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Mari Ness

Fiction and Excerpts [3]
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Fiction and Excerpts [3]

Cannibalism and Other Nightmarish Things: Sleeping Beauty

Stories of enchanted sleepers stretch well back into ancient times. In European mythology, they appear in multiple forms: stories of fabled warriors resting under mountains or on enchanted isles until it is time for them to return to serve their city or country in the time of greatest need—though if England hasn’t actually faced its greatest need yet, I shudder to think what it would take to bring King Arthur back to its shores. Stories of sleeping saints. Stories of women sleeping in caves, in mountains, and in towers.

Unchanged. Static. Beautiful. Waiting, perhaps, for a kiss from a prince.

[Let’s ruin some more childhoods!]

Using Tinker Bell To Shake Magic Into Everything: Disney’s Peter Pan

Back when he was a boy, Walt Disney caught a traveling production of Peter Pan, and was instantly captivated. A few critics even later claimed that Walt Disney had been a little too captivated, creating a life that focused more on childhood than on growing up—even if this life and artistic choice ended up working to his financial benefit. Regardless, Disney planned very early on to do a full length animated feature film for Peter Pan. It would, he thought, be his second film after Snow White. Or perhaps his third film, after Snow White and Pinocchio. Or—as the film continued to linger in development hell—his fourth? After Fantasia?

Or, well, as it turned out, the 14th, not released until 1953.

[Eventually it flew. Eventually.]

The Unpleasant Side Effects of Never Growing Up: J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan

The late Victorians loved their fairy tales, and playwright James Barrie, who had recently impressed London audiences with his plays Quality Street and The Admirable Crichton, thought he could take a risk on a particularly expensive play featuring a fairy, based on a character from his 1902 novel, The Little White Bird. He quite agreed with producer Charles Frohman that, given the elaborate staging Barrie had in mind, it would be quite a risk. But he had a second play standing by just in case. And, well, the neighbor children he’d been spending quite a bit of time with—sons of friends Arthur and Sylvia Llewelyn Davies—seemed to quite like his stories about Peter Pan.

The play was an immediate success, making Barrie wealthy for the rest of his life. (If not, alas, for one of those neighbor children, Peter Llewelyn Davies, who smarted under the dual burden of getting called Peter Pan for the rest of his life while having no money to show for it.) Barrie went on to write an equally popular novelization, Peter and Wendy, and others created various musical versions of the play—mostly retaining the original dialogue, but adding songs and the opportunity to watch Captain Hook do the tango. Barrie, everyone seemed to agree, had not just created something popular: he had created an icon.

If a somewhat disturbing one.

[Pirates, fairies, Peter Pan, and oh, yes, some racism.]

An Intriguing Failure: Disney’s Alice in Wonderland

Years later, Walt Disney tried to avoid responsibility for Alice in Wonderland (1951) by claiming he’d never wanted to make it. This was at best disingenuous: Disney had actually started development of the film back in 1933, and before that, he had made two short films inspired by the Lewis Carroll classic. (My previous review of the book here.) Clearly, the idea of a child falling into Wonderland had a strong hold on him. So after his firm’s fortunes slowly began to climb back from the nadir of the postwar years, he set his animators on Alice in Wonderland, developing the film right along with Cinderella, creating a race to see which could be completed first.

Alice in Wonderland lost, on more than one level.

[A commercial failure—but an interesting one]

Go, Little Mice, GO! Disney’s Cinderella

“A pretty plot for fairy tales, sire, but in real life, oh, no. No, it was foredoomed to failure.”

–The Grand Duke, about to be proved wrong in Cinderella (1951)

War training films, anthology movies, and plenty of bank loans had just barely allowed Walt Disney to scrape through the 1940s intact. With finances finally a little less shaky, Disney set his animators to work on two films he’d been planning to do since before the war: Cinderella and Alice in Wonderland.  Not that he could quite afford to return to the lush animation of Pinocchio and Fantasia, or even the simpler animation of Dumbo, something even the most superficial look at Cinderella shows, but he could at least create full length films again. Disney’s top nine animators were all assigned to Cinderella and asked to help out with Alice, with the two films competing to see which would be the first to be Disney’s first full length animated film release since Bambi, signaling a return to the grand days of Disney animation.

[Fortunately for Disney history, the winner turned out to be Cinderella.]

