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The Ocean at the End of the Lane? Which Way’s That?

I actually only took one English course as a university student, looking a different devices and systems of narrative. Among other things it gave me a chance to seriously read Frankenstein, watch Citizen Kane, and finally get to grips with some of the disturbing subtexts to be found in fairy tales.

How fairy tales can contain what seem to be inappropriate meanings for what is considered to be the realm of children. Which, of course, must be clean and sweet and harmless at all times.

Having been tipped to this hidden truth, I may be a bit jaded as I tackle works by the man who is, perhaps, the most enthusiastic commentor on the subject.

Neil Gaiman is renowned for dark stories that have a fairy-tale or mythology aspect to them. His Neverwhere and his Stardust are the ones I’m most acquainted with, but I know enough to tell that it is to be encountered in his famous Sandman series, and it should be fairly obvious in the titles of Anansi Boys and American Gods.

And despite his substantial cult following, I’ve never really gotten into Gaiman all that successfully. The movie of Stardust was quite good; Neverwhere in its numerous incarnations fascinating, but the only book of his I’d say I really, really liked was Good Omens, and he cowrote that with Sir Terry Pratchett.

So it was with curiosity and some little trepidation that I embarked on his new book, the Ocean at the End of the Lane.

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A middle-aged man returns to what was once his rural childhood home for a funeral. He returns to the home of the eccentric old ladies, the mother and grandmother of his childhood friend, and tries to recapture the memories of how they saved his life as a boy of seven.

When, as a boy, a suicide takes place in a slice of rural England, our seven-year-old, befriending the girl Lettie, stumbles onto the ugly force of petulance and anger that is cut loose and begins perverting the family and life of our young protagonist.

You’ll notice that I don’t mention the young whippersnapper’s name. That’s because he doesn’t clearly get one (although it might be George). The book is written from a first person perspective, which as I’ve said before, I find difficult to follow.

In this case, the problem is exacerbated by the plot itself. It’s structured as an innocence-to-experience story. I’d have thought, though, that to tell that kind of a story, you have to start from the point of sweetness and light and work your way from there. Even Lyra in the Golden Compass relishes her admittedly unusual life before her story kicks off.

Our hero, whom I will continue to call George, meanwhile, exists, in his adult and child states, in what seems to me a profound state of alienation. He comes across (intentionally, I think) as seriously depressed, his parents as oblivious. He likes sitting alone reading books, an archetype Gaiman and I can both appreciate. But the psychology surrounding this behaviour seems so bleak and dreary that after the first few chapters I felt like I was reading a parody of classic Canadian literature. The switch as things start to go seriously wrong doesn’t carry as much impact because from his perspective it doesn’t come across as much more than a ramping up from Standard Operating Procedure.

Once the supernatural side really kicked in I got on board, though. The entity that begins working its bizarre mischief on the community exists someplace between the capricious fair folk of myth and a Lovecraftian abomination. The mysterious three women evoke the Weird Sisters of MacBeth, Granny, Nanny and Magrat from Discworld and Doctor Who in equal measure. George’s inquisitive nature and his nobility and child’s moral centre serve him well and also teach him harsh lessons.

I don’t know whether I just didn’t get it the first time, or if Gaiman is playing to a set of archetypes and ideas I’m not familiar with, or if he’s just that clever, but he points out the convention in the text that a story is defined by how it changes the protagonist. He then goes on, to my perplexity, to point out that our hero hasn’t changed much. In fact, in the frame narrative, he seems to have trouble even remembering any of it. He’s just disconnected. It’s also worth noting that most of the story consists of him being led around by his supernatural friend and being the object of the contest between good and evil. The result is that he doesn’t actually do very much.

Maybe that’s the point: as a seven year old, he’s too young for any of this. When confronted with an actual fairy-tale crisis he’s totally out of his depth, unable to comprehend anything and unable to process it in later life, nor can he understand people to any degree of depth. He’s just foam on the raging ocean of life. Still, it does make for an awfully dreary and confusing read when our character starts out a sad sack and remains one indifferent to the extraordinary experiences he’s had. It reads like something written by a (very, very talented) high school kid at the heights of teenaged angst and I am somewhat mystified as to what we’re meant to take away from it. Personally, I want to sidle over to the Laundry Files and bring them over to investigate just what the blazes happened here.

Neil Gaiman is justly popular for his wordplay, wisdom and eloquence. But as a story writer I’ve always felt he and I don’t really see eye to eye. One gets the impression that this story of an offbeat child who grows up to be an artist is him projecting every so slightly, but who knows? Whether this is his fault or mine I don’t know but for all the cool things going on in it, I found Ocean at the End of the Lane to be an eldritch blend of dismal and confusing. A good story should be like chasing a butterfly through a beautiful meadow and finally catching it (not that I hold with tormenting animals, I hasten to add). But in this story the butterfly is a mosquito trying to bite me and I haven’t been offered a net.

