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Mari Ness

Fiction and Excerpts [3]

Fiction and Excerpts [3]

Challenging Gender Norms: The Brothers Grimm and The Twelve Huntsmen

Some English translations of Household Tales, aka The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, place “The Twelve Huntsmen” in the front. Some hide the tale in the center, and others omit the story altogether. Rather befitting a story that, although definitely collected by the Grimms, in many ways seems to be the complete antithesis of what they originally hoped to do with their fairy tale collection—both in the original edition, most definitely not edited or published with children in mind, and the later editions, which were.

[A story of cross-dressing and magical lions]

Fairy Passages: Madame d’Aulnoy

A number of the posts that I’ve done here at—from Oz to Narnia to Disney retellings to what ABC would like you to believe are the “real” stories of Once Upon a Time—have featured fairylands and fairies in one way or another. So, the powers that be at and I thought it might not be a bad idea to explore the lands of fairy tale just a little bit more, looking at various fairy tales and their tellers and retellers through the centuries, in no particular order, including medieval tales, Victorian tales, and modern retellings.

And although I said “no particular order,” it’s probably not a bad idea to start with the woman who gave us the term “contes des fees,” or fairy tales, Marie-Catherine Le Jumel de Barneville, Baroness d’Aulnoy, better known to English readers as Madame d’Aulnoy.

[Using fairy tales to speak to power]

Dark, But Not Quite Weird Enough: NBC’s Emerald City

So, after watching rival ABC launch more or less successful ten episode fantasy/superhero shows over the past few years, NBC decided to launch one of its own this year, Emerald City, described by eager publicists as “Game of Thrones Meets The Wizard of Oz.”

I rubbed my hands gleefully and told that I had to watch anything that sounded this awful. Had to. If only as part of my responsibility as’s Resident Oz Expert.

[To my surprise, it wasn’t that awful.]

The Call of the Sea: Disney’s Moana

“If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess.”

“Sometimes the world seems against you/the journey may leave a scar/but scars can heal and reveal just/who you are….”

Exact numbers are hard to come by, but certainly, since its introduction in the early 2000s, the Disney Princess franchise has been one of Disney’s most valuable properties, currently behind only Star Wars, the Marvel Universe and Winnie-the-Pooh in terms of revenue and popularity. The line includes not just films and videos featuring adorable princesses, but also related merchandise ranging from toys to clothing to books to furniture and wall paint, not to mention various theme park and Disney Cruise Line attractions. It was therefore nearly inevitable that just a few years after Frozen—a film so successful that it ended up spawning its own franchise and never becoming a Disney Princess film at all—Disney would find itself back into Princess territory again. This time, out in the Pacific Ocean.

[The Rock sings a song penned by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Also, coral gets broken.]

A Slightly Convoluted Meditation on Stereotypes: Disney’s Zootopia

Disney had, essentially, built its company on cute cartoon animals. So it was hardly surprising that after John Lasseter took over the Disney animation studios in 2006, he encouraged the animators and others to continue to pitch stories about cute, funny, cartoon animals that could easily be converted into toys. What was surprising was that despite this history, corporate encouragement, and a strong box office performance from the dog-centered Bolt (2008) it took animators nearly ten years to develop another film featuring only animals, Zootopia.

Almost instantly, it became one of Disney’s all time most successful films.

[A very determined little rabbit. Once again, MAJOR SPOILERS for the end of the film. MAJOR.]

Breaking Away from Your Programming: Wreck-It Ralph

By 2006, the Disney Animation Studios had collected a number of projects in various stages of development, including ideas that had been lingering around for decades, somehow never quite managing to take the next step into development stage. One of many such projects was a little thing about a video game—something Disney storyboard artists had worked on back in the 1980s, and then again in the 1990s, going nowhere until John Lasseter, Disney’s then-new Chief Creative Officer, hearing the magic words “video game,” thought of bringing up the concept to veteran television animation director Rich Moore.

[Even villains can want more out of life. Major spoilers ahead.]

Hunting for Honey in the Franchise: Disney’s Winnie the Pooh (2011)

After taking charge of the Disney Animation Studios in 2006, one of John Lasseter’s most immediate tasks was to see if Disney animators could exploit Disney’s other franchises, properties and trademarks. The result was not just a series of films introducing new Disney Princesses, or even an animated film focusing on one of Marvel’s more obscure superhero teams, but a film that focused on one of Disney’s most lucrative franchises, one based on a bear with very little brain, Winnie the Pooh.

[A film focused on honey and hunger…]

An Adorable Dog in an Unbelievable Premise: Disney’s Bolt

After his appointment as Disney’s new Chief Creative Officer in 2006, John Lasseter’s first task was to look at what projects the animation department had on hand. Some, like Meet the Robinsons, were immediately put through a rapid revamping process in a desperate effort to get a decent film out in time to meet various cross promotional contracted deadlines. Some, like The Princess and the Frog, were rapidly moved from a Disney Princess marketing concept into full production. Some, including sequels to Chicken Little and The Aristocats, were simply cancelled.

