Review: Beauty and the Beast (the Other One)

(Yes, I know: I’m six months late to this party. But that is how long it took them to put the movie on Netflix.)

In 1991, Disney released a magnificent version of the classic fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast”. Then they released another version.

Disney’s decision to remake Beauty and the Beast as a live-action film was always questionable for two reasons. One, the story is intrinsically suited to animation, and two, the original film is so close to perfection that it leaves little room for remaking. But all things are possible, and these hurdles might have been jumped.

One of the special powers of animation is that it can make things whimsical or agreeable that, realistically, are not. Beauty and the Beast needs this power, both for the Beast and his servants. The living household objects, rendered realistic in the new version, are all exquisite. They also have about an ounce of the charm and vibrancy of their animated counterparts. Worse, they make you think that it would be kind of creepy if your coffee cup had eyes and your dresser liked to pick out your outfits.

The change from animation to live-action would not matter so much – if more significant changes had deflected comparison. And here we come to the second pitfall, which the new Beauty and the Beast plunges right into: Why remake a movie that was already nearly perfect? To make it different – not necessarily better but different in a true and interesting way. That is the successful way to remake a great film. There are two ways to fail – make it too much the same and make it different in a bad way. Disney manages both.

Beauty and the Beast reproduces its predecessor’s plot, its songs, and its most iconic shots and scenes. To its credit, the film does innovate in smaller matters. To its discredit, it innovates badly. It reshuffles events and characterization in ways that are often puzzling and invariably damaging. Its original ideas are slight and usually poor.

The Beast is a much reduced figure in this second outing. He is less of a beast, for one: physically smaller, more tame in temperament, more human in appearance, lacking the mouth full of fangs and the animalistic power and agility of the old Beast. The first Beast literally roared; the second huffs and puffs. The first Beast had a violent, mercurial temper; the second is mostly just dyspeptic. The first Beast had sudden shifts into realization and regret; the second … no.

Gaston receives a kinder, gentler, and ultimately scrambled characterization. His buffoonery and presumption are sanded down significantly, and his worst moments in the first half of the film are excised. Then, as if suddenly in the throes of some psychotic break, he resorts to murder. After that, Gaston loses all initiative. His maneuver to clap Maurice into the insane asylum is no longer a sinister scheme to blackmail Belle into marriage; neither does he incite the mob against the Beast out of jealousy and offended pride. Both acts are merely defensive and desperate attempts to hide his crime.

The servants-turned-household-objects fare worst of all. Their warm (even enthusiastic!) welcome of Maurice is eliminated, and it matters because their welcome of Belle is so suspect. They adopt the peculiar habit of declaring selfish motivations for acts of apparent kindness. (Why does Lumiere – it’s not the Beast in this version – get Belle out of the dungeon? So he can kiss the maid again!) They sing “Be Our Guest” not because Belle wanders into the kitchen saying she’s hungry but because they realize she’s planning an escape. When Belle flees, doors slam and lock, the dog rears up and barks at her – it looks like a jail break, and they’re the prison guards. Incompetent ones, but still.

As for new ideas, Disney did decide to give Belle a shamelessly maudlin back story. The Beast has a sob story, too, and he and Belle bond over shared childhood trauma, and it’s all very dreary. Disney also anchors the story to a particular time and place, shifting it away from fairy tale and into history. Then it fumbles the history, and drops it, and steps on it. Disney clearly sends out the message, “This is eighteenth-century France! Btw, we have no idea what eighteen-century France was like, and we don’t care, either.”

The movie has its good points. The technical skill is obvious, and the film treats us to some beautiful vistas. The re-imagining of Maurice and Gaston has merit, whatever the flaws in execution. There is talent in the cast. But the new Beauty and the Beast is inevitably heir to the old one, and it neither breaks from its legacy nor upholds it. Fans of the movie say that there are many versions of Beauty and the Beast, and that’s true. But the precise trouble is that this movie is not a version of Beauty and the Beast, the fairy tale; it’s a version of Beauty and the Beast (1991) – and a worse one. Beauty and the Beast (2017) is so notably like Beauty and the Beast (1991), and yet so notably inferior, that there is hardly even a point.

