend the spine until the book’s will to live is reliant on life-support applications Scotch tape and hope. Some try to keep their books as close to pristine as possible. Lots fall somewhere in the middle. However these are very personal, very definitive inclinations, and it is the height of presumptive arrogance to start scribbling your own pretentious rambling onto the pages of someone else’s book, especially if that someone is a total stranger. True book lovers treat borrowed tomes like babies: gently, and with the utmost care; it’s like our unofficial gospel. Jess’ behavior reveals a self-centered disregard for anyone else’s boundaries or preferences that presages his character’s entire arc on the show.

Their relationship did not truly begin until more than a year after more-annoying-Holden Caulfield’s first appearance on the show. Disappointed by fair Rory’s attachment to the aforementioned Dean, Jess spent a good part of the intervening time trying to force himself between the two. He played on Dean’s insecurity with a true manipulator’s acumen, leaping into Rory’s sleigh at the Bracebridge Dinner, reenacting a scene from Oklahoma by showing up with a fat wad of cash to outbid Dean at the Stars Hollow basket auction, stealing (or is this just borrowing again?) Rory’s bracelet, a gift from Dean, to sow discord between the couple, always with that maddening smirk that said, “It’s just a matter of time.” Through all this he never cared how anxious or uncomfortable any of it actually made Rory, because, I reiterate, Jess does not care about anybody else, up to and including the girl that he considers to be more of a prize to be won than a full human being with a mind of her own.

And what happens when he wins her? Well, he’s got what he wants, so he doesn’t really need to try anymore, does he? Jess regards any and all requirements of actually being a boyfriend with the utmost scorn. “What, CALL my girlfriend when I said I was going to? That’s so, like, bourgeois and phony.” No, Jess can’t be bothered to behave considerately. Initially Rory rails against his neglectful radio silence, and erratic affection, but when he finally appears bearing last minute concert tickets all that resolve and perceived self-worth evaporates, and ultimately nothing is really solved.

Hell, if you want a great indication of how shabbily Jess treated Rory during their relationship look no further than the infamous “He Looked It Up” instance. Jess Googles the distance between Harvard and Stars Hollow, and Rory responds to this information with sparkly-eyed awe, like her boyfriend giving a shit is the most romantic thing that has ever happened. It is a huge red flag when those kind of tiny crumbs of consideration become benchmark moments in a couple’s timeline.

Still, it would have been one thing if that was the utmost of his sins; we could have marked that down as a transitional difficulty as he learned how to be a boyfriend as opposed to a back-seat hookup. But it wasn’t. He vacillated between sullen monosyllabism and downright nastiness when he was with other people in her life, indignant that he should have to deal with them at all. In fact, that seemed to be his MO when he was interacting with anyone who wasn’t Rory. He leaned on her completely as an emotional crutch and sole social connection, admitting outright, “I don’t want to talk to anyone else. I don’t LIKE anyone else.” (ALL the big red flags. ALL of them). Finally, in one shining moment, he went right up to the border of sexually assaulting her, and then acted like it was her own fault, and then, after all that, he picked up and moved to California in pursuit of his own Daddy issues without so much as a word to his supposed girlfriend.

And so ended the Jess Mariano reign of emotional terror.

Ha. No, just kidding, he would come back for other little ninja bombs of emotional damage in the next season. Like when he ran up to Rory, who was openly trying to avoid him, yelled, “I love you,” got in his car and drove away. Or when he showed up at Yale and tried to convince her to drop out of school and run away with him, because HE was ready, and because HE was ready that meant that it was what Rory really wanted.

The thing is, even Jess’ most stalwart supporters can’t really spin any of this in a good light, because it truly is terrible, inexcusable behavior. If most of us saw a friend dating a guy like Jess Mariano, we would tell her to run far, far away from him and never look back. However, most Jess fans hinge their stubborn adoration of this awful character on small moments of decency. For most of the Jess arc this involves things like, “He Looked It Up,” or modest niceties that he has usually been shamed into. When he reappears for the penultimate time in Season Six, though, that is what the Jess fans really cling to as their proof that he is some kind of misunderstood soul mate.

This time Jess reappears out of the clear blue while Rory is living with her grandparents in Hartford, to hand deliver her a copy of his recently published debut novella. He does seem more mature, though there is still a definite whiff of pretentiousness about him. They wind up on a disastrous outing with the unexpected addition of Logan (where, let’s just be clear, not a ONE of the three comes out looking good), and then he ends the night berating Rory about her recent life choices- namely, dropping out of Yale following the first harsh criticism Ms. Snowflake had ever received in her entire life.

This instance provides the final push to get Rory out of her funk, and back to her real life (let’s not give Jess all the credit here, Rory was slowly getting there on her own, Jess just sped her up). However, the impulses that sent Jess to Hartford in the first place are still the selfish ones that primarily defined his character from the git-go. He drops into her life, unannounced (second time he’s done this deliberately), he plays on their intellectual connection, gets sulky when Rory’s current boyfriend has a problem with the two of them hanging out behind his back, and then, without understanding any of the circumstances surrounding Rory’s issues, he yells at her because she isn’t living up to HIS idea of who he thinks she should be. Now, he may have been spot on in some of his diatribe, but I don’t know that that gives him the right to pass such sweeping judgement, especially considering their shared past.

No, even after attaining basic human decency, Jess Mariano as a whole entity is still the actual worst by any objective metric. At his lowest he is an abusive, manipulative, selfish snot, and at his best he is…still kind of a selfish snot. He has little time or tolerance for the people he deems to be below him (which is just about everyone), it’s just Rory Gilmore’s great misfortune that he has decided she is one of the worthy. Jess was bad to her, and bad for her; even with an improved sense of self-awareness his underlying motivation has always been his own narcissism, which negates his ability to ever have a true partnership with a lover. Jess Mariano will only ever be a Salinger knockoff whose true spots are lurking just below the surface.

But, hey, at least he was finally nice to Luke.

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You’re my hero, Luke Danes.

Save the Turkey!

It’s that time of year again.  Halloween is two days behind us, the air is crisp, the sun golden through a bright corona of fiery foliage, and it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas…

That sucks.

Here’s the thing: I love Christmas.  It’s my favorite holiday of the entire year.  I love the movies, and the carols, and the colors, and the lights.  I love picking out just the right gift to wrap in pretty foiled paper.  I love high mass on Christmas Eve, and a lazy Christmas Day spent hanging around the house with my family.

