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[Important Note:  For today’s Saturday column, we have decided to share editor Heather Greene’s analytical essay of the new Star Wars movie. Greene has both a Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree in Film Studies, and has been writing about film for over twenty years. The following article contains spoilers. If you have not seen the movie, do not continue reading. You have been warned. ]

Every act of rebellion expresses a nostalgia for innocence and an appeal to the essence of being.

– Albert Camus

[Photo Credit: Rob Ketcherside / Flickr]

[Photo Credit: Rob Ketcherside / Flickr]

Nostalgia is a very powerful force. It drives us, surrounds us, binds us. Wait. No. That’s another force.

Let’s start again.

Nostalgia is a power that exists as romanticized remnants of our past, pieces of memories clinging passionately to our emotional reserves, controlling our dreams, wishes and the way we inhabit our present. Nostalgia can connect us to our ancestors in religious ritual or bring us to tears as we walk down the streets of our youth. It also can seduce us into a dangerous point of complacency and prevent us from moving forward. Nostalgia exists in the parts of our mind that remain slave to the heart, craving a dream-like innocence.

It is this very human connection that can drive and influence the popularity and production of pop culture, even bringing music and fashion back into vogue after years of retirement. And, it is this power of nostalgia that has made Star Wars: The Force Awakens the mega hit that it is has become.

On Dec. 18, Star Wars: The Force Awakens opened to record box office sales after Disney, in typical fashion, created a fully-saturated, oppressive merchandise marketplace. From Star Wars Lego to Cover Girl’s Dark Side Mascara, nothing was seemingly left untouched. The film’s shadow became so big that even Santa Claus felt upstaged during his big day, as parents reported that their children were watching for flying Wookiees rather than reindeer.

Tennessee DOT gets in on the act. [Courtesy H. Greene]

Tennessee DOT gets in on the act. [Courtesy H. Greene]

The force certainly did awaken. And, to fully understand and appreciate why and how that happened, we need to go backward in time.

The Star Wars franchise began in 1977 with Star Wars: A New Hope. Filmmaker George Lucas grew up loving television, cars and comic books, and sought to recreate this joy in his films. This is particularly evident in his first big hit American Graffiti (1973), which celebrates 1950s youth culture. In fact, Star Wars, itself, was first produced as a comic book. The original series was published by Marvel Entertainment beginning in early 1977 as a marketing tie-in to the new film. (Thompson and Bordwell, p. 524).

In their book Film History, historians Kirsten Thompson and David Bordwell wrote, “Star Wars offered chivalric myth for 1970s teens, a quest romance in which young heroes could find adventure, pure love and sacred cause.” Later they add, “Lucas believed he was spinning a simple tale grounded in basic human values.” Those values and that sacred cause were often labeled as “New Age.” (Thompson and Bordwell, p. 523)

Star Wars: A New Hope was an attempt to revive something innocent and universal that had been lost when the Hollywood Production Code was finally dropped in 1968, and film subjects began to venture into more challenging realms in terms of violence, sexuality and horror. Lucas, a film-savvy, young storyteller, was driven by a sense of nostalgia for a bygone era, the innocence of childhood and the purity of human experience.

The whole narrative, in fact, begins as an exercise in mythic nostalgia. “A long, long time ago…”

61176269_884847cf77_oAs Thompson and Bordwell remark, Lucas was trying “to recover [his] boyhood pleasure in movies” and “to recreate the uncomplicated fun of space opera.” Even the visuals contained nostalgic elements. Thompson and Bordwell write:

In making Star Wars, Lucas pulled together the most exciting portions of several air battles from Hollywood combat pictures, storyboarded the compiled sequence, and then shot his space dogfights to match older footage. (Thompson and Bordwell, p. 523)

And the concept worked; the film’s sensibility held great appeal. Since their release, the three original Star Wars episodes combined have grossed over 1 billion at the domestic box office. Nostalgia, in a way, put Star Wars on the pop culture map.

Nearly two decades later, the second set of films was released. The prequels generated excitement, and brought in 1.2 billion dollars to date. However, they were ultimately not nearly as popular. The three films were plagued with multiple, complicated plot twists, poor acting and large amounts of exposition. And then, of course, there was the very unpopular Jar Jar Binks.

But more importantly for this discussion, the sense of belonging or the sense of nostalgia – to a time long, long ago – was not the focus. Unlike the originals , which felt like an adventure that could end anywhere. The prequels had a goal. They had to answer one important question: How did Annakin become Darth Vader?

In the process of getting to that answer, the nostalgic romance woven into the original three films was buried. The prequels rush through their stories in short segments, cutting from sequence to sequence. The films are packed and detailed, containing interesting new characters and ships, epic battles scenes, and complicated politics. However, the stories rarely slow down long enough to let a character, or a viewer, breathe. Nobody stands poignantly in the sands of Tatooine, under in the light of three moons, contemplating the future.

revenge_of_the_sith_by_1darthvader-d6ftwy7-600x375Granted, these prequels were partially a product of their time. They were released in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and were competing for box office realty in a market that was drunk on CGI technology. Shots were shorter; scenes were cut faster. And, computers were used at every turn. Lucas enjoyed this new technology and even remade his original films with updated CGI imagery – some of which worked, and some which didn’t.

