Character Profiles: The Hapless Hero

Maybe I can’t read or write, but that doesn’t make me an illiterate!

Georgi, The Inspector General, 1949

Georgi was not such a bad fellow. True, he was the stooge of a lying, thieving charlatan. True, he played a primary role in selling healing elixir that was actually furniture polish. But he wasn’t really such a bad fellow.

He showed that one day when a woman tried to buy the furniture polish for her sick husband. “Go away,” he told her. When this failed, he confessed, “This medicine is a fake. I’m a fake. Yakov’s a fake. We’re cheating all the people.”

He didn’t notice until too late that some of the people were close enough to hear. After escaping the angry mob, Yakov sent him away. That’s when Georgi showed why, despite being not such a bad fellow, he was still the stooge of a charlatan. He wandered penniless and hungry for two days before, finally, he was thrown in jail as a vagrant.

Then – you know how crazy life is, especially if you’re in a movie – the town officials mistook him for the inspector general, hunting out corruption in disguise. Having cause to fear, they banqueted Georgi and obeyed him and generally acted as if he were the emperor himself. Georgi took it in bewilderment until, figuring out their mistake, he decided to run.

He was a Hapless Hero. Hapless Heroes are a common device in fiction. They don’t walk into their adventures; they stumble into them. Sometimes they’re pushed. They become heroes by luck, by accident, by anybody’s design but their own.

Hapless Heroes are usually played for comedy. Sometimes they’re endearing and sometimes they’re pathetic; occasionally, like Georgi, they’re both. Yet what makes Hapless Heroes unique is not their lack of competence nor their potential for humor. What makes them unique is that they do not want to be in the story. Their driving desire is to leave. That can be changed, of course, but – authors, take warning! – it must not be forgotten.

Sometimes the Hapless Hero changes through his adventure so that, on the other end of the character arc, he’s strong and confident. Other Hapless Heroes remain hapless to the end. Either way, every Hapless Hero must have his moment – a moment when he acts strongly, ably, and of his own volition.

Because all heroes, even Hapless Heroes, need to be heroic at some point.

First Plunge

I heard of him a long time ago. I often saw him quoted – sometimes by C. S. Lewis. Writers and reviewers praised him as a man of imagination, an artist who brought together the beautiful, the fantastical, and the spiritual. I saw him ranked with C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, one of the godfathers of Christian speculative fiction. But I never bothered with his work myself.

Then, while browsing a library shelf for books for my younger sisters, I saw it: The Complete Fairy Tales, by George MacDonald. I’d heard good things about MacDonald. I liked fairy tales. I picked the book up.

Now I can hold up my head among my fellow SF fans: I have read George MacDonald. My first taste was The Light Princess. This fairy tale begins, as is traditional, with a king and queen having a baby. In writing the invitations to her christening, the king forgot the Princess Makemnoit – which was “awkward”, the narrator tells us, because she was his sister, and “imprudent”, because she was a witch.

So – well, you all know. The witch went to the christening anyway and got revenge for the slight by putting a spell on the child. By the spell she deprived the princess of all her gravity – both in body and in soul.

I wasn’t surprised that MacDonald used the old formula: an evil witch, an enchanted princess, a brave prince. That he made an ingenuous story with it did not surprise me, either. What did was that he told the fairy tale with a sense of humor and even a sense of parody.

The greatest example of MacDonald’s parody was the metaphysicians Hum-Drum and Kopy-Keck. But often it flashes through in smaller ways. He uses the old trope of provoking the witch by not inviting her, and in that very act observes, “Of course somebody was forgotten. Now it does not generally matter if somebody is forgotten, only you must mind who.”

The humor manifests itself in several ways. One of these is puns. George MacDonald has often been called a great writer, and puns have often been called the lowest form of humor, so this seems a little odd –  even if MacDonald’s puns are sometimes so clever they cannot be understood without footnotes.

Another manifestation is asides that are half humor and half (indicting) social commentary. In telling how the king forgot his disinherited sister, MacDonald writes, “But poor relations don’t do anything to keep you in mind of them. Why don’t they? The king could not see into the garret she lived in, could he?”

And later, when the prince “lost sight of his retinue in a great forest”: “These forests are very useful in delivering princes from their courtiers, like a sieve that keeps back the bran. Then the princes get away to follow their fortunes. In this they have the advantage of the princesses, who are forced to marry before they have had a bit of fun. I wish our princesses got lost in a forest sometimes.”

Neither does MacDonald fail to draw out the humor – and fun – involved in having a princess with no gravity. He brings out, too, the loss and misfortune of it. In one passage, he tells of the Light Princess that “she would laugh like the very spirit of fun; only in her laugh there was something missing. What it was, I find myself unable to describe. I think it was a certain tone, depending upon the possibility of sorrow – morbidezza, perhaps. She never smiled.”

I have been enjoying my first plunge into the stories of George MacDonald. They make me want to read more fairy tales. They make me want to write some.

The Evolution of Cruella de Vil

Last week, while searching for a picture of Cruella de Vil, I saw some of Disney’s early concept art for the character. I decided to take a look at it this week; pictures are fun, and so is the evolution of an idea. All these drawings are by Marc Davis.

I don’t know that these are chronologically the earliest, but I would certainly guess so. The ideas are so different. The Cruella on the right is oddly reminiscent of Aurora in her blue gown; the Cruella in the middle is a comic extreme, a far cry from the princess look. You can hardly see her head poking from her enormous fur coat. The Cruella on the left is, of course, the general direction they took.

