Disney’s Loss of Innocence: language, race and gender in children’s animated movies

1024px-Disney_Orlando_castle_at_night

Disney Orlando castle at night. By Veryhuman (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Most of my peers grew up with Disney animated movies. They watched the classics — The Lion KingPocahontasBeauty and the Beast… I didn’t. To this day, I’ve seen a grand total of two Disney animations: Dumbo and The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.

Yes, yes, I know. I haven’t seen The Lion King, or Bambi, which is sometimes marked out as an oddity if it comes up in conversations with friends, as though I’m confessing an eccentric habit.

Disney’s movies are a fond presence in millions of childhoods throughout the world, and beyond (last year, a friend asked me if I wanted to go and see Cinderella with her. I suggested Far from the Madding Crowd instead). But these movies aren’t as child-friendly and full of innocent wonder as they seem. In fact, they have some symbolism in them that is pretty downright disturbing.

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Books and movies to watch out for in 2016

If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you’ll know that reading books and watching movies are two of my favourite ways to rest, relax and recharge.

I love this quote from an Iranian woman photographed by the Humans of New York project:

HONY books photo

Books and films can transport you into different lives, different worlds, different possibilities. And reading a book or watching a movie you enjoy can be a real mood-booster too. The last movie I saw was Joy (here’s my review), and I felt great when I left the cinema.

We’re a week into the new year already, and 2016 has some exciting new books and movies in store. Last year, I wrote that I was looking forward to Far from the Madding Crowd with Carey Mulligan and the adaptation of the Irène Némirovsky novel Suite Française.

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Movie review: Joy (2015)

The recently-released movie, Joy, is the third collaboration between director David O. Russell, Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. Loosely based on truth, it tells the story of Joy Mangano, a struggling single mother who became an entrepreneur and founded a business empire worth millions of dollars.

Sounds glamorous? When I first heard about this movie, I had no idea who Joy Mangano was or what this invention, now worth so much, entailed. The trailer doesn’t give anything away, but on closer inspection it turns out that Mangano achieved her wealth by inventing….a self-wringing mop.

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Looking back at 2015

2015 was a good year — it brought new blogging adventures, my graduation, and an unexpected twist at the end of the year (you’ll have to read to the end of the post to find out about that).

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A piece of wisdom from Thomas Hardy

During the summer, I participated in the WordPress course Blogging 201, which gave me the boost I needed to refresh areas of my blog and plan for future posts.

I would have liked to post more often. My readership and reader engagement with the blog (i.e. via comments, follows and likes) increased during the two months when I posted my ‘Between the Pages’ series, with several themed posts about Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy. Continue reading

Movie review: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2

Before you read this post, there’s a spoiler warning: I discuss scenes from the book and the movie, including the ending. These scenes are discussed in detail. If you want to be completely surprised, stop reading now! But if you’ve read the book and/or you don’t mind spoilers, read on….


In true movie franchise style, the adaptation of the final Hunger Games book was split into two movies: Mockingjay – Part 1 and Mockingjay – Part 2. I finally got round to seeing Part 2 last week, and it was almost exactly as I had expected. While I’ve been a fan of the series since I read the books in 2011, the last book is arguably the weakest and splitting it into two movies was a mistake. In my opinion, Mockingjay – Part 2 lacked the suspense, grittiness and plot strength (including the political symbolism) of the first two movies.

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The “Suffragette” Controversy

Suffragette is not an easy movie to watch, and nor would you expect it to be: scenes of police brutality amidst peaceful protests, the gruelling life of London’s East End factory workers, force-feedings of imprisoned women…

The movie opens with a few lines of text, informing us that women have campaigned peacefully for the vote for decades, but they had been ignored and ridiculed. We see the suffrage movement through the eyes of one fictional woman, Maud Watts. She is reluctant to join the cause at first but is encouraged to take part by one of the women who works with her.