That being said, the three prequels served their purpose. Fans got the needed back story and were not left ungratified when, in the final scenes of Revenge of the Sith (2005), Darth Vader rises up in his full costume as smoke swirls around his head. “Lord Vader, Can you hear me?” asks the Emperor. And, in the voice of the recognizable James Earl Jones, Vader responds, “Yes, my master.” Here, and in following end sequences, the prequels hit a moment of emotional nostalgia that sends a shuddered excitement down the spine. It took a lot of talking and fancy film transitions to get there; but we got there.

Jump forward to 2015, The Walt Disney Company now owns Lucas Films, Inc. and has promised a third trilogy, along with a few standalone stories. To date, The Star Wars: The Force Awakens has grossed $863,148,249 at the domestic box office, making it one of the top grossing films of all time. Interestingly, if you adjust for inflation, Star Wars: A New Hope is at No. 1 according to some charts.[i]

So what was it that made the new film so palpable? The answer was expressed by one viewer’s response, “When I saw the Millennium Falcon for the first time, my eyes leaked water.”

Unlike the prequels, The Force Awakens capitalizes on the viewer’s deep nostalgic connection to the franchise and the its mythic universe. The production does this in both overt and subtle ways, creating a brilliant dance with its audience. Lucas himself used a similar concept with the original three, in that he was attempting to “recover his boyhood pleasures.”  However, The Force Awakens isn’t working to connect viewers to the specific bygone cultural era of Lucas’ childhood. The new film’s “long, long time ago” is defined by the viewer’s own experience with the first six films and the virginal joys of experiencing them.

The more overt nostalgic elements are found in scenic details and props, including the Millennium Falcon, the blasters, the Skywalker light saber, and the derelict ships laying in the sands of Jakku. It also is found in the presence of characters like C-3PO and R2-D2, Han Solo, Princess Leia and, of course, Luke Skywalker. The story methodically introduces these beloved figures throughout the narrative so as not to lump all the nostalgic candy into one place. In the opening we meet storm troopers and then Han Solo and Chewbacca. As the story plays out, we are reintroduced to C-3PO and Princess Leia and then finally, at the very end, R2-D2 and Luke. It’s a nice steady nostalgic drip.

And the movie enjoys these movements, slowing down the pace of action to savor each introduction, which allows fans to drink deep from the cup of their own Star Wars memories.


Even the original series’ distinctive color palette (red vs. blue) is honored. [LucasFilms]

But the film did not stop its “walk down memory lane” with props, sets and characters. The narrative itself frequently rehashes portions of the past six films. Just as Lucas was said to have compiled fight sequences from old combat pictures, The Force Awakens seems to be compiled from pieces of the older Star Wars films.

“I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”[ii]

Many of the major moments were adaptations from the older films. For example, when Rey is standing with Maz Kanata after discovering the light saber, Maz explains the power of the force. “It flows through us and binds us… ” Time slows down and the shots go back and forth between close-ups of the small nonhuman creature and the young adult. It parallels the scene from The Empire Strikes Back (1980) in which Yoda explains the same mystical premise to Luke. Interestingly, in this case, the two figures are female with a crone passing on wisdom to a maiden. But that’s another discussion…

The sequence is familiar, despite the gender difference.

Many other similar parallels exist. For example, the destruction of the Starkiller Base is reminiscent of the Death Star’s destruction in A New Hope. In both cases, the precision flying of X-Wings and B-Wings is needed to hit the target. Another example? At the beginning of the The Force Awakens, a determined little BB-8 droid, carrying an important resistance message, rolls across a desert planet in search of its owner. This is similar to R2-D2’s quest at the beginning of A New Hope. Another one? In the final battle, Kylo Ren is left for dead after a light saber battle, as the land surges from inside and breaks apart. At the last moment, his master arrives just in time to save his student and transport him to safety. We’ve seen this in Return of the Sith.

And it goes on from major sequences, like those above, to minor moments, such as the Imperial ships passing in front of a planet  or Han asking if the Starkiller base has a trash compactor. Even the unstable characterization of Kylo Ren is based on a misguided nostalgic-like yearning for his grandfather’s dark glory. The movie winks, nods and treats the viewer like an in-the-know guest at an exclusive party.

A striking thematic example of this nostalgic-based adaptation happens during Hans death scene. During his mission on the StarKiller Base, Han confronts Kylo Ren. Chewie, Finn and Rey notice this confrontation from across a room that is defined by a constructed metal space. Rey, unable to get to them, must watch Kylo Ren kill Han. The scene parallels the one in which Luke watches Darth Vader kill Obi Wan in the Death Star or the scene in which Obi Wan watches Darth Maul kill Qui-Gon Jinn on Naboo. In all three cases, the child witnesses the surrogate father’s murder. This is a thematic element often present in the typical male coming-of-age story, and is paralleled visually and narratively in the stories of these pre-Jedi heroes (Luke, Obi Wan, Rey).[iii]

The narrative and thematic parallels, along with the presentation of familiar elements, create a film that is comfortable and feels like a big high-five. Of course, it probably isn’t surprising that one of the members of the film’s writing team was Star Wars veteran Lawrence Kasdan, who worked on both the Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.

