If You Had the Chance to Change Merida’s Design…Would Ya?

Apparently, Disney would.  This was my reaction, more or less:

I only just found out about the newest Princess controversy that has emerged, just as I was inwardly celebrating Merida’s coronation into the Disney Princess Club.  The Disney Company decided to change Merida’s look when they featured her on Disney Princess merchandise.  Here is the picture that causing rage amongst feminists, Brave fans, and plain old Disney fans:

Found on Yahoo! Shine, although it's showing up on plenty of Disney-related sites

Found on Yahoo! Shine, although it’s showing up on plenty of Disney-related sites

Every time I look at her new appearance, I feel so frustrated and confused.  Why was this necessary?  She’s actually not the only Princess subjected to this; they’ve all been “upgraded” to look even more glamourous and sparkly than before.  But it’s so weird to see this happen to Merida because her character wanted no part in sparkly dresses or makeup.  Yeah, it looks like she’s wearing makeup.  There’s nothing wrong with makeup and pretty dresses, but not every girl likes those things, and Merida certainly doesn’t, so why do the people behind Disney merchandising pretend that she does?  The company’s official response to the criticisms doesn’t make any sense if you’ve seen Brave:

“Merida exemplifies what it means to be a Disney Princess through being brave, passionate, and confident and she remains the same strong and determined Merida from the movie whose inner qualities have inspired moms and daughters around the world.” (Yahoo! Shine, http://shine.yahoo.com/parenting/disney-princess-makeover-sparks-outrage–merida-petition-goes-viral-175251230.html)

The “strong and determined Merida from the movie” ripped her pretty dress so that she could hit the targets with her arrow better, and she made it clear to her mother that she hated wearing it.  Somehow, I can’t imagine that Merida striking this new pose.

Many fans are upset and worried that this redesign will hurt little girls’ self-esteem.  Others scoff and say, “It’s a cartoon.  If you’re letting fictional characters be role models for your children, something is wrong with your parenting decisions.”  I have to say, no, there isn’t.  Even if parents are strict about what their own children watch, they can’t parent every child.  Kids will still interact with other kids who are allowed to play with Bratz dolls or watch Disney movies and dress in those sparkly gowns.  They may still go over to a friend’s house and find out that that kid gets to play M-rated games on his older brother or sister’s Playstation 3.  Worse- from the parent’s point of view- they may see all these things and think, “This is great!  My parents don’t know what they’re talking about!” or they’ll seek out those things because they’re forbidden for whatever reason.  That doesn’t mean that parents shouldn’t restrict materials that they consider harmful for their children.  That’s a good thing; it shows responsibility (though I’m personally going to raise any future children on a steady diet of Disney movies).  I just don’t think it’s fair to criticize parents for reacting this way to Merida.  They want to instill good values in their children and they’re legitimately upset because the rest of the world isn’t helping them.

Furthermore, I don’t think most kids look at super-skinny Barbie and think, “I need to be just like her; I must start dieting!”  It’s not that obvious.  I think this sort of thing is more subconcious; as we get older, we are still told that blonde hair, blue eyes, and an hourglass figure are the epitome of beauty, and that beauty gets you wonderful things: an equally attractive man, money, a fancy car, a high-profile career, etc.  That’s the thing: it is not fair to blame Disney for everything when they are part of a much bigger view of the world.  The Disney Princesses are extraordinarily beautiful.  Barbie is extraordinarily beautiful.  High-profile singers, actresses, and models are extraordinarily beautiful.  Magazines give up tips on how to look more beautiful than we already do.  And when a character isn’t beautiful, like Quasimodo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, or in a non-Disney example, ogre!Fiona in Shrek, it is made to be a big deal.  “You’re beautiful just the way you are!” the world insists- through the mouths of beautiful people.