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Far from the Madding Crowd (2015): a masterly adaptation of Hardy’s novel

Bathsheba Everdene is a young and independent woman who inherits her uncle’s farm and intends to manage the farm herself: an unusual role for a woman in the Victorian era. At the beginning, Bathsheba works on her aunt’s smallholding where she meets a young shepherd, Gabriel Oak, who lives a frugal life but has managed to purchase his own flock of sheep. When Gabriel proposes marriage, Bathsheba refuses:

“I HATE to be thought men’s property in that way, though possibly I shall be had some day […] It wouldn’t do, Mr Oak. I want somebody to tame me; I am too independent; and you would never be able to, I know. (FftMC, ch. 4)

The next time they meet, their circumstances have reversed: Gabriel’s flock of sheep were driven to their deaths over the cliffs by an unruly young sheepdog and he has fallen on hard times, travelling from town to town in search of work. One night, he arrives at a farm where a hayrick is burning and the fire is threatening to destroy the barns. After helping to put out the fire, Gabriel discovers that the owner of the farm is, in fact, Bathsheba and he finds employment there as her shepherd. As the story progresses, Hardy introduces more characters who vie for Bathsheba’s hand in marriage: the dashing and vain Sergeant Troy and Mr. Boldwood, the gentleman farmer with an unhappy past.

I studied the novel when I was fifteen and I loved it: Hardy’s descriptions of rural life and the vividness of his characters encouraged me to read several of his books. However, Far from the Madding Crowd is arguably the warmest of his novels. It contains tragedy, but to a lesser extent than the sheer bleakness of Hardy’s other novels, such as Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure. As I enjoyed FftMC so much, I eagerly anticipated the new movie adaptation of it and I was not disappointed. It is a beautiful adaptation of Hardy’s novel.

Carey Mulligan portrays the lead character and she is an ideal casting choice for Bathsheba: the audience watches her progression from a headstrong young girl to a woman who has reached a greater level of maturity by withstanding trials in her farm business and her love affairs. Mulligan conveys this progression through her expressive voice and mannerisms in a performance that deserves to win awards. Her three suitors are played by Matthias Schoenaerts (Gabriel), Michael Sheen (Mr. Boldwood) and Tom Sturridge (Troy).

This adaptation has been filmed with attentiveness to the essence of Hardy’s original work. It was filmed on location in Dorset and it shows panoramic views of Hardy’s Wessex countryside, as well as close-up shots of buds unfurling and a snail crawling up a fern. Scenes such as these create an evocative setting for the film. The setting is more than just a backdrop: the bucolic landscapes are as much a part of the film as the characters themselves.

I particularly enjoyed the moments of wry humour in the film. For instance, Bathsheba asks Gabriel for advice about her love life and when he asks why she is choosing him as her confidante, she responds that he is someone who can give her objective advice. Clearly, Gabriel is the last person who could give Bathsheba an objective perspective as he is still deeply in love with her! “You’re asking the wrong man,” he replies.

Gabriel repeats this line later on when Mr. Boldwood is nervously awaiting the arrival of Bathsheba to a Christmas party at which Boldwood is planning to propose. His fingers are trembling so he asks Gabriel to tie his bow tie for him: “Is there a knot which is particularly fashionable?”. It made me smile as Gabriel, clad in the everyday attire of a farm labourer, is evidently the wrong person to ask about such fripperies as the latest fashions of tying bow ties.

Of course, some of the plot details have been trimmed to condense the book into a two-hour movie. In the book, there is a scene where Bathsheba saves Gabriel’s life when he is sleeping and his hut fills up with smoke, but this has been omitted in the film. However, the structure of the plot is accurate and the screenwriter has not diverged wildly from the novel.

With a gorgeous soundtrack, stellar acting and wonderful locations, it was such a treat to see this masterly adaptation of Hardy’s novel on the big screen. I enjoyed it so much that I went to see it twice!

“Far from the Madding Crowd poster”. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia – Wikipedia film poster

Far from the Madding Crowd was released on May 1st, 2015. Have you seen it? Are you a fan of Thomas Hardy’s writing?

Books and movies to look out for in 2015

There are numerous book and movie releases which I am looking forward to in 2015. Here are some of them, which you may like as well.

MOVIES

An adaptation of Suite Française, the novel by Irène Némirovsky. Némirovsky’s novel has an extraordinary story behind it: the author was killed in Auschwitz, but her two daughters survived the war and her elder daughter, Denise, kept the Suite Française manuscript for fifty years: it was too painful to read and they assumed it was their mother’s journal. Eventually, Denise examined the notebook and discovered the novel: in 2004, it was finally published. Although it is unfinished (Némirovsky had planned a series of five novels), it is a powerful and compelling read. I look forward to seeing the movie version.

Another 2015 movie is a new adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd, which will be released at the beginning of May. The last big-screen adaptation of Far From the Madding Crowd was in 1967, starring Julie Christie. I checked it out on Wikipedia and the 1967 film poster is cringe-worthy, from a feminist standpoint: “A willful passionate girl and…the three men who want her!” This outdated tagline reveals attitudes towards women at the time: the tagline and illustrations portray Bathsheba Everdene, the protagonist of Far From the Madding Crowd, as a nonsensical, wayward girl.