While the film banked on this nostalgia (and was handsomely paid out for it), there were certainly some new elements. The Nazi references were far more pronounced than in the past, with the First Order’s speech scene eerily similar to images from Leni Reinfenstahl’s 1935 propaganda film Triumph of the Will and other images from the Nuremberg Rallies.  And, the introduction of the silver female Storm Trooper, Captain Phasma, recalls the robot in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

Still from Fritz Lang's "Metropolis"

Still from Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”

Race and gender are newly treated. The film’s two main characters are Finn, a black man who manages to escape his Storm Trooper enslavement, and Rey, a white woman who was languishing on a sandy planet waiting for her family.[iv] While the two seem to be developing a romantic interest, it never plays out. However, near the end, Finn lies unconscious on a platform. Rey leans over to kiss him. We are momentarily caught in what looks like a Snow White story, in which Finn could wake up from “love’s true kiss.” Hey, this is a Disney movie, isn’t it?

Well, that never manifested. But R2-D2 does wake up, and “water leaked from our eyes.”

Star Wars: The Force Awakens has been criticized for being a “mediocre” movie with little redeeming cultural value. However, the value of any cultural product is always subjective. Are its elements a rehash of what’s been done? Yes. It rides on the waves nostalgia, manipulating our love of Star Wars for its own applause. The film is charlatan, in that way. And its methods are cheap.

But like the 8 mm home movie, The Force Awakens is only worthless if you don’t allow it to take you on that journey back in time – to your first attempt to use mind control on a teacher or “force” choke the annoying kid popping bubbles on the bus. The film takes us back to a time when we first saw the Star Wars crawl and heard the theme song with eager anticipation of going on its mythical journey. Is there no cultural meaning or value in that?

Nostalgia is a force. It drive us. It surrounds us. It binds us. It is a romantic force that connects mind to heart, allowing us to find peace in our present through our memories. It is the creator of stories that become legend and myth. And, at the same time, it fuels the continued recycling of pop culture through remakes, adaptations and reboots. X-Files, anyone? Nostalgia was the driving force behind the birth of the very first Star Wars trilogy beginning in 1977, and that very force awoke in 2015 to create the new one.

As they say: May “the Force” Be With You.

[i] Inflation adjustments are typically based on tickets sold. In some adjusted charts, Gone With the Wind (1939) still ranks at the top.
[ii] This is phrase said in every Star Wars movie, which can be used as a nice seek-and-find game for the uninitiated Star Wars fan.
[iii] The film operates with a male coming of age structure despite the presence of Rey. The narrative resists converting into a traditional female coming of age story. While this is an interesting point, it is beyond the discussion of this particular essay.
[iv] Race and gender politics within the Star Wars franchise offer another important point of discussion, however they are also beyond this article’s subject matter. The choices made in The Force Awakens are certainly worth noting and observing as they play out in the next two films of the new trilogy.

Book Sources:
Thompson, Kirsten and Bordwell, David. Film History. McGraw Hill: New York. 2003.

Disney’s most iconic animated villain has returned to the big screen in a live-action fantasy that twists and soars as it fractures the original fairy tale upon which it’s based. At its simplest level Maleficent is an extended re-imagining of Disney’s animated Sleeping Beauty (1959) with a focus on its well-known, dark-cloaked villain. However in presenting this alternative perspective, the live-action film dabbles in contemporary feminist, religious and ecological themes as it takes you through its fantasy world.

Courtesy of Disney (Film Poster)

Courtesy of Disney (Film Poster)

The story begins with Maleficent as a young fairy living in the Moors, a world of enchantment and peace. She eventually meets Stephan, an orphan human boy from the greedy human world. The story then follows them, through love, to adulthood as she becomes the strongest fairy and he pursues his dream to live in the castle. Stephan’s ambition eventually leads to a violent moment of betrayal which directs the film’s plot into the Sleeping Beauty narrative complete with the famous “Christening” scene. The rest of the movie faithfully follows the animated classic’s story but with a different lens, so to speak.

Maleficent is not a Hollywood or studio trend-setter. The film is simply another serving of a villainous character back story (i.e., Star Wars, Wicked, Oz the Great and Powerful). It also follows Disney’s somewhat misguided interest in revisiting their animated classics as live-action films (i.e.,101 Dalmatians, Jungle Book) or Broadway shows (i.e., Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, The Lion King). Some work and some don’t.

Interestingly in 1959 Disney’s Sleeping Beauty was a critical flop. Walt Disney called it an “expensive failure” saying “I sorta got trapped.” Audiences expected the softer and safer Cinderella (1950) but got a more stylized design and a darker, more frightening villain. Due to the film’s failure, Disney would not to return to the classic princess narrative for another 30 years.

Courtesy of Disney [Promotional Poster 1959]

Courtesy of Disney [Promotional Poster 1959]

Fortunately over that period of time Maleficent became one of the most iconic Disney villains and arguably one of its most popular characters. Maleficent may have, in fact, helped to pull Sleeping Beauty out of obscurity and into the beloved canon of animated Disney films. It is no surprise that Disney chose to tell her back story.

Directed by Robert Stromberg, the production designer for Avatar (2009) and Oz the Great and Powerful (2013) and written by Disney Veteran, Linda Woolverton, Maleficent contains stunning imagery surrounding its decidedly feminist tale. Visually speaking the fantasy world has a hazy “story land” mystique without being cartoony or campy. The human world is murky and muted while the enchanted land beyond the moors is vibrant and mystical. The magical creatures are rendered with a fantastic realism that recalls the art of Brian Froud.