Review: Tarzan of the Apes

It is the rare but glorious lot of writers to create a cultural icon that lasts generations, one of those things that everybody just knows even if they’re not sure how. Tarzan is one such icon. Who doesn’t know the image of the handsome, wild, muscular man swinging through the jungle with the agility of an ape? Sometimes there’s a girl in his arm, but to tell the truth, she’s not really necessary.

Like many such icons, Tarzan has been unmoored from his ultimate source. Everybody knows Tarzan, but most haven’t read Tarzan of the Apes, by Edgar Rice Burroughs. When I picked up Tarzan of the Apes, I was driven more by curiosity than the hope of a good story.

Tarzan of the Apes was first published in 1912, and a century is more than enough to make a novel historically interesting. Even the novels that were radical unconsciously reflect the ideas and attitudes of their era (no one lives entirely free of his time). In this respect, Tarzan is interesting, even though what it reflects can be quite bad. The crude racist stereotypes are obvious blemishes, but the more subtle eugenicist ideas are the same poison – refined and intellectualized and so more pernicious.

This book surprised me. It is darker and more violent than I anticipated, with a surprising dose of cannibalism from both white and black characters. Tarzan’s jungle divides itself pitilessly into killer and killed, and he himself is a wholehearted participant. Most of the characters, of whatever race or species, are scum. At the same time, it is far more thoughtful than I would have guessed. In the best tradition of speculative fiction, Burroughs uses fiction to explore an idea. He takes up the nature vs. nurture debate by putting a child of the best hereditary (in an eugenicist touch, the son of English aristocrats) in the worst environment (raised by savage apes in a virgin jungle).

To Burroughs’ credit, he doesn’t offer a quick, cut-and-dried answer. Tarzan, the subject of his fictional experiment, is deeply influenced by both hereditary and environment. At the same time, Burroughs’ treatment of the question is generally unconvincing, occasionally ridiculous, and undermined by eugenicist assumptions. Burroughs explicitly grounds the explanation of Tarzan’s superhuman physicality in evolution, in the logic that human muscles and senses atrophied as we learned to rely on reason and would rejuvenate in an environment that demanded it for survival, but I didn’t buy it. Nor did I buy that Tarzan’s aristocratic genes made him instinctively gracious or chivalrous, or that he could become fluent in any language quickly. In a very real way, Tarzan of the Apes is a book of ideas. It’s just that the ideas are mostly claptrap.

As much as eugenics, as an idea, deserves to die, its presence in Tarzan is part of the novel’s scientific bent. So, too, are the references to evolution, the nature vs. nurture debate, and the way an important plot point turns on this new thing, fingerprinting. If you don’t know what that is, the book explains it. A good part of the book’s darkness comes from its more realistic portrayal of apes in particular and African jungles in general. The portrayal is not really scientific; Burroughs attributes to the apes a language (however limited) and customs and laws (however savage). But unlike Disney’s Tarzan and The Jungle Book, which were developed out of a desire for fun, child-friendly stories with animals that talk and sing and occasionally even dance, Burroughs’ jungle society was developed in the spirit of the real jungle. The apes in this novel are violent, but so are apes in real life.

To take Tarzan of the Apes strictly as art, the plot was well-constructed and the author unafraid of making decisive change in his hero and story. The love story, for once, was not completely predictable. The old professors were funny. I was still ready for the book to end in the neighborhood of page 150, and I got tired of the phrase “forest god”.

Not much of the real Tarzan of the apes survives in his icon – not his propensity to kill, his blue blood, his superhuman strength. But the image of him in his jungle is enduring. Tarzan of the Apes may be good fare for those interested in culture, history, and old-fashioned pulp romps. Reader discernment is needed, however, and the novel is emphatically not for children.

