Category Archives: Fairytales

The shapeshifting Snow Queen and all things Frozen

Shameless confession time: I love Frozen.

frozen cast

There, I’ve said it, I’ve aligned myself with every six year old girl on the planet, and I don’t even care. It’s a great movie. The songs are catchy (painfully so). Elphaba and Veronica Mars sing in it. It’s a lot of fun. And there’s a ridiculously cute snowman.

olaf

Less fun is the creepy animation with the girls’ unnatural looks. Come on, Disney, enough with fake Barbie looking characters. (Beware the link; as an article about unrealistic body images for women, the lingerie ad that appeared when I read it was slightly ironic.)

frozen sisters2

Also less fun is the way “Let it Go” gets stuck in your head, or hearing every single small girl around the world sing it. Literally. I have been walking in Spain and heard a little girl singing it in the street. They were screening it in Norway when I was there (and you can go tour the places that inspired the film). Flying back home to Australia, I listened to another young girl singing it in the plane as we waited for take off. And for a while social media was awash with variations on “Let it Go” (and variations on “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?”). You can even sing along yourself.

Okay,  I don’t love it that much. Please, make it stop.

For anyone awakening today from a coma some years in the making, Frozen is a Disney animation based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale “The Snow Queen”.

In the original, parts of a cursed mirror fall into people’s eyes and distort their vision so they can no longer anything good or beautiful in the world but only what is bad and ugly. A boy, Kai, falls victim to the mirror, and begins to hate everything around him, even his best friend Gerda. He’s taken by the Snow Queen far, far away but Gerda’s a plucky girl, and battles her way through to save him with her love. It’s a great story.

The_Snow_Queen_by_Elena_Ringo

In Frozen, Disney has shaken up the story by making the Snow Queen a young queen called Elsa, who cannot control her ice-making powers and fears hurting those around her. Rather than offering her snowmaking services to local ski fields in need of some fresh powder, she runs off to set up camp on her own, far away from the rest of the world. She’s saved by the sacrificial love of a sibling rather than a suitor. Nobody gets married in the end. Is this a first for Disney fairytales?

frozen_anna

The Snow Queen has been a pretty popular lady lately, appearing in a range of popular texts. In Frozen, she’s a very sympathetic character who just wants to control her abilities without hurting anyone.

Frozen

She pops up on Once Upon a Time, the fairytale television program we’ve blogged about before, as a villain who turns out to be not such a villain after all.

Once upon

And she features in Jackson Pearce’s fourth book in her modern fairytales series, Cold Spell, a series we’ve previously blogged about. I shall not attempt to explain the complicated shapeshifting world in this series (seven sons, twins, triplets, mermaids, snow queens, gypsies, bad werewolves, misunderstood werewolves all appear), but suffice to say in this case, the Snow Queen is evil and has hidden herself away from society on a frozen island. She recruits a man-harem since she is desperate for love, men that she uses and abuses and turns into werewolves, until one day she gets her comeuppance from a plucky girl Ginny with a lot of love in her heart for one of the man-harem members, her best friend Kai. Cold Spell follows the original story more closely than other iterations, in a modern setting, and tries to engender some sympathy for the Snow Queen, though certainly not to the same extent as in Frozen.

cold spell

We’ve blogged here before about the current popularity of fairytales and how some have morphed over time into contemporary representations, as with Snow White and Red Riding Hood. The villain-misunderstood outsider-hero Snow Queen is yet another shapeshifting fairytale character to be recast in contemporary stories in more sympathetic terms. Based on the song and clothing choices of little girls around the world, Elsa from Frozen is the clear favourite of the current crop of Snow Queens.


Shapeshifting in the Magic Kingdom

Alright, I have a dirty little secret: despite being a well-educated feminist who understands all the gender problems with the princesses and the problematic cultural stereotypes on some of the older rides and in the older films, and who knows that the Pocahontas story was really *nothing* like that …

I love Disneyland.

Image

I didn’t think I would. As an 18 year old living in Tokyo, I resisted going to Disneyland because it was expensive, and it was for kids. Then someone actually took me there. And then I went again. And when we took my kids back to Japan in 2003, on our one “spare” day between visiting relatives, that’s where we went.

Since then, I’ve been to Disneyland in Anaheim three times (with my kids’ dance school), and Disney World in Orlando once. I’ll leave it up to Roslyn to confess her own Disney experiences, but suffice to say, there are photos of us both in Walt worlds. Together.