The most striking visuals are of Maleficent herself, who is portrayed to perfection by the talented Angelina Jolie. From start to finish, the film’s narrative rotates around her nearly to a fault. There are very few other elements, exchanges or characters whose screen presence command the same level of attention as Jolie. She makes this film. It is Jolie’s show and that manages to work because, after all, it is Maleficent’s story.

There were moments, however, that the film felt more like an explanation of the animated classic rather than a film in its own right. The plot moved from one moment to the next gliding behind the radiant Maleficent in very much the same way as the sleeping Aurora floats behind her on the trip to the moors. Many filmic elements get lost in her wake as the plot winks at the audience as if to say, “See that’s what really happened.”

That is not to say the film doesn’t contain any interesting sub-textual themes. Maleficent presents a number of complicated contemporary ideas. For example there is an Avatar-inspired eco-subtext winding through the plot. We cheer for the peaceful mystical moors and against the greedy human world. In this way, Maleficent could be considered an Earth Mother and Protector who violently avenges the pillaging of the land and eventually finds balances through the cycle of life.

The secondary characters are, with no exception, secondary or less than secondary. Like the narrative they live in shadow of Jolie’s Maleficent. With that said, Sam Riley as the Crow is a well-played, fascinating addition. The two most disappointing characters are Ella Fanning’s Aurora and Brenton Thwaite’s Prince Philip. Both are out of place in the earthy, magical realism presented by the rest of the film’s design. Aurora recalls her “unmemorable” animated counterpart. The film could have handled a stronger, grittier princess or an “Aurora unplugged.” As for Thwaite, his “boy band” appearance and glossy smile are better suited to a Disney Channel sitcom than a subversive dark retelling of a classic fairy tale.

Movie Still from Disney's Maleficent

Movie Still from Disney’s Maleficent

Overall Maleficent is very satisfying and fun to watch. It is worth the ticket price just to see Angelina Jolie capture the iconic character. The film contains battle scenes, dragons, tree guards and hairy human kings. But what is most engaging about this film and what keeps the narrative from sinking into obscurity is two yet to be mentioned themes.

From this point forward, this article contains spoilers. Do not continue reading if you have not seen the film and prefer to be surprised.

Aside from the Avatar ecological subtext, there are two other notable themes in Maleficent that cause the fairy tale to fracture. The first is the theme of the “fallen angel” and the second is that of the “anti-mother.”  Both have distinct feminist tones which, in recent years, Disney has been attempting to nurture.

Before going forward let’s get one thing straight. The story is not told from Maleficent’s point of view. The narrator is revealed to be Aurora. As the story opens, she tells us that we’ve been more or less “dealt a bag goods.” Here’s how it really happened…

The theme of the “fallen angel” is presented both visually and narratively from start to finish. Maleficent is a fairy with large feathered wings that drag on the ground and tower above her head. Near the beginning of the film, she flies up to the clouds, faces the camera and opens her wings. This imagery recalls an angel against the sky.

When Stephan performs the violent act of cutting off her wings, Maleficent is grounded. She becomes the “fallen angel,” a process that is further demonstrated by the darkening of the moors and the skeleton imagery behind her throne. Hatred and vengeance consume her as she becomes the dark queen with all the expected iconic trappings of a sorceress or devil character such as a staff, black leather cap around her horns, black clothes and a crow. She becomes the vengeful dark “fallen angel” or as she is called in the film, “witch.”

Only childhood innocence can penetrate through her hate. When she finally displays love again she earns back her wings. However, as demonstrated visually, she doesn’t simply return to her former self. At the end Maleficent retains her dark, gothic appearance, her crow familiar and her magical staff. Secondly, near the end of the film, she flies into the sky as she did at the beginning. Just before striking the angelic pose, she pauses in profile with wings outstretched which recalls the Winged Nike – a symbol of victory.

Maleficent is essentially driven to revenge not simply because she was scorned but because she was physically violated. Her body was cut and part of her life stolen. However she finds a new life through the love of a child and that is where Disney fractures another classically embedded fairy tale theme – the “anti-mother.”

Traditionally the “good” mothers are either biological grandmothers or, more often, fairy-god mothers. In Maleficent, these typical good mothers are absent or incompetent. The three “aunties” don’t know how to feed a baby or bake a cake – two common signs of the “good mother.” At times the three pixie women have more in common with the witches of Hocus Pocus (1993) than the three good fairies of Sleeping Beauty.

Movie still from Disney's Maleficent.

Movie still from Disney’s Maleficent.

It is the “anti-mother” or dark witch who actually cares for the child and keeps her safe. Where the fairies are tired of raising Aurora, Maleficent and the crow protect her and become her shadow guardians. In a complete reversal, the film turns the “anti-mother,” who is typcially jealous of youth, into the good or “godmother” as Aurora says.  In this way, the godmother and the fallen angel are one.

Becoming the good mother saves Maleficent from herself but, fortunately, does not transform her into something she is not. She remains the dark-clad, powerful gothic fairy. In doing so, the mother – daughter bond, typically absent from fairy tales and Disney animation, is rediscovered and allowed to thrive. This is punctuated by the film’s twist on “true love’s kiss” which was, unfortunately, predictable due to Frozen (2014).

