Wednesday, 29 July 2015

"Is there anything I can do to win an immortal soul?": Andersen's The Little Mermaid

Since it was written in 1837, Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid has baffled and frustrated analysts. On first glance, it seems considerably more violent and pessimistic than the classic film that rebirthed Disney animation. For example, the little mermaid loses her voice by having her tongue cut out. The sea witch in the story is just a disgusting old crone, not the emblem of voluptuous female sexuality that is Ursula (ironically based on drag performer Divine).

Though having sanitized the original story, as they are wont to do, Disney's film still has unique qualities of its own. Unlike most of Disney's Princesses, Ariel is a flawed character. She is a teenager, rebelling against her upbringing and existential nature to forge her own identity, generally making bad decisions all along the way. It is only the love she has been able to inspire in others that redeems her choices and grants a happy outcome. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that she is also somewhat controversial.

This is not the theme of the original story, however. The little mermaid does become obsessed with the surface world - she had five sisters visit it and come back with marvellous stories about it for half a decade before she was finally able to see it for herself - and there is a prince that becomes the object of her obsessions. What really troubles her, though, is the fact that mermaids lack an immortal soul. It is this puzzle that mermaids should live for 300 years and then dissolve into sea foam while humans should only live for 70 years on Earth but inherit Heaven that draws her to make the choices she does.

In the Western European lore inherited by Andersen, mermaids were not believed to have immortal souls. Rather, they took considerable delight in luring men to their deaths, ostensibly to rip their souls from them. Much of mermaid mythology developed out of Greek Sirens, who would lure ships only to have them dashed upon the rocks. Richard Wagner's four-part epic opera Ring of the Nibelung, composed between 1848 and 1874, begins and ends with the aquatic Rhinemaidens who are morally innocent. Not morally pure... they still lure and seduce men... but almost pre-moral in their childlike innocence. The playwright George Bernard Shaw described the Rhinemaidens as "thoughtless, elemental, only half-real things," adding the dated punchline "very much like modern young ladies."  

Andersen's mermaids are very similar. They live and frolic in the oceans as moral innocents, free of want but also free of souls. They live for a very long time in the Sea but eventually dissolve into nothingness. Being creatures of the Sea, they have a sense of the primordial about them, like Adam and Eve before the fateful fruit. Much like them, the little mermaid suddenly gains moral awareness and her childlike, pre-moral happiness is taken from her. She cannot be content knowing that humans have immortal souls and she does not. Finding no answers from her grandmother except to accept this fact and be content, the little mermaid makes the decision to visit the sea witch.

The deal that the little mermaid makes with the sea witch appears Faustian. She must allow her tongue to be cut out, her every step on Earth will feel like knives against her feet, and she must wed the prince to gain her immortal soul or dissolve into sea foam on the morning after he weds another. This superficially Faustian arrangement betrays a fundamental fact, much like Adam and Eve's punishment for eating the fruit: with an immortal soul comes moral awareness, and with moral awareness comes personal sacrifice.

Moral systems are ultimately extensions of metaphysical beliefs. They are, in a sense, optimal performance parameters based on how one thinks the universe actually operates. The metaphysical beliefs of the Modern Era have largely resembled those of the mermaids, in that belief in God and an immortal soul have been punted to the wayside, humanity having moved "beyond good and evil" to an infantile, primordial, pre-moral state where the concept of personal sacrifice is anathema. "If it feels good, do it." With belief in God and an immortal soul comes the idea that humanity is imbued with higher moral obligation to God and to one another that requires sacrifice of one's own ambitions, effort, affluence, and temporal happiness. The exchange is the paradoxical promise that by giving up these things on Earth, we gain back something infinitely more fulfilling in the Hereafter. "Store up treasure in Heaven."

Even then, this exchange and even our immortal soul is contingent on the will of God. Andersen metaphorically represents this by the little mermaid's immortal soul being dependent not on her sacrifice, but on how the prince responds to it. Her own deeds will not earn her a soul. She is dependent on another. I can sympathize with feminist readings of the text that might interpret this as women being dependent on men for a soul, but I would argue that this is missing its rich metaphorical, theological layering. The little mermaid, who has risen out of the primordial, pre-moral state is still dependent on the Son of the King for her immortality. Even if we do not go so far as to interpret the prince as a Christ-figure (what happens at the end of the novel makes this a more uncomfortable analogy), it still recognizes that as humans we do not live unto ourselves but in relationship to others.