Last year, my daughter was cast as Panic in the dance school’s production of Hercules. Hades’ minions, Pain and and Panic, have the ability to shapeshift– as do a number of the Disney villains, including Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty, the evil stepmother in Snow White, and Jafar in Aladdin.

 

late 2012 early 2013 022Jamie (L) as Panic and her friend Lucy (R) as Pain. There’s a typecasting joke here, somewhere …

Very few of the good guys have this ability. The one obvious exception is the Beast, and let’s face it, we’re not sure he actually is a good guy for a while there. In fact, the only reason we don’t read him as a selfish jerk for the first half of the film is because Gaston is filling the role so admirably. The message seems to be: nice, solid guys are … well, solid. And shift-y guys are shifty!

Another confession: when I first saw the transformation scene at the climax of Beauty and the Beast, I didn’t quite respond the way the animators probably intended. In fact, I yelled, “Hey, that’s a rip -off of The Dark Crystal!” and wondered aloud why the Beast had to made beautiful to be acceptable. Of course, the ugly duckling motif is one which is familiar to Disney audiences.

 

makeovers

I much preferred the parallel transformation scene in Shrek. It’s OK, young viewers, for your true self to be somewhat less than a magical makeover. Honest. (When we were in Disneyland in April, a shop owner told me she wished Shrek was “one of theirs,” by the way; apparently she hadn’t read the whole DisneyWar story and realised that Jeffrey Katzenburg used disgruntled Disney animators on that film and that there’s a reason why the other Princesses in it are kind of lampooned …)

Despite all this, I really love Beauty and the Beast. I think the score has a lot to do with that, and the idea of a bookish brunette being the Princess seemed slightly more relatable than say, a downtrodden blonde stepdaughter whose best mates are sewing mice. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

In a little over a week’s time, Roslyn and I are off to see a local production of Beauty and the Beast. I can’t wait to see how they handle the shapeshifting scene, live. (For the record, Pain and Panic used a lot of velcro and props and hoped the audience knew the plot). A few of my former students are in the cast, and it’s our last big girls’ night out before Roslyn abandons me and flies to the other side of the world to start a new adventure.

As for my 14 year old, she’s just along for the ride because she LOVES Belle. And maybe she’s just a little bit fond of us, too.

ImageJamie & Belle


Snow White and the Huntsman, and other modern fairytales

Fairytales have been getting a fair run lately. TV has given us Once Upon a Time and Grimm, and in cinema just this year we’ve seen two versions of the Snow White tale in Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman. In novels the Red Riding Hood tale has been cropping up in a lot of teen werewolf romances, or in other novels where Red just kills the wolf herself, as is the theme in Jackson Pearce‘s Sisters Red; her sequel is a retelling of another fairytale, Hansel and Gretel (Sweetly).

I managed to catch Snow White and the Huntsman as its run ended here in Australia. Partly out of interest as a “new” fairytale, partly out of dedication to our loyal two readers of this shapeshifting blog because the promos suggested the Queen might just be a shapeshifter, and partly because there was a Hemsworth in it, and we are nothing if not patriotic here.

The villain of this film is the Queen, of course, named Ravenna and played by Charlize Theron channelling fellow blonde-powerful-beauty-in-fantasy-land Cate Blanchett’s Spooky Galadriel Voice from Lord of the Rings, although Charlize was much shoutier, to less effect.

Theron upon discovering the script calls for the Huntsman to kiss that Snow White upstart, not the Queen.

And of course, when both women are faced with the temptation of power, Galadriel’s answer is no, while Ravenna’s is a resounding yes, and her desire for power is her motivation throughout the film. Interesting ideas in the movie – and of course in the fairytale – about the importance that we as a society can place on outward appearance: Ravenna is stunning for much of the film as a woman obsessed with gaining immortality, and not just any old immortality but the kind that comes with Botox and perfectly shaped brows. She spends a lot of time sighing and pouting in the front of the mirror (yes, The Mirror) and worrying about looking tired and drawn (ie, like the rest of us).

They’re called wrinkles, Ravenna, and it’s going to be all right.