If you add in the ecological subtext, Maleficent is a visually beautiful film with dynamic elements that circle around its spectacular title character. While the film could have explored relationship dynamics and narrative elements more in-depth, the film compensated with interesting themes, beautiful visuals and Angelina Jolie.

The Disney princess paradigm is defined by a system of American ideological and aesthetic codes that are known to the Disney artists and their viewers. The heroine is recognized when she stands on a balcony letting her long hair blow in the breeze, when she sings in the forest, or when she wishes for that which is beyond her grasp…The attributes are visual, narrative, and musical.  Although the specifics have been updated, revised, and reformulated to conform to contemporary ideology, the essence of the Disney princess formula has remained intact.  As Walt put it, we always root for ‘Cinderella and the Prince.’

I wrote that in 1998 after completing an extensive two-year study on nine of Disney’s animated heroines. Now let’s flash forward 15 years to 2013. Disney has released the latest edition to its Princess Collection: Frozen.  How has the princess formula been “updated to conform to contemporary ideology”? How has it “remained intact”?  Why has this film been labeled “subversive?”

Inspired by Hans Christian Anderson’s story The Snow Queen, Disney’s Frozen tells the story of two princess sisters Elsa and Anna who live in the fictional Scandinavian land of Arrendelle.  Elsa is born with the gift of ice magic which strengthens over time.  After being crowned Queen, she accidentally freezes her kingdom and flees to a life of self-imposed isolation. The narrative continues as Anna journeys to save Arrendelle and, ultimately, thaw a long-frozen sororal relationship.

For fans of Anderson’s original tale, this film bears little resemblance. When Disney says “loosely-based,” the operative word is “loose.”  For example, Anderson’s narrative is woven around a heavy Christian theological ethic. Gerda unfreezes Kay’s heart only by virtue of being a “Christ-child.”  As for the film, there are several subtle visual suggestions of a Christian landscape; most notably in the coronation scene. Otherwise Disney’s Frozen is absent of any overt religiosity.

I point to the film’s ethical construction because that is the point at which Frozen deviates from the traditional. In typical princess films, the moral universe is constructed through the juxtaposition of recognizable good and bad characters. With few exceptions, witches, bad step-mothers, sorcerers, and Vodou priests are evil.  The good “guys” are the princesses, would-be suitors and their cute little animal companions.

Frozen subverts this tradition by presenting a new ethical dynamic – a complexity that has yet to occur within any past Disney princess. The “evil” exists within its heroine: Elsa.  She is born with magical powers which, as a child, she attempts to “conceal and not feel.”  As noted by the troll king, magic can be used for good or bad.  He demonstrates good magic as cued visually by blue, sky-like imagery.  He demonstrates bad magic with red, subtle hell-like imagery.  Here is a great example of covert religious iconography present in secular films.

Just after Elsa is crowned queen, her magic power is unleashed and she flees from Arrendelle.  At this point, she ceases to be a princess-maiden and has become the queen-mother. The courtiers condemn her as a “sorceress and monster.”  She becomes the movie’s witch.  Interestingly, the writers offer a bit of symbolic foreshadowing when sister Anna walks by a painting and says, “Hi Joan,” referring to Joan of Arc the historical figure condemned of sorcery.

Here is where the narrative takes an ethical turn, subverting everything we know about Disney princess stories.  When Elsa arrives at the top of a mountain, she begins her show-stopping song: “Let it Go!” She embraces her magic and transforms her life. The process is signified by Elsa’s visual change from a buttoned-up, high-collared dress to a shimmering, trailing gown with plunging necklines.  As she walks out onto the balcony, hips swaying and hair flowing, Elsa demonstrates full control of her life, her magic and her sexuality.

No Disney female character has ever completely owned her magical existence within the narrative and remained “good.”  No Disney heroine has been this free – even Pixar’s Merida (Brave 2012.)  To be fair, Brave did twist the princess paradigm.  Merida doesn’t find her true love before the credits role. It is important to note that both Pixar’s Brave and Frozen have the distinction of being the only two Disney-produced princess films with a female co-director.

Regardless of Brave’s twist, Merida doesn’t shun marriage. She just waits.  Elsa is completely different. She is a heroine who is both magical and highly-sexualized – two traits usually reserved for wicked women.  Fans of Broadway may almost hear Elsa singing:

Something has changed within me; Something is not the same.
I’m through with playing by the rules of someone else’s game…
It’s time to try defying gravity.

Perhaps that’s because Elsa is voiced by Idina Menzel, the actress who originated Wicked’s Elphaba on Broadway.  More likely, Frozen and Wicked both negotiate female agency in the same way. Wicked tells the story of a socially-isolated woman who is labeled a “witch” and subsequently defies all convention to be herself.  Frozen, in part, tells the same story.  Both women are terrified of hurting those they love which they can’t seem to stop doing.  Both women isolate themselves in a distant castle.

Unfortunately for Elphaba the stories don’t end the same.  Elsa is allowed to remain a heroine, queen and witch.  Although there are points where the “red light” does appear in her magic, she manages to remain good.  We all know what happens to the Wicked Witch – despite Broadway’s silly rewrite.

