Knights in La La Land

best-leslie-knope-gifsIf there’s one thing that you can expect to hear from TV critics these days, it’s that we’ve reached ‘peak TV’. There’s so much good stuff to watch, in some many different genres, that it’s nearly impossible to keep up, not unless we, in the immortal words of Leslie Knope, ‘work hard, never sleep, and shirk all other responsibilities in our lives.’ Of course, here ‘working hard’ refers mostly to the labour undertaken by our eyes, which may become glazed if not permanently damaged, by excessive staring at a screen.

I watch more TV than a lot of other people I know, one of the few benefits of deciding not to sign up for a regular salary and its (many) perks. Thanks to Netflix and Amazon Prime and Hotstar and the  good work of Russian/Belarusian/Indian pirates, I can keep up to date with a load of shows that channels here do not deign to broadcast, or air at inconvenient hours, interspersed with ads. Despite the  amount of time I have, I have still not managed to watch everything that my friends assure me I ‘have to see’, like Breaking Bad, or The  Wire. Yes, yes, I know, I cannot claim to have lived unless I strike those off my list.

I’m usually reluctant to taste a new show, unless I’ve a) read about it in some esteemed publication whose writers I take seriously or b) been told to do so by a friend whose opinion I trust. My reluctance also stems from the  fact that for me, getting into a new show is a huge investment. Once I start something, I usually try to finish it, sticking with it as it makes its way to what is hopefully a great season/series finale. There have been very few instances where I’ve given up on a show I started, and though it may not be the  greatest example, Quantico was the  last to fall into this category. I tried to be supportive, but I’m sorry PC, I just couldn’t take it after three episodes.

My greatest joy comes from finding a show that has finished its run, and therefore is available in its entirety to binge watch. This January, I stumbled across just such a show. It ran for all of two seasons, has 18 episodes in all, each of which is around 21 minutes, the  standard sitcom length. I was amazed I hadn’t found it earlier, given that it hit all of the  right notes (for me). Seriously, consider this:

—It’s created by the  guy who wrote, among other film successes, Tangled.

Its music is written by the  guy who shaped the  music of, among other Disney movies, Aladdin.

—It’s executive produced and written by the  guy who is most famous for voicing, get this, Aladdin.

—Oh, and did I mention, it’s a spoof of knightly romances, a convention-spinning medieval tale of spurned lovers, ‘evil’ kings, overlooked squires, badass princesses and subplots galore?

It’s called Galavant, and I devoured it in a little less than three days.

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Disney gets many things right (yes, you guessed it, Disney owns this show), and one of them is spoofing its own work. The  classic animated films are filled with little puns and Easter eggs that reference others in their fraternity—such as the  Genie turning into Pocahontas, or Pumba, in throwaway moments of Aladdin and the  King of Thieves. But self-
spoofing is elevated to an art in Galavant, which employs the  musical numbers that
distinguish Disney’s classics to hilarious effect. The  opening title is basically a sum up of our hero, laying out his ‘every fairytale cliche’, and the  problem that besets him: his lady love, Madalena, has been stolen by the  ‘evil’ King Richard, and he must ride to rescue her on her wedding day. Ring any bells? That’s pretty much the  premise of Walter Scott’s poem ‘Lochinvar.’ So yes, cliched premise, but what follows is upturn after upturn of convention, starting off with Madalena deciding, ‘on second thought’, that she’d rather have fame and riches as queen than living a poor, if ‘acrobatic’ sex-filled life with Galavant. And so less than a quarter of the  way through the  first episode, the  opening titles have been debunked—Madalena is not the  helpless damsel we expect in so many knightly tales, and Galavant is an out-of-work, wine-sozzled man with a beer gut, no longer quite the  picture of ‘ruling in every way’.

But not for long. A mysterious princess shows up, claiming to need his help for vengeance against the  nefarious Richard, and promising him the  precious Jewel of Valencia in payment. Desperate to strike back at the  man who ‘stole’ Madalena, Galavant agrees to come, and thus adventures involving landlocked pirates, ridiculous battles, and singing monks begins.

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Heroes out to save…somebody.

The  cast is perfect, particularly Karen David, who plays ‘ethnically-ambiguous’ Princess Isabella, Mallory Jansen as the  ambitious Madalena, and Timothy Omundsen as the  hilarious King Richard. Everyone sings, and hams it up, and looks like they’re having such fun with their roles, fully embracing the  faux medieval aesthetic and all its Disney splendour. There are plenty of in-jokes, like random signs pointing to ‘Winterfell’, a handsome knight named ‘Sir Jean Hamm’ (played dashingly by John Stamos), and even a dig at Disney’s problematic race record, with Isabella, Sid (Galavant’s black squire) and Galavant singing stirringly about  what a wonderfully diverse cast they are. Alan Menken’s tunes are comfortingly similar to what we expect from a Disney production—catchy and filled with digs both at the  show itself, and the  larger TV universe of it which it forms a part. For instance, my personal favourite is the  opener of Season 2, where the  cast catches the  audience up with what’s happened in Season 1, and celebrates not being cancelled despite not ‘being Game of Thrones’.

