Thursday, March 04, 2010

 

Bring on the singing mice


Editor's note: To commemorate the 60th anniversary of the release of Walt Disney's
Cinderella, The House Next Door founder Matt Zoller Seitz watched the movie with his daughter, Hannah, age 12, and his son James, age 6, then discussed it with Hannah afterward via iChat. A transcript of their conversation follows. It includes occasional interjections from James, who sat on dad's lap while he typed and eventually felt compelled to add his two cents.
By Matt Zoller Seitz, Hannah Z.D. Seitz (and James Seitz)

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Matt: So, did you like Cinderella?

Hannah: I like the mouse stuff. And some of the images are really pretty.

Matt: What images did you like?

Hannah: I like when the prince and Cinderella were on the bridge and there were cool trees and it was dark, but the other details in the background glowed in a way. And I also loved all the landscape shots of the castle. Actually, I like most of the background paintings of the rooms they were in, and the trees outside. In a lot of animated Disney movies you are so focused on the characters you don't really see how nicely drawn the settings are.

Matt: This movie was made about 60 years ago. How would you say it is different from animated movies being made now?

Hannah: Well the princess is a really bland character. Also all the music is old-sounding, and the singing is also pretty old-fashioned.

Matt: Yeah, although that doesn't bother me, because I like a lot of older movies and music.

Hannah: Some of the music is a little cheesy, but it's nice.


Matt: One of the things that struck me about the movie was how little actually happened in the story. It sticks pretty close to the fairy tale and it's pretty pared-down and small in scope. The major action sequence in the movie involves a couple of mice trying to steal a key from the stepmother's pocket. If it were made now there'd be a lot more going on in that scene. Something would have to be on fire or about to explode.

Hannah: Yeah, honestly the storyline and plot aren't that exhilarating. But the action sequences made it good, even though they didn't involve any violence.

Matt: Except for the evil, fat cat falling out of the window to its death.

Hannah: Well, yes. Do you see my Facebook status? I quote: "Why is it that in all Disney movies, the villain always dies from falling?" The villain has to die usually, or disappear somehow in Disney movies. But in this case, the main villain is the stepmother. The cat is more of a nuisance than a villain.

Matt: James wants to say something.

James: I liked the fat mouse because he always has to get pushed in a hole.

Hannah: Nice.

James: I like when the cat fell because the dog scared him.

Matt: Was the cat a him or a her? Hannah, do you know?

Hannah: Him... His name is Lucifer. Is that right?

Matt: Yeah, that's right. I found the cat's death a bit jarring, actually. It was out of character for the rest of the movie, which is pretty laid-back and gentle. I was a little surprised, seeing it again, that the stepmom's comeuppance at the end is considered punishment enough. Disney movies very rarely let the character that torments the hero/heroine to end the story without being dramatically punished, or dropped out of a window or off a cliff.


Hannah: Well, if the stepmother died, there would be too many loose ends. Where would the sisters go? And Cinderella would be extremely upset, because she's supposedly a sensitive character who probably at least cares a little bit for her stepmother. And her weeping about that kind of makes the ending a bit too dark.

Matt: If the stepmom died at the end, there could be a sequel where Cinderella and the prince are living together in the prince's castle and the stepsisters are living there, too, being enormous pains in the butt and plotting their revenge.

Hannah: Yeah, but so many more sequel ideas would be open if the stepmom didn't die. I'm pretty sure there was a sequel.

Matt: I know for a fact that there was, but I didn't see it. I refuse to see direct-to-video sequels to classic Disney films. They're almost always terrible. The Lion King sequels were so bad it was stunning.

Hannah: Yeah, but they made money, and that's Disney's main goal. Wait, aren't you in the kitchen? Or do you have magic computer mind-control powers?

Matt: I just took the ham out of the oven, but I'm back now. If you're wondering who did the little smiley face emoticon a minute ago, it was James.

Hannah: Oh, OK.

Matt: You realize, of course, that these kinds of films were long considered "girl movies." You enjoyed Cinderella but you didn't seem to be on the edge of your seat the whole time. Aside from some of the filmmaking and character touches, did the story itself appeal to you?


Hannah: Not really. It's funny comparing this to the most recent princess movie, The Princess and the Frog, because that princess is really interesting. And one more modern, un-classic Disney thing going on there is that one motto of that movie was that you have to dream, but no one's just going to hand it to you, and you have to do a lot of work yourself, which is what the main character was doing in that movie. She was working and had a goal (to open her own restaurant). But Cinderella's motto is more, "Live the way you're living and hope things get better."

Matt: To me, that's the basic difference between life before feminism and life after -- and how the difference is reflected in popular culture. Your description of the message of Disney's Cinderella is right on, and it was commonplace 60 years ago, when women had fewer options. After the feminist activism of the 1960s and '70s, these kinds of passive fairy tale heroines became less acceptable, and now we're at the point where we don't see them anymore because audiences would rebel. Disney's Beauty and the Beast is kind of stuck midway between the two modes. Belle is a bookworm and has a backbone, but the story still ends with her marrying the (now handsome) prince and living happily ever after. You know?

Hannah: Yeah, but that's how all Disney movies end.

Matt: Pretty much.

Hannah: That's how The Princess and the Frog ended.

Matt: True. I guess what's different is the characterization of the princess and how she ultimately gets to that place.


Hannah: Yeah. In The Princess and the Frog, Tiana was stuck with the prince who would become her husband, and at first they hated each other. But then the prince fell in love with her, and the love plot continued from there.

Matt: Most critics didn't like the Shrek films, but I did, mainly because they pretty much came right out and said that the messages of classic fairy tales are forms of thought control. The first Shrek in particular is Disney's Beauty and the Beast turned inside out. To Shrek, Fiona is attractive despite the fact that she looks like Disney's Cinderella. She becomes really beautiful to him at the end when her true form is revealed, and it's that of an ogre.