With all of that said, Frozen doesn’t completely toss out the princess formula.  Sister Anna lives in the more traditional story complete with ball-gown, a romantic kiss and endearing secondary characters.  In fact, Anna is almost a repeat model of Tangled’s Rapunzel, both visually and narratively. In fact her male counterpart Kristoff and his reindeer, Sven, are repeats of Rapunzel’s Flynn Rider and his horse, Maximus.

However, Princess Anna does play a major role in the biggest subversion of the princess paradigm within the film. (Spoiler Alert) When Elsa inadvertently freezes Anna’s heart, the trolls reveal that only an act of true love can save her from the “witch’s” magic. We, and the characters, assume this to mean true love’s kiss.  How many of these movies have we seen?

Think again. True love turns out to be the love between the two women. In the end, Anna sacrifices herself to save her sister’s life. That becomes the act of true love. No romantic kiss. No man. Just the two sisters.

While one of Frozen’s Princess story lines is subversive, the other is not.  The crossing of the two challenges our expectations and ends with sisters rekindling their lost love without sacrificing who either of them has become – Witch Queen or Princess.

Anna and Elsa From Disney Wiki

Anna and Elsa
From Disney Wiki

With Frozen, Disney hasn’t reinvented its formula, it just poked some serious holes in it.  There are choices now. Going back to my original argument:

Although the specifics have been updated, revised, and reformulated to conform to contemporary ideology, the essence of the Disney princess formula has remained intact.  As Walt put it, we always root for ‘Cinderella and the Prince.’

That still stands. We can root for Anna and Kristoff.  However we can also root for the Snow Queen and her beautiful magic – the ice, snow and the melting that comes from her love.

I am starting this journey in the early days of American cinema; from its inception in 1895 through its development into a viable culturally-influential industry. I’ve dated this period as “pre-1939.”  Many of you will recognize 1939 as being the release date of Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM)’s classic film The Wizard of Oz, a film that contains the most iconic Hollywood witch in American cultural history.

From 1895 to 1916 moving pictures were just a technical novelty. As film historian Jeanine Basinger said, “No one really took movies very seriously. It was thought that they were a fad.” Most early movies depicted actual events, landscape photography, historical re-enactments or popular stories. (Basinger, American Cinema, 1994)

During these first two decades, only nine American films contained a witch.  Of these nine, five were dramatizations of beloved fantasy stories. The list includes The Magic Sword (1901), The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1910), His Majesty the Scarecrow (1914), Mary PIckford in Cinderella (1914), and Snow White (1916).

In all of these films, the witch is a non-threatening, non-theological fairy tale construct. Her appearance and behavior recall the circus-clown or court jester with a big round collar and colorful patchwork clothing, or a heavy wizard cape and cone hat.  She plays the role of the buffoon.

William Wenslow's Wicked Witch from the original printing of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

William Wenslow’s Wicked Witch from the original printing of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Because this is the silent film era, filmmakers primarily used visual cues to define character. To do so, they had to draw from pre-cinematic cultural sources in order to speak to their viewers.  The witch as clown motif can be found in still renderings from that time period. It is even a common element in Mother Goose drawings. Additionally, all of these stooped, elderly witches are surrounded by other non-cinematic icons such as brooms, cauldrons, and pointed hats.

The concept of magic focuses on transformation and trickery. For example, In His Majesty the Scarecrow (1914), Mombi the Witch transforms her three ugly companions into beautiful maidens. In Snow White (1916), the witch transforms the Queen from bland to beautiful. The use of magic in this way is reminiscent of something you might find in a Shakespearean comedy of mistaken identity (e.g. As You Like It)

Of the earliest nine films, the remaining four did not recreate fantasy stories. However, they have very little influence on the construction of the Hollywood witch. These include a lost animated experimental short called Bewitched Matches (1913). The first filming of Shakespeare’s MacBeth (1916) and an historical narrative called The Witch of Salem (1913).

The fourth film, The Mysteries of Myra (1915), is the most interesting of these early witch movies. The popular seventeen part film serial recounts the tale of Myra Maynard, the daughter of an Occult leader, who is repeatedly hunted by her dead father’s devil-worshipping Order. In each episode, the narrative tackles an Occult subject with no mention of witchcraft until episode thirteen. In this aptly numbered episode, a cloaked witch helps Myra escape the satanic Order.

Film restoration artist Eric Stedman, notes that episode thirteen is the only one to “introduce traditional fantasy – magic and characters rather than concepts derived from then – current spiritualism.”  What spiritualism? He is referring to  the public’s growing interest in Occult practice and, of course, Aleister Crowley. Some of the film’s Occult imagery  recalls the popular images of Crowley himself.  Interestingly, at the time of filming, Crowley was living in New England not terribly far from the production lots in Ithaca, NY.  .

Shot from one of the Occult scenes from The Mysteries of Myra (1915)

Shot from one of the Occult scenes from The Mysteries of Myra (1915)

Despite the narrative proximity of witchcraft and Satanism in the serial, the writers clearly separated the two magical practices.  In this way, the witch remained a fantasy construction.  At some point in the pre-cinematic entertainment world, the witch was separated from her satanic connection and became trapped within a fairy tale.  As such, she is denied all theological relevance or esoteric meaning – good or bad.  Although it is outside my exploration, I would speculate that this is the result of Victorian cultural styling and the increasing dominance of rational thought.

