LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

Fairy Tales and Disney Tales: the Goblin known as Walt

on January 31, 2013 12:49pm

The Princess and the Goblin is an interesting progression for fairy tales as the idea of a female protagonist is not only represented in this text, but the story also implores the idea that the other main characters who greatly affect this story’s development are also women. In class, we were able to spend an ample amount of time highlighting the qualities of five women who demonstrated their influence on the story. Coincidentally enough, this movie, not created though the somewhat less than imaginative mind of Walt Disney, was not very popular with audiences, such as Beauty and the Beast, which was also produced in the same yearWhat does this say about the power that Disney holds over popular culture regarding how an animated fairy tale should be viewed and critiqued? Walt Disney is anything but the model for feminism and as a result, the criticism regarding his chauvinistic tendencies in practically every one of his movies becomes more of a focus even decades after his death.

While I cannot argue that Mr. Disney did not find merit in the fairy tale of Princess Irene, it can be demonstrated through his inability of focusing on strong female protagonists and his display of women in his films, that he could have possibly been deterred from producing a film that was centered on women. In The Princess and the Goblin, the King is absent for majority of the book, and the only other real strong male character is Curdie, who while helps save the Princess, is only a supporting character to the illustrious Irene.

When the movie of The Princess and the Goblin came out in 1991, it was competing with the Disney classic film, Beauty and the Beastand we all know how that turned out. Princess Irene got lost in the castle along with poor Chip in the cupboard and was hardly a thought in the realm of Belle and the Beast.

The author of The Princess and the Goblin, George MacDonald, was beginning a new focus of fairy tales, which included women in a more commanding role; however, as Jack Zipes wrote in his piece Breaking the Disney Spell, Disney has a way of “chang[ing] [fairy tales] completely to suit his tastes and beliefs” (Zipes, 347). Zipes specifically looks at how Disney portrayed the film version of Snow White, but much of what he says applies to practically every movie that deals with a Disney princess. In the Grimms’ version of Snow White there is “the sentimental death of [Snow White’s] mother”, however this just so happens to be left out of Mr. Disney’s portrayal of the film (Zipes, 347). Instead, his story centered on the romance with the Prince, who of course enters on a white horse as Snow’s very own prince charming. Snow White lies lifeless in the end of the film until this man can come rescue her. As Zipes states concisely, the “film follows the classic ‘sexist’ narrative about the framing of women’s lives through a male discourse” (Zipes, 348). “Despite [the] beauty and charm” of the princesses in Disney’s films, “these figures are pale and pathetic compared to the more active and demonic characters in the film” (Zipes 349).

Princess Irene does not fill this archetype of the domestic woman, whose motive is purely as an accessory to a man. She is strong-willed, independent, and uses her title as princess to implore power, rather than subservience. Why then was the film of her journey unfavorable? The answer to this question is certainly perplexing, and unfortunately, I am not sure I will find the answer any time soon. But I feel I am more hopeful than most in thinking that as a society we will all be able to fight back against the patriarchal goblin that Disney has created in order to demonstrate a more balanced approach to the contributions of both women and men in fairy-tales.



3 responses to “Fairy Tales and Disney Tales: the Goblin known as Walt

  1. cpaik1 says:

    When the group presenting The Princess and the Goblin explained the film version and its lack of popularity, I too was perplexed.

    However, I do not fully agree with your opinion about Walt Disney. Although there have been many academic discussions about Disney’s chauvinistic undertones in many of the movies, I believe there is too much focus on the movies that appear to highlight this argument.

    On the other hand, other Disney movies focus on a strong female lead. For example, in Disney’s adaptation of The Little Mermaid, Ariel is a very curious, smart, and witty individual. Much like Irene, Ariel is a princess without a mother. She is sheltered from the land of man, but she is keenly interested in gaining more knowledge of the world. I feel that the original Anderson version and the Disney version illustrate the mermaid as a strong character like Irene. Furthermore, the main antagonist of The Little Mermaid, Ursula, is also female. She is similar to the goblin queen in that they are both stubborn, strong, and have power. Therefore, there are examples of Disney movies that have strong female characters.

    Another thought I had about the unpopular film version of The Princess and the Goblin was that this movie had competition. Perhaps the release of Beauty and the Beast, especially under a popular studio such as Disney, managed to crowd out any spotlight that otherwise could’ve been given to The Princess and the Goblin. I hesitate to think that people were not rejoicing over this movie merely because the protagonist is a strong female.

    Walt Disney was definitely an innovator of his own. There can be many negative critiques about his depiction of classic stories and his use of females, but I do not think the movie version of The Princess and the Goblin was deflated merely because of Irene and the other strong female characters.

  2. jklager says:

    I think you both have made some excellent points. Particularly about Walt Disney’s motives for film making, the competition and reception for the film, and the idea of strong female characters.

    Walt Disney has been studied, psychoanalyzed, embraced, and rejected. Disney did seem to have a sort of stock character within his films, princesses without mothers, who fall in love, are usually saved by a male, and there is almost always singing. Even after Walt Disney passed away, the Disney Franchise seemed to still hold on to these basic concepts. I think it is prudent to note thought that Disney has begun making more films, which empower young girls, think Princess Diaries, Mulan, and Brave. Granted, in Princess Diaries Mia is usually being told what is ladylike and how to behave according to royal guidelines, but she usually fails and shows that it is okay for young girls to make mistakes. Mulan may have been in love with her commander but she left her home in China to fight for her country to protect her father. I think the best example is the new Disney film Brave, which is about a young Scottish Princess who does not want to be married off but wants to take control of her own destiny.

    That being said, I do think earlier films such as Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid do have large flaws. Beauty and the Beast is a story we have discussed in much length during class, naive girl falls in love with a beast that she has been thrust upon, a foreshadowing for young girls who are getting married. Now The Little Mermaid is a story that I do not believe is really about an independent young woman. Yes, Ursula is a strong independent woman, but she is the villain. Ariel is indeed clever, independent, and adventurous, but then she has to go and fall in love with Prince Erick. Her quest for a life on land slowly become less about her wanting to be a part of the human world and becomes more like her wanting to be married to the Prince. I love both of these films and think that there are definitely elements from which young girls and boys, no gender roles on my end, but I do not think that they are on the same level with The Princess and The Goblin as far as lessons go.

  3. Rebekah says:

    Just a quick factual correction: “The Princess and the Goblin” was originally released in Europe in 1991, but did not come to the US until 1994, where it was competing in the theaters against “The Lion King”

    Also, in terms of “The Little Mermaid,” the criticism of that film in regards to the “framing the lives of women through the discourse of men” is aptly summed up in the final scene. Ariel’s father gives Ariel legs via his magic, then gestures towards Prince Eric, granting her permission to marry him. All of the things Ariel has done (gone to the sea witch, sacrificed her voice, defeated the sea witch, saved Eric) seems to have nothing to do with her ability to marry him in the end: it took her father to make it happen, and so her marriage remains a contract between men.

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