Review: Heart of the Winterland

Princess Calisandra is two hundred years old, and you would never know it, because she still possesses the body, mind, experiences, and maturity of a very young woman. That is what happens when you pass your whole life in a kingdom locked by magic into winter, timelessness, and an inescapable sameness. But finally something is giving, either in Cali or in the magic, because after two hundred years of accepting every day just like the last, she is growing restless. She is about to rebel.

She is about to leave.

She is about to find out what, or who, may exist outside her empty little kingdom, locked in winter and in time.

Heart of the Winterland, written by Kirsten Kooristra, is a fantasy novel appropriate for all audiences. It is rich in world-building and in characters, bringing together warriors, princesses, and sorceresses across a diverse range of milieus, from snowy Trabor to the sea. The magical kingdom of Sjadia, the spell cast by the queen, and indeed the novel’s premise, all stand as imaginative and intriguing concepts.

Unfortunately, there is a meandering quality to the plot. The heroine possesses no real goal, aside from ‘leave and see what’s there’, no nemesis, and little initiative. What she does is usually in response to what happens to her, and what happens to her is due almost entirely to other people or to coincidences. I waited for the central conflict or need to emerge, but it never did.

Heart of the Winterland is a gentle fantasy that is abundant with sympathetic characters, imaginative world-building, and intriguing fantastical concepts. At the same time, it lacks a strong driving force. Choose according to your preferences.

 

View Heart of Winterland on –

Goodreads

Amazon

Look Away: A Series of Unfortunate Events

Houses burning down. Parents dying. Guardians dying. Untalented actors with ropes, knives, and nefarious plots. Hurricanes, deadly leeches, dangerous reptiles. Lumber mills with numerous safety violations. This is a series of unfortunate events, and you can pull up a chair and watch.

Or you could just look away.

This January Netflix premiered Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, an adaptation of the children’s series of the same name. To date, eight episodes have been aired, adapting four of the thirteen books. Like the books before it, the show revolves around the adventures, misadventures, and misfortunes of the three Baudelaire children. After their parents die in a mysterious fire, they must escape Count Olaf’s schemes to get a hold of them and the Baudelaire fortune – again, and again, and again.

I had heard of Lemony Snicket before, invoked as an example of the literary devices of lampshading and of breaking the fourth wall. Knowing only this, and absolutely nothing of the actual story, I tuned into A Series of Unfortunate Events. The two most prominent elements of this series are its tone and its humor. The tone is ostentatiously bleak, with the theme song warning that watching will ruin “your evening, your series-of-unfortunate-events-2home life, and your day,” and narrator Lemony Snicket promising endless woe, troubles, and inconvenience. A literal pall hangs over the show – much of it, especially the scenery, appears to have been put through a gray filter. And this grayness is a mistake, an overreach of cleverness that undercuts the specific pleasure of a visual medium.

The series’ showily dismal tone is part and parcel with its humor – sometimes dark, always absurdist. A Series of Unfortunate Events thrives on repetition (it’s not a sea, it’s a large lake); on smashing the fourth wall (Lemony Snicket explains the concept of dramatic irony in relation to a particularly unfortunate event); on the unnecessary definition of words (in this context, “unnecessary” means “not needed”); on repetition (it’s not a sea, it’s a large lake); on absurdity (your closest living relative is the relative who lives closest to you); on repetition (LARGE LAKE).

As a rule, humor should not be explained or defended. If you don’t like this sort of humor, you won’t like the show. Even if you do, the show sometimes goes too far. It’s funny that Lemony Snicket has a two hundred-page book written by the woman he loves, explaining why she can’t marry him, but the repeated jokes about an older woman’s unfulfilled desires for marriage and a family are merely sad.

The characters of A Series of Unfortunate Events, like its humor, lean toward the absurd. Even Count Olaf, the villain of the story, is ridiculous, though he is sinister, too. The Baudelaires themselves are loyal to each other, courageous when the moment demands it, and – considering what they have to put up with – remarkably polite. They can be stilted at times, but in the natural sort of way you might expect wealthy prodigies to be stilted, and there’s something charming about them.