A Pair of Magical Shoes: Variations on “Cinderella”

What do you do when you find yourself downtrodden, turned into a servant by trusted family members, dressed in mud and rags, without, apparently, a friend in the world? Get some magical footwear—and go dancing.

It’s the sort of tale that could easily seize a world. And for the most part, has.

[Social climbing in elegant footwear]

Disney’s Post-War Constraints: The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad

Walt Disney spent the years after World War II scrambling to recover. Most of his pre-war films had lost money, and World War II had been a particularly hard financial blow for the studio, which survived only by making training films and propaganda shorts featuring Donald Duck. Disney, always ambitious, wanted far more than that: a return, if possible, to the glory days of Pinocchio. Instead, he found himself cobbling together anthologies of cartoon shorts, releasing six between the full length features Bambi and Cinderella.

The last of these was The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. It is, to put it kindly, mixed.

[Or, to put it less kindly, one of the weakest parts of the Disney canon.]

The Challenge of Realistic Animation: Disney’s Bambi

Oh, this film.

This film.

Wait. I can do this. I can put together a reasonable, thoughtful blog post on Walt Disney’s Bambi without interrupting the post every few paragraphs with a KILL THUMPER ALREADY, right? I can put aside my feelings about the jarring pacing and tone of the film and the supposedly romantic twitterpating stuff and write some lovely, touching (KILL THUMPER) words about what even I have to admit is a lovely ice scene involving a bunny and an adorable deer on ice, and comment on the great forest fire bit (KILL THUMPER) and put the film into its historic context, with a few words comparing the film to the book. I can do this. I can.

I think.

[Maybe.]

Death and Survival: Felix Salten’s Bambi: A Life in the Woods

In his lifetime, author Felix Salten straddled many worlds: as a hanger on to Hapsburg courts, a member of various Viennese literary circles, the author himself of what is reportedly one of the most depressing pornographic novels ever written (tracking down a reliable English translation is tricky), an occasional political activist, and a fierce Zionist. For financial reasons, he was barely able to attend school, much less enter a university program, but he considered himself an intellectual. He loved Vienna, but saved his deepest love for Austria’s mountains and forests, becoming an avid hiker and cyclist.

All of these blended together in his masterpiece, Bambi: A Life in the Woods, a deceptively simple story about a deer named Bambi and the animals he meets in the forest.

[A book about death, defeat, and the slow return of spring. Not recommended for readers who are even slightly depressed. Very spoilery.]

Smoking and Heroism: Disney’s Pinocchio

Buoyed by the success of his first full length animated film, Snow White, Walt Disney decided to plunge ahead with more animated films, despite (justified) concerns about their expense and continued profitability. Far from worrying about tiny issues like budgets—at least at this point—the new movies, he decided, would not merely follow Snow White’s success and innovative filming techniques, but be even more innovative and lavishly detailed. Starting with Pinocchio.

[Heavy smoking and an adorable kitten.]

Arrested for Puppet Assault: Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio

Italian author Carlo Collodi had gained a minor name for himself as a satirist and translator of fairy tales when he was asked to write a serial novel for children. It was a rather odd choice: Collodi, bitter and angry over Italian politics—he fought in two different independence wars, but was unhappy with the resulting unified government, a feeling many of his fellow citizens shared—was perhaps not the first person most would have chosen to write an adorable, child-friendly book, especially since many of the fairy tales he had translated were those aimed at an adult audience. But he needed either the money, or the distraction, or both, and sat down to write a quick story about a puppet.

Somewhere along the way—that is, by page two—it turned into a the sort of story that demonstrated just why Collodi was not the sort of person anyone would hire to write an adorable, child-friendly book, but would hire to write the sort of tale where everyone hits each other a lot, suffers a lot, and dies horribly. With the occasional “Oh, right, I need a moral message for the kiddies.”

[If you hate donkeys, then guys, do I have a book for you. Also, mean things done to puppets.]

It All Started with a Fairy Tale: Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

By the early 1930s Walt Disney faced a dilemma: his popular cartoon shorts about Mickey Mouse were starting to lose money. His competitors could afford to produce cartoons at a loss as lead-ins to their live action films; Disney, who did not have a movie studio, could not.

But he had another idea: he could produce a full-length film of his own. Only, instead of making a live action film, he could produce a full-length cartoon feature, running, say, for about 88 minutes. Good length. Sure, it might cost as much as $500,000. (Cue gasps.) He would need 300 artists. It had never been done before.

