15 June 2013

DISNEY SEQUELS: NOT JUST ONE MORE SILK IN DADDY'S CARAVAN

Really, how is anybody supposed to cope with something titled Disney Princess Enchanted Tales: Follow Your Dreams? It sounds like the direct translation from the Japanese of an anime series that finds the Disney Princesses joining forces to fight their robot doppelgangers on a floating island in outer space. Or at least like Disney's long-forgotten attempt to break into East German children's entertainment.

What is actually is, is the first in an aborted attempt to create a new series of cheap-even-by-the-standards-of-cheapquels videos in which short stories about the various princesses from the Disney canon were paired according to some thematic overlap. It was, depending on which rumor you pick, the specific project that so appalled John Lasseter that, almost immediately after being appointed Chief Creative Officer over all animated products released by the Walt Disney Company, immediately halted any and all DisneyToon Studios sequel projects that weren't too far along to prevent (and for this reason we were spared Dumbo 2, Pinocchio 2, Chicken Fucking Little 2, among others), and arranging for DisneyToon President Sharon Morrill to be knocked down from her position, a move that at the time seemed like good damn artistic sense, but now has a somewhat unfortunate "Lasseter doesn't like women with creative authority" tang to it.

Anyway, this left the poor little orphan with its ghastly-ass title - DPETFYD? Now it just looks like a Latin alphabet transliteration of a Soviet farming bureau - and no other Enchanted Tales to teach all our little girlchildren largely useless moral lessons about how gosh-darn hard it is to go princessing all the time, no matter what the honey-voiced narrator (Susanne Blakeslee) promised at the end, even showing flashes of other Princess adventures as the book flipped shut.

Let us restore a bit of its dignity, and simply call it Follow Your Princess Dreams (a big of its dignity. Not all of it), and further point out that the lessons being taught are so very close to "follow your dreams" that I'm almost willing to let that title slide; but it's actually more like, "when you have been assigned a job and doing it well will prove your worth to the authoritarian male who controls all aspects of your life, do that job as best you can, and never give up or take the easy route". But hey, the princesses are under the impression that this is empowering, so let's not spoil things for them.

The film is a blessedly quick 56 minutes, and when we take out the end credits, that leaves almost exactly 25 minutes for each of the stories, which being with freakish expediency once you hit the DVD "play" button, the dialogue of the movie proper literally overlapping with the DVD menu dashing out of sight. The first of these episode-length stories finds one of just two un-sequeled princess (as of 2007) finally getting a story to expand her narrative universe: hooray, it's Princess Aurora (Erin Torpey)! ...Aurora, you know. Aurora. The princess from Sleeping Beauty. Yes, yes, I know that she was only, like, the seventh-most important character in her own movie, and even at 25 minutes, a sequel would be better-served by sticking around the festering remains of Maleficent-Dragon's corpse than pretending that anybody gives a tenth of a fuck about a character whose first and last lines of dialogue are separated by something like a quarter of an hour of screentime, and whose introductory feature is famously "the gorgeous but chilly one that nobody liked best as a child". But she's so eager to tell us her story, with her insistent, serial killer grin, rampaging right on through the fourth wall.

Also, not that I want to be a lookist about a cartoon character, but seriously? Girl's got herself one hell of a lazy eye.


(Also, she looks better in blue, but that battle was lost long before this DVD).

Aurora's story, "Keys to the Kingdom" (named for a terrible, terrible song by Amy Powers and Russ DeSalvo, in which she brags about being in charge of everything with a peasant chorus line), is about that one time that her father, King Stefan (Corey Burton), left her in charge of the kingdom while he and his kingly buddy King Hubert (Jeff Bennett, who voiced a truly massive number of characters in this double-feature) and Aurora's... husband? fiancé? Prince Phillip (Roger Craig Smith) are all attending the kings' conference. Conference, cross my heart, is the actual word that's used. So the princess, aided by an impenetrably nervous Duke (Bennett), gets to carving her way through a stack of paperwork, but when her attempts to solve all the problems of the kingdom's commoners starts to bog down, she decides that it wouldn't hurt to just use a little of the magic wand that the good fairy Merriweather (Tress MacNeille, who sounds like she's doing a John Fiedler impression) left when Aurora sent the three fairies on a mission. Because sure, send the fairies packing. All the better to make it absolutely clear that this is the Aurora Show.

The magic backfires, of course, but Aurora is able to quickly right things before anybody ends up finding her out and getting disappointed, because there must not be even a smidgen of dramatic conflict in either of these stories.