There’s a story here, too, but not much of one. I can usually enjoy the repetitivity of the humor, and always forgive it, but the repetitivity of the plot is another matter. Virtually every adult is malicious, dense, or both, and this allows the series to spin pointlessly through several reiterations of the same storyline. Villain employs laughable stratagem to get the children. Clueless adult falls for it. Children avert total disaster at the last minute. Villain employs laughable stratagem to get the children. Clueless adult falls for it. Children avert total disaster at the last minute. Stop me if you’ve heard this one. Villain employs …

A Series Of Unfortunate Events

The last episode suggests that the series may be breaking out of this cycle. I worry, however, that it will be crippled by a more fundamental flaw. You see, A Series of Unfortunate Events lacks heart. Sometimes it lapses into genuine drama, with ensuing moments of pathos, and there is poignancy in how fast the siblings hold on to each other. But all this seems almost beside the point – and in truth, if the show took Olaf and his schemes any more seriously than it does, it would be too dark. A disconnect exists in this series, and there’s no heart strong enough to unite it in meaning and emotion.

Despite this lack, A Series of Unfortunate Events has its virtues. It can be visually interesting, in spite of the overabundance of grey. It is sometimes fun, often delightfully absurd, and on rare occasions, moving. The cleverness and the humor are abundant, and who knows? We are only eight episodes in; the best may yet be ahead.

Review: The Napoleon of Notting Hill

In a drear future – or, we may say, a drear past that never was – democracy in England died. England sank into a dull despotism. Its army and police almost vanished; its King was chosen out of alphabetical lists. “No one cared how: no one cared who. He was merely a universal secretary.”

In a system like this, anybody could become King. And anybody did.

Auberon Quin was a man who cared for only one thing: a joke. As a private citizen, he made a fool of himself for his own amusement. As a king, he still made a fool of himself, but he quickly branched out to making fools of other people, too. He instituted the Charter of the Cities, making each municipality of London a sovereign city and imposing on them an absurd glory. Each city had its own guard, its assigned colors and heraldry. Each had a Lord High Provost, who could not put a letter in a mail-box without five heralds proclaiming the fact with trumpets.

For ten years, the businessmen and bureaucrats endured the robes and trumpets and heralds. Then the farce was interrupted by a lunatic, who mistook the whole thing for a drama and wanted to turn it into an epic.

The Napoleon of Notting Hill was written by G. K. Chesterton and published in 1904. After a satiric prologue about the game Cheat the Prophet, the narrator sets the story “eighty years after the present date.” This adds up to 1984, and the colorless, moribund England of Notting Hill, languishing in a world made ever more uniform by imperialism, would have been dystopia to Chesterton. So this is another English novel presenting a dystopian 1984, but of quite another flavor.

Like all Chesterton novels, Notting Hill is written in omniscient style; the narrator is practically a character, and that character is G. K. Chesterton. A brief sample: “In the beginning of the twentieth century you could not see the ground for clever men. They were so common that a stupid man was quite exceptional, and when they found him, they followed him in crowds down the street and treasured him up and gave him some high post in the State.”

In humor, social criticism, spiritual opinions, and the well-used paradox, whole passages of Chesterton’s fiction are indistinguishable from his nonfiction. There’s a rambling quality to Notting Hill sometimes, and the long paragraphs of dialogue often serve Chesterton’s ideas more than his plot. Still, this book stands out as one of the most disciplined of Chesterton’s novels.

As obvious as Chesterton was in expressing his opinions through the pages of his novels, he also managed one of the most subtle interweaving of theme and plot that I have ever seen. The main theme of The Napoleon of Notting Hill is patriotism, but it takes until the very end of the book to see how the plot cross-examines the idea of loving your country. Notting Hill becomes a nation in microcosm, passing through in twenty years what takes real nations centuries, and new turns in the story present new arguments against patriotism. The slaughter at the end of the novel, uncharacteristic and startling, offers the most final argument.

