Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Bring on the Princess Movies!

The recent LA Times article about Disney animation moving away from fairy tales to more gender neutral stories had me rolling my eyes. It's a sentiment that the Disney executives have expressed before in the past, and the decision has always come back to bitE them in the unmentionables. Now that "Tangled," their new fairy-tale feature based on "Rapunzel," has exceeded expectations to become one of Disney's biggest opening films in some time, there has been quite a bit of backpedalling. It turns out that the general public is perfectly receptive to a good princess movie, as long it's not being marketed as a "princess movie." With that in mind, I've whipped up a quick list of suggestions for future projects based on stories featuring princesses, or heroines who eventually become princesses, for the Disney creative types to consider.

"Thumbelina" – Don Bluth made a rather unfortunate animated film based on the story of this Hans Christian Anderson heroine in 1994. It's high time somebody took another stab at it. "Thumbelina" not only features the tiniest girl in children's literature, but lots of appealing animal characters like evil toads and injured birds. The original story was a little humdrum with the biggest threat being Thumbelina facing marriage to a mole, but had some exciting escape and flying sequences. And there's a lot of potential in playing with the oversized world of such a miniature heroine, especially on an IMAX screen. Disney could take pointers from Studio Ghibli, which released a thematically similar "Borrowers" movie this year.

"Twelve Dancing Princesses" – Contrary to the title, the princesses aren't the main protagonists. That honor goes to the soldier who discovers their secret, so I don't think anyone would object if they shared top billing. Reduce the number of princesses to a more manageable number, and sign on a few popular recording artists to provide the music, and you'd have a perfect tie-in for all the dance show competitions currently littering the television landscape. Currently the only major adaptation anyone has done has been the Barbie direct-to-video version, but that didn't have much impact on Disney's "Rapunzel," and the awkward title is easy enough to change.

"Eros and Psyche" – If you want to change the reputations of these princess movies, the best way to do it is to make films with stronger princesses. "Eros and Psyche" is my favorite Greek fable, since it featured a rare princess who actually got a full quest story, with an antagonist in the form of Aphrodite, her future mother-in-law. There are some elements that are awfully similar to "Beauty and the Beast" and "Sleeping Beauty" in the versions I'm familiar with, but there's also plenty of room to modernize the story. And I always loved the imagery associated Eros and Psyche – the winged lovers are connected with several different symbols, including archery, firelight, and butterflies..

"Ariadne" – Ariadne of Greek mythology, the princess who helped Theseus defeat the minotaur and escape the labyrinth, always struck me as a character with a lot of potential. Theseus abandons her on his way home from his victory, the jerk, and Ariadne eventually ends up with the god of wine and revelry, Dionysus. How did that happen? I'm envisioning a nice little road-trip-for-revenge movie, a junior version of "Kill Bill" where the princess aims to go on a rampage, but eventually decides not to settle her beef with the ex-boyfriend. Instead, she learns to be more laid back with a new beau, who perhaps tagged along in the guise of a mortal frat-boy type.

"Donkeyskin" – There are several variations of the story of a princess who is forced to disguise herself as a beast, often a donkey, and then takes the active role in meeting and courting her prince by appearing to him at a succession of royal balls. I'm not sure why it's become one of the more obscure fairy tales over the years, because it was always one of my favorites. Once again, the story belongs as much to the prince as the princess because he's the one being tested by her through the elaborate ruse. There have been a few excellent adaptations like Jim Henson's "Sapsorrow" and Jacques Demy's "Peau d'Ane" that could easily be used as templates.

"The Princess and the Pea" – The original fairy tale was only about a page long, but the comic potential is endless. How did they get those mattresses stacked to the ceiling? Why use a pea instead of a kidney bean or a brussel sprout? How did they keep it from getting squashed under the weight of all that bedding? That must have been one stale pea. And does the princess's sensitivity cause any other problems for her? How did she get into that bedraggled state anyway? A little cynical kids-eye view deconstruction feels appropriate here. I know Disney purists abhor the thought of more "Shrek" clones, but nobody ever said all animated comedies had to follow the Dreamworks model.

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