The finale of Andersen's tale is what has provoked the most consternation for critics. It appears so out of place that many scholars have felt that it was simply tacked on to render a happy ending, or an end that is at least not as dire, pessimistic, and cynical as what it appeared to be leading up to. In order not to spoil it further, I will resume discussion of The Little Mermaid after the text presented below. The following version was translated by Susannah Mary Paull for the 1872 anthology, Fairy Tales of Andersen. Illustrations are by Bertall from an 1889 French edition.

Saturday, 25 July 2015

Talismouse - A Disney Version of Talisman

Talisman is one of the greatest and most beloved role-playing board games ever produced. Originally developed by Games Workshop and now published by Fantasy Flight Games, it features an engaging fantasy setting where players can adopt the persona of heroes and villains in pursuit of the mythic Crown of Command that grants dominion over the entire realm. A static game board full of interesting locales is livened up with randomly drawn adventure cards, where one can find themselves getting help from pixies in one turn to fighting a dragon twice as strong as you are the next. Many an afternoon can be lost in the world of Talisman.

Currently sitting at its revised fourth edition, resources provided by the online fan community make it easy for players to adapt the game in a number of different ways. Being Disney fans, Ashley and I decided to try our hand at developing some characters and alternative endings based on our favourite animated films.

Because we're new at this, we didn't stray far from essentially transliterating established Talisman characters into their Disney forms. Those of you familiar with Talisman might recognize them. A Dwarf is still a Dwarf, only now it can be Grumpy, Dopey, Sleepy, or Doc. Snow White, Aurora, and Cinderella are slightly modified forms of the Minstrel. The Sorcerer's Apprentice is the Apprentice Mage character. The Genie is a Genie. And so forth.

The following are some of the character cards we've created, which are suitable for printing for any Talisman players out there. Over time we might supplement this batch with more characters and endings. Starting with Sleeping Beauty...


Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs...


And Fantasia...

The original goal of the game is to reach the Crown of Command, which lets you kill all the other characters and leaves you the sole despot over the realm. That is not a terribly Disney-like goal, so we also made a few alternative endings to use in place of that dour one...

As for what to play "Talismouse" with, that's up to your own resourcefulness. We like to use the PVC figures sold by the Disney Store and Disney Parks for our games. Luckily the Talisman board is so large that their size has no effect! The Collector Pack mini-figures can also be put to good use.

Let the games begin!
Ashley makes her move with Aurora.
Jafar in familiar surroundings.
Doing decently for myself.
But alas, the Genie wins by giving the princess True Love's Kiss!
If you're not yet a fan of Talisman, we highly recommend picking up a copy of the game. It is a lot of fun and recommended for ages 9 and up. Always try to support your local game and hobby stores, but it and its numerous expansions can also be purchased online from Fantasy Flight Games.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Space Mountain and Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon

When building Disneyland Paris, Imagineers were careful to highlight the connections between Disney's product and French culture, perhaps to assuage the fears of France's cultural gatekeepers. Main Street USA dedicates a gallery to France's gift of the Statue of Liberty to the United States, Fantasyland has a statue of Cinderella dedicated to Charles Perrault, and of course, Discoveryland was originally focused to large degrees on the work of France's father of Science Fiction, Jules Verne. The Nautilus sat partially submerged in the lagoon, welcoming guests to tour its holds and cabins. Le Visionarium used Circlevision technology to bring us along on a time travelling adventure with the great author. And in 1995, Space Mountain: De la Terre à la Lune took us around the moon, under inspiration from Verne's 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon and Georges Méliès' 1902 silent film A Trip to the Moon.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Tom Sawyer Island - Part 3: Aunt Polly's

When Tom Sawyer Island opened in Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom in 1973, it was a bigger, grander, more spacious version of the original in Anaheim. It had many of the same features - Injun Joe's Cave, Harper's Mill, a fort, etc. - but had that much more space to elaborate on them. A "mystery mine" was added in for example, which has some great optical illusions, and a food counter was installed in the fort. While the concession is gone, thankfully Fort Langhorn remains open and ready to receive the young and young at heart in its stockade.

Another thing added to Magic Kingdom's island was Aunt Polly's. Named for the home of Tom's aunt, it originally served as another food counter, sitting picturesquely along the Rivers of America. Underneath the home's veranda, one could enjoy a soft drink, some potato salad, and maybe some fried chicken. Sadly those days are gone, and while one can still sit and enjoy the view across the water towards the Haunted Mansion and Liberty Belle Riverboat dock, only a bottle of pop from a vending machine will have to suffice. Beside Aunt Polly's house lies the famous whitewashed fence that Tom Sawyer got himself out of finishing.