James: They have a fourth Shrek.

Hannah: Now I want to watch Shrek.

Matt: Would you recommend this movie to your friends?

Hannah: I don't think it would really appeal to them. It didn't really appeal to me either at first. I'm like "OK, I'll watch it, I remember from watching it when I was younger that the animation was very pretty," but I completely forgot about the mice, who made it like 100,000 times better.

Matt: The mice did save the movie. It should be stated for the record, however, that it's impossible to watch Cinderella without thinking of Enchanted.

Hannah: Yes, definitely. Enchanted shows how ridiculous Disney princess movies are.

Matt: Yeah, the princess in Enchanted seems certifiably insane, which is a critical statement in itself.

Hannah: It makes you realize that when you are watching a Disney princess movie, if the story was done in live action rather than in animation, it just becomes completely fatuous.

Matt: Or then again, maybe not. In Enchanted, the princess's relentless goodness ultimately does carry the day. The cynical "real" world ultimately has to give in to her. Which I suppose means that in its heart, that film is a lot more traditional than it seems.

Hannah: I kind of wish I had chore mice. Not the ugly, real mice. Like ones in the movie, with funny hats.


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Comments:
You have some extremely astute children there, Matt! They seem to have picked up quite a bit from you. Anyway, some scattered thoughts:

I love the way you talk to your children like they're adults. I do the same thing with children and other adults often tell me that I shouldn't because they don't understand. Even if that's true, which I don't think it is, how else are they supposed to learn? I especially admire the way you didn't hesitate to bring a discussion of feminism into the conversation, putting the picture in a valuable historical context.

Your daughter, probably by virtue of the fact that she's the oldest, is very perceptive. My little brother is 12 and was more or less raised by television and still struggles to form a coherent sentence, let alone actually analyze the world around him. I especially love what she says about The Princess (I'm assuming she means Cinderella) being a bland character - Walt Disney fetishized human beings to the point of absurdity and they're often so pure and wise and sweet that they aren't interesting as characters. IMO, he was always much better when manifesting humanity through non-humans.

All in all a lovely read, Matt, thanks for sharing.
 
Great discussion, Seitzes. You could make it a regular feature.
 
I've enjoyed this reading chat. It reminded me of when my oldest daughter was three years old would say "Daddy" while pointing to the Prince on the cover of the VHS box for "Cinderalla." She’s sixteen now and has cleared up her confusion.

re: "Beauty and the Beast" post-feminism: Disney's Beauty and the Beast is kind of stuck midway between the two modes. Belle is a bookworm and has a backbone, but the story still ends with her marrying the (now handsome) prince and living happily ever after.

There’s clearly a more progressive sensibility in “BatB” as witnessed by the misogynist, narcissistic, old-school Gaston character. His motivation throughout the film is the sense of ownership he feels over Belle (not unlike the Beast’s). When the Beast confronts Gaston at the end, he realizes that he’s seeing himself. That epiphany, I’d argue, is what allows the Beast to be made “handsome” as much as Belle’s tears.

Cinderalla proves her worthiness for the Prince by fitting into the shoe and is rewarded with a wedding. In “BatB,” it’s the Beast who is rewarded with a wedding only after proving his worthiness for Belle by recognizing his out-dated ways.
 
Matt Maul: "
There’s clearly a more progressive sensibility in “BatB” as witnessed by the misogynist, narcissistic, old-school Gaston character. His motivation throughout the film is the sense of ownership he feels over Belle (not unlike the Beast’s). When the Beast confronts Gaston at the end, he realizes that he’s seeing himself. That epiphany, I’d argue, is what allows the Beast to be made “handsome” as much as Belle’s tears."

That's a good point about Gaston, and about the Beast/Prince being the one that has to prove himself worthy of Belle's love. However, the film is still a smorgasbord of mixed messages. For instance, it's a captivity narrative, with Belle eventually growing to like and even adore her hot-tempered, sometimes verbally abusive captor (Stockholm syndrome). And although she does come to her senses long enough to go try to save her endangered father, she goes back to the Beast/Prince for the finale. There's a message in here somewhere about women learning to love screwed-up, abusive men, and it's clearly not a good one.

Bear in mind I'm not arguing for a PC reading of every fairy tale to determine its suitability for kids. You can't do that with any popular culture otherwise you would have to avoid all of it (and become one of those people that other people don't like being around -- humorless scolds). But I do think it's important to point this kind of thing out to kids and get a discussion going, if only to teach them how to watch movies -- how to identify component parts and factor them into or out of their enjoyment without excusing them or ignoring them.
 
Bear in mind I'm not arguing for a PC reading of every fairy tale

Agreed. That's not your style Matt. And with a bunch of daughters myself (I don't know how to produce a "masculine child"), I'm definitely sensitive to the culture's depiction of girls/women.

FWIW, I only said that BatB has "a more progressive sensibility" than earlier Disney efforts like Cinderella, not that it's a perfect template for socialization.

Of course, because I can leave no hair unsplit, I'd only point out that BatB's "captivity narrative," is put in motion by a FEMALE enchantress who imprisons the prince and his innocent servants simply because she finds him shallow. I'll stop now. ;)

But I do think it's important to point this kind of thing out to kids and get a discussion going, if only to teach them how to watch movies -- how to identify component parts and factor them into or out of their enjoyment without excusing them or ignoring them.

Agreed (totally).
 
Wow - Matt, is your daughter really only 12? She's clearly very, very smart. You should be proud. I can't believe she used the word "fatuous." Clearly the progeny of a film critic!
 
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