What I loathe nearly as much as Election Season is the shiny, commercial Holly-Jolly Machine that stalks across the calendar earlier and earlier with every passing year like a gingerbread-scented Storm Trooper, crushing out an entire month beneath its steel-toed jingle-bell boots.  Why does it happen?  Why, because the world is so eager to embrace the cheer of the season, of course!  Peace on Earth, and Goodwill Towards Men, and all that.  Right?

HaHA.  No.  They do it to get you to buy crap.  You know this, I know this.  The world that surrounds us wants you in the holiday spirit so that they can pry as much money out of your pocket as inhumanly possible before close of business December 24th.  The jingly-jingles, the festive decorations, it’s all just a framing device for one AMAZING door-buster sale after another, and suddenly the spirit of the season, all those rosy, lovely Christmas Carol-esque feelings that should fill our souls to the brim, they’re blown out like so many embers in the shrill shrieking extortions of an industry that would snap Tiny Tim’s crutch right in front of him (so they can sell him a BETTER one, of course, at an AMAZING price).

As our collective stress level skyrockets, one must wonder why we allow this gross commercialism to creep into our lives earlier and more aggressively every year?  Especially at the expense of a really lovely little holiday called Thanksgiving?

While I do love Christmas, I also really like Thanksgiving.  Aside from its unfortunate status as the High Holy Day of Hand Egg, it really is one of the nicest days of the year.  Most cultures have some day marked out for an official Giving of Thanks; ours is rooted in the traditions of the English Protestant Reformation where, due to increasingly large sticks being stuck up bums between the reign of Edward VI and the crumbling of the Commonwealth, many people marked holidays with fasting and prayers of thanks instead of anything remotely festive (because if you enjoy yourself before you die, God will know, and he’ll never forgive you for it).   However, even this wasn’t suitably grim enough for the Puritans, and so they packed up all their good-time vibes and shipped out for the shores of the New World.  At some point after they established their colony at Plymouth they began a tradition of a yearly autumn Thanksgiving celebration. I was just one of many lasting contributions they would give this country, like a killer work ethic, a discomfort for public dancing, and a pathological obsession with all things kinky that is camouflaged by a heavy layer of moral righteousness.  Gradually the religious implications dropped away from the holiday, and in 1941 President Roosevelt permanently fixed the date of observance on the third Thursday of the November.  Add a parade and a narcolepsy-inducing fowl and you’ve got yourself a modern holiday.

The fairytale myth about those first Puritans sharing a meal with the local American Indians has largely been debunked in modern times.  Thanksgiving is now primarily regarded as a day of personal thanks.  We come together with our family, or our friends, the people who matter in our lives, we eat a big meal together, and we think about all the ways that our lives are actually pretty decent.  We enjoy each other.  We take a breath before heading into the Christmas season (which is always going to be a LITTLE stressful, no matter what we do).  And we do it together, as one people regardless of color, race, or creed.  That’s a really beautiful thing.

I grew up in a bi-religious household, with a Jewish parent, so as much as I love the Yule, I’m very aware of all the ways it can be alienating for non-Christians.  I enjoy holidays that don’t have a religious affiliation.  America is so divided on so many things that I can’t help but really appreciate what little we can really embrace together.  For one day we all take off work, we go to the people we love, and we eat ourselves stupid.  Who couldn’t appreciate that?  

Trouble is, it’s very hard to commercialize a day that is primarily centered around being home with your family.  Oh sure, between the parade and the 26 billion sportsball games on TV it’s an advertiser’s dream come true, but beyond what is spent at the grocery store it’s not a holiday that lends itself to the acquisition of material goods.  

Well damn.  We certainly can’t have that.  Americans, sitting at home, eating a meal, watching TV, and NOT shopping?  What is this?  Stalingrad?  No, no, no, we have to fix this.  I know!  We start the Christmas movies the day after Halloween.  And the carols, we get some radio stations on the 24-7 festivity wagon. That’ll get them in the mood.  Then…sometime in November, say that third Thursday, BOOM we hit them with deals like they’ve never seen!  That’ll save them from having to stay home!  ‘Murica!  

We’d start earlier if we could, but did you see the numbers Halloween put up?  We can’t cut in on that.  

So it goes.  Suddenly the one day that we are supposed to feast and relax in celebration of all the good things we have access to in this country is subsumed into the hellish commercial cyclone that has become the ever expanding Christmas Season.  Are you dependent on retail to make a living?  Well you’re not entitled to much as it is, but one of those things is certainly not a holiday off anymore.  Your smiling ass will be behind that counter at 6am Thanksgiving Day, ready to help the oncoming horde of bargain-hunters.  We’ll have Turkey sandwiches in the breakroom from 4pm to 4:10, then back to it!  Sell, sell sell!

Okay so I may be exaggerating slightly.  It’s not quite that bad.  Yet.  But we’re headed that way rapidly.  Already a disturbing number of stores open their doors at 6pm on Thanksgiving Day, ensuring that their employees will almost certainly not get the time off that I can assure you they richly deserve.  Every year the Christmas bombardment starts earlier, and we lose sight, not only of the Christmas season is SUPPOSED to be about, but also the significance of our capstone harvest holiday, Thanksgiving.  

So fight back.  Use November as a time of peace between the busy hum of October and the inevitable frenzy of December.  Inhale the crisp, wood smoked air, enjoy the leaves, sip your latte, focus on all those great things in your life that don’t require you to spend a cent.  And then go plunging into the Christmas Season rejuvenated and ready to make the most of a special time of year.  A time of year that is only special if its sphere is limited to the last month of the calendar.  And when Thanksgiving Day arrives, you find yourself some loveable weirdos who annoy you just the right amount, and you spend the day with them.  Eat, laugh, yell at the game; don’t spare one thought to Christmas.  It will come in it’s own time.  Let’s see if we can’t take back one of the only days of the year that we can all celebrate together.  Fight the Christmas creep.  Fight the holiday machine.  Save the Turkey!  