Although a dystopian of a sort, and set far in the future of its writing, Notting Hill is an unusual specimen of speculative fiction. Neither technology nor magic has any real place in its world, which is the London of 1904 draped with medieval glory. The English government is altered in a few, somewhat metaphysical paragraphs in order to make the creation of Notting Hill possible. But there’s no menace to it, just plenty of room for absurdity. Big Brother is not listening.

notting hill 2Still, Notting Hill shares one great commonality with many better-known works of speculative fiction: It explores the present through the future. The glory of speculative fiction is that it is, more than other popular genres, about ideas, and Notting Hill is about nothing if not an idea.

The Napoleon of Notting Hill overflows with humor and depth. The characters are large as life and enjoyable, though they seem sometimes to be embodiments of different philosophies as much as people. The plot is very good – quick, unexpected, lively. “Two Voices” – the novel’s closing chapter, and its climax – is a masterpiece, the full meaning of the story bursting forth in an evocative and fascinating scene. And Chesterton not only considers the worth and meaning of patriotism, but gives voice to its heart, ringing in the words of Adam Wayne: “I have a city. Let it stand or fall.”

Review: Power Elements of Character Development

What is it that makes a sympathetic hero, a compelling villain, a persuasive and realistic character? I can sum it up for you in one golden word. But you really should read the book for yourself.

Power Elements of Character Development is the second book in the Power Elements of Fiction series, written by Rebecca LuElla Miller. Some time ago I read and reviewed the first book, Power Elements of Story Structure, and I knew then that I wanted to read this one, too. Characters are my favorite part of stories, and I am a writer. I knew I’d enjoy this book about writing characters.

Power Elements of Character Development is only 138 pages long, but it is divided into 45 chapters, plus an introduction and a conclusion. These chapters organize the book effectively, moving easily over many different facets of characters, their creation, and their overall place in fiction. Minor characters, dialogue, inner conflict, antagonists, character arcs, character death, and what qualities make characters memorable or compelling are all considered.

Most importantly of all, this book emphasizes that characters should drive the story rather than be driven by it, and their actions must, in turn, be driven by – and this is the golden word – motivation. It may be a beginner’s lesson that characters shouldn’t be passive, but even experienced writers can get lost in the blurred distinction between an active character and a reactive one. A character can be very active in his reactions, especially if what he’s reacting to involves live ammunition, but heroes should do more than just respond, and I appreciate how clearly this is established.

I found the emphasis on motivation invaluable, and how it must be present not only as the story’s end goal (what the character ultimately wants) but also as every scene’s purpose (what he is trying to do right now). The insight regarding motivation helps to focus plots and scenes and characters, a prevention and cure of writer’s block.

I enjoyed Power Elements of Character Development as a lucid, concise, broad-ranging review of the creation, use, and role of characters. Its points, especially about motivation, help me to focus and evaluate my own writing. Recommended to writers of all stripes.

 

I invite you to check out Power Elements of Character Development on Goodreads and Amazon, and I highly recommend you visit Becky Miller’s writing blog Rewrite, Reword, Rework.

Review: Rogue One

Rogue One needs no introduction, so I won’t make one. This review, however, requires an emphatic spoiler warning. So:

spoilers

SPOILERS

SPOILERS

SPOILER ZONE. ABANDON HOPE, ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE.

Now to the review.

Rogue rogue oneOne is Disney’s first half-step beyond the traditional Star Wars trilogies. It’s a Star Wars story rather than an episode and officially outside the main arc, but it’s so closely bound to A New Hope it’s practically the prologue. If the praise is not too faint, Rogue One is the most epic prologue ever made.

There is an inherent dramatic difficulty in making a movie whose end everyone knows (they get the plans), but the makers acquit themselves well. To some extent, Rogue One is Disney retconning George Lucas. But it’s a creative and convincing retcon, and it brings a level of freshness to the story. The decision to star a new cast of protagonists and a new villain created a wealth of potential because A New Hope doesn’t dictate what happens to them – and the filmmakers mine that potential to its limits.

