Wednesday 9 March 2011

Fairytale Feature - Disney & Rapunzel: Why did it take so long?!

I'm not going to talk about the poem this month, I just like poetry, and so thought I'd start off every feature with a poem!

By Louis Untermeyer
Let down your hair,
That cloudy-gold lure,
The delicate snare,
That holds me secure,
Delight and despair
War with me now—
Let down your hair.

Shake out each curl
Swiftly, and be
Like Spring, a wild girl
With her hair flying free.
Bury me there,
And be buried with me...
Let down your hair!

This months’ feature was meant to be on Little Red Riding Hood, but I went to see Tangled at the weekend, so I figured I could do Rapunzel instead.

I’m a huge fan of classic Disney, by which I mean all of the films from Snow White, up until around about The Lion King/Hercules kind of time. I’d pretty much given up on them after such horrific films as Tarzan and Brother Bear, when The Princess and the Frog came along and restored my faith. For a while, at the beginning of Tangled, I was wavering again, but then there was an absolutely brilliant ensemble song in a pub, and all my worries disappeared out of the window. The fiancé and I were having a conversation this morning about why on earth Disney hadn’t done a version of Rapunzel years ago, when they were in their making damsel in distress films era. Having read the original (I say original, more on the history lesson later!) Brothers Grimm story, I can kind of see how it needed to be heavily adapted for children.
The idea of innocence is a strong one in most Disney films. The problem is that fairytales in their original forms, weren’t intended for children. They prevalently have themes of violence, repression, and sexual tension and liberation. As they are usually tales of growing up and self discovery, this isn’t really surprising, but for the most part, they have had to be heavily edited and rearranged to become the children’s medium that they are today.
Although the original tale of Rapunzel stems from the first Brothers Grimm collection, the story is based on a French tale, Persinette, by Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de La Force (loooong name!).  Limited funds, and its’ unavailability online mean I haven’t yet been able to read this, but I hope I will in the future. Other versions of the tale include Giambattista Basile’s Petrosinella, and a 10th Century Persian fairytale called Rudaba.
The basic plot of the Grimm’s Rapunzel is as follows. A couple live next door to an enchantress (as you do...). The woman is pregnant and is craving the flowers she sees in the enchantress’s garden. She tells her husband that if she cannot have some of this flower (named rampion, or rapunzel), she will die, and he is so worried that he climbs the wall to get her some. Of course, the enchantress catches him, and makes him promise to give her the child when it’s born, in return for all the flowers he wants. The girl is beautiful, and when she is twelve, the witch (named Mother Gothol), locks her up in a tower. Rapunzel has really long blonde hair, with which she pulls the witch up into the tower. One day a prince is passing by, hears Rapunzel singing, and falls in love with her. He waits by the tower, and seeing how the witch gets up, tricks Rapunzel into doing the same. He asks her to marry him, and she agrees, saying she’ll weave a ladder and when it’s finished they will escape together. Unfortunately before that happens, she accidentally lets slip to the witch that she’s been having a man up in her tower. The witch is furious, cuts off Rapunzel’s hair, and forces her live in a desert. When the prince comes back, the witch pulls him up into the tower with Rapunzel’s hair. On hearing what’s happened to her, the prince despairingly flings himself out of the tower, where thorns pierce his eyes and blind him. He then wanders the earth for ages, lamenting his lost love. Eventually he wanders to the desert where Rapunzel is living with her twin babies. Apparently the original edit talks about the ‘tightening of her dress’ as a reference to pregnancy, but as that’s been removed from my edition, I was totally blindsided by the arrival of babies...Anyway! Her voice draws him to her, and his sight is restored by her tears. They go back to his kingdom and live happily ever after. The end.
Tangled is much lighter, and accompanied, of course, by many spontaneous bursts of song. When the queen is giving birth to Rapunzel, she is about to die, so soldiers are sent out to find a magic flower than heals you and keeps you young. Unfortunately, Mother Gothol, a less scary than usually in Disney films old witch, is trying to keep the flower for herself, so she can be eternally young. As she runs away from the soldiers, she accidentally leaves the flower exposed. The flower saves the queen, and that baby inherits the magical properties of the flower in her golden hair. Mother Gothol discovers that as soon as the hair is cut, it loses its’ magical power, so she steals the child and hides her in a tower. The king and queen are distraught, and every year on Rapunzel’s birthday, they release flying lanterns, hoping one day she’ll return to them. Rapunzel sees the lanterns out of her window and wants nothing more than to go and see them, having no idea who she really is. Her ‘mother’ refuses to let her, in a (fairly epic) song about how mother knows best. While running away from some guards, notorious thief Flynn Rider ends up in Rapunzel’s tower, and Rapunzel (through means of bribery) gets him to take her to the lanterns. Basically the rest of the film goes as you would expect of a Disney film. I loved it, especially that it’s her kingdom that they go to live happily ever after in.