[And then there was the little film about a puppy…..]

Udderly Awful Yodeling: Disney’s Home on the Range

“Ha! Bovine bounty hunters! Now I’ve seen everything.”

Sometimes, you’re sitting on a couch, aimlessly scratching the chin of an overly friendly cat, and then some animated bulls start sexually harassing an animated cow voiced by Judi Dench, and a cattle rustler voiced by Randy Quaid starts yodeling, turning the animated cows pink, and you start wondering where you went wrong in life.

And that’s all before Randy Quaid’s yodeling breaks into the William Tell Overture.

[I have suffered for your sins, oh readers. Oh how I have suffered.]

The End of an Animated Era: Disney’s Brother Bear

When Walt Disney World opened the MGM-Hollywood Studios theme park in 1989, the “Magic of Disney Animation” was one of its most popular attractions. In part, this was because the theme park initially didn’t have that many attractions, thanks to contract disputes, unexpected delays and the initial plan to use part of the theme park as a working backlot, a plan which eventually proved impractical. But in part, it was because the “Magic of Disney Animation” offered a then-rare chance to see Disney animators in action in a working studio.

Of course, that meant that the animators there had to be given actual work to do.

[Why “bear” may not be a sufficient inspiration for a film.]

Aliens and Family Values: Lilo and Stitch

Gantu: You’re vile. You’re foul. You’re flawed!

Stitch: Also cute and fluffy!

Before I get into this post, I should perhaps confess something. I have two plush Stitches; a Yoda Stitch complete with a stuffed green light saber; a Christmas Stitch; assorted Disney Trading Pins featuring Stitch, including, but not limited to, a Star Wars Emperor Palpatine Stitch and a pirate Stitch; and a Stitch backpack which I have taken to cons.

Which is to say, I may—may—have a slight bias in favor of destructive aliens reformed through the examples of Elvis and Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling.

Just slight.

So now that we have that slightly embarrassing admission out of the way… let’s chat about Lilo & Stitch.

[In which we can all learn valuable lessons from the sterling example of Elvis Presley]

An Expensive Adventure: Atlantis: The Lost Empire

Disney executives could not help but notice a few things during the 1990s. One: even accounting for inflation, science fiction films continued to do very well at the box office, if not quite grossing the same amounts as the original Star Wars trilogy. And two, many of the fans who flocked to Disney animated films, theme parks and the newly opened Disney Cruise Line were teenagers. Why not, executives asked, try an animated science fiction or adventure film aimed at teenagers? It would be a bit of a risk—the company’s previous PG animated film, The Black Cauldron, had been a complete flop. But they could bring in directors Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale, whose Beauty and the Beast had been a spectacular success, and who had also added more mature elements to The Hunchback of Notre Dame. It was worth a try.

In theory.

[A film unsafe for linguists to watch]

When Chaos Leads to Comedy: The Emperor’s New Groove

That is the last time we take directions from a squirrel.

In the early 1990s, the Disney animation department was flying high, after a series of remarkable films that had restored the studio’s critical reputation and—perhaps more importantly—its funding. The success led Walt Disney Studios chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg and the animators and directors to brainstorm even more ambitious prestige projects: an adaptation of a Victor Hugo novel, a continuation—finally—of the 1940 Fantasia, and a film about space pirates that its directors simply would not shut up about. Oh, as a nice follow-up to films set in Africa and China, something set in South America. About, perhaps, the Incas. Featuring songs by no less than singer-songwriter Sting himself.

The film—with the grandiose title The Kingdom of the Sun—had all the elements of a guaranteed Disney hit: romance, comedy, hit songs, and cute llamas. And, its directors promised, it would remain just serious enough to be recognized—like its Disney Renaissance predecessors—as Real Art.

You might notice that The Kingdom of the Sun is not in the title of this post.

[Read more]

Who knew Dinosaurs Could Be This Boring? Disney’s Dinosaur

Until relatively recently—well after its initial release—Dinosaur was not considered part of the official Disney canon of animated films. Oh, certainly, it had been released under the Disney name. It opened with the Walt Disney logo. It contained several typical Disney elements and themes—celebrity name those voices, adorable animals, a young protagonist trying to find a place where he could fit in, and a focus on accepting people who look different. The Disney theme parks sold Dinosaur related merchandise, especially at the Animal Kingdom park, which had an entire dinosaur section. And the film featured then-state of the art animation.

And yet, Disney executives initially claimed, this was not—no matter what it looked or sounded like—part of the official canon. It was something completely different.

[In which we learn that dinosaurs can be surprisingly boring]