Rogue One is the first Star Wars movie without a Jedi in sight, and that creates another dramatic challenge. The makers attempt to meet the challenge with the warrior-mystic Chirrut Imwe, who succeeds in sustaining the presence of the Force in the absence of the Jedi. Although evidently not a Jedi, Chirrut exhibits Jedi-like traits – an intriguing idea that goes exactly nowhere, because the movie leaves him unexplored and unexplained. Possibly he belongs to a different Force-order. Possibly he’s a freelancer. Maybe he’s not even Force-sensitive. It’s not in the movie.

If Rogue One fails to take the idea of the Force anywhere new, it does present a whole new view of the Rebel Alliance. The Alliance’s plan to assassinate the Death Star’s intellectual architect raises an intriguing moral dilemma, and if the idea is unsavory, it’s still impossible to regard the intended victim as innocent.

Oddly enough, the Alliance’s assassination plot is more forgivable than its ruthless manipulation of Jyn into aiding the killing of her own father. Indeed, the portrayal of the Alliance is surprisingly dark, with little sense of higher ideals or aspirations to relieve it. Cassian, the principal Rebel character, brutally murders his own informant. The Rebels who ally with Jyn are declared to have done terrible things in their fight against the Empire. The Alliance’s leadership rejects a chance to destroy the Death Star through cowardice and sheer stupidity. The sad truth is that Rogue One goes rogue against the Rebel Alliance.

Rogue One’s primary failing is that it takes too little interest in its own characters. All of them suffer some degree of neglect. Cassian is the most developed of the lot, by virtue of having a cause and experiencing inner conflict, but he’s also a joyless character, consumed by a crusade against the Empire for reasons that are only hinted at. Why the ex-Imperial pilot defected from the Empire is a mystery, as is why he volunteered for the desperate last mission. Similarly, Chirrut and his friend, what’s-his-name – you know who I mean, the one with the fancy gun – intervene once and then just sort of tag along for the rest of the movie.

But no one is more neglected than Jyn, the main protoganist of the film. Rogue One can’t be bothered to invest in her the sort of quiet moments with which other Star Wars movies introduce their heroes – think of Luke playing with his toy ship or looking at the setting suns, or the brief shots of Rey’s handmade pilot doll and wall of marked-off days. It’s not even interested when Jyn makes decisions crucial to the plot. In the first half of the movie, Jyn disavows any interest in fighting the Empire, blames the Rebel cause for her suffering, and likens Cassian to a stormtrooper – indeed, this is the surest sign that she disapproves of the Empire: she compares Rebels to stormtroopers. And then suddenly she’s talking more Rebel than the Rebels and giving rallying speeches against the Empire.

Did she believe those speeches, despite blaming the Rebels for her father’s death so shortly before? Did she believe that the Imperial flag doesn’t bother you if you don’t look up, despite being orphaned by the Imperials? Who knows?

Rogue One is above all an action movie, and as it rushes from one action sequence to another, it seems hardly to care why its characters fight so long as they do. The characters are lost in the parade of explosions and firefights, and I think the meaning is, too.

And then, in the climax, it’s found. It’s ironic that the film waits until the penultimate action sequence to slow down and give the characters their moments, but every second is welcome. The end of Rogue One is fantastic, leading brilliantly into A New Hope and imbuing the fight and the sacrifice with meaning. Tarkin’s final use of the Death Star offends logic, but it also gives the villain’s end a kind of horrifying justice I’ve never seen any other story achieve.

No review of Rogue One would be complete without praising K-2SO and how masterfully he is used for humor, or without noting that every moment of Darth Vader’s presence is pure win. Rogue One’s frenetic pace crowds out too many quiet moments and too much thoughtfulness, and the absence of the Jedi and tarnishing of the Rebellion feel like losses. It doesn’t capture the Star Wars magic, but Rogue One is a skillful sci-fi action movie that possesses its own gleams of greatness.

Movie Review: Small One

You’ve all heard of a boy and his dog. This is the story of a boy and his donkey. It’s an old, mangy donkey, tattered ears and scruffy fur, but in his eyes it’s good enough for a king’s stable. He loves it, you see.

But his father tells him they must sell it, because it’s too old to earn its keep and they can’t afford an animal that doesn’t. So the boy takes his donkey to town, trying to find a good man who will buy it.