 

 

 

A Mad Woman’s Definitive Ranking of Peter Pan

I can’t remember when I fell in love with Peter Pan.  The story has been  a part of my life for as far back as my memories go, and it is dear to my heart.  As I have grown older my visceral fascination has given rise to a scholarly interest in the work.  I have sought it out in almost all its adapted forms, I have scrutinized each version to cross my path, I have put way more thought into this play/novel than many would think healthy.  Recently I found myself with a few hours to kill and wound up at a screening of the new film Pan.  The experience left me thinking about all the films I’ve ever seen on the subject matter; I’ve always had my own ranking in my mind, but something about seeing Pan seemed to ignite a fervor to finally verbalize what I have always felt so passionately about.  

So here it is.  The ultimate ranking of all things Peter Pan as they have appeared in film and television.  To qualify for this list the piece had to be a full length adaptation, had to feature Peter Pan as the central character, and, in the case of the films, had to be theatrical releases (thus no Return to Neverland, no Once Upon a Time).  Welcome to my fixation.  Please do enjoy.  

  1.  Peter Pan (2014 NBC Telecast)

“I have no idea what I’m doing.”
“Try to be sexy. Everyone likes sexy.”

After that God-awful Sound of Music I was in a state…supreme chagrin when NBC announced its second victim would be my beloved Peter Pan.  

Allison Williams is routinely one of the things I like best about Girls, but as the lead in this telecast she killed me. She’s not Peter Pan, she’s a girl with a wig and a bad accent, whose tepid acting has no trace of the mischievous fun or endearing arrogance that are integral to the character.  Nor, sadly, is any of his unbridled energy in evidence as Williams chronically underplays the role. She has no sense of how to play a twelve year old boy, least of all THIS twelve year old boy, illustrated as much by her feminized gestures and awkward physicality as by any other choice she makes in the role (When playing a guy, remember, ladies: keep your arms stiff, and bend from the waist.  Insta-boy!).  While no one has ever flown like Cathy Rigby, puppets are more lifelike on their strings than Allison Williams on hers. I hate to say this, but Allison Williams wasn’t playing Peter Pan, she seemed to be playing Marnie…playing Peter. The whole performance was embarrassing in its awkwardness, and sadly disingenuous despite the fact that she was obviously trying. Like Marnie.

However, as unsatisfying a Peter as Allison Williams was, she was a tour-de-force when  compared with a doddering Christopher Walken as Grandpa Hook. He must have been a great performer ONCE, but with age and success he’s been allowed to play roles catering almost exclusively to his natural oddness, and I think it’s made him lazy. I knew this casting was a bad idea from the second it was announced; I could hear in my head exactly how he was going to do this role, and in the end I was pretty spot on. I don’t know if he was just bored, or if he’d overshot the Valium dosage, but his waxen, wooden, stilt-tongued performance left me staring at the screen going, “Do you even KNOW WHO YOU’RE PLAYING?” Phoning it in doesn’t begin to describe his performance.  Suffice it to say that I have never heard a less believable line delivery than, “…Hammer and tongs…I’m burning.” (You KNOW you can hear it in your head, you KNOW you can)

A major low point came during one of several new songs (this one sung by Hook and Peter), and a rickety, tentative sword fight that left Peter too grievously wounded to fly despite having very little action. Watching Allison Williams and Christopher Walken awkwardly inching around each other as a means of a duel was…well…it happened. In combining the two weakest links in the proverbial chain their individual shortcomings were magnified to ignominious proportions, ensuring that the audience was, for five minutes, at least as uncomfortable watching the scene as the performers were playing it.  It’s a solid strategy.  If you can’t win the audience’s love, at least get their empathy.  

The chief problem with the whole production seems to be the fault of the production TEAM, though. I don’t know whether to lay blame on the network, the script adaptors, the director…it’s likely a combination of all three. Let’s pass over the crappy fairy “effects” utilized when an actual light or a handful of glitter would have sold so much better. Let’s move past the poor casting choices. Let’s even ignore the bizarre blocking choices.  They displayed again and again, not only a disregard for their source material, but a lack of understanding in it.

Let’s just start with the surface cosmetic issues: the Lost Boys as written and named by J.M. Barrie are: Slightly, Nibs, Curly, Twin, Twin, and Toodles. Notice how there’s only one set of twins. Yet the telecast features a veritable horde of Tweedles, jete-ing past, two by two, in doubled up English schoolboy motifs like twinkle-toed truants from Neverland prep.  I also dislike the way they were directed. Most of these guys are Dancers (picture that with an out-thrust chest, beveled foot, and jazz hands), and so their quality of movement is very Dancer-y.  The Lost Boys, a pack of rough-living, tumble around, undisciplined boys should have more rough-and-tumble in their choreography, right?  As it stands Neverland appears to have quite a stunning ballet program. This isn’t to say that the dancing shouldn’t be good, but the quality of movement is altogether too polished for the characters.  I lay this failing solidly at the feet of a choreographer more interested in tricks than in character work, and a director too disengaged to ask anything different.

Moving on.

The book for the musical of Peter Pan is a tightly written story that tells itself well, it didn’t need augmenting and it didn’t need rewriting, especially when the rewrites proved to be so expositional and clunky. However, angry as that made me, it was some of the odd rearrangements within the construct of the script that made me truly understand we were dealing with pirates on the creative side (and I mean that in the Hook sense of the term).

The first indication that we were in trouble came when it was announced that Christian Borle would be doubling as Mr. Darling and…Smee. In the history of this production, Mr. Darling has always, ALWAYS doubled Captain Hook. And there’s a very good reason for that. It makes a strong statement, it’s an evocative parallel. Mr. Darling and Smee? Not so much, it’s just NBC’s attempt to get their money’s worth out of Borle, who has to know by now that he is way too talented for anything NBC pitches him.

Another moment that revealed the ineptitude of these adaptors came in the Home Underground (which has windows?). “Distant Melody,” the lullaby sung by Wendy and Mrs. Darling in this telecast, is originally Peter’s song*.  I assumed that is was reassigned to Wendy here because Allison Williams isn’t vocally up to singing it.  That choice dilutes a revelatory character moment (and removes one of the most bittersweet moments in the show), but the lullaby IS immediately followed by a short monologue that reinforces and underscores the poignancy of the lullaby, so as long as that survives, it’s fine right?  Right.  So let’s take a machete to that, since coherence at this point in the telecast would only confuse the audience.  Peter’s monologue in inexplicably cut, only to be replaced with another original song that (obliquely) communicates the same points.  Reassign a song to a stronger singer, only to then cut a monologue and give the weaker singer a song?  Excuse me, but…WHAT?!