It’s safe to say that very few people thought this was a good idea. And that $500,000 turned out to be a very wrong estimate. It’s also very safe to say that this idea is why we have the entertainment megacorporation of Disney as it exists today.

[The very first Disney princess, and the most heartwarming element of the film: a little tortoise.]

Introducing the Disney Read-Watch: A Grimm Snow White

Welcome to the Disney Read-Watch, in which we’ll be reading the texts that inspired classic Disney films, then watching the films. Today we’re starting with the prose story of Disney’s very first feature-length film: Snow White, by the Brothers Grimm.

You know the story, right? Girl flees evil stepmother for a life of unending housework with seven little men before falling over from an overconsumption of apples and placed in a coffin until finally a prince swings by to rescue her from all this crap.

Or do you?

[In which I proceed to destroy more childhoods. Spoilery for a story published way back in the early 19th century.]

A Bleak and Desperate Future: Monica Hughes’ Invitation to the Game

In previous books, Monica Hughes had given quick side looks at a badly overpopulated, dreary, desperate world. In Invitation to the Game, she takes us to that world, and it’s even bleaker and more desperate than it sounded at first glance.

So desperate, that when people get even a hint of something else—say, a mysterious, high risk game taking place in another location—they will do anything to enter it. Anything.

[Including just possibly giving up technology for a more low-tech, primitive culture. I know you’re shocked. Spoilery.]

Keeping Someone Else’s Promise: The Promise

Sandwriter was enough of a success that four years later, Monica Hughes returned with a sequel, The Promise. Antia and Jodril have now escaped the desert (yay) and are living a privileged, luxurious life in the royal palace of Malan, ruling the twin continents of Kamalant and Komilant. So that’s nice.

Alas, their marriage is not going all that well, since in the intervening eleven years, Antia has discovered that when she and Jodril wrote their names in the sand at the end of the last book, they were not, as she had fondly thought, just engaging in some romantic sand art to seal their bond, but actually promising to send their first born daughter, Rania, to the Sandwriter, as soon as the girl turns ten—to live as a hermit in the desert for the rest of her life.

And Jodril is insisting they go along with this, because, they made a promise.

Wait. WHAT?

[Do you have to keep a promise that you weren’t aware that you were making?]

A Spoiled Princess in an Unspoiled Desert: Sandwriter

For the most part, Monica Hughes’ work for young adults had focused on science fiction. In 1985, however, she tried something different: Sandwriter, a fantasy partly inspired by her early life in Egypt, partly inspired by her ongoing concerns about the environment.

As a princess and heir to two kingdoms, each of which spans a continent, Antia has grown up in luxury, ignorance, isolation and above all, boredom. She is not quite bored enough, however, to jump at the chance to spend several months on the desert island of Roshan, something she regards as a punishment since, as she immediately tells her aunt—and, more regrettably, Lady Sofi, the woman extending the invitation—that Roshan is nothing but desert and dirt and flies. And that’s the nicer part.

[In which everyone and everything except for the useful oil ends up getting exploited. Also, an annoyingly realistic princess. Spoilers.]

Telepaths Versus Evil Computers: The Dream Catcher

In Monica Hughes’ The Dream Catcher, fourteen year old Ruth lives in what many people would consider a utopia: ArkThree, a post-apocalyptic society of telepaths and healers who live in nearly perfect harmony, sharing work and joy alike, with almost no conflict.

If this sounds a bit, well, idealistic, or even questionable: no, it’s real. These are telepaths, who find that joining their minds together in a great Web brings them happiness and security—and that they can only merge their minds if they remain largely conflict free. Thus, a discipline of pacifism and of sharing the most unpleasant tasks, with even the leaders having to take a turn at cleaning out the latrines now and again. With plenty of leisure time.

But Ruth is unhappy.

[Just wait until she finds out about the evil computer.]

You Mean Computers in Spines Aren’t A Great Idea? Devil on my Back

Monica Hughes’ Devil on my Back opens on a terrifying scene of five boys about to be hooked up to computers. The terror of this scene isn’t the computers, or the horrible food they are served directly before this (bad scrambled eggs and nearly inedible soy toast) but the people around them: slaves with horrible scars from surgically implanted sockets. The boys are thankful that they aren’t women who only think about worthless things.

And oh, yes, if they fail to access knowledge through their own surgically implanted sockets, their memories will be wiped and they will be turned into slaves. By page five, that happens to one of them. By page seven, another.

[This is the cheerful part!]