It’s probably just as well that this review is considerably shorter than the ones I’ve been churning out lately, and hopefully means I’m on the road to rediscovering the meaning of ‘word limit.’ I just wish it wasn’t because I have so little to say. I’m not saying that Ocean is bad, it actually is pretty cool, I just don’t understand it. If anybody can offer elucidations as to what I’m supposed to take away from this yarn, please tell me ‘cause I’m stumped.

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Posted by on July 19, 2013 in Book

 

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Pixar’s Brave: We Have Bears

Well, I officially have a hattrick: as of now I’ve reviewed all three of the great female heroine stories of our time: the Hunger Games, the Legend of Korra, and now Pixar’s latest feature, Brave.

Not your usual engagement party

Pixar has garnered a fine reputation for its films, which tend to be emotionally engaging, classically charming and visually stunning.

Brave is the latest in that succession, and one that seems to be garnering quite a lot of attention.

In the ancient Scottish kingdom of DunBroch, King Fergus and Queen Elinor have a daughter, the fiery-headed and fiery-hearted Princess Merida, who has grown up a master of archery and a generally devil-may-care free spirit. As she matures however, her mother begins grooming her in being a ‘proper’ princess, skilled in such pursuits as public speaking, needlework, and generally looking dignified.

Merida resents this, and it becomes a crisis when her parents break the news that the three neighbouring clans are, in accordance with tradition, coming to participate in a contest to win the lady’s hand in marriage. Merida is horrified, fearing the loss of her freedom and the violation of being married off to one of three men she’s never met.

Merida manages to delay and sabotage the process up to a point, but this break with tradition risks war with the other clans, and Elinor won’t budge on the matter. Moved to desperation, Merida finds her way to an old witch who offers her a chance to ‘change her mother.’ Purchasing the spell, she tricks her mother into using it and…well, the ‘change’ is a little more profound than she expected. Merida has to smuggle her transmogrified mum out of the castle and try and find a way to change her back, whilst at the same time trying to come to terms with the feelings that got them into this situation in the first place. To make matters worse, when the four clans aren’t trying to overthrow one another, they’re chasing after Elinor, driven by King Fergus’ obsession with slaying wild beasts, particularly Mor’du, the demon bear, whose dread influence hangs over the drama and drives the final conflict.

I knew going in that I was going to watch a kids’ movie. And that’s what I got. The story itself is very sweet, and I definitely had something in my eye towards the end there. There are some fairly clever plot elements. The story is, nevertheless, quite archetypal. There’s nothing about it that we haven’t seen before in a hundred other fairy tales and teenage rebellion stories.

Thematically, the story deals with the usual fare of choice, compromise, reconciliation and love. All good themes, but again there’s nothing overly memorable about how they’re presented.

That said it was a delightful experience. The voice talents of Billy Connolly, Emma Thompson, Craig Ferguson, Kevin McKidd, Julie Walters and Robbie Coltrane put it on a firm footing. The humour is genuinely funny, not just goofy (although there’s plenty of that too) and the music sounds genuinely Scottish, using bagpipes, fiddles and Gaelic lyrics. The graphics are a visual feast. Per the custom of Pixar, the movie comes with a short film, La Luna, which was worth the trip to the cinema on its own.

As I said in my remarks on the Legend of Korra, heroines are getting increasingly promoted front-and-centre in many recent intellectual properties. Brave wins extra points in that it is co-produced, co-written and co-directed, and originally conceived of, by women. That said, Brenda Chapman, who originally conceived the story, was replaced early-on as director by a man for ‘creative differences,’ and I’m cynical enough to consider that suspicious.

As is usual for young heroines, Merida is drawing in lots of discussion over exactly how successfully she is representing the story’s themes to young people, especially in the age where the classic Disney Princess is receiving a not-unwarranted of backlash. Fundamentally, however, in broad strokes this is meant as an empowering story, and whether or not Merida succeeds in that is not, in my opinion, something that can be stated as an absolute. That’s up to you as the audience. I would say that it worked fine, but the lack of originality in the story’s fundamentals robs it of greatness for me.

Regardless, I’m pleased that women are getting more central in popular fiction, both in the making of it as well as within the stories themselves. It’s also nice to see a princess-class character who goes through the ‘marry who I want’ type of conflict and have the answer at the end be NO ONE. One of the things that I found a little wearisome about the Legend of Korra and the Hunger Games was the romance subplot seemingly insisted on them and other YA stories as if by law. At least Brave dodges the love-triangle cliché that is becoming rife lately, albeit in favour of an arranged-marriage square, which is not, in fact, of any great importance in the long run.