Saddest of all is that NBC managed the impossible. Or what I thought was the impossible. They made Peter Pan boring. I have rarely found the story or it’s telling to be anything less than magical. But NBC managed it. They stripped the magic away and made it into something weak and lame, and for that I am abysmally sorry. I don’t blame the ensemble that worked so hard and did so well following leads who were unequal to their tasks, I don’t even really blame Allison Williams. I blame a network that has become synonymous with Musical Theater Heartache. Let’s just close our eyes and see if we can pretend this one out of collective memory.  

  1.  Peter Pan (1924)

Released in 1924, this silent movie was the first significant film representation of Barrie’s story.  The special effects were hailed as groundbreaking, and eventually the film was judged to have enough cultural and historical significance to win a spot in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.  Points for casting a minority woman, the ever underappreciated Anna May Wong, as Tiger Lily.  She’s not the RIGHT minority, mind you (Hollywood, it seems, has never understood that all pigmented people are not the same, more on that later), but in an era when no one would have blinked at a blonde girl in a feathered headdress as the Indian Princess, and when an enormous lack of opportunity made minority film actors scarce to say the least, you have to appreciate the attempt, even if it was a weak one by modern standards.  

So why the low ranking?  Simply because I’ve never seen this adaptation.  But then why does it rank higher than one I HAVE seen?  Because I don’t need to see it to know that a ninety-year-old silent movie is still a vast improvement on Marnie Pan and her nemesis, Grandpa Hook.  

  1.  Neverland (Sy-Fy 2011)

“We’re having at least as much fun as those boat guys in Ben-Hur.”

I watched this, all four hours of it, I KNOW I did…but I can’t seem to recall any wealth of information about it, which is a pretty dismal indictment against any Peter Pan adaptation that comes across my path.  

What I DO remember is that it was dark (in theme and in design), it was slow, and it was hell bent on finding pseudo-sciency explanations for all that screwy “magic” stuff.  

Note to all Producer Guys: When choosing to adapt a story that prominently features flying children, fairies, mermaids, giant ticking crocs, and death undone by passionate applause…maybe don’t try to find a realistic explanation for any of it.  Just embrace the magic idea and move on with your life.  While I will talk your ear off about how Peter Pan is not just some fluffy fairytale, a production that is so thoroughly stripped of joy and magic has likewise missed the point.  This is one of many stories that does not benefit from the fashionable penchant for Gritty Reboots.  

Rhys Ifans was a good pick for Captain Hook, and it was fun to see Hook’s Bob Hoskins step back into Smee’s boots (though with far less inspired material to work with this time around), but the script is just no fun.  Peter Pan is not without its mature themes (again, don’t start me, we’ll never get out of here) but to maniacally shoehorn grim and aggressively adult scenarios in around the existing structure of the story creates such a dissonance that it’s unsettling, and even a little absurd.  What’s the point of a land of eternal youth if no one there is having a good time?

  1.  Pan (2015)

“You don’t look like Tiger Lily…”

Ah, the most recent attempt to mine gold (or, “Pixum,” as it were) from the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up.  This actually shares several similarities with Sy-Fy’s Neverland.  Both are origin stories, and, as I hinted above, both feature the riveting subject of mining as a major plot point (“Mineral Dust” in Neverland, “Pixum” in Pan…Let’s cut to the chase: it’s all Fairy Dust).  Likewise, both establish Peter and Hook as fast friends, and partners-in-crime prior to their immortal rivalry.  However, unlike Neverland, Pan  never reaches the point at which their paths diverge, instead hinting winkingly, and hopefully at events to come, at adventures to be had…at franchise potential (I wouldn’t hold my breath there, guys).  

I was seriously torn on my feelings about this prior to its release.  I have a natural skepticism towards any attempt to adapt Peter Pan.  I’ve been burned in the past; lots of people miss the point of this story, and because of the nature of my connection to the material a part of me can’t help but take it personally, no matter how irrational my intelligent brain knows that to be.  Joe Wright’s prior films (notably, for me, Pride and Prejudice, Atonement, and Anna Karenina) are visual feasts; moving works of art.   He’s someone that I felt was fully capable of realizing Neverland in a visual sense if nothing else.  I tried to be hopeful.  

My first moment of real trepidation came when Rooney Mara was cast as Tiger Lily.  Don’t get me wrong, she’s a great actress, but she’s a blonde haired, white girl playing a role that has almost always been depicted as some kind of minority.  When even the 1924 production has more progressive casting practices than a movie from 2015 you know you’ve got a problem.  

“But, but,” the production team sputters, “but we wanted a MULTICULTURAL native tribe!  Just look how COLORFUL it is!”  And it is very colorful.  The village is a riot of varicolored striped tents, its racial grab bag of residents decked out in bright, fanciful costumes.  Why, a fatal gunshot wound will even induce them to explode into a burst of vividly colored powder.  Which, in case you’re wondering, is how you depict brutal genocide while still maintaining your family-friendly PG rating.  And Rooney Mara isn’t the ONLY white person wandering around.  There’s, like, two or three others in amongst the ensemble of minority players.  One of them is not Rooney Mara’s father, mind you, that actor is an Aboriginal man (“See!  We put a brown-skinned person in a position of power!  …And then we killed him off so his white daughter could go be the hero.”), but why quibble.  If you’re still not convinced that everything’s A-OK in this scenario, just remember the production team’s vehement assurances that to cast Tiger Lily they looked all over the world, they even auditioned…Lupita Nyong’o.  Proving beyond a shadow off all doubt that they really are as clueless as they seem since A.  They still cast Rooney Mara instead, and B.  Kenyan is not the same as Indian (in either sense), though I suppose we could kind of see that as a side step in the right (ish) direction.  If we’re being charitable.  Or if we’re going to go with a direct (if racist) interpretation of Barrie’s actual term for the Neverland natives (more on that later).  Point is, American Indians are one the most underrepresented group in cinema, bar none.  Why get rid of one of the few major roles that we all tacitly acknowledge belongs to them anyway?  In 2015 it seems bafflingly backward.  