Now, let’s move to the period ranging from 1916 to 1932.  During these sixteen years, there is only one Witch film – a lost animated short called At Rainbow’s End (1925).  Why did the witch disappear? At this time movies had transitioned from novelty to commodity. The new industry, now located in California, had to maintain viewer interest through realistic sensationalized marketing strategies.  Remember, this is before the Production Code. The fantasy witch had no place in salacious, adult entertainment and, therefore, disappeared.  (Eric Smoodin, Animating Culture, 1993)

However, by 1932, the world and Hollywood had drastically changed.  Silent films turned to sound (Talkies) and the Hayes Commission began enforcing its Catholic-based moral censorship code. Additionally, the country had lived through a World War, the free-wheeling roaring 1920s and was now in a deep economic depression. Hollywood responded with wholesome, upbeat and glittery escapist films. Not surprisingly the fantasy witch reappears.  From 1932-1939, Hollywood produced five witch films including Disney’s Babes in the Woods (1932), Betty Boop’s Snow White (1933), Betty Boop’s Baby Be Good (1935), The Greedy Humpty Dumpty (1937) and Disney’s Snow White (1937).

At first glance, these animated witches appear to be similar to the earlier variety.  They are “hags in rags” with cauldrons, brooms and pointy hats.  However, there is a difference.  In Disney’s Babes in the Woods (1932), the witch plays the buffoon, but she is more grotesque in form.  Her pointy face and emaciated body are gangly and sharply angled.  Her clothes, now dark and ragged, are topped with a flowing torn cape.  This iconic look is repeated over and over throughout the period.


Walt Disney’s Wicked Queen from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

Then in 1937 Disney released what would become his masterpiece – the first full-length animated feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.  In its wake, the film created a famous American Hollywood witch – the Wicked Queen. She is the first witch to step out of the side-show act and enter the realm of macabre.  Disney’s Queen is an amalgam of the early fairy tale witch, the 1930s animated hag and something new, something darker.  While she is still trapped within the fairy tale narrative, she is frightening and intense in both her forms:  “a hag in rags” and glamorous queen.

In addition, for the first time in Hollywood’s history, we witness the witch as a representative of “transgressive female sexuality.” Film professor Elizabeth Bell notes that Disney’s production papers describe the Queen’s “beauty as sinister, mature [with] plenty of curves.” The Wicked Queen is a femme fatale who is defined as “represent[ing] demonic natural forces that, like a cyclone, threaten to uproot man from himself.”  In this historic film, the Hollywood witch transmutes into what feminist film theorist Barbara Creed calls “the monstrous feminine.”  (Elizabeth Bell, “Somatexts at the Disney Shop,” From Mouse to Mermaid, 1995)

During the Pre-1939 period, the witch began her journey as a side-show act devoid of any esoteric or theological meaning.  By the end, she had transformed into an allegory for the powerful, independent, sexualized woman.  Was this a function of America’s need to reinforce traditional gender roles during the Depression? Or was it simply a function of Disney’s own conservative nature?

In the next post, we’ll move on and follow the transformation.  Next stop, the year 1939 with the release of The Wizard of Oz and the birth of the all-American Hollywood Witch.


Top Story: Pop-culture critics have been seemingly too distracted by the 3-D CGI spectacular that is “Avatar” to give much attention to the latest Disney 2-D hand-drawn “princess” movie. Luckily, Religion Dispatches delivers us temporarily from discussions about Hollywood’s pantheism to instead talk about presentations of New Orleans Voodoo in “The Princess and the Frog”. According to Michelle Gonzalez Maldonado, assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Miami, the film gives a prejudiced and misinformed” reading of the often misunderstood religion.

“I do not know where to begin my comments on how this film perpetuates offensive stereotypes about Voodoo. The loas are represented as evil spirits full of greed and anger … The terms Voodoo, Hoodoo, and conjuring are used interchangeably throughout. In the end one is presented with an evil religion that will ultimately fail. I did not expect critical race analysis or a sophisticated presentation of Voodoo when I walked into the theater. It is, after all, Disney. I did not expect such a blatant, racist, and misinformed presentation of Voodoo, however. The reduction of religion to magic is also reaffirmed in the curious absence of Catholicism in the film. My son is correct, Disney Voodoo is bad magic; it just doesn’t have anything to do with the authentic African Diaspora religion.”

In addition to getting New Orleans/Louisiana Voodoo horribly wrong, it seems the film gets New Orleans itself all wrong. In another Religion Dispatches piece, Anthea Butler, associate professor of religion at the University of Pennsylvania, says the film is a big desecrating “lump of coal” that “picks up where Katrina left off”.

“I’m going to go all out and say that the entire movie is a wholesale desecration of New Orleans, Creole culture, Cajun Culture, religion, zydeco music, the Evangeline story, and Louis Armstrong (I’ll get to that in a minute.) Rolled up, Disney hates the South, period … I know it’s only a movie, but movies shape how people, especially children, view the world. In the case of New Orleans and the myriad of cultures it holds, to stint on all of the facets that make New Orleans and Louisiana the wonderful, complex, and sometimes exasperating place that it is is a crime. Disney’s princesses, once again, may have big beautiful eyes, but while kids are enjoying the view, Disney’s hack job of deconstructing history by making it “cute” is just as destructive as a category 5 hurricane. Fun and truth do not have to be mutually exclusive to sell a movie, unless of course you’re just bankrupt of ideas.”

