Pixar-A-Thon

In a glorious attempt to postpone working on my Proposal (and grading papers), I’m over at a friend’s house for an all day Pixar Party. They do these kinds of parties from time to time, and it all began with a party to watch the extended editions of Lord of the Rings. That essentially boils down to a 16 hour party that starts at breakfast and ends somewhere long after dinner. They expanded the idea to do other epic parties, such as Harry Potter. So today is Pixar. The line-up includes the three Toy Story movies, Ratatouille, Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc., The Incredibles, and Wall-E, and the Pixar shorts when available. There are many other titles that could be on the list, but my friends don’t own them on DVD.

What’s really interesting about watching Pixar movies back to back is that some common themes begin to manifest. Just about all of the stories follow some kind of stereotypical hero story a la Joseph Campbell, but yet they somehow break the mold and enter into an entirely new realm of myth.

One observation is that the hero is always part of a collective. They cannot succeed on their own. Buzz has Woody and friends, Nemo has his friends and Marlin has Dori, Wall-E has Eve. This new collective hero is a fascinating development of the post-Potter era. It’s almost as though we, as a culture, have moved beyond the black-and-white dichotomy of the lone hero, and have realized that we have to rely on a collective to actually accomplish anything, which runs completely counter to the individualism on which we built our country. Of course, our rugged individualism is what got us into the place where we are today. Not everyone can go from rags to riches and sit on the top of their flagpole.

The hero’s quest is ultimately for family. So if it’s true that the family is in danger of falling apart, and if it’s true that the myth creates the history, then this suggests that we are going to see a return of the familial unit in the not to distant future, but it’s not going to be the traditional unit. All of these Pixar movies are about creating family among a diverse group of people, not from biological bondage.

Myth scholarship is beginning to catch up to the discussion, and this new hero is beginning to enter into the conversation.

Review of a new myth: the Kingdom Keepers Series

I was at Disneyland the first time I discovered Ridley Pearson’s Kingdom Keepers series. I went to the park after a session at Pacifica, during which my cohort and I were discussing the intricacies of modern fairy tales. During the class, I had the epiphany for the perfect video game, one that would fuse the principles of Kingdom Hearts (i.e. a hero who is assisted by the Disney characters over the course of his adventure) with a murder mystery or some other mystery of some sort, and this particular mystery would be set at Disneyland. Each attraction would hold some clue toward the solution of the mystery. And if you remember that old Nintendo game that was set in the Magic Kingdom (whose name has long left me), then you understand the premise that us, the player, would have to wind our way through the virtual attraction in order to get the clue.

So imagine my happiness that someone had already written the story for me!

The Kingdom Keepers series is about 5 kids who are hired by Disney Imagineering to be turned into DHIs (or Digital Hologram Imaging), which act as digital hosts through Walt Disney World, becoming themselves an attraction. Unbeknownst to the kids, the Imagineers (or rather, at least one key old timer) did some wonky programming that gave the kids the ability to turn into their DHI while they sleep. The reason? The Overtakers, primarily comprised of Disney’s villains and other shady characters, were threatening to, well, over take Walt Disney World to destroy the magic. Being villains, they are easily able to do this, but just can’t get organized enough to actually succeed easily (something about the evil ego). The point of the series seems to be the continual thwarting of the OTs in the interest of preserving the magic. Thus far, there are four books to the series: Disney After Dark, Disney at Dawn, Disney in Shadow, and Power Play. The first three books are set in a different park at on the WDW resort, and the fourth one is currently all over the place. Pearson has hinted on his Twitter (or maybe others have hinted for him) that at least one of the future books will take place on the Disney Cruise line.

Hey, Ridley! When are the OTs going to threaten Disneyland!? Or what about the other resorts around the world?

There are a few different mythic themes at play in this series that makes it so fascinating, and I don’t just mean the obvious setting in Disney:

1. Collective hero/collective villain – In the traditional frame of the ubiquitous (perhaps now cliché) Campbellian hero’s cycle, the hero ventures into a magic “otherworld” and undergoes this journey to get the boon or some other reward, depending on the nature of the quest. While this hero does have magical friends and other helpers, the hero must ultimately conquer the villain alone. However, in recent popular mythologies, we are seeing more and more a trend for a collective hero. While Finn is considered the “leader,” he recognizes that each of the other Keepers has his or her own strength, which always comes in handy to succeed in the task. Recognizing this, the OTs also realize that they have to work as a collective if they are going to overshadow the Keepers. Typically, in Western literature, the evil villain got to that point by being extremely ego-driven, often perceiving his or her helpers as a means to an end, and easily disposable. However, in these books, the OTs are learning (because they’re out for power) that by working together, they become a force that can almost completely trump the Keepers. A collective fighting a collective, not solo hero versus solo villain. That there are a number of stories emphasizing the concept of the collective (hero more often than not) suggests to me that there is a shift happening in our cultural psyche, perhaps even in our collective unconscious, that recognizes that the black-and-white paradigm of previous heroic myths will not restore the balance to our swiftly-tilting planet (as evidenced by Avatar: The Last Airbender).