Bumping the initial setting of the movie from Edwardian London to the Blitz of the early 1940’s was a weird move, too.  I was confused as to what the rationale behind that was, but fifteen minutes into the movie I got my clear answer.  It exists for no other reason AT ALL than to have a flying pirate ship caught in the crossfire between the RAF and the Luftwaffe.  Seriously.  That’s the only reason.   But we DO get a fun shot of this particular conflict through the uncovered windows of a well-lit civilian passenger train as it clatters along the benighted tracks of urban London.  

I’ll pause here while all my fellow history nerds have the thousand little aneurysms I did in that moment.  

There are other things that don’t make much sense either.  Like Garrett Hedlund’s characterization of Hook-to-be, as a roguish, yet inherently moral, adventurer, who dresses like Indiana Jones and talks like Karl Urban’s Bones McCoy.  Or the impetus for the central conflict being Blackbeard’s quest for eternal youth, which is bewildering in a realm whose defining characteristic is that time is suspended inside its borders.  This scores higher than Neverland on the strength of Joe Wright’s abundant skill as a visual storyteller, but ultimately the story and characters are very weak.  They generally only serve as a framework for one elaborate action sequence after another.  It’s a shame to see such a great director so disconnected from his source material, so unable to understand the world or the characters that populate it.  There are so many inside references to the book!  He obviously did his homework!  Alas, oh well.  Better luck next time.  

  1.  Disney’s Peter Pan (1953)

“This waaaay to…Disneyland!”

I might catch serious flak for this, because the animated movie is so beloved, but as tellings of the original play/novel go it’s actually pretty two-dimensional (HA!  Get it?  two-dimensional?  Because…it’s…okay, moving on).  It hits the plot points, it gets the central gist of things, but it only manages to capture one narrow facet of what is actually a pretty complex story.  That was almost certainly a deliberate choice.  Disney wasn’t interested in thematically complex in 1953.  They wanted to make beautifully animated movies, with catchy songs, that would be loved by children, and could provide the company with ample merchandising potential.  On that level I’d say they succeeded handily.    It has all those things going for it.  It’s a fun, cute animated movie with a Puckish hero, a simplistic villain, a sweetly dull damsel-in-distress, and a colorful cast of supporting characters all embroiled in a series of never-too-dire shenanigans.  Also a mortifyingly racist caricature of American Indians (if you’re not noticing a pattern yet, don’t worry, we’ll visit this again).  Eesh, is that scene painful to watch; unfortunately this was just one of many instances where early Disney handled issues of race and culture with all the finesse of a sledgehammer.  But egregious blunders in sensitivity aside, it’s a mostly enjoyable movie about free-wheeling fun on a magical island in the stars.  

However, the movie lacks the weight necessary to help it truly resonate as it should.  Disney reduced the story to a fluffy fairytale, which I have always passionately maintained it is not.  But hey, at least we got the fabulously sassy Tinkerbell out of it.

  1.  Peter Pan starring Mary Martin (1960)

“And my legacy shall be THIS big.”

Just a year after Disney’s Peter Pan became an animated hit, Broadway lit up with a new musical starring stage darling Mary Martin in the titular role.  It enjoyed both critical and financial success, and when it was recorded for a live telecast (three times between 1955 and 1960) it also gained immortality.  

I think this is the first version of the story I ever became acquainted with.  It’s very hard to say because, as I mentioned, I don’t clearly remember a part of my life that didn’t include Peter Pan.  What I do know is that I wore out two copies of the VHS, and had every word of both the script and songbook down pat.  However, it’s not JUST because of my childhood attachment to this version that it rates in the top half of this assessment (though, if we’re being honest, that certainly didn’t hurt).  It established the musical Peter Pan as a classic of American theater, which in itself is our great contribution to the legacy of the character, and the story.  It helped to give the material new legs (wings?) and refreshed its cultural significance with a longevity that I don’t think the Disney movie ultimately would have.  

Of course, it also features some very nice performances.  Cyril Ritchard’s Hook (modeled on Gerald du Maurier’s original 1904 interpretation of the role) would be the definitive version of the character for decades after, and is certainly a lot of fun to watch.  How do you make a bloodthirsty, child-murdering pirate fun?  You give him some good physical comedy and you play up the gentleman fop aspects of his demeanor, of course.  Likewise, Mary Martin gives a strong, spritely performance as Peter, though, if you want my opinion, her star power was actually a bit of a hinderance here.  She’s quite good, she just never seems to give herself fully into the character.  She’s not ever Peter Pan, she’s Mary Martin AS Peter Pan.  However, both Martin and Ritchard won Tonys for their portrayals, and with Jerome Robbins’ direction and a strong supporting ensemble the show really is pretty delightful.  

BUT…you didn’t think we would avoid mentioning the Indians did you?  No, of course not, how could we?

So let’s talk about the big blonde buffalo in the room.  

That’s not a crack at Sondra Lee who is, indeed, quite petite.  But she is unquestionably blonde.  Very blonde.  We’re not talking Rooney Mara dirty-blonde either, we’re talking full-on platinum.  No attempt was made to disguise the fact that this was a 100% white girl playing the role of the Indian Princess.  Even as a toddler this struck me as odd enough to ask about on more than one occasion.  

Over the years, many people have come to the defense of white-washing in adaptations of Peter Pan by arguing that because Barrie never specifically said that they were American Indians the Neverland natives COULD be white, or look any way at all, really.  Yes, I suppose you could make the case that way.  If it wasn’t for the fact that Barrie does actually refer to the natives by a specific and decisive term: Pickaninnies.  No, that is not an American Indian tribe, what is is is a variation on a very offensive term for dark skinned native people (generally African, but it was occasionally applied elsewhere).  While I think it’s best that we leave that term firmly in the past where it belongs, I don’t think there can be any further argument on the original intent of the author.  While the natives don’t HAVE to be American Indians, Barrie obviously meant for his Neverlanders to be decidedly “other” when compared to his English leads; he was not envisioning the Easter variety of lily for his native Princess, let’s just put it that way.  