That said, when I was growing up, I never really cared about how I looked.  When I started reading feminist critiques of Disney Princesses, I wondered why that was, because I had lived and breathed Disney, and I still love it today.  My favorite female characters are Mulan and Cinderella.  But I’ve never had any issues with my body or worried about what clothes I was wearing.  There are probably several reasons for this: 1) when I was growing up “Disney Princess” didn’t exist; it was just the girls in their movies, and the movies themselves have very positive messages and focus on who the girls are, not how they look (heck, for Snow White, her beauty put her in danger!), 2) I had other interests besides Disney: Beanie Babies, American Girl, etc. and 3) I was already bullied for being shy and weird, so I didn’t see how a pretty dress would change things.  But most of all, I had God.  Every day I went to Catholic school and I learned that God would always judge us on how we treated other people and He didn’t care at all about how we looked.  Heck, He made us the way we are, so He must’ve liked the way we looked just fine.  So I shrugged my shoulders and thought, “Fine, it’s not important.”

But that was me.  Other girls have different experiences or may see things differently than I do.  Maybe they have heard that loving message, but it’s hard to accept when the rest of the world is screaming the opposite.  And why not celebrate beauty?  Looking beautiful is nice.

It’s just that there are other things that are much more important, and by glamorizing Merida’s appearance, Disney is denying that her inner qualities have any value.  If it’s really not such a big deal, then why did they have to change how she looks?  No, I don’t think Merida alone could change our perceptions of beauty with her wild red hair and beloved bow.  But she provided a good change of pace, just as Lilo and Nani’s realistic character designs did, and the way Tiana, Pocahontas, Jasmine, and Mulan’s non-Caucasian ethnicities did.  Again, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with Cinderella’s blonde hair and blue eyes.  She is beautiful.  But so is Tiana, and so is Kida, and so are Esmeralda, Vanellope, Lilo, Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather, Kairi, Mulan, the Muses…you get the idea.  I think what little girls really need is some more balance and need to be shown more diverse examples of what makes someone beautiful.  And it can’t be shoved in their faces either, because when you constantly tell kids, “Look!  She’s overweight, but she’s STILL beautiful!” or “Look!  She doesn’t have pale skin, but she’s STILL beautiful!” or “Look!  Merida’s hair is wild and tangled but she’s STILL beautiful,” the more it is said that somebody is “still” beautiful, there’s a risk of reverse psychology setting in- in other words, the fact that you have to tell people that someone is beautiful gives the impression that she really isn’t, and that there will be plenty of people who still find something wrong with her appearance.

Wow, I am so sorry to anyone who’s still reading.  That was an unexpectedly long post, and honestly, I don’t want to bash Disney because I still love those princess movies so much.  I just don’t understand why Merida’s looks had to change, especially when this new look doesn’t reflect her character at all.  And makeup?  Sparkles?  On Merida?  Really?!  It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, and I’m hoping Disney goes back to portraying her as she really is: an athletic girl who loves how untameable her hair is, and whose favorite pastimes are horseback riding and archery.  And while we’re on the subject, leave Pocahontas, Mulan, and Jasmine alone too.  They didn’t have any interest in wearing fancy clothes either, and that should not be a signal to redesign or ignore them.  Remind the world that there’s no one way to look like a princess and that we should all aspire to be loved, not worshipped.

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“Not Another Sequel!” The Good and the Bad in Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World

Time for another long overdue blog post!  School and work have kept me busy, so I haven’t had much time to think about Disney blog posts or write them.  I have the ideas in my head, but actually organizing those ideas and forming coherent, interesting sentences out of them is a whole other story…

On a happier note, I recently got the newest editions of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Mulan for my birthday, because my two favorite Disney movies were released on Blu-Ray on the very same day!  The bad news was that they did not come alone- these special edition DVDs come packaged with The Hunchback of Notre Dame II and Mulan II.  The same has occured with The Lion King, The Rescuers, Pocahontas, etc.  The Cinderella sequels and Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas even got their own special Blu-Ray releases!  This surprises me because those direct-to-video sequels have a horrible reputation among Disney fans (the exception being The Rescuers Down Under, which was released in theaters and considered fairly awesome).  Disney hardly ever acknowledges its films when they aren’t well-received, as seen with The Black Cauldron and Treasure Planet.  So how come they’re now promoting the infamous DTV sequels?