2. The use of technology – Technology is scary. Many commentators – and you know who they are – are quick to point out that technology is bad for us, pointing to various social issues that underscore this point: movies such as Terminator, Blade Runner, or even Avatar; or the astonishing statistics that technology makes kids stupid (which, let’s be honest, is really the fault of a poor educational system, not that they play video games). The Kingdom Keepers, however, utilize technology as the means by which they can enter into the mythic realm or otherworld and play on the same plane as the OTs. However, they also utilize technology as their primary means to communicate and coordinate. In the first novel, VMK (Virtual Magic Kingdom) was still open (and I wish it would re-open!), and the kids used their virtual avatars to communicate. Despite what one may think, technology is here to stay, and the Kingdom Keepers demonstrates a good use of it, rather than the super scary, apocalyptic use – that’s for the OTs.

3. A meta-fairy-myth setting – Disney theme parks are a fairy tale setting unto themselves. They are a real life otherworld that all of us are capable of visiting, and having that mythic experience that we otherwise can only read about. The Kingdom Keepers are a myth, tackling our culture’s images of “evil villain” and keeping the evil at bay (the whole good versus evil thing). They are acting out the myth in our culture’s fairy tale setting. This is really groovy.

Now there are games you can play at the Kingdom Keepers website, making the books an interactive experience. Next step? Actual DHIs or maybe a virtual Kingdom Keepers attraction at Disney? (BTW, Disney, if you’re interested, I’ll be glad to send you a prospectus of the latter.)

These are the perfect books for any lover of suspense fiction, young adult fiction, and fairy tales/myths. And now, to finish the fourth book.

Grimmfication

As a Disney-lover, dissertater, and thinker, I find myself constantly defending the Disneyfication/Disneyization of fairy tales. Fairy tale theorists have a difficult time accepting Disney’s films as one version among many, but rather see them as being the harbingers of the death of fairy tale culture. I hold the position that Walt Disney and Disney Corp translated written fairy tales into film to a) translate the fairy tale genre to the new medium that has now become predominant throughout our society and b) translate the fairy tales from an Old World/European sensibility to the American sensibility, making them rich and potent for us today. In this sense, Disney’s fairy tales are just one version adding to a millennia-old tradition of storytelling. What I tend to fail to do, and what theorists fail to see is the Grimmfication of fairy tales. I can’t decide if it should be spelled Grimmfication or Grimmification. So you heard it here first, folks! Let’s see if we can coin a term.

When the Brothers Grimm went around Germany collecting fairy tales, they were setting out to collect German culture and capture it into a handy anthology of story. Unfortunately, what they did was write down a literalized version of the fairy tales. They weren’t alone. It became vogue to do this very thing during the 1800s, in an early process of ethnography.

Fairy tale tradition stems from the oral folk tales that are transmitted from generation to generation, from elder to child. These stories often take a particular flavor specific to the region or era of the storytelling, but this is what makes them so rich and potent. So the Grimm Brothers wrote down a version which has now become to dominant version.

[Marie-Louise von Franz talks about the abstractness of fairy tales, citing this as the cause of their archetypal nature, in The Interpretation of Fairy Tales. Perhaps this abstractness is really more due to the fact that that is how the Grimms wrote down the story….)

So why are the Disney Critics so concerned with the Disneyfication of fairy tales, but fail to acknowledge the Grimmification? That’s the answer I haven’t unpacked yet.

Disney and Sex–A Misguided Interpretation of Princesses

So I’m at the PCA/ACA conference, which so far is a really fascinating experience. Being an introvert, I haven’t made any new professional best friends yet, but I have bought three books, which I will review once I read them because they just sound like the perfect way to spend my dissertation research time. Of course, they’re dissertation-worthy, but yet not dissertation-necessary, which is the case of just about all books.

Anyway, there was this panel about Girl Power, which involved some misguided, shallow approaches to feminist theory. Specifically, looking at girls in literature and how they are awesome. No context, no theory, no analysis. To close the panel was a presentation about Ponyo, Howl’s Moving Castle, and Princess Tutu, three Japanese fairy tales.

But here’s the annoying part: This presentation did not incorporate fairy tale theory, feminist theory or any cultural analysis into its thesis. Instead, it made some grandiose claims about how the images of Disney caused our sexual culture. The presenter specifically looked at The Little Mermaid. The assertion is that a) Disney images portray women as sexy, quoting a study of how much skin between the upper thigh and bust women show, and b) the “Princessfication” it portrays limits women.

