Disney Book Review: Once Upon a Dream by Liz Braswell

Once Upon a Dream (A Twisted Tale, #2)Once Upon a Dream by Liz Braswell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book was similar in quality to “A Whole New World,” but because I don’t have the same abiding affection for Sleeping Beauty, it did not get the same (perhaps unwarranted) rating inflation.

It reminds me a bit of “Sleeping Beauty” meets “Alice in Wonderland.” Most of the story takes place in a dream world which gets pretty dark in places, which is sort of this series’ “shtick.” I was impressed by how well Braswell fleshed out the various characters from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, considering most of them are pretty flat in the original. I could really “picture” her versions of Prince Phillip, Maleficent, King Hubert, Maleficent’s minions, the good fairies, etc. The one place where it fell a little short was her characterization of Aurora (or Aurora Rose, as she calls herself, to encompass both her identities). It was hard for me to picture the Aurora from the movie doing and saying all the things she does in this book because she really is such a “blank slate” as a Disney princess, virtually without personality, so the character in this book feels like someone new I had to get to know as a reader rather than a new take on someone I already loved. This was somewhat jarring, since she is the central character. However, I really liked the way that Braswell interpreted even this “lack of personality” so that it made sense in Aurora’s circumstances, and especially her reasons for touching the spinning wheel, adding a depth to the original character that was never there before and casting her in a whole new light.

The book is also a bit meta in that it uses the dream setting as an opportunity to critique the original tenets of the Sleeping Beauty story (love at first sight, a curse laid upon a baby, etc.) At times the story did get a little tedious, but it was still an interesting enough “take” that I’ll continue to explore this series.

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Disney Book Review: The Beast Within by Serena Valentino

The Beast Within: A Tale of Beauty's PrinceThe Beast Within: A Tale of Beauty’s Prince by Serena Valentino
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This series keeps disappointing me, but I keep reading it anyway. :p

In Poor Unfortunate Soul: A Tale of the Sea Witch, my main issue was that too much of the book was dedicated to non-canon characters. While that was also an issue in this book — although to a lesser extent — one of the things that annoyed me about this one was the way it tried to shoe-horn existing characters into parts of the story where they didn’t really belong. I just had a lot of trouble buying (view spoiler) A lot of how the prince/beast was portrayed in this book just didn’t feel congruous with the one we know in the book, and his redemption seemed to happen too quickly and easily considering how awful Valentino had set him up to be prior to Belle’s arrival. I did like the idea of the curse taking hold slowly rather than all at once, though.

Oh, and this book doesn’t give a crap about the movie timeline … as far as I can tell it takes place over a period of two years or so, rather than 10. And it doesn’t address the oh-so-awkward issue of the prince being 11 when he is cursed — he is in his teens (i.e., old enough to know better) in this version. That was just one more thing that made this interpretation feel sloppily done.

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Disney Book Review: A Frozen Heart by Elizabeth Rudnick

A Frozen HeartA Frozen Heart by Elizabeth Rudnick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is probably the best Disney spinoff novel that I’ve read so far.

A big part of that is that Rudnick is a good writer, and this book feels like it came from someone who cares enough about her subject matter to really sink into the characters’ thoughts, motivations, and world. The book is full of backstory for Anna and Hans that is only hinted at in the movie, gives names and personalities to “bit part” characters, and for the most part does not feel forced or contrived.

My biggest disappointment in this book was how much of its events overlapped with the movie’s events — that means that a sizeable chunk of it was essentially a “novelization,” albeit a very good novelization. I would have enjoyed it a LOT when I was young and used to read the novelizations again and again in the time between the movie’s theatrical release and its video release, but as an adult (who still reads Disney novels ;)), I was hungry for more new, original material — especially since Rudnick did that so well.

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Disney Book Review: Poor Unfortunate Soul by Serena Valentino

Poor Unfortunate Soul: A Tale of the Sea WitchPoor Unfortunate Soul: A Tale of the Sea Witch by Serena Valentino
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I love Ursula, but, alas, this was not the Ursula novel I desperately wanted it to be.

What annoyed me about the book was that it was not a “standalone,” which I really feel like the books in this villain series should be in order to give each villain’s potentially complex backstory and motives their full due. About half the book was focused on follow-up to events from the previous book in the series, The Beast Within: A Tale of Beauty’s Prince, which I wasn’t really invested in. Overall, it felt more as if the author was more interested in continuing the story with the auxiliary characters that she had made up for the series than really delving into Ursula’s story, which felt somewhat tangential to the story Valentino seemed to REALLY want to tell about the “odd sisters” machinations regarding the various villains in the Disney-verse. Overall, this gave the book a somewhat disjointed feel of two stories being told in parallel, one about Ursula’s perspective of The Little Mermaid, one about Valentino’s own characters that never appear in the Disney movies and thus don’t garner a ton of investment from me.