Oh, I give "Keys to the Kingdom" shit, but you know what's the absolute best part of Follow Your Princess Dreams? Too short to get bored. Almost nothing "happens" in the Aurora short, and most of what does happen doesn't have any kind of ramifications, but honestly, 25 minutes isn't even enough to get over the novelty of seeing the famously sharp, angular designs from one of Disney's most stylistically aggressive movies being copied by an animation studio trained to exactly mimic the much softer, rounder style of Disney's 1990s output. It never stops being a little bit horrifying, but for the same reason, it never settles in, and the sequence as a whole zips by quite readily. Even with the weird decision to make the realisation of princess life consist primarily of bureaucratic chores, which itself is still more weird than boring.

Not quite as good, where "good" means "so weird that it has its own magnetism": "More than a Peacock Princess", also named for a Powers/DeSalvo song, that's at least a bit more flavorful, given its troubling Orientalist orchestration. "Peacock Princess", you see, is the story of Princess Jasmine (Linda Larkin) from Aladdin, who unlike Aurora, had been extensively depicted in the 15 years separating her first feature from Follow Your Princess Dreams: the first-ever Disney DTV sequel, The Return of Jafar, as well as another sequel and a sequel TV series. You might suppose that this means that there are really no groundbreaking Jasmine stories left to tell, and in this, you would be almost entirely correct. The groundbreaking part, I guess, is that "Peacock Princess" decides that there's no functional difference between Abbasid Baghdad and 21st Century Europe's tourism monarchies, and opens up by showing how Jasmine is getting sick and tired of waving from parades, opening shops, and presenting camels at trade shows. Which, okay, anachronistic humor, but that was never the Aladdin franchise's shtick, it was the Genie's shtick specifically (who, like Aladdin, makes not so much as a cameo appearance). I'd expect this from a Hercules spin-off, not an Aladdin one. Also: camel trade shows? So princess are now cheap models in addition to heads of state?

The point, anyway, is that Jasmine wants more responsibility, so her father, the Sultan (Bennett) puts her in charge of the local school. This proves so daunting that she nearly bails after one day, but wakes up the next morning to realise the value of responsibility, launching herself into sticking with it - hey, just like Princess Aurora! - and going back to the task that she knows needs doing-

-rescuing her father's prize stallion from the desert, after Abu the monkey accidentally lets him free.

It's not that monstrous a shift; the schoolroom comes back at the end. But there's a disconnect between the story that "Peacock Princess" shapes itself to tell and the one that it actually tells, and it never seems like the actual narrative is that much more interesting than the one that's abandoned (in fact, I'd be inclined to suppose that it's exactly the opposite).

Still, the bit where Jasmine must find and tame a pissed-off horse is distinctly more incident-filled and exciting than Aurora's inability to phrase simple instructions for a magic wand, and it also ends with the awesome moment that visually implies that Jasmine and the horse are about to make beautiful love.

It's also, honestly, not that bad looking: the animation is incredibly cheap, a rude awakening after the general rise in quality of the DisneyToon Studios films, but there's nothing as eye-watering as "Keys to the Kingdom", and for the first time in all of these damn Aladdin sequels, Jasmine actually looks halfway decent, and not like a Lovecraftian death's head. As this Disney sequels marathon draws to an end, might I remind you of where we began?

Jasmine looks downright acceptable here, compared to that nightmare, even when she's meant to look bad, like when she's wearing the terrifying green outfit that gives the story its title.

By no means is Follow Your Princess Dreams representative of animation at its best, or even at its relatively tolerable - not even for DisneyToon. It's still strangely video-quality; for the first time in a couple of years or more, I get the definite impression that none of it was animated on the ones, a cost-saving measure that makes things look stiffer that DisneyToon had largely moved away from as its films were more and more successful.

But still, I cannot entirely hate this dreadful little cast-off. It's too short; it's too ebulliently random; and it might very well be the reason that the Disney sequels were finally strangled to death. How can you not feel warmly inclined towards that?

I was totally not kidding about the DVD menus.

2 comments:

Andrew Testerman said...

I'm glad Jennifer Lee has moved up to co-director of Frozen, especially after that business with Brenda Chapman. Hopefully she can help make Disney less of a boy's club, or at least further improve depiction of the studio's female characters.

Regular GeoX said...

Man, Tim, you were on fire when you wrote this. "Now it just looks like a Latin alphabet transliteration of a Soviet farming bureau" is one of the best things ever.