However, she is a wealthy, independent woman, prone to remarks such as “I shouldn’t mind being a bride at a wedding, if I could be one without having a husband. But since a woman can’t show off in that way by herself, I shan’t marry — at least yet” (ch. 4). While she does eventually marry, her life isn’t defined by men: she is unusual in a Victorian novel in that she runs her own farm and makes decisions about who she hires. This 2015 version stars Carey Mulligan as the heroine, which is a good casting choice in my opinion. The trailer shows striking cinematography, but Bathsheba surprisingly has no lines in it. It is difficult to judge from a short trailer, but I hope the movie does portray her independent spirit.

BOOKS

Sara Gruen, author of Water for Elephants, has written a new novel. Set in the 1940s, At the Water’s Edge is a love story with an unusual backdrop: Maddie and Ellis Hyde are high society siblings who are disowned by their father. They then travel from Philadelphia to Scotland, where Ellis decides to try to do what his father failed to do and find the Loch Ness Monster, and “Maddie, now alone in a foreign country, must begin to figure out who she is and what she wants” (quote from Goodreads). I read Water for Elephants and enjoyed it, so I look forward to reading more of Gruen’s writing.

At the Water's Edge (image source

At the Water’s Edge (image source

Almost Famous Women by Megan Mayhew Bergman: this collection of short stories gives fictional portrayals of the lives of “almost famous” historical women, from Lord Byron’s illegitimate daughter to Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sister. It sounds like an interesting read!

Almost Famous Women (image source

Almost Famous Women (image source

What new book and movie releases are you looking forward to this year?

Serena: an Appalachian tale of love, obsession and revenge

Serena by Ron Rash, a novel which has recently been made into a film adaptation, begins in 1929 in the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina, where George Pemberton and his new wife set up camp. Pemberton is a timber baron who oversees the logging empire of the Pemberton Lumber Company and this provides the backdrop to the story. But the title of the novel is the key to its plot: Serena, a determined, ruthless and ambitious woman who stops at nothing to get what she wants, is at the heart of this story. Her name is an ironic choice: she is anything but serene.

Rash’s writing hooks the reader in right from the first paragraph:

“When Pemberton returned to the North Carolina mountains after three months in Boston settling his father’s estate, among those waiting on the train platform was a young woman pregnant with Pemberton’s child. She was accompanied by her father, who carried beneath his shabby frock coat a bowie knife sharpened with great attentiveness earlier that morning so it would plunge as deep as possible into Pemberton’s heart.” (p. 3)

Throughout the book, Serena and Pemberton’s story is interwoven with the young woman’s, Rachel Harmon. Rachel is by far the most sympathetic character in the novel. She struggles to raise her son with almost no acknowledgement from Pemberton; he doesn’t even remember her name.

There are many reviews where Serena is called an “Appalachian Macbeth” and I can clearly see the resemblance. Serena is an extraordinary character, very similar to Lady Macbeth, in that she works to get rid of those who fall into disfavor with her. The reader is only shown glimpses of her background; she refuses to think about the past and only looks forward to the future. Her parents and siblings died in the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 and when asked who was managing their Colorado estate, she responds simply, “I had the house burned down before I left” (p. 55).

I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself
And falls on the other (Macbeth, act 1, scene VII)

In the novel, neither Pemberton nor Serena are sympathetic characters and I found it difficult to empathize with them. Their harsh, ruthless actions lead to violence and murder in the logging camp. Serena is the lead, encouraging Pemberton on in their trail of destruction, but he follows willingly. What bothered me the most is that they don’t show remorse or guilt for their actions; they come across as being psychopathic and Serena appears to have no empathy for others whatsoever. It will be interesting to see what changes have been made in the movie adaptation, which I haven’t seen yet. I expect Serena and Pemberton will be softened somewhat, as audiences tend to dislike movies where they cannot relate at all to the principal characters. It is certainly unusual for protagonists to be entirely unsympathetic or unlikable.

The trailer for Serena:

Although the craziness of the two protagonists is a constant presence throughout the book, comic relief is provided by one of the workers at the logging camp. Ross’s shrewd comebacks made me smile more than once. When the lay preacher, McIntyre, tells the workers that “The only signs you need to follow is in the Bible”, Ross responds dryly:

“What about that sign that says No Smoking on the dynamite shed […] You saying we don’t need to follow that one?” (p. 63)

I have mixed feelings about this novel. I stayed up late to finish reading it because I wanted to know what happened in the end. It really held my attention and that is always a good thing in a book. Ron Rash writes well and I like his gritty style. But some elements of the plot irritated me because of their sheer implausibility, such as the character of the old woman who can see the future and helps the Pembertons out with her psychic powers. There is another similarity to Macbeth here: she reminded me of the Macbeth witches and their prophecies.