Despite these issues, I still gave the book three stars because the parts that were focused on Ursula’s backstory, especially her relationship with King Triton, were well done. The book was also a fun, quick read and an enjoyable bit of escapism. The writing is passable, and despite my disappointment with this series (and other Disney novel spinoffs overall), I know I will keep reading them because, well, Disney.

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Disney Book Review – 3500: An Autistic Boy’s Ten-Year Romance With Snow White

3500: An Autistic Boy's Ten-Year Romance with Snow White3500: An Autistic Boy’s Ten-Year Romance with Snow White by Ron Miles
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Around the Year Reading Challenge Item #45: A Book Related to a Hobby or Passion You Have

If you are looking for beautiful writing, then you’ll want to pass on this book. It’s not badly written, especially as far as self-published works go. The writing is merely functional, and a little perfunctory — it feels a little as if the author is writing an email or a blog post detailing his and his son’s latest antics, with a reporting style that kind of assumes the reader already knows these people. Out of the whole “cast,” Ben comes across the most clearly, which makes sense since the whole book revolves around him. I had less of a sense of his mother’s or stepmother’s personality (his stepmother seemed like just an occasional footnote), and his father, as the storyteller, makes himself fairly vulnerable but also tells “his side of the story” and says the sorts of things you’d expect a caring father to say.

Still, if writing style isn’t a huge deal and what you want is to learn more about a unique family’s experiences with autism and the lengths they went to to bring their mostly non-verbal son out of his shell, this book will fit the bill. It moves along at a decent pace, and I had to admire the fact that Ben’s parents were willing to uproot their lives to move closer to Disney World, a place where their son seemed to make enough progress on their first visit that they believed it would be a further catalyst for his socialization — and in many ways, it was, although there’s really no way to know how his development would have proceeded had his parents not made this momentous decision. To that end, perhaps what comes across most strongly in this book is the love and devotion these parents feel toward their autistic son — I like Disney World, but visiting multiple times a week, only to ride the same ride dozens of times … it must have been mind-numbingly boring. But these parents soldiered on without much complaining.

If you are not a Disney fan, this book may be a little nauseating to you. The author is a total Disney World fanboy and the book reads so much like an open love letter to Disney that I wouldn’t be surprised if they sell it in their gift shops. I’m totally on board with the magic of Disney, but the total lack of any critique at all, especially considering the fact that his impressionable autistic son was marinating in Disney ideology 24/7, was a little off-putting to me; it felt like a bit of a “sell” at times even though I know it wasn’t.

Still, I mentioned earlier that this is self-published, and in that market, you could do a lot worse. This is cleanly written and formatted and not a slog to get through. And the photos of Ben sprinkled throughout were a very nice touch.

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Week 55: Zootopia

First Theatrical Release: February 17, 2016 (limited); March 4, 2016 (general)

First Home Viewing Release: TBD

My Rating: 4/5 stars

Where I Found It: In a theater!

Bechdel Test Score: Passed. Female characters include Judy Hopps, Bonnie Hopps, Gazelle, Dawn Bellweather, Mrs. Otterton, Fru Fru, and a few other incidental characters (this movie has a very large cast). I can remember a couple conversations between female characters that did not revolve around men, the first of which is the conversation between Judy and her mom about her desire to be a cop when she grows up. Later she has work-related conversations with Dawn Bellweather. (There are probably others I am not remembering off the top of my head.)

So, were it not for my vow when I “ended” my Year in Disney Movies project that I would keep this blog up-to-date, I probably would not have gone to see this movie on its last night in the local theater. If my husband’s mother hadn’t happened to be in town that night and wanting to see it, he also would not have gone. All present ended up glad that we went (I’m going to convert him into a Disney fan yet. ;))

This is one of those movies that has as much good stuff for adults as for kids, especially regarding “work culture,” and it also has a few surprisingly dark moments that justified the PG rating (unlike Frozen). Despite that, it is mostly light and fun with timeless messages about being true to yourself, following your dreams, and seeing past stereotypes — and its focus on the character development of Judy and Nick keeps it from feeling bogged down by its large cast of characters (unlike, say, Atlantis).

Similar to Disney’s earlier “talking animal” movies (Lady & the Tramp, The Lion King), in Zootopia animals are used to skirt around topics that would be taboo in a movie about humans. This is most striking in the humorous visit to a nudist park, where Judy and Nick are shocked by naked animals but the movie can still get away with “showing everything,” but it also comes through in the uphill battle Judy faces to be taken seriously in the workplace as the first rabbit on the police force. I’m going to start (and possibly end) there.

nude yoga

Yup, that’s nude yoga.

Also, unlike all the earlier films that I pretty much assumed people had gotten around to seeing, I realize that this one is not yet “common knowledge.” So, consider yourself forewarned that there be spoilers ahead.