Galavant owes a great deal, of course, to Don Quixote, one of the  earliest and still best send-ups of the  medieval romance. It’s easy to watch, and really seems made for people who want a little Disney feel good in their lives—feel good that is smarter than Once Upon a Time. I loved the  show, and I think that anyone who likes Disney, who likes intelligent satire and storytelling, and also just likes to see the  typical princess figures turn things upside down, should check out Galavant. Musicals seem to be having a moment, so why not keep the  La La Land feels going, Game of Thrones style?

Pocahontas, 21 years later

I have wanted, and continue to want many impossible things. I look up to more fictional characters than real people, and they have changed in the course of time. But the first one I remember having any ‘real’ effect on me, the first person, male or female, animated or not, to have a deep and lasting impact on my life, was Pocahontas, the eponymous heroine of Disney’s 1995 film.

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When I was a kid, I wanted to grow up to be Pocahontas. I can tell you why, too. In some ways, the story is one that is familiar to many ‘poco’ kids around the world, longing, if not always consciously, to see themselves in western pop culture entertainment. I saw the movie when I was 5 years old, and from the moment Pocahontas burst onto the screen, I was in love. She was so amazing: she was beautiful, smart, and so rebellious, jumping off waterfalls instead of timidly climbing down them, refusing to marry the warrior her father had selected for her and instead, trying to cement peace between two peoples. Plus she had that whole mystical goddess-like connection going on with the world around her, with winds carrying secrets to her, and trees giving her life lessons in the absence of other maternal figures.

And needless to say, she had great hair. This is the worst kept secret in my family: that at the age of 5 I decided to grow my hair as long as possible, not because tradition or my mother dictated it, but because I wanted to be like Pocahontas.

meekoI was a fangirl. In fact, I don’t think I’ve fangirled as hard for anyone since. I dressed up like her for Halloween, I danced to ‘Colours of the Wind’ for my school talent show, I got my mother to buy me all the ‘kid’ history books she could find about her, as well as any other merchandise she could afford on her graduate student salary. This included chocolate, picture books, stickers, dolls…so when people talk about a new generation of kids and the Frozen craze, I totally get it. I was on the other side not too long ago.

One of my most crushing disappointments came two years after seeing the movie. I was used to people calling me ‘Pocahontas’ by then, playing along with my extremely modest opinion of myself. I was ‘Indian’ after all (who cared for political nuances, like whether I was the ‘right’ kind of Indian?), and she was, at the time, one of only two ‘brown’ princesses on the Disney pantheon. So it was a bit of a shock when, at a summer camp, a counseler, when he heard my fellow kids calling me ‘Pocahontas’ said ‘Pocahontas? No, she’s Jasmine.’ I assume, since he was a very nice man, that he meant nothing but the best with that statement, but I was crushed. I didn’t want to be Jasmine: she was spoilt and pampered and she had to be rescued. Pocahontas was so much cooler. Even as a seven year old, I could tell that choosing to stay behind with her people rather than sail off with the dreamy John Smith was revolutionary, and therefore, raised Pocahontas to a level far, far above her fellow heroines. It was also my first experience of being stuck into an identity not of my choosing, simply because I happened to look more like one kind of princess than the other, but as far as such profiling goes, this was one with relatively gentle consequences; after all, my ego is not the biggest casualty.

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Can a kid’s obsession with a questionable fictional character yield good results? Research has shown that reading fiction increases empathy, leading to the spectacular conclusion that reading things like Harry Potter makes kids better human beings. I agree—through fiction you live in other people’s heads, see perspectives that would otherwise remain closed to you. you learn the world is not centred around you and people like you, or that it shouldn’t be.

Fiction can also open the doors to topics and events that you would never have known of otherwise, whet interest in things that you never knew about. For instance, a friend of mine, an English student, grew extremely interested in the American recession of the early 2000s, and continues to slake that interest through movies about it (thanks to her, I watched the treasure that is Margin Call). For me, Pocahontas did the same. I began to read about American Indian history, starting with the ‘kid’ versions available. The ‘true’ story of Pocahontas devastated me; even the briefly told version I had left me angry and disbelieving. As I grew older, I read more—novels by American Indian authors, histories, interviews with activists. I began to view the Disney movie with a more critical eye, and while the experience of writing a paper on it and its historical/anthropological inaccuracies broke my heart a little*, I still continued to love it.

Pocahontas answered some deep-seated need in me to see a liberated, cool brown woman doing things on screen. She also opened my eyes to a whole new world, something no other Disney person managed to do. So if I never knew her, I have no doubt my life, and my interests, would be quite different, to say nothing of my appreciation of the voices of the mountain, or the colours of the wind.

*I learned, for instance, that Pocahontas, for all that she’s touted as an ‘American Indian’ princess, does not look anything like one. Artists consciously created her as a composite of a different races, using elements from ethnicities around the world to build this ‘ideal’ human being.