The heroine is Snow White, played by Kristen Stewart. Ravenna is after Snow White because The Mirror decides Snow is now the prettiest girl in the land, and that Ravenna can only win back the Miss Fantasy Universe title if she kills Snow White and takes her heart, with immortality as a bonus prize. I found the casting of Snow White or perhaps the film’s interpretation of the character unconvincing: the part seemed to call for someone warmer and more obviously embodying the qualities (fairness of character, kindness, love) that were supposed to represent Snow White. In fact, in this iteration of the fairytale Snow is quite literally the source of “life” in this world; restoring nature back to itself, winning forest creatures over, basically undoing the evil Ravenna has done.

But to my mind this was a rather remote, cold Snow White who was hard to really barrack for. This made it hard to engage with the character, and certainly when it comes to her big speech where she rallies the army to her side to fight against Ravenna, I was left cold when presumably we were supposed to feel inspired and excited.

Snow White demonstrating the passion, warmth, and charisma that made everyone fall about themselves to help her.

As is the case in so many fantasy narratives (and not just fantasy), Snow has somehow inspired love in two courageous handsome men and at least one very creepy man without many clues given as to why.

One of these is a drunken Aussie putting on an accent, I don’t know which – Scottish? Irish? – and I’m not sure he knew either. Okay, it’s the Huntsman of the title, and he’s played by Chris Hemsworth, who along with the Queen seems far more interesting than Snow White. The drunkenness seemed to serve no real point in the narrative, and the romance was unconvincing, but again I’d wonder if that’s due to the Snow White characterisation, where she just didn’t seem to exhibit much warmth or interest in anything.

It was also a mystery as to why the Mirror never named the Huntsman as the fairest in the land, when quite clearly Hemsworth eclipsed everyone else on screen for pouting good looks.

Hemsworth is not the only Huntsman trying to win The Mirror’s vote for Fairest Of Them All; Once Upon a Time also boasts (boasted? One never can tell who is dead, not dead, or only temporarily dead in these sorts of universes) a huntsman determined to out-pretty Snow and the Queen, this time played by Jamie Dornan, who actually is Irish (from Northern Ireland, apparently).

Are you sure you’re the fairest of them all, and not me?

The movie itself probably needed a little more sharpening in its story focus; it felt like there were a lot of really interesting ideas searching for development and cohesion, and I’m not convinced everything came together as well as it could and should have. For the looks of it, the special effects were good, and the scenery was quite stunning at times, but I couldn’t help but see the inheritance from the Lord of the Rings, Narnia, Harry Potter and other fantasy-horror movies, though of course it’s hard to be terribly original in this genre. For instance, Ravenna seemed to be a vain Dementor in sucking the souls/lives out of young girls to steal their beauty; the white stag moment seemed fairly similar to Aslan’s role in Narnia; and as noted earlier, Ravenna seemed to be a fan of Galadriel.

Give a Dementor a mirror, and look what happens.

As for shapeshifting, the Queen does shift shape a little, when she appears to Snow in the form of one of Snow’s allies, and transforms into herself/birds, so it’s linked to deceit and evil here, playing on the theme that you can’t trust appearances (with, apparently, the exception of Snow).

Can we compare this with how Once Upon a Time has tackled the same fairytale? Obviously the latter is a TV show with plenty more space to develop storylines and character arcs, and it is very different for the way we see dual stories between the characters in their fairytale lives and their modern day versions where they can’t remember who they are. And let’s be honest, most viewers probably can’t remember who the characters are either, it’s all so complicated. Apart from the pretty Huntsman, Ravenna is Regina (Lana Parrilla), another beauty who wasn’t brought up to share and play nicely with others, and Snow is the traditional character as well as the modern Mary Margaret (Ginnifer Goodwin), both interpreted in a much warmer way.

Both these iterations turn Snow White into the kind of post-Buffy butt-kicking heroine we find everywhere these days: they’ve got swords, they’ve got courage, and don’t need “rescuing” in the same way the traditional fairytale characters do.

Okay, so he might be prettier than me, but my armour’s shinier.

Back to shapeshifting, Once Upon a Time offers us a new version of Red Riding Hood: whereas in most modern versions she will just kill the (were)wolf herself, in the TV series she is the wolf, though she is unaware of her lupine alter ego until after she’s killed her romantic interest, Peter. So the danger to young women comes not from men in most of the modern versions (not all of them), but from herself.

So why all these fairytale revisions? Part of the popularity is probably linked to this imposition of contemporary ideas about gender and identity and power onto classic narratives. Maybe storytellers are getting lazy, where every second movie seems to be a remake, reboot, or a sequel. Have we really run out of ideas for new stories? With news of a sequel to Snow White and the Huntsman, maybe we have.