In the case of this Peter Pan, the incongruity of white-bread Tiger Lily is only more pronounced given the overall design of her tribe.   Their costumes are clearly intended to reference buckskins (insofar as orangey-brown pajamas can reference buckskins), with feathers in their braided black wigs,and big red spots painted on their cheeks, just to really hammer home the point.  They all speak in that offensive halting, broken English that we have come to associate with American Indian caricature, thanks to early/mid twentieth century media depictions.  In short, they are animated stereotypes of American Indians made flesh, and they are ruled by a white girl.  While the pervasive racism and lack of political correctness rampant in the 1950’s may earn this production some minor leeway on that account (I’m not saying racism gets a pass, I’m saying that  we can’t flog them too hard for being products of their culture), I will never understand the rationale behind Easter Lily the Indian Princess.  It was a weird choice then, and it doesn’t stand the test of time now.  Let’s just agree on that.  

Ultimately this production shows its age in a number of ways, but Mary Martin’s Peter Pan introduced the world to the now-classic musical, and rejuvenated the story.  It also precipitated later, even better stagings of the musical.  High marks for cultural relevance, with an edge for childhood nostalgia.  

  1.  Hook (1991)

hook-1

Steven Spielberg is one of the most respected film directors of the 20th Century.  His filmography is packed with iconic movies; he has the unique distinction of being able to find success across multiple genres and target demographics, and as a result he probably has an entire room in his home for the awards he’s accumulated.  

I lost all respect for the man when he failed to stand behind Hook in the years that followed its release.  

It’s true that when Hook came out in 1991 it was raked over the coals by critics and, despite making around $500 million for the studio, it still somehow qualified as a financial disappointment.  Yet through VHS and television airplay Hook gained a cult following, and is now a fiercely beloved classic, especially among people of the Millennial generation.  

Its story is a supposition on what might happen if the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up decided to.  And jeez is it a depressing entry point.  Hook shows us a Peter who has no memory of his former life, now a high-powered corporate attorney and, as Hook himself will eventually state, “A cold, selfish man who drinks too much, is obsessed with success, and runs and hides from his wife and children.”  This is actually pretty well in keeping with the epilogue Barrie gives for John, Michael, and the Lost Boys; it is one of the saddest endings to a book I’ve ever read.  To be honest, given Peter’s particular personality, this is likely EXACTLY the way he would have ended up if he’d come back with Wendy when she begged him to.  I don’t know if the spot-on character progression was the result of a writer’s impressive knowledge of Peter Pan as an individual entity, but if not then it’s one of the best accidents in script writing I’ve seen.  

As our hero, Robin Williams is incandescent.  He is the only actor I can think of with the range to take Peter from self-absorbed, emotionally distant Peter Banning, to playful, boy swashbuckler, and then, finally, to a mature, fully realized Pan the Man.  It’s a difficult arc, and he nails it like no one could have.  This is a role that really showed us a full spectrum of Williams’ considerable abilities.  He is very funny, but also brings a pathos, and a great deal of genuine heart to the role; as we watch his journey we are with him every step of the way, and when he finally finds his Happy Thought we soar right along with him.  This role isn’t often mentioned with some of his more critically acclaimed dramatic turns (Good Will Hunting, Good Morning Vietnam, Dead Poet’s Society), but it is a masterful portrayal, and a true privilege to watch.  

Actually, the casting is almost uniformly fantastic.  The actors find wonderful dimensions to their characters, and their is hardly a mediocre performance among the bunch.  Even the small role of Toodles, erstwhile Lost Boy and current nutty uncle, is brilliantly memorable in this movie.  Dustin Hoffman is a wonderful Hook, and surprisingly menacing for such a petite man (his dark comedy tag team with Bob Hoskins’ Smee is completely delightful).  He gives us an elegantly cruel, and quietly simmering psychopath, with a bitter vendetta that he will stop at nothing to fulfill.  The similarities between Hook and Pan are much more sharply drawn in Hook than in any other version of the story, but then that makes sense.  When they face each other both as adults the likenesses that have fueled their rivalry are bound to be more pronounced, and it is easier to see them for what they are: two sides of the exact same coin.  

The one off note in the casting would probably be Julia Roberts.  Again, a very talented actress, and obviously trying quite hard in this role.  That might be part of the trouble.  With every other cast member so effortlessly inhabiting their character, Julia Roberts is very, very noticeably reaching for Tinker Bell.  Her performance isn’t bad, per se, it just doesn’t feel as easy and believable as every other one around her.  

Now.  Let’s talk about the Indians.  

Oh!  We don’t have to.  While obliquely mentioned in this movie, they don’t actually show up, so there’s literally nothing to quibble about on that account.  Well played, Mr. Spielberg.  

Seriously though, as much as I adore this movie, it’s not totally perfect.  There are a few things I would change.  Mr.  Spielberg thinks so too.  He would let Robin Williams run wild with the madcap comedy, and he would shoot the Neverland sequences on entirely CGI’d sets.  I’d tell Mr. Spielberg to sit down and stop talking.  The comedy in the movie works perfectly the way it is, and amping it up would dilute the emotional impact of the overall story.  The sets look really cool precisely because they’re real environments for the actors to run around in.  James Cameron might be able to work wonders with a green screen and a team of animators, but not everyone has his dark sorcery, and too often these CGI heavy films don’t come off as well as their directors would hope.  Neverland looks good.  Leave it alone.  

No, the one nit I have to pick with Hook (beyond Julia Roberts) is with the Lost Boys, and some choices that were made to make them seem “hip and cool” but really just make them look hopelessly dated.  

So.  

In the novel (and the stage version), Peter insists he will never grow up, but when given a chance his tribe of Lost Boys are not so set on the idea of eternal childhood if the alternative is a loving family.  They return to London with the Darling children, are adopted by Mr. and Mrs. Darling, and grow up to enjoy respectable, English lives.  Thus Wacky Old Toodles crawling around Wendy’s parlor looking for his marbles.  Now, Peter isn’t going to just hang around being lonely and sad, no, he’s going to go out and find himself some new friends.  The pack of assembled Lost Boys makes sense to me in that regard, especially the core group of kids who really support Peter’s efforts to find his Pan-ness and save his kids.  Their hodgepodge costumes reference everything from Edwardian England up through the 1950’s (gotta love Don’t Ask with his checked blazer and greaser-boy hair), which is consistent with the story continuation Hook has concocted.   Then there’s this other group of kids.  They’re the older ones grouped around Rufio, and they don’t look so much like Lost Boys as they do extras from The Lost Boys, what with the headbands, and the spiky hair, and the earrings, and all that mishigas.  Seriously, where did these kids COME from?  Peter Pan hasn’t been around to bring anyone to Neverland in thirty years.  Now, in the mythology of the book, boy babies who fall out of their cradles and aren’t claimed in seven days are just SENT to Neverland, but I feel like Hook dispensed with that setup, and even if it didn’t then how, if they’d always lived in Neverland, would these weirdo kids know what skateboarding was?  Or breakdancing?  It just doesn’t fit with the story.  As with “Cool Moms,” attempts to look funky fresh and “with it” often have the exact opposite effect.  An effect that is not improved as time marches ever away from the early 1990’s.  