Whatever the reason, I started to think it might be fun to look at some of the sequels again and see where they succeeded (if at all), where they failed, and why they didn’t necessarily meet the standards of the original.  One might feel compelled to point out that these videos were meant to be made with less expenses involved and that’s why the animation looks cheaper, but cheap animation should not reflect on the quality of the story and characters.  It enhances the movie, but it should never replace the movie.

I’ll be starting with Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World.

This is one of the sequels I managed to watch before I decided that I was “too old” for Disney (and what a dark, misguided time that was!).  Now, I mentioned in one of my other posts about Pocahontas that I loved the first movie as a child, so when I found out a few years later that a sequel was coming out, I went nuts.  But watching it confused me- I knew I didn’t like it as much as the first movie, but as a kid, I couldn’t figure out why.

Today…I can honestly say that I don’t hate this movie at all.  I even like it a little, though it doesn’t have the grand epicness of the first film.  I like many of the new characters, including John Rolfe, who is voiced by Billy Zane.  I don’t know how Disney got Billy Zane to play John Rolfe in this sequel, but you will not find me complaining about it. 😉

….

…..

……and…I think he and Pocahontas had some cute romantic chemistry in this movie.  COME AT ME, SHIPPERS!

I apologize to the fans of John Smith and Pocahontas’ romance in the first film.  I just cannot get behind it.  I know it’s just one in a long list of many historical inaccuracies in both films, but I cannot get over the fact that the real Pocahontas was around ten years old when she first met Captain Smith, and he was twenty-seven.  Every time someone seethes on YouTube or IMDb or what have you about “Who cares if they weren’t married for real???  John Smith/Pocahontas 4_EVAH!” I feel like cracking myself over the head with one of the settlers’ shovels.  John Smith and Pocahontas were real people.  Imagine how you’d feel if somebody started writing stories about your fictional love life with a man (or woman) more than half your age?  I’d feel pretty disgusted.  Granted, they’re both dead now, but still.  They don’t even have enough appeal to be a guilty pleasure couple for me.  They had some nice scenes together, but nothing that left me wishing they had been a real couple.  At most, I like them as friends.

Yeah, I'm not feeling it either, Pocahontas.  (Picture found on Disney Wiki)

Yeah, I’m not feeling it either, Pocahontas. (Picture found on Disney Wiki)

But that’s my opinion and it doesn’t appear to be a very popular one around fans of Pocahontas.  Oh well.  My point in bringing all of this up is to explain why I didn’t have the same reaction to this movie that other fans did.  Yes, if you loved the romance between John Smith and Pocahontas, Pocahontas II will upset you.  Otherwise…it’s not a classic movie, but it’s not the worst sequel Disney’s ever made either.

Contrary to what people may think when they hear that the sequel is about Pocahontas’ trip to London and her relationship with John Rolfe, this movie isn’t any more historically accurate than the previous one.  First, Rolfe and Pocahontas had already been married for two years when they came to London and they brought their son, Thomas, with them.  (No, not THAT Thomas! ;))  Their reason for the voyage was different too.  In the movie, Pocahontas travels to England on a diplomatic mission to save her people from being exterminated by Governor Ratcliffe.  In reality, she and her husband came to promote Jamestown and Rolfe’s new tobacco industry.  Rolfe was not an important gentleman that could get direct access to King James; he was just another colonist moving to the New World.  King James didn’t even like him because he hated tobacco.  If you’re interested in the real story, I recommend reading David Price’s Love and Hate in Jamestown.  I just finished reading it myself and it’s fascinating.

But how does Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World hold up as a film?

I think the writers were really trying to make a good movie here, in spite of the downgraded animation and the less memorable songs.  The story has a very good message about respecting other people’s cultures, particularly when Pocahontas ultimately decides to present herself to the king in her regular clothes instead of a ballgown.  Out of context, that sounds like part of a cliched “just be yourself” moral, but it has some extra depth here.  As Pocahontas puts it, “How can they respect my culture if they haven’t seen it?”  Her character (and the real woman) was always shown to be fascinated by the English people, but they never show her the same respect.  She has to bend over backwards to prove to them that she’s “not a savage” because she didn’t have the same upbringing they did, and that’s not fair to her.  I also like that, while Pocahontas technically wasn’t a princess, she’s one of the few Disney Princesses that we actually see taking an active role in politics.  That’s really cool.