A good man is hard to find. “Small One, Small One, Small One for sale,” the boy sings. “One piece of silver – Small One for sale.”

Comes the answer: “No, no, little boy, I will not buy!” And those are the nice people.

Small One, one of the movies of my childhood, is a simple and sweet film. The run-time is 26 minutes, and I think the only character whose name we know is the donkey’s. This does not feel like a lack (though it can make review-writing a bit awkward). The story does not need names. It’s too directly human, engaging the heart in broad plainness.

The animation is old-fashioned and charming. There are lovely touches – moonlight falling into the stable, golden clouds in a pale blue sky, the illustrations that formed the background of the credits. There are clever touches – the forbidding atmosphere of the tanner’s shop, silhouettes seen through colored tent curtains, the soldier who seems, as the boy looks up at him, seven feet tall.

So with the music. From the tender song in the credits, to the plaintive chorus, “Small One for sale,” there is a great deal of loveliness here. There is also a good dose of cleverness in the bankers’ song. “Clink clink, clank clank, give your money to the bank, telling little stories you can trust” – as they shift their eyes so slyly.

Small One is a children’s story artfully told. That’s why its maturity surprised me. The father tells his boy that Small One must be sold. There’s no rebellion, no escape. The happy ending that the film seeks is that the boy will be able to sell his donkey to a kind man. We never doubt how much he loves Small One; that love drives him to the end of the story – in trying to find a good home for Small One, not in trying to keep him.

The end is beautiful. Softly, lightly, it steps into the radiance of Christmas. We see the stranger who buys Small One … a glimpse of travelers on the road … the stable and the Star of Bethlehem, its long rays a shining Cross between heaven and earth.

And you begin to feel that everything is more than all right in the end; it is right. As they sing in the credits, and again as the Cross stands in the sky: “There’s a place for each small one – God planned it that way.”

Movie Review: Tarzan

The foundling raised by animals in the wilderness is an immemorial idea. A couple weeks ago I reviewed a movie about one of the most famous of these foundlings: Mowgli, raised by wolves in the jungle. Today I will review another movie, this one about another foundling of almost equal fame: Tarzan.

Disney released its animated version of Tarzan in 1999, on the dying wave of the Disney Renaissance. After the wave crashed, Disney languished in cheap, lusterless sequels for a decade; as it crested, it released celebrated films such as Aladdin and The Lion King. In between, Disney released more experimental, and now largely forgotten, films – Atlantis, Treasure Planet, and, of course, Tarzan.

Tarzan is the least experimental of the three. It’s a departure from classic fairy tales, but still fantasy, unlike the sci-fi incursions Atlantis and Treasure Planet. The Disney formula of orphaned hero, boy-meets-girl, and animal sidekicks is intact. Variations are evident, however. Tarzan is an unlikely hero, his character made up of two divergent halves – one the epitome of physical strength and skill, the other naive and imitative in the most childlike way. The lively Jane, with her scientific interest and artistic bent, is an unusual heroine, neither too timid to slap Tarzan nor too proud to demand his help.

The music follows a similar pattern. Tarzan features the classic Disney spate of songs, hurrying the story along and encapsulating character motivations. Phil Collins, writing the songs, provides a departure of style. The lyrics are written from the viewpoint of various characters but sung by one outside singer – a technique curiously reminiscent of the songs in Toy Story. The music may well be the highest-quality element in the movie, although the stellar animation of Tarzan’s physical agility and ape-like mannerisms comes close.

Tarzan is strongest in its lighthearted moments; when the movie wants to be entertaining, it is. It stumbles when it tries to be dramatic. Tarzan’s adoption by the gorillas, and Clayton’s trickery, are competent and more. But outside of these and a few other moments, the drama fails to be convincing.

A great deal of this failure springs from Clayton, who manages to be, as the story’s villain, both over-the-top and underachieving. He is so obviously bad you wonder how Jane and her father ever got mixed up with him in the first place. On the other hand, his ambitions aren’t scary, or even particularly impressive. He wants to capture some gorillas alive! Only two of whom we have, as the audience, any reason to care about anyway! Remember when Disney villains plotted spectacular revenge and to take over kingdoms and control powerful magic and fun things like that?