In response to A: The portrayal of women as sex objects is NOT Disney, it’s the larger culture. BUT, to read Disney characters as sexual (and only directed at children, hence the problem) is a misreading of Disney fairy tales. Walt Disney retold fairy tales using traditional models, which did include arguably “weak” princess characters, but gave them a voice long before the birth of the Feminist Movement. PLUS, Disney’s goal was to define family entertainment as something adults and children could equally enjoy together, not as tamed down stories that are more palatable to children. It is important, Oh Disney Critics, to define the era of Disney fairy tales in your analysis and to take into account the goals of the company at the time of the fairy tale release, because those factors greatly influence the marketing of the film. The era in question influences the portrayal of the characters, which is the crux of the argument I am making during this conference.

In response to B: really? Just because the Princess is the over-used marketing campaign of Disney does not mean that Disney holds a negative view of women.

Now, the comparison to three Japanese fairy tale films to Disney Princesses is just plain shaky territory in a 15 minute/6 page presentation. In order to make a sound argument (especially if one is relying on films distributed by the Overtakes of the Mouse), it is essential to take cultural differences into account. One could easily argue that Ponyo portrays a fetishized child (thanks Rebekah!), which is far more sexual in nature than the portrayal of a Mermaid, whose bare midriff is a side-effect of the fact that she lives underwater and whose story is about her failure of finding love with only her slim, red-headed figure as her tool.

On one hand, it really bothers me that Disney Critics are so shallow. But on the other hand, I appreciate the opportunity to be the voice of the opposition. There is so much more to Disney than one’s fear for the brand, but this is a different conversation all together. Eventually, I hope that Disney Critics will start to recognize their shadow and work accordingly. Then I might have more respect for their arguments.

The Three Temptations of Snow White

Last night, I gave a talk for the Jung Society of Austin as a practice for both next week’s PCA/ACA conference presentation and the whole dissertation business. To underscore my argument about why Disneyification of fairy tales isn’t a bad thing (which I contend it isn’t), I decided to look closely at Snow White. As a Disney movie, this was the first of the animated features, and it is one of the stories that was further Disneyfied into theme park attractions. I’ll skip over my cultural analysis of the Disneyification process for now (and my excitement about having my research validated).

In order to prepare for this talk (and PCA paper), I re-read the Grimm Brothers’ tale, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” This is the story that Disney gives credit for inspiring the film, and indeed the stories have a lot in common. One thing that Disney altered is the three temptations of Snow White. In fairy tales, it is not uncommon for the hero to undergo three tasks before they can achieve “happily ever after.” Three is the realm of the masculine, however one wishes to interpret it, while four is the realm of the feminine, again, however one wishes to interpret it. That most fairy tales have the hero undergo three tasks suggests that they operate in the realm of the masculine, or that the idea is that one has to go through the masculine to get to the feminine, but that isn’t up for discussion here. (3 + 4 = 7 Dwarfs. I’m sure that’s not a happy accident.)

The three temptations/trials of Snow White a la Grimm are the lace, the comb and the apple. All three of which point quite nicely to an interpretation pointing to budding womanhood. The lace is essentially a corset, which the Queen disguised as the old woman laces so tightly that Snow White passes out as though dead. No young girl likes the initial confinement of her first bra, so Snow White’s reaction really isn’t that surprising. The 7 dwarfs find her and cut her out of the corset, bringing her back to life. The corset here symbolizes the restrictions that come with womanhood that limit a girl’s freedom to her duties as a woman. It is also a symbol of perceived beauty; a corset having the ability to shape a woman’s torso in an attractive way to grown men.

The comb is poisoned, and is placed in Snow White’s hair by the Queen and causes her to pass out as though dead. Young girls in the era of the Grimms wore their hair long and free, but women were expected to pull their hair back and cover it upon marriage. The comb is another example of the confinement of womanhood. In many cultures, hair is sensual. Confining her hair hides her sexuality behind sexual mores. The comb is also a symbol of perceived beauty.

The apple, on the other hand, is a little more tricky. In the Grimm tale, the apple is only half poisoned. Originally it is a white apple, but the Queen poisons half of it, which turns it into an alluring red. When feeding the apple to Snow White, she keeps the white half for herself and gives the red half to Snow White. Red and women becomes a symbolism of mensuration, the physical transition into womanhood. But the apple also holds other loaded symbolism: Apple of Eden, Apple of Discord. So one way or another, the apple is supposed to represent Snow White’s loss of innocence, something else that occurs with the transition into womanhood.

So, in short, for all the bruhaha (mostly on the part of Campbell) about there not being any myths for women and their transition into womanhood, here’s a really good one handed to us on a golden platter. Or perhaps a golden pie crust? Hmm.. apple pie….