Brave is very much a movie for kids, and in that realm it is functional. Worth a look, in short, but don’t ask more than it’s willing to deliver. More broadly it’s certainly a fun movie, well worth the visuals, the emotional highs and lows and especially the music.

Chase the wind and touch the sky!

 
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Posted by on August 7, 2012 in Movie

 

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Snow White and the Huntsman: A Colourful Rainbow of Dreariness

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You have to wonder if there’s some kind of race being run in Hollywood. How often do two different movies dealing with the exact same source material come around at once.

I am of course referring to the movies Mirror, Mirror on the one hand, and Snow White and the Huntsman on the other. Two different takes on the same classic fairy tale.

Perhaps against my better judgement, I sallied forth to see Snow White and the Huntsman last night. Ladies in armour, dark magic and castles seemed reason enough to give it a whirl. Lots of people took the mere presence of Kristen Stewart in the title role as a warning sign. Probably they were right to do so. Fair-minded as I am (or stupid, depending on your viewpoint) I reasoned that Stewart has been judged and damned principally because of her part in the abominably written Twilight. Furthermore, that low quality was laid in by writers and producers before the question of the cast even arose. Shall I then force the actor to endure alone the ignominy of the role they had inflicted on them?

Wouldn’t I love to know, because it turns out that Snow White and the Huntsman is not going to provide Ms. Stewart much chance to spread her wings, if indeed she has any.

We find ourselves in an anonymous kingdom, usurped by a witch-queen who sucks the life force of the land’s fair ladies to maintain a spell of eternal youth. For years the daughter of the murdered king, once renowned for beauty and kindness, has endured imprisonment at the queen’s hands. When she escapes, the queen’s magic mirror warns her that the fleeing princess is the sole one whose pure heart and beauty can break her power. She hires a huntsman to, oddly enough, hunt her down so that she can take the princess’s heart, which promises to make her power permanent.

The huntsman finds the princess, but, captivated by her, aids her instead, and they make their way over troll bridges, through fairy realms and through many a trap and pitfall to find allies to overthrow the queen and retake the kingdom.

If that sounds like a dangerously standard plot, you couldn’t be more right. The plot lacks for twists so desperately that I got bored in no short order. It has a number of interesting and amusing setpieces, but no plot momentum to back them up. It’s more of a bad guided tour than a movie in a way.

Let me put it this way: you remember that in the story of Snow White, there are a certain group of supporting characters? About, oh, seven of them? A bit on the short side?

They don’t show themselves until nearly two thirds of the way through the film, and are little more than comic relief. It’s especially jarring considering that veteran actors of the likes of Ian McShane (lately Blackbeard in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides) and Ray Winstone are among them.

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Likewise, there’s a subplot concerning the princess’s childhood friend and potential romantic interest trying to find her, but it does nothing to aid the main story, and can barely sustain itself. Furthermore, the crisis of the apple, which most of us likely remember in the Disney version, is treated as hardly more than one more speed bump on the way to the end of the story, wherever it is.

The villainess is likely the most interesting character, with a clearer motivation than the heroine. The huntsman is a far more interesting character on the hero front. Our leading lady scarcely has any lines, and (as is often said of Stewart) only one facial expression. She’s a Messianic Macguffin and little else.

And that touches the reason why I feel this story suffers in its relevance in modern experience. The Princess (we have it in the prologue that Snow White is her name, but she’s never actually addressed as such) is exactly as you’d imagine in the story, and that just doesn’t work. She’s too perfect; everyone loves her instantly, and she’s supposed to possess all this wonderful quality that neither the performance nor the writing can back up. So far, they adhered to the letter of the original story, but this kind of meandering, over-idealized story simply doesn’t work anymore.

And indeed, the writing does not do enough work to back up the ideas the movie wants to communicate. It seems to say, “Here are our heroes. Just root for them,” and then do little work outside of it. When the Princess actually does speak, the lines have an unpolished, incomplete feeling. While the dwarfs and the villains are actually fairly interesting, their lines give no life to their potential.

My main interest in this film are in its visuals, which are impressive, and its value as a study in the death of the classic fairy tale. I think that modern sensibilities are savvy to the simplicities, narrow-mindedness and unrealistic ideals that many fairy tales uphold. I almost think that the writers knew that in some way, and it shows in the weakness of their efforts.

The movie could still have been fun, at least. Better dialogue could have saved the clichés, and the introduction of the dwarfs alone, my friends and I agreed, would have added and variety and momentum to the story that it simply doesn’t have.

On the bright side, if we are let down by the iconic seven dwarfs, we have only a few months ere a certain thirteen Dwarves will come to save those ancient style of stories for us!

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To dungeons deep, and caverns old…

 
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Posted by on June 19, 2012 in Movie

 

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