The film is also unconvincing in answering the question it sets itself regarding Tarzan’s nature and place in the world. It comes too quickly, with too little reflection and reckoning. This disappoints me because the question was so interesting. It is, however, the movie’s lesser failure.

Despite the film’s stumbles, Tarzan is a fun romp with two or three musical numbers that are good almost to the point of being addictive. Unlike Tangled and Beauty and the Beast, it may not stand up to a thousand viewings, but it is certainly worth at least one.

 

Postscript: About that music … It’s been in my head.

Now it can be in yours.

 

Review: Imbeciles

See if you can follow this chain of logic. Human defects – mental, physical, and moral – are carried through heredity. In order to eliminate these defects from the human race, the genes that cause them must be eliminated from the gene pool. In order to eliminate such bad genes, the carriers of those genes – that is, people – must be eliminated from the gene pool. To put it simply, the defective must not reproduce.

There are three ways to ensure that the defective do not pass on their genes and so continue to drag down humanity with the unfit. The first is to segregate them in institutions where they will not have the opportunity to reproduce. The second is to sterilize them. The third is wholesale slaughter. Which door do you choose to enter a brave, new world?

Eugenicists chose door number two, mass, forced sterilization of people deemed unfit by the powers that be.

All this sounds like science fiction, but in sad truth, it’s history – American history. In Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck, Adam Cohen tells the nearly-forgotten story of eugenics in America. He focuses his account on the Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell, which challenged Virginia’s eugenic sterilization law. 

Cohen tells the story of eugenics through Buck v. Bell, and he tells the story of Buck v. Bell through its major figures. Each chapter of the book is named after one of them: Carrie Buck, the victim; Dr. Albert Priddy, superintendent of Virginia’s Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded; Harry Laughlin, head of the Eugenics Record Office and leading advocate of eugenic sterilization; Aubrey Strode, the lawyer who wrote Virginia’s eugenic sterilization law and defended it up to the Supreme Court; and Oliver Wendell Holmes, the famed Supreme Court justice who coined the epigram from which the book’s title is taken: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

This book is structured almost like a series of biographical essays, as the author reaches back into the life-stories of the players in Buck v. Bell and tries to define their motivations. The great strength of this structure is that it makes the book accessible, easy to read, and focused on the individual, human side of the drama. As a way of relating the history of American eugenics, it works surprisingly well, at least in the earlier chapters. The careers of prominent eugenicists like Albert Priddy and Harry Laughlin dovetail nicely with the story of eugenics in America.

The chapter devoted to the lawyer Aubrey Strode is, in this respect, more uneven. Much of it is relevant to the book’s topic, but the author wanders on side trails that are not. It is even worse with Oliver Wendell Holmes. The author is clearly fascinated with Holmes’ background as a Boston Brahmin and whether or not he can be rightly regarded as a liberal judge. No doubt some readers will be as well. But these things, which take up page after page of Imbeciles, have nothing to do with eugenics.

Indeed, it is difficult to justify Holmes’ inclusion in the book purely on the book’s proclaimed subjects. Holmes’ life crossed the eugenics movement in no significant way until Buck v. Bell, and even in Buck v. Bell, his importance is minimal. True, he wrote the majority opinion and made it clever, sharply expressed, and cruel. But although he expressed the Court’s decision, there is no reason to believe he had any special role in making it. The author speculates on how he may have influenced his fellow judges, but there is no evidence that he actually did. The Supreme Court decision in Buck v. Bell was 8-1. Oliver Wendell Holmes was just another vote in an overwhelming majority.

Although Imbeciles lost focus in evaluating the life and career of Oliver Wendell Holmes, it remains a highly informative book on a fascinating, neglected piece of American history. It is also skillfully written, being lucid and articulate without being showy. The information is, moreover, well-chosen and well-presented, and the sources are varied and reliable. I highly recommend Imbeciles to all lovers of history.