This Cruella looks rich and middle-aged, the sort of woman who would have a little dog on whom she lavishes gifts with price tags the size of mortgage payments.

Though, knowing Cruella de Vil, we know better.  Cruella de Vil is, to paraphrase G. K. Chesterton, fond of dogs only in a dark and sinister sense.

The Cruella on the right also looks like a society woman, but younger and probably flighty. I think the impression of youth and silliness comes from the long, bouncy hair, the extravagant gesture, the bracelet.

What’s fascinating about these Cruellas is how attractive and feminine they are; the final Cruella was not much of either. But to the great credit of Marc Davis, Cruella has a sinister edge even in her more beautiful incarnations.

On the right, Cruella is again reminiscent of the Disney princesses, only the resemblance is here more in the face and hair than the clothing. The Cruella on the left is rather unique; I can’t remember any woman in a Disney cartoon – good or evil – with a similar look.

Here Cruella looks a little crazy – which, to kidnap ninety-nine puppies in order to make coats of them, she’d have to be. But she still has a chic, refined look; nearly all the Cruel las in the concept art do. I wonder why that aspect is so faded in the movie.

The evolution of Cruella de Vil, as seen in this journey through old, discarded ideas, is an evolution away from the stately villainnesses of early Disney. The evil queen was the fairest in the land for many years. Cruella never was. Cruella de Vil was the first of a new era of villainesses – much less beautiful, much more comic, much more, well, cartoonish.

Review: Tangled

Tangled was celebrated at its release as the fiftieth animated movie made by Disney. It’s appropriate that it should be a princess movie. Also appropriate is that it is based on a classic European fairy tale. Carrying yet another Disney torch, the writers took happy license with the fairy tale until only a few basic elements remained.

I don’t know that Tangled began with a Disney executive saying, “The next animated movie will be our fiftieth. Holy smokes – we need to make this special.” In fact, I doubt it. But if that had been the goal, Tangled would be a spectacular fulfillment. The movie is a wonderful mixing of the best of the old Disney with the best of the new.

The best of the new Disney is found mainly in two things. Humor is the more minor of them. In Old Disney there was humor, too – but not the sort that involves the hero doing battle with a frying pan. Still less would Old Disney have had the heroine repeatedly deck her Prince Charming with a frying pan. Of course, the old-time Prince Charming was never a smart-aleck thief who dismissively calls the princess “Blondie”. (“Rapunzel,” she corrects him. “Gesundehit,” he replies.)

The greatest contribution of New Disney is that the protagonists have actual personalities. Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella were all mild and rather predictable heroines. Prince Charming was generic, and entirely interchangeable with Cinderella’s prince. Their stories were frameworks on which less essential characters hung their colorful hats. The dwarves and the three fairies carried the liveliness and humor of their fairy tales.

But in Tangled Rapunzel and Flynn Rider are characters, not types. The movie has wonderful secondary characters; I am ready to accord Maximus the place of Disney’s best animal sidekick. But here the principal characters can keep up.

If the protagonists show the strength of the new Disney, the antagonist shows the excellence of the old. Gothel is one of the movie’s best elements, a villainess we haven’t seen the likes of in fifty years. New Disney’s villanesses are generally in the cast of Cruella de Vil, Eesma, and Urusla. They were always somehow over-the-top – Cruella with her enormous furs and enormous temper, her every facial feature seeming to come to a point; Ursula’s nastiness was as heavy and obvious as her tentacles; Eesma was, indeed, scary beyond all reason, but in a way that fit the half-sane humor of The Emperor’s New Groove.

But in the days of Old Disney, the villainesses were Maleficent, and the evil stepmothers of Cinderella and Snow White. Gothel belongs to their class. Watching Tangled, you can see in her the cold menace of the evil queen, the elegance of Maleficent, the intellectual sharpness and half-hidden malice of Cinderella’s stepmother. Gothel has a presence that – as much as anything she actually does – makes her frightening.

Tangled is, as Flynn assures us in his opening narration, a fun story. It also earns its PG rating with a surprisingly intense scene that culminates in one of the most clever, most satisfying ends Disney ever dealt out to a villain.

That same scene brings home the movie’s moral. Somewhere, in all the jokes and adventure, Tangled slips in what they call a Point. Now, most Disney lessons these days are like a Hallmark greeting card, only not as deep. We are constantly being instructed to Follow Our Hearts, Believe In Ourselves, and Make Our Dreams Come True. So it’s no surprise that a character in Tangled tells Flynn and Rapunzel, “Go, live your dream.” (Okay, it’s a little surprise that the character is a one-handed hooligan, but someone had to say it.)

Flynn answers, feelingly, “I will.”

And the hooligan says, “Your dream stinks. I was talking to her.”

It’s a great moment, all the more so because it comes off as self-parody. But here’s the thing: Flynn’s dream – to live alone on an island, “surrounded by enormous piles of money” – really did stink. Tangled may begin as another tale of following your dreams, but it ends as a more profound story of changing them.

Tangled is a triumph – comedy mixed with drama, captivating characters bringing home an excellent story. It’s worthy of Walt Disney himself, and more than fit to be the fiftieth animated film made by his studio.

For a breakdown of the film’s moral elements, go to Plugged In; for another review, go to Decent Films.