Welcome to Being a Woman in the Workplace

judy uniformJudy’s sex is never mentioned outright as she goes to work for the ZPD, but it should be noted that along with being the only rabbit on the force, she is also the only female cop we ever see in the movie. And any woman whose ever struck out to chase a career — especially one in a male-dominated field — will recognize the plight of women workers in Judy’s story.

Because of all the preconceptions people have of rabbits in Zootopia (they’re easily frightened, “sweet,” innocuous, “cute,” etc.), Judy has to work twice as hard as every other cop in the movie to be taken seriously. She has to study and train harder to graduate from the academy. Then, despite graduating at the top of her Judy meter maidclass, on her first day on the job she plummets from top of her class to the most menial task on the force — she’s assigned as a meter maid. The first time the receptionist sees her, he gushes about how “cute” she is (NOT the way to compliment someone who has worked her butt off to get where she is). The admonishment she gives him rings a bit more true to race than gender relations (it’s OK for one rabbit to call another rabbit cute, but it’s offensive when someone else does it), but the fact that she called him on it at all at least raised the issue of what is and is not appropriate to say in a professional setting.

Then she has to face what is essentially “hazing” from her supervisor, Chief Bogo, who tells her she has to resign if she’s not able to solve a missing animal case within 48 hours — despite the fact that more experienced officers haven’t made any headway in two weeks. Not only that, but because she is a new employee she is shut out of the police department’s computer system and all the resources the other cops have access to, and Bogo doesn’t bother making sure she’s set up before sending her off.

bogoHonestly, I can feel my stress levels rise just writing about this, because it just smacks of the “Old Boys Clubs” that are still rampant in the workplace, where women may not be shut out of work computer systems, but are instead left behind in the office while “the guys” go out for drinks or take the afternoon off for a round of golf. Being excluded from these outings often puts women on the slow track to promotion, where deals are made over drinks and networks are forged outside the office.
Bogo should have been fired for allowing one of his cops to go out on an assignment without the tools she needed to do her job. Heck, Judy should have sued the pants off him. Instead, he’s given a free pass because he has a change of heart after Judy manages to crack the case. Too little, too late, bud — if I were Judy, I’d ask for a transfer to another precinct.

And while Judy’s tenacity in pursuing the case despite the limitations imposed on her is admirable, I was still somewhat uncomfortable that she was essentially willing to “take it” — she went out knowing the odds were stacked against her, and rather than fight for what she deserved so that she could do her job, she accepted that she would be shut out and busted her back for the ZPD, anyway. Make no mistake, this has reverberations for women in the workplace everywhere: many of us KNOW we are being shut out or shut down in various ways, but we’re stuck in that awful double bind: do we go forward crippled in our work by being granted “barely enough,” or do we risk being seen as “whiners” or worse for demanding more? Because let’s not forget that women are seen as “less likable” when they fight for what they need to do their jobs, or for the compensation they deserve, whereas men who do the same are just performing to expectation. Where does this leave women? Either accepting less than they know they deserve, or being labeled as “difficult” and risking their long-term prospects at a company. (Although it’s never mentioned, I’d bet anything that Judy’s paycheck is substantially smaller than the other rookies’.)

So, I can’t really fault Judy for the choice she made to just “make it work” — but I do worry a little about the message it might send to girls who end up facing similar “raw deals” in the workplace.

Eventually, Judy makes a huge personal and professional blunder just as she is beginning to get the respect and recognition she deserves. That mistake is taking the “easy way out” and promoting the idea that the animals in town that have gone “feral” (i.e., giving in to their “wild” natures and attacking others) did so because they were all “predators.” (In the world set up in Zootopia, predator and prey have cohabited peacefully for years.) This alienates Judy from Nick, a fox who has become her unofficial partner on the case.


She has to make amends with him, and this is where things get a little squicky for me. A few times before this point, people have discredited Judy by referring to her as a “dumb bunny” — notably, the same insult that is often used to discredit women, particularly young or attractive women. Now, as Judy is owning up to her wrongs, she sums it up by crying, “I’m just a dumb bunny, all right?”

reconcileThis is apparently just what Nick wanted to hear. He caught it on tape, and he plays it back to her. They are reconciled.

So, yeah, in case you missed it: when you are a woman in the workplace and you have a falling out with your male friend/co-worker, the best way to smooth things over is to embrace the worst thing people are saying about you. Once you’ve been sufficiently taken down a few notches, you’re welcome at the table again.

But It’s Really a Smart Commentary on Racial Profiling, Etc.

With that said, I’m willing to forgive this blunder because this movie really is a very intelligent and timely allegory for racial profiling, as well as the hidden evil of “majority rules.” (Zootopia is 90 percent “prey,” 10 percent “predator.”) Just because you are in the majority does not mean you are entitled to make all the rules/persecute the minority, and man, the sooner we can drum that idea into kids’ heads, the better. Also, the fact that Hanna Rosin recommended the movie on the feminist podcast I listen to also confirms that feminist Disney fans need feel little guilt for enjoying this latest offering.