Governor Ratcliffe is pretty much the same villain we remember from the first movie, but the stakes are elevated here because A) he comes very close to killing John Smith (twice!) and B) he and Pocahontas have a direct conflict with each other this time around.  I like that too.  Even as he insults her, sneers at her, and treats her with general disdain for allegedly keeping him from his gold, he also goes out of his way to make sure she doesn’t succeed in her mission, which implies that he recognizes and even respects her as a threat to his evil plans.  Her success makes this feel all the more satisfying, though she doesn’t do very much in the final battle except get saved by Smith and Rolfe, unfortunately.

So what IS wrong with Pocahontas II?  Aside from the obvious problem of wrecking a fan-favorite couple, there’s nothing horrible about the new characters and the voice acting is fine too.  John Rolfe is likeable and he’s not a carbon copy of John Smith.  He is a diplomat, not an explorer, and he figures out pretty quickly that he’s in WAY over his head in trying to help forge peace between two radically different cultures, unlike confident Captain Smith.  And while I still have no idea how Disney got the idea to hire Billy Zane for his voice, Zane does a good job playing the adorkable hero for once.

I think the lack of stunning animation and a beautiful score is a big part of the problem, because for numerous Disney fans, those were the saving graces of the original movie.  If you didn’t like the historical inaccuracies, or the characters, or you felt that the love story was dull or the message was too preachy and simplistic, you’re not going to find much relief in the sequel.  Only, in Pocahontas II, the problems one may have had with these movies cannot be hidden behind Alan Menken’s score.  The visuals and the music aren’t bad; they’re just not very memorable.  London isn’t as gorgeous as the Disney version of colonial Virginia, and that may have been a problem for fans too, at least subconciously.  I assume that, in general, people go to see sequels because they want to see a new story set in a familiar environment with familiar faces, and most of the original cast from Pocahontas either makes brief appearances or doesn’t show up at all.  Once Pocahontas, Meeko, Flit, and Percy leave, that’s the end of screentime for Chief Powhatan, Nakoma, and Grandmother Willow.  John Smith is barely present too, and where was Thomas or Wiggins?

With that in mind, and looking ahead, this seems to be one of two problems with bad Disney sequels: either they are too much like their predecessors, or they are too different, and that “different” isn’t better than what fans previously enjoyed.  Compared to some of these other sequels, Pocahontas II definitely isn’t the worst, but it’s not at “Disney classic” levels either.

Let’s Discuss…Disney Couples!

Happy St. Valentine’s Day, everybody!  Today’s discussion will be about…what else?

Who is your favorite Disney couple?

My personal favorite is Tiana/Naveen (of Maldonia) from The Princess and the Frog.  They have a lot of sweet, heartwarming moments together, like just about every Disney couple from the ’90’s onward.  But aside from good chemistry, Tiana and Naveen also demonstrate throughout the story that the more they come to care for each other, the more willing they are to make some pretty big sacrifices for each other.  Some detractors might complain that it’s not good to send a message to kids that they should be willing to throw away their whole lives for one person.  However, unlike, say, the shenanigans that go on in The Twilight Saga, Tiana and Naveen have a good relationship and neither one of them necessarily demands that the other should give up his/her dreams.  They’re willing to do it because they love each other that much.  Honestly, I think if we were all a little bit more willing to let go of our own desires to help other people, the world would be a nicer place.