That aside, Hook really is a wonderful movie.  It takes some of the darker themes running strong below the surface in Peter Pan and it brings them to the forefront: Loss, innocence, choice, memory, the nature of adulthood, and of courage…and then it adds its own points and counterpoints to the stew.  No matter how Spielberg may dismiss this movie now, he made something beautiful and poignant, something true to the spirit of its source material, which is a lot harder to do than you might have realized before you spent too much time reading this list.  Of course the brilliant score by John Williams also lends the film quite a boost.  As addenda on the original story go this movie is the best of the best.  

  1.  Peter Pan starring Cathy Rigby (2000)

“Trust me. We are gonna do great things.”

Former Olympic gymnast, Cathy Rigby plays Peter Pan on Broadway in 1990, produces a remount in 1998, tours off and on until 2013, returns to the role for special engagement in 2015.  This is a woman who feels a connection to this role, and that it why her telecast (filmed in 2000 at one of her tour stops) stands apart from all other stage versions, and most other film versions.  While we’re continuing to plug our ears and hum every time the 2014 telecast is mentioned, I urge you to help drown it out by scooting over to Youtube, where this one is available in its entirety.  THIS is how this musical is supposed to be done.

This is a production made by people who really and truly love Peter Pan, possibly as much as I love it.  Their love certainly helped to increase mine, that’s for sure.  Cathy Rigby understands both her character and his story in a way that few purveyors of the material seem to, and it is evident in every aspect of this production from the technical to the performative.  It is bursting with life, joy, silly humor, great choreography, and the occasional pangs of melancholy.  

As Peter Cathy Rigby is perfection.  She plays a twelve-year-old boy with such aplomb that it’s uncanny.  Her Pan is a careful balance of his arrogance with his playfulness, his bravery with his occasional petulance, his bold self-assurance with a childish uncertainty, and then for good measure she lets us see moments of deeply repressed longing.  In her hands Peter is allowed to be a fully-formed human child and not just a mischievous sprite.  Her medal worthy gymnastics are also a perfect fit for the part, allowing for a physical performance that is every bit as vibrant and expressive as her emotive performance.  If her work on the stage wasn’t good enough, once her feet leave the ground she really is exhilarating.  I’ve never seen anyone quite so at home in a flight rig; as Rigby boomerangs fearlessly through the air it’s easy to believe, just for one moment, that she really is Peter Pan leading the way to Neverland.  

This production also features Paul Schoeffler in one of my absolute favorite portrayals of Captain Hook ever.  As we discussed above, Captain Hook’s villainy is a bit watered down in the musical; he has to build to menacing by the end of the show, but on stage he can never be fully realized as the diabolical, murderous villain that he is; that would be wildly out of keeping with the tone of the show.  Rather than being a cold-blooded psychopath he’s a narcissistic fop with elephantine delusions of grandeur.  Many actors who take on this role play him to the campy hilt.  Paul Schoeffler does not.  Paul Schoeffler’s dryly delivered Hook is self-serious, grandiose, and endlessly exasperated by the bumbling idiots that surround him.  Even as he obsessively redoubles his efforts to finally best Peter Pan, you can almost see a glimmer of self-awareness, asking himself where his life took such a wrong turn.  By refusing to make Hook ridiculous, Schoeffler makes him duly ridiculous; it’s a treat to watch him whenever he’s on stage.  

The cast is filled out with an ensemble that really fires on all cylinders (special call outs to Mr. Smee, a brilliant physical comedian, and to Slightly, who’s just adorable).  The production value is beautiful.  The choreography, substantially beefed up from previous productions, is athletic and energetic.  

Now.  

Let’s talk Indians.  

They’re a mixed-race, multicultural group of people, wearing costumes that vaguely reference the tribes of the Northeastern US, led by a dark-haired, bronze-skinned woman with abs that you could bounced quarters off of.  Oh thank God.  

Really, with the way I’ve been pounding on other productions for their Neverlanders, you might think that I cannot be satisfied, but this is a case where I think they’ve hit a happy medium.  Stage productions are generally constrained by who shows up to the audition with a mastery of certain skills, which can be both limiting and liberating in terms of putting together a cast.  Here they’ve assembled a strong group of dancers who look decidedly different from the Lost Boys and the Darlings, while going with a design that is a fantasy patchwork of North American native people.  Their song, Ugg-a-Wugg, previously a bit of nonsense meant to convey that A.  There are Indians, and B.  They no speakum heap good English (it’s facepalmingly cringey to the modern ear; every bit as bad as the Disney animated film), has been reworked and repurposed into a high-octane dance number, where they establish friendship with the Lost Boys, and the two groups have a bit of a cultural exchange.  It all works very nicely, especially compared to so many other portrayals, and it actually manages to come down as a win no matter what side of the Neverland Natives debate you find yourself on.  I do also realize that plenty of people may feel the opposite, but for me this is one of the few productions of any medium where I think big steps were taken to portray the natives well and respectfully.  And Dana Solimando is a really kickass dancer.  

Overall it’s a magical production, one that has been so carefully crafted in every aspect.  One in which the love, and respect for the source material is evident in every second of stage time, and in every nuance of every performance.  It, like Peter himself, is a moving embodiment of “Youth, joy, and freedom.”  Peter Pan is a hard story to adapt effectively, but if you’re going to do the musical, this production is what getting it right looks like.  

  1. Peter Pan (2003)

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In a production that got so much exactly right it’s very sad to me that this movie was so detrimentally impacted by the one thing it got wrong.  WHO.  In their right mind.  Thought it was a good idea to release this movie ON THE HEELS of The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King?  