Rapunzel in the film is the very picture of innocence – all big eyes, long blonde hair, and floaty dresses, and the fact that her magic hair preserves youth is a very strong metaphor: keeping her locked in the tower, away from the world, means she will never become corrupted. She will never know who she really is, and thus never want to live her own life, always being content to stay home, taking care of ‘mother’.  The major thing that Disney have done with the film, is to give Mother Gothol a motive for keeping Rapunzel locked in a tower, which is never allowed her in the Grimm’s’ version. Because it’s for children, there must be a reason behind everything that happens, while in the original version, the enchantress takes and keeps the child for no reason other than because she can. Her dramatic actions in the story seem to be merely prompted by jealousy, selfishness, and a desire to keep Rapunzel innocent, and stop her from growing up, the film gives her a clear motive for wanting to keep Rapunzel close. Having said that, Disney films, and this one’s no different, often contain so much innocence that it can make the audience disbelieving. But then, fairytales in general require a state of suspended disbelief in order to read them at all.
The thing that I liked about both versions, is that they both very clearly believe in the redeeming power of love. I know that this is really cliché and makes a lot of people feel quite sick, but in both versions, the man is saved by the tears of Rapunzel,(at which point I started furiously whispering in Rhys’ ear ‘Pokémon tears will bring him back to life!’ – first Pokémon movie, anyone?) and they go on to live happily ever after. I did enjoy that the character of Flynn wasn’t a prince, though. I also loved that the characters were so accepting of each other, and the love story unfurled so naturally. While the Grimm’s’ Rapunzel never develops much of a character, Disney’s Rapunzel has tonnes of it, and is a great role model for kids (although not so much with the using frying pans as weapons..). She overcomes her fears, stands up for herself and others, and follows her dreams all the way. She is also not afraid to sacrifice herself for love. Far from the slightly pathetic Disney heroines of the past, I really felt that Tangled managed to accommodate the best of both worlds, still keeping the traditional Disney love story and happy ever after, while having a strong female lead.
The fairy tale adaptation as a genre has come a long way in recent years. It feels to me slightly like it’s going around in a big circle. The originals are often slightly terrifying, exposing characters to horrible, and often violent events, making people trade their children for some salad..and not even always having happy endings. Adaptations, especially those for children, often remove all the violence, and nasty bits – it’s the really spineless versions of Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella etc I’m thinking of now (though don’t get me wrong, all films I love), but now they are again becoming stories with true backbones, with strong morals and messages for children. Although not quite reverting to the harsh reality of many of the originals, they are getting closer. From a feminist point of view (being that yesterday was International Women’s Day), many of the reworkings of stories such as Rapunzel, now have much stronger females than the originals, and women who stand up for, and ultimately save, themselves, can only be a good thing.
For me, a lot of Rapunzel is basically locking up childhood in a tower in the hopes that it’ll never turn into a screaming, hormonal adolescent, or even worse, a proper grownup who can think for themselves, and this begs the question, is the preservation of innocence even a valid pursuit anymore? Given the kind of stuff a lot of kids are watching nowadays from a very young age, is there any point in trying to soften the fairytale? Or could you just give kids the original, straight out the book? Even if it didn’t have the happy ever after...
Any thoughts?
Some other versions of the Rapunzel Story
·         The Wild – Sara Durst
·         Out of the Wild – Sara Durst
·         The Tower Room – Adele Geras
·         The Stone Cage – Nicholas Stuart erHerce TheGray
·         Rapunzel’s Revenge- Shannon Hale
·         Letters from Rapunzel – Sara Holmes
·         Zel – Donna Jo Napoli


  1. I'm glad Disney is making good films again - like you I gave up on them a bit after the Pocahontas/Hunchback era.

    I'm glad you also loved Anna Karenina. I too know the next logical step is War and Peace but I'm not up to that just yet! Now that is scary!

    Wedding planning is going well. All the major decisions are made now, so we can relax a little :)

  2. I love fairy tales, they are so easy and fun to read. If you are looking for free textures to make fairy tale book illustrations, you can download them from here.