By the time I finished reading Serena, I felt that the senseless actions of the Pembertons became too over-the-top, with little character development. They seem one-dimensional because of their sheer lack of compassion for anyone and their obsessive relationship with each other. I hoped that by the end of the novel Rash would elucidate the motivations for Serena’s unrelenting greed and ruthless ambition but he does not dwell on her motives. For me, this is a major weakness in the plot. Again, it will be interesting to see how/whether this is elaborated on by the scriptwriter in the movie adaptation.

Have you read any of Ron Rash’s novels? His new short story collection, Something Rich and Strange, is getting good reviews.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – part 1

I took some time out of my busy schedule this weekend to go and see the latest installment in The Hunger Games movies: Mockingjay (part 1). Before you read this post, there’s a spoiler warning: I discuss scenes from the book and the movie, so if you want to be completely surprised, stop reading now! But if you’ve read the book and don’t mind a few spoilers, read on….

Firstly, I think that Jennifer Lawrence is the perfect Katniss Everdeen. Lawrence has become one of my favourite actresses, thanks to her powerful performances on screen. In The Hunger Games series, she portrays the many facets of Katniss’s character with great expressiveness: her devotion to her mother and sister, her courage and the way she becomes a reluctant heroine, warily playing along with the story of the star-crossed lovers to please Capitol audiences, before realizing that she is in love with Peeta for real.

One of the reasons why I like The Hunger Games is because of the strong female protagonist. Although Katniss values the friendship of Gale, she is fiercely independent and doesn’t need a male sidekick to help her out. Mockingjay: Part 1 does play on the Katniss/Gale/Peeta love triangle, but then so does the book. Katniss is less independent and less of her own person: she is being molded to be the poster-girl of the rebellion. There are a few moments of comic relief, notably when she is instructed to act for the propos: Jennifer Lawrence does an excellent job of acting as though she is a person who cannot act!

Mockingjay: the symbol of the rebellion

Mockingjay: the symbol of the rebellion

The majority of the movie takes place in District 13, with occasional forays to District 12 (Katniss returns to see the devastation wrought by the Capitol bombs), other districts and the Capitol. The claustrophobia of living underground in District 13 is vividly portrayed; as a viewer, I found myself searching for greenery and fresh air, the same way Katniss does. Unlike the first two movies, there are hardly any scenes outside in nature, apart from a peaceful scene where Katniss and Gale go hunting above ground and another scene when Katniss sings The Hanging Tree.

Mockingjay – Part 1 has attracted criticism for being low on action and high on talking and strategizing. Many people, including myself, feel that Mockingjay is the weakest book in the series. Even if it means being more faithful to the books, I do think it was unnecessary to break it into two movies. This has become a habit of major movie franchises habit: breaking the last book in a series into two movies, e.g., Harry Potter and The Hobbit, which has split one book into not one, not two, but three separate movies. It is such a blatant way of bringing in more money to the box office. That being said, I enjoyed the movie and it was suspenseful enough for me; I’m not a huge fan of action-packed movies. Part 1 ends shortly after the captured tributes, Peeta, Johanna and Annie, have been rescued from the Capitol. There’s a jolting moment when Peeta and Katniss are reunited that makes viewers jump, even though I knew what was coming. It made me jump when I read the scene in the book!

I’m light-headed with giddiness […] Peeta’s awake already, sitting on the other side of the bed,looking bewildered as a trio of doctors reassure him, flash lights in his eyes, check his pulse. I’m disappointed that mine was not the first face he saw when he woke, but he sees it now. His features register disbelief and something more intense that I can’t quite place. Desire? Desperation? Surely both, for he sweeps the doctors aside, leaps to his feet and moves towards me […] My lips are just forming his name when his fingers lock around my throat (Mockingjay, 2010, p. 206)

Despite a few criticisms, I’m looking forward to the finale of Mockingjay in November 2015. I read the last few pages of the book in feverish anticipation and the ending in the Capitol truly shocked me. You’d better take a packet of Kleenex to the movies next year!

Did you go to see Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (to give it its full title!) this weekend? What do you think of it?