We need to talk about Jasmine

I grew up quite the Disney kid, as I’ve mentioned before. And so the news that Emma Watson, everyone’s favourite book loving leading lady, is signing on to play Belle in Disney’s revamped Beauty and the Beast was quite exciting. I mentioned this development to my mother, whose response was a world weary sigh and the following question:

‘Why do they want to ruin all the animated movies?’

Being the sassy twenty something I am, I retorted with, ‘Because they have to make the movies more obviously feminist.’

Then I sobered down and added, ‘Also, to make money.’

The conversation made me think, though, about the need for ‘feminist-ifying’ Disney heroines. When I was a kid, watching all those classics like ‘Aladdin’ and ‘Cinderella’ and ‘Pocahontas’ for the first time, I never really thought about what kind of social codes or behaviours they were prescribing. Now, with all the revamping, they’re coming under some heavy fire and re-examination, so of course I jumped on the bandwagon and went back and rewatched an old favourite: ‘Aladdin’.

I’ve always had a soft spot for this movie. There are two reasons for this, both of which are pretty superficial:

Aladdin was my first crush, and continues to be my favourite Disney prince of all time. 

Someone once told me that I looked like Jasmine.

I warned you—superficial reasons.

Anyway, the rewatch (which took place in September 2014, to be precise, in chilly Chicago, in the company of one of my best friends) made me realize something: Disney already had a fiery, feminist princess, way before Mulan entered the scene. And that princess was Jasmine.


aladdin-disneyscreencaps-com-1391What’s in a name:
‘Beauty and the Beast’, ‘Cinderella’, ‘Little Mermaid’—what do all these classic Disney princess movies have in common? They all include/refer to the female protagonist (the ‘princess’) in their title. Aladdin’s Jasmine is the only one of the original line up to not enjoy that privilege. She is also, notably, the only female character in her movie. Apart from the denizens of a brothel who show up once (during the song ‘One Jump’), and a little girl at the fruit market, Jasmine seems to be the only woman in Agrabah. Or the only woman who’s important enough to be part of the titular hero’s story anyway. She has no female support system, and her only friend is a tiger trained to dismiss troublesome suitors.

Sticking it to the marriage market: When we meet Jasmine, she has just cast off the unwanted advances of yet another conceited princeling. It’s not the first time this has happened—her father has been foisting suitors onto her for a while because the law says she ‘must be married’ to ascend the throne. ‘The law is wrong,’ she says, and all her jasmine pissedactions seem to suit her words. Even when ‘Prince Ali’ shows up, impressing the Sultan with his grand entrance, Jasmine remains unmoved. ‘I am not some prize to be won!’ is her melodramatic exiting line. You go girl.

The existential angst: There’s no question that Jasmine feels ‘trapped’. The movie is full of symbols of her seeking the freedom she lacks—freeing the birds in her garden, jumping over the walls to see what awaits her on the other side, even, at one point, declaring that maybe she doesn’t ‘want to be a princess anymore!’. I suppose you could pin this down to poor-little-rich-girl angst, especially when you contrast it to Aladdin’s desire to find a place/security in his street rat world. Also, when she breaks out of the palace, Jasmine very obviously has no idea how to function in the ‘real world’, nearly losing her hand for her naivety. But she’s a fast learner, and picks up quickly enough.

Smooth playa: Jasmine remains unimpressed by ‘Ali’s’ grandiose display. Jasmine is also a keen observer and can tell quickly that ‘Ali’ is not who he says he is, and is bold enough to confront him about it—‘Why did you lie to me?’, she demands after their romantic ride. Also, look at this bit from ‘A Whole New World’, where Aladdin rolls an apple off his shoulder and Jasmine catches it: it’s obvious she’s figured out who he is.

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OMG: Remember how Megara is such a big deal in the Disney pantheon because she uses her sexuality unashamedly? Well Jasmine did that LONG before her. Jasmine
jasmineseduces Jafar, distracting him in order to let Aladdin get about his mission of ‘making things right’. Jasmine knows what she’s got and she ain’t ashamed to flaunt it. If you don’t think this is a big deal in a kids’ movie…well. I really don’t know what to say. Of course, it could also be said that, as the only ‘exotic’, Eastern princess in her time, Jasmine was unfairly sexualized in a manner that her fellow ‘white’ princesses like Aurora and Snow White were not. But at least she owns her sexuality, and uses it to achieve her ends on her terms.

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At the end of the movie, Aladdin is promoted to ‘suitable’ status because of his exploits, and Jasmine agrees to abide by age-old conventions and get married, so maybe this is a bit of a cop out. I’m looking forward to the rework that Disney will no doubt get down to making, where Jasmine is the real heroine (let’s face it, she’s a lot more fun than Aladdin) who makes her way in a man’s world, maybe picking up a street rat or two on the way.

But only if she wants it, of course.

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