Of course, Disney has a long history of acquiring and terraforming pieces of culture, transforming them to a point where most people think the Disney version is the original. There’s a reason why “disneyfication” is a pejorative term. So you get a Disney New Orleans where the Voodoo is bad, Catholicism is absent, tradition is ignored, and history is mangled. In the end, it’s more about extending the Princess brand, than doing something creative or original.

In Other News: The Pierce County Herald spotlights Circle Sanctuary’s efforts to send holiday care packages to troops in Iraq.

“The Circle Sanctuary in Barneveld is also remembering soldiers at Fort Hood Texas – where a Wisconsin unit lost three of its members in last month’s shooting rampage. Selena Fox, a senior minister of the Wiccan Church, said the Circle group sent packages to about 50 active duty personnel at Fort Hood to show extra support. They’ve also provided counseling for the Pagan soldiers at the base – and they sent holiday cheer to 150 Pagan troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

I’m sure it’s still not too late to donate, and help them in their efforts.

NPR reports on the rise of sorcery and witchcraft-related arrests and sentencing in Saudi Arabia, and talks to an expert who posits that the recent increase is a reaction to the government trying to curb the influence of the religious police.

“Saudi political analyst Tawfiq al-Saif says religious authorities truly believe they are helping society by discouraging faith in the supernatural. But, he says, there is also a political reason for the recent rise in sorcery cases. In the past few years, the government has tried to curb the influence of the religious establishment by sacking key religious figures, pushing for reform in the courts and criticizing the religious police. “One time, I met the head of the Hey’a [the religious police] and he was really sorry because in the past he was saying that they were free to do whatever they like to enforce the Sharia laws — even, he said, in the public buses, in the train, in the airports,” Saif says. But now that they are under pressure, the religious police are trying to flex their muscles in the few ways they still can, including looking for people who practice magic or who don’t pray five times a day, and for women who don’t properly cover their hair, Saif says.”

Does this mean that the plight of people like Fawza Falih Muhammad Ali and Ali Sibat are due to the last grasps at control by a shrinking power in the country? Or has the “muscle flexing” by the religious police shifted matters to their liking, and we’ll only see more madness and death in the near future? I suppose it remains to be seen, but I worry that any long-term solution to this anti-sorcery madness will come too late for the unlucky caught in this cultural crossfire.

For a somewhat different take on the problem of sorcery in the Middle East, The Epoch Times looks at Dubai, who have far more liberal laws concerning sorcery, but who also deal with rampant fraud and scam-artists.

“In the United Arab Emirates, and Dubai in particular, authorities take a more liberal stance. However, because of the large number of scam artists posing as sorcerers and exorcists in Dubai, police have set up a special task to crack down on so-called “magic-related crimes.” “Some people are just simple and anything will fool them,” Khaleel Al-Mansouri, the head of Dubai’s Criminal Investigation Department, told local newspaper seven days earlier this year. “It’s due to a lack of education, but also because the victims are greedy and are looking for a quick profit. “Our officers are highly skilled and they carry out special undercover patrols in shopping malls throughout Dubai looking for any sorcery crime that might be occurring.” In 2008 alone, fraudsters fleeced Dh130 million (US$35.5 billion) out of unsuspecting members of the public in sorcery scams.”

They also manage to interview a taxi driver, Hassan Hamadi, who also works as an exorcist. He claims he charges no money for his services, and lives in fear of being arrested by the sorcery task-force. However, despite the threat of arrest, because laws are more liberal (no death-penalty) places like Oman in the Persian Gulf has become, according to one journalist, a hotbed of “sorcerers and mystics”. Such is, I believe, the consequence of creating a legal gray area. They eliminate death-penalties and long prison terms for sorcery, but enough of a penalty remains to keep the practice criminal, underground, and unregulated. One wonders if they repealed all laws and dealt with fraud on a purely secular basis if a home-grown “neo-sorcery” would emerge, much like Wicca did in England. Maybe, maybe not, but arresting, and in the case of Saudi Arabia, killing, “witches” doesn’t seem to ever “solve” the problem.

In a final note, here’s a unique opinion essay at the American Thinker by Selwyn Duke that debunks the pagan origins of Christmas, while acknowledging the great debt we owe to “pagan” pre-Christian cultures.

“If we were to discard all things pagan, I should think we’d plunge ourselves back into the Stone Age. We walk on concrete, record our knowledge with letters, and designate our months with names originated/invented by the pagan Romans. We steer our boats with rudders invented by the pagan Chinese; make calculations with numbers invented by pagan Indians; and create computer graphics, medical imaging, and designs for buildings and bridges using geometry formalized by pagan Greeks. And much of our philosophy (and much of that drawn upon by early Christians, mind you) was generated by pagans such as Aristotle and Plato. Should we “go Taliban” and burn all their works — and other books thus influenced? A pious Christian must believe that pagans could not have had the whole Truth, but only an ignorant Christian would believe they had no Truth.”

I would happily concede Christmas as wholly Christian if those same culture-warriors would acknowledge that their foundation is built on the advances made by “pagans”. Heck, I’d even call it a “Christmas miracle”.

That’s all I have for now, have a great day!