Anyways, like Beauty and the Beast and Rapunzel and Flynn, these two characters do not start off on the right foot.  Tiana doesn’t want to date anybody; she’s more focused on finally opening up her own restaurant.  Naveen doesn’t want to really settle down either; he’s more focused on being lazy and having fun.  Once they get turned into frogs, they’re still at odds with each other, but like a lot of today’s Disney couples, they go through some misadventures and learn to appreciate each other more.  I like how they both widen each other’s horizons; Tiana by teaching Naveen how to mince mushrooms for her gumbo recipe, and Naveen by helping her learn to dance.  I also love how Naveen minces the food that he makes for her when he’s about to propose- awwww, the first Disney couple with their own inside joke!  Speaking of his hilarious attempt at a proposal, that’s one of the best scenes in the movie:

But then Naveen finds out that unless he marries a rich girl, he won’t be able to help Tiana by giving her the rest of the money she needs to buy her restaurant.  As for Tiana, she realizes that if Naveen marries someone else, she still won’t be completely happy even if she gets her restaurant.  I love the movie’s message that hard work and love are important, and especially that Naveen is willing to give up a life with Tiana if it would make her happy.  We don’t see that message about love shown very often in movies.  We’re usually told that love is about being with somebody no matter what, not “love is being willing to let go of someone if that’s what she needs/wants.”  Of course, everything gets resolved and cleared up in the typical Disney, happy-ending fashion; nonetheless, I really enjoyed watching them get to that resolution.

So, who’s your favorite couple, and why?  Discuss, and have a happy Valentine’s Day!

Musical Monday #29: “If I Never Knew You”

Weird, but true: one of my favorite Disney love songs comes from one of my least favorite Disney couples.

As a kid, I only wanted to watch Pocahontas having fun with Nakoma and the animals in the forest, making new friends through John Smith, and trying to bring about world peace.  The more adult romance flew right under my radar, though it didn’t stop me from enjoying the movie.  Now that I am old enough to appreciate the romance, I still don’t appreciate it, because it’s hard to like a couple based on two historical figures who, as far as we know, didn’t have anything close to a romantic connection.  The real Pocahontas was a little girl when she met the real Captain John Smith.  He was in his thirties.  I know Disney’s Pocahontas is a fictional retelling of the story, but this particular historical inaccuracy still bothers me.  It feels disrespectful to the lives of the real people, moreso than any other inaccuracy in the movie.

On the other hand, their love ballad that got cut from the finished film is beautiful.  I only wish it described the love between two other characters in some other Disney movie.

While I prefer the pop version by Jon Secada and Shanice, here’s the animated version sung by Judy Kuhn and Mel Gibson, which was re-inserted into the movie for its 10th Anniversary DVD release:

You can also hear pieces of an instrumental version woven in and out of Alan Menken’s score throughout the film.  Unfortunately, “If I Never Knew You” had to be cut from the film because it apparently bored the kids in the test audience.  As much as I love this song, I can sympathize; I probably would’ve been squirming in my seat too.  If you grew up in the ’90’s, ask yourself, what was your favorite song in each of the Renaissance films?  “Hakuna Matata?”  “I’ll Make a Man Out of You?”  “Under the Sea?”  “Be Our Guest?”  The villain songs?  My friends and I loved bouncing around to the fun, high-energy songs, and while we did like the love songs too, I don’t think they made a very big impression on us beyond, “Oh, this sounds nice.”  The Disney love ballads are really meant for the teenagers and adults in the audience to enjoy, and I think out of all of them, “If I Never Knew You” is particularly touching and probably should have stayed in the final cut- though that montage of flashbacks looked silly to me.

This song is not like any of the other Disney love ballads, because the other songs’ lyrics describe how happy the two characters feel now that they’ve found each other and how wonderful their love is (i.e. “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?”, “So This Is Love,” “A Whole New World,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “I See the Light,” etc.).  But Pocahontas and John Smith think that they’re about to be separated permanently, and Pocahontas wonders if they would have been better off never meeting at all, so that John would not be in danger of execution.  They’re not singing about how great their lives have become since they met and fell in love.  They’re basically saying, “You know what?  Our people hate each other, one of us is probably going to die because of it, and we’ll never be able to have a happily ever after, but none of that matters.  The time we did spend together was amazing and worth any pain and suffering we have to endure now.  If nothing else, we’ve become better people from knowing each other.”

That is absolutely beautiful.  There are no other words sufficient enough to describe it.  I still don’t like the idea of turning Pocahontas and John Smith’s relationship into a romance, but I love this song.