What?  You thought that because it wasn’t released the same day that it wouldn’t be in competition?  You thought that there wouldn’t be audience crossover?  Are you insane?!  LotR: RoK was the epic conclusion to a juggernaut, landmark film trilogy!  Everyone saw it.  And then saw it again.  It ruled supreme at the box office for the entire season; I didn’t expect anything different and I don’t even work in the film industry!  However, because the studio team responsible for Peter Pan either didn’t think it would matter, or didn’t care whether or not the movie succeeded, poor P.J. Hogan’s masterpiece adaptation swept quietly in and then out of theaters with very little fanfare, and without much audience attention.  I didn’t even manage to see it during its initial theatrical release, and I’m…well, you might have noticed that I’m a tad bit invested.  

This version is a revelation.  To me it is the definitive film adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s story; the only one to exactly capture, not just the narrative, not just the thematic elements, but, more importantly, the tone and overall spirit of the the work.    

Just from a technical standpoint this film blows me away.  It has a very specific quality, hyper-saturated, richly detailed; it is more like a vivid series of illustrations come to life as opposed to strict realism.  Stark, snowy London appears in a cold and somewhat dreary palette, the cozy Darling Nursery is all rosy warmth, and Neverland…Neverland is a visual realization of every cherished fantasy.  It is lush jungles, and eerie lagoons, and seas full of stars.  It is enthralling night shots awash in  dreamy silver.  The stunning skyscapes are the perfect backdrop to the soaring, swirling children as they achieve an organic (and exhilarating) impression of flight the like of which has never been seen before.  And it’s all set against an expressive, adventurous score by the incomparable James Newton Howard.  

This is no slavish, fundamentalist retelling of the story either.**  As we have seen time and again those rarely work (The Watchmen, anyone?).  No, the best adaptations of any material retain the narrative and the essence of the original, while offering us some new perspective on familiar territory.  In the case of Peter Pan that is often in the way characters are given a bit more to round them out.  Wendy, who actually isn’t shrinking violet in the book, is allowed to really develop her backbone in this version.  It’s not that she doesn’t enjoy being “Mother” to the Lost Boys, but when adventure presents itself, she wants to make sure she gets a piece of the action.  John Darling, an aspiring English gentleman, but not much of a major player in most versions, is actually given a developed personality here, and some time to play hero himself.  Whereas most adaptations make Peter the object of all feminine attention for miles around, in this movie it is John who holds the interest of the fiery Princess Tiger Lily (played by Carsen Gray…AN ACTUAL FIRST NATIONS TRIBE MEMBER!!!), and their mutual crush makes for some really fun isolated moments throughout the film.  Likewise, it’s nice to see all of the Lost Boys with distinct personalities for once, instead of just being an unruly mob.  Hogan really found some superlative young actors for his cast, especially Theodore Chester (as my favorite Lost Boy, Slightly Soiled) who delivers every line with such charming brilliance that I just want to hug him.  

No character benefits from this extra attention more so than Captain James Hook, in no small part because of the brilliant choice of casting in Jason Isaacs.  In Isaacs’ deft hands he is cold, cruel, selfish, violent, commanding, unstable, elegant, manipulative, and dangerously alluring; in short he is a fully realized psychopath.  Yet we also see moments of despair, jealousy, deep longing; we see the emptiness that threatens to consume him, the fear or mortality that drives him.  Not even Dustin Hoffman did as well (though he probably gives the closest competition).  In Isaacs’ portrayal Hook is, for the first time, alive to the fullest extent of the character both as he is written and as he is implied.  The result is brutally compelling.***

On the flip side of the coin is Jeremy Sumpter, a relative newcomer in 2003, as the titular hero.  With his tousled hair, and intoxicatingly mischievous grin he could have won the part on looks alone, but the young actor attacks the part with the part with obvious glee, and gives us an exuberant, exasperating, irrepressible Pan that any kid would gladly follow out the window.  While many other versions of this character reduce Peter to a fun-loving scamp, here (as in Hook) we are allowed to see the parallels between a boy and his nemesis.  Peter, while the embodiment of “Youth, joy, and freedom,” is also commanding, and arrogant (how else do you keep six other rowdy boys in line?), self-centered, sometimes selfish, and eternally on the run from an existential loneliness (and perhaps dread) that hovers just at the fringe of his carefree existence.  We see the longing for things that lie just out of his grasp, and the temptation that almost tips him over the edge.   

This movie is notable for really embracing the theme of choice that is so paramount to the story.  While many versions linger on the coolness of living an eternal childhood in a magical world apart, Hogan’s Peter Pan shows us that there is a price for everything.  In a scene written specifically for the movie Mrs. Darling defends her husband to his less-than-impressed children by telling them that he is, in fact, a brave man, a man who has made many sacrifices, and put up many dreams for the love of his family.  By the end of the film that point has been realized in most of the principal characters; even without the burdens of actually growing up life is an eternally unbalanced scale, and to gain anything you must be prepared to lose something else.  Peter will never grow up, but he will also never know reciprocal love or the closeness of a family.  Wendy will gain all those nameless things she is just beginning to realize she wants, but she will have to let go certain parts of herself to do so.  Life is choice, and no choice is perfect.  No matter what path we walk, there will always be a piece of us that wonders what would have been if we’d done differently.  

By embracing the melancholy of this story Hogan shows real understanding of the qualities that have caused it to stick in our collective consciousness this last century.  His film has a depth and truth that few other adaptations have managed to capture; it rises above the base image of the source material as just a fanciful children’s story and gives real life to Barrie’s most enduring work.  I can’t imagine anything that will ever surpass it, but I hope someday someone might come close.  

* Actually the song “Distant Melody” WAS initially written for Wendy, but in the original Broadway production Mary Martin asked to sing it instead, and it has remained Peter’s song forever after.  While we could chalk this up to a moment of diva syndrome, I actually agree with Martin that this song makes a more poignant character moment when sung by Peter than it would coming from Wendy.  

** Big, BIG points for being the only adaptation to incorporate the “Hidden Kiss.”  In the book it’s a fascinating, briefly mentioned symbolic element; Hogan turns it into a major plot theme.  And it’s wonderful.  

* **On a side note, Jason Isaacs is also a brilliant foil to Captain Hook as Mr. Darling, and the best example I’ve seen of the frequent choice to double cast that part

Disclaimer: No photographs used in this story belong to me.  All were sourced via Google Image Search.