Aunt Polly's veranda.


The episode of the whitewashed fence is perhaps the single most famous exploit of Tom Sawyer. But like the novel itself, how many have actually read it? Let us now go ahead and do just that, as found in chapter II of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer...

Friday, 26 June 2015

Tom Sawyer, the 1917 Film

Today's special post is part of the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon, hosted by Movies Silently, Silver Screenings, and Once Upon a Screen, and sponsored by Flicker Alley. Click on the banner above to see the full line up for three days of classic film posts from across the blogosphere. Thanks for letting us be a part of this great event!

When director William Desmond Taylor set out to adapt Mark Twain's beloved novel The Adventures of Mark Twain to the still relatively new medium of film, he was not expressly setting out to break any artistic ground. By his own admission, he wanted to simply bring the Tom Sawyer of the novel to life, the character that "people would say, 'There, that's the Tom Sawyer I learned to love in Twain's pages.'"

It is not implausible that one of the people that Taylor inspired was Walt Disney. Growing up in Missouri - first in the small town of Marceline and then Kansas City - Disney would have been steeped in the works of the State's own son, Mark Twain. It's well known that he was inspired by the films he saw in his youth, which he would go on to use as source material for his own films later in life. For example, his Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was essentially a remake of the 1916 silent film, and it's likely that the 1920 Mark of Zorro with Douglas Fairbanks helped inspire somebody to develop the famed television series. Two of the first Mickey Mouse shorts - Steamboat Willie and The Gallopin' Gaucho - were direct satires on contemporaneous silent films Steamboat Bill, Jr. starring Buster Keaton and The Gaucho starring Douglas Fairbanks again. Taylor's Tom Sawyer was even filmed on location in Twain's hometown of Hannibal, Missouri. Clearly there was no Tom Sawyer film produced by Disney, but doubtless the literature, film, and steeping in the general atmosphere of Twain's legacy informed the development of Tom Sawyer Island many years later. In 1917, the year of Tom Sawyer's release, Walt was just graduating high school and the following year, he would lie about his age to enter the American Ambulance Corps in France during the First World War.

Because of the novel's length and the unpreparedness of audiences in 1917 for any film longer than an hour, Tom Sawyer is more of an abbreviation of certain key scenes from about half of the novel. The entire plot of Doctor Robinson's murder at the hands of Injun Joe was excised, only to be resurrected for the sequel Huck and Tom in 1918. The trilogy was completed with Huckleberry Finn in 1920. None of the original cast returned for final picture, which ironically enough is considered one of the best screen adaptations of Twain's work. In the first two, the role of Tom fell to Jack Pickford, brother of silent film superstar Mary Pickford. Doubtless he was far too old for the part, as his 21 years of age in 1917 already strained credulity. Tom and his friends come across more as high school students than children, which undermines the movie somewhat. The more grievous problem is that Mark Twain's humour rests primarily in good turns of a phrase and that quality does not translate well into film, especially a silent one. The literary Tom certainly says and does funny things, but the real hilarity comes from how Twain describes him. Tom Sawyer, the film, is abbreviated in more ways than one, it's strength deriving most from how it brings to mind the book.

Without further ado, here is 1917's Tom Sawyer...

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Next Week: Classic Movie History Project Blogathon!

This Friday, Yesterday, Tomorrow, and Fantasy will be participating in the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon! This great event will feature blogs from across the Internet sharing informative and thought-provoking posts on the history of film from the Silent Era through the Seventies. To see the full line-up, click here. And join us back here on Friday, June 26 for our contribution, in which we look at a silent film that ties into our series on Tom Sawyer Island!

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Tom Sawyer Island - Part 2: Injun Joe's Cave

One of the most intriguing features of Tom Sawyer Island as it used to be in Disneyland – and blessedly still in Walt Disney World – is Injun Joe’s Cave.

Injun Joe's Cave, in the Magic Kingdom's Tom Sawyer Island.
Up to chapter 29, Tom Sawyer had been obsessed with shadowing Injun Joe, the inveterate killer and thief who was stalking about St. Petersburg, Missouri, looking for a place to stash his ill-gotten gold. Tom had the idea to find out where Joe’s secret stash – “Number Two—under the cross” – was so that he could claim that treasure for his own. However, the return of Becky Thatcher from a trip set Tom’s mind on other things.

The town children were off on a picnic near the mouth of McDougal’s Cave when they decided to venture in…