Let’s Discuss: Pocahontas

Can Pocahontas still be considered a good, enjoyable movie even if it’s historically inaccurate?

Pocahontas was the first movie I saw in theaters that didn’t leave me feeling completely terrified.  (Yeah, I’m looking at you, Lion King and Toy Story!)  Just the opposite in fact; I loved it.  Pocahontas was my heroine and all I wanted to do was pretend to live in the forest with my animal friends and fight off that nasty Governor Radcliffe (and I suppose that was completely missing the point of the movie, but oh well…).  Looking back on my childhood, I went through many little “phases” of loving one Disney (or non-Disney) movie more than any other: Snow White, Cinderella, The Lion King, Anastasia (yes, I am fully aware that’s not a Disney movie), Mulan, etc.  But out of all the animated heroines that I loved, Pocahontas was the one who resonated with me the most.  And I didn’t just put her doll on my Christmas list.  I wanted John Smith, Nakoma, Kocum, Chief Powhatan…everybody.  (Guess I was a die-hard fangirl collector before I even knew what that meant!)

I think that, while I loved animals and playing outside as much as Pocahontas did, part of why I loved her so much had to do with her personality.  Those who don’t like her character sometimes complain that she was just like every other strong, independent ’90’s woman at the time and there wasn’t much more to her than her serious agenda.  But to a shy, introverted little girl like me, Pocahontas was amazing.  She paddled her canoe down waterfalls with no fear!  When John Smith unintentionally insulted her family and called her a savage, she gave him a verbal smackdown!  She faced down two angry opposing armies and stood up for what she believed in!  She was loving and kind, but also strong and brave.  She just radiated confidence, while I was getting less and less adept at that sort of thing.  She was just so cool.

And she smiles a lot more than the promotional materials would have you believe! (Picture found on Disney Wiki)

So, as you’ve probably guessed, the whole issue of Disney’s Pocahontas being very historically inaccurate and offensive to descendants of the Powhatan tribe make me feel very uncomfortable.  My initial opinion was, “But it’s a Disney movie.  It might not be authentic history, but it tells a good story.  So what if they changed a few things?”  Then I checked out the page on Wikipedia and started reading about the criticisms to see just what it was that Native Americans were so upset about.  They had a link to the reaction of the Powhatan nation, and it’s pretty harsh: http://www.powhatan.org/pocc.html   And…I can see their point.

Now, I don’t think the Native Americans come off looking bad in the movie at all.  They’re just trying to protect their home.  When the English settlers first arrive, the tribe smells trouble, but the chief advises that they just observe and see what the newcomers are doing.  It’s Radcliffe that flips out and tells his men to start shooting.  Also, unlike the real John Smith’s account of the “clubbing incident,” the Disney Powhatan comes off more justified in his decision, because he believes that Smith killed one of his best warriors and attacked his daughter.  (Which sort of begs the question: why didn’t Pocahontas tell him what really happened?  That might’ve stopped the execution…)

But the movie does alter and trivialize the real story and ultimately, I think the reason why few people care is because these events happened too long ago.  If the Disney company made an animated musical love story about the terrorist attacks on September 11th and twisted many of the facts to suit the story that they wanted to tell, there’d be a huge uproar, and rightly so.  Those who watch The Nostalgia Critic and his reviews of two horrible animated musicals about the Titanic disaster shudder, laugh, and roll their eyes.  We wonder how those people could’ve had the audacity to turn such a tragic event into a cheesy story in the style of a Saturday morning cartoon, and rightly so.  So why is it any different when it’s a story about the mistreatment of Native Americans who lived many centuries ago?  Because they’re not alive anymore, so they can’t complain about what they experienced?

And yet…unlike those Titanic movies, Pocahontas displays stunning, gorgeous animation and beautiful music.  It’s not subtle, nor is it very factual, but its message of peace and understanding between different cultures is important.  This Pocahontas might not be like her real-life counterpart, but she’s still a fantastic role model for young women and a Disney character that will always have a very special place in my heart.

But enough about my opinion.  What do you think of Pocahontas?  Let’s discuss!