Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry - The Untold Story of an American Legend, by Scott Reynolds Nelson, recounts an effort to research the story behind the traditional song.
I came across this when I found the children's edition, Ain't Nothing But a Man: My Quest to Find the Real John Henry, at my library. It was told in an immediate first-person narrative, and I found it a great work for younger readers. It teaches kids how to do historical research and investigate folklore. After looking through it, I knew I had to read the full edition.
I thoroughly enjoyed both versions, although I leaned more towards the one for adult readers, which was longer and more in-depth. It's filled with resources, looks at different versions of the John Henry song and its evolution, and visits to the area where the song would have originated.
Nelson ultimately comes up with a theory for the origin of the song, and a candidate for a historical John Henry. Not everyone will agree with the theory, but I found Nelson's process fascinating and the theory fairly convincing. More than anything, the moment where the pieces fall into place is fantastic. A lot of effort went into this book and it shows. I recommend both versions to anyone interested in researching folklore.
Cuckoo Song begins with a girl waking up in bed after a mysterious injury. Her memories are foggy, her own family seems unfamiliar . . . and she feels voraciously hungry, no matter how much she eats.
This children's book is set in the 1920s not long after the first World War, and centers around Triss, a young girl from a well-to-do but deeply dysfunctional family. Ever since the death of her older brother in the war, the family has been unhealthily divided and deeply miserable. And now there is something wrong with Triss.
Ready for spoilers? This is a changeling story. Dark psychological horror. It's eerie, bizarre, and nightmarish, with some really beautiful prose. Many of the characters, not just Pen, are not what they seem at first. The slowly evolving friendship between Triss and her little sister Pen, for instance, was one of my favorite parts. Another character that will stay in my head for a long time is a kindly tailor, whose determination to save a lost child brings out one of the most unnerving threats in the book.
The fairies in this book are bonkers. They are creepy dark fairies, but they are also modern in a way, intertwining with the technology and aesthetics of the 1920s. You can use a telephone to call the otherworld. In one scene, a child is sucked into a silent black-and-white film. Scissors actively seek to kill anything fairylike. This is the kind of book where a girl unhinges her jaw to swallow a china doll whole. It's exactly as weird as it sounds, and it works.
Overall, the mood is very dark, but there was one scene towards the end of the book, in a crowded restaurant, that legitimately made me laugh out loud.
I particularly love that the changeling in the book is not a fairy child replacement. I have read so many changeling fantasies where the hero turns out to be a long-lost fairy prince or princess. This changeling story is inspired by tales where the replacement is a carved piece of wood, meant to pose as a corpse and fool people into believing their loved one is dead.
What would it be like to learn that you're not who you believe you are? And not even an enchanted Chosen One - nothing but a decoy? That's one plot idea I've been wishing I could read, and here it's played to its fullest extent.
Personally, I am adding this to my list of favorite books. I actually stumbled on the Wikipedia summary to begin with and was kind of baffled, but when I sat down to read the book, I finished it in one sitting and thoroughly enjoyed it. If you're looking for a dark and utterly original changeling tale, featuring a sweet friendship between siblings, check this one out.
You can read an interview with author Frances Hardinge on her inspirations here.
I recently saw someone cite A Basket of Wishes as an example of a romance novel cover, and it reminded me of something I noticed a while ago. And yes, this is another post on pillywiggins.
Among other appearances, these flower fairies showed up in a spate of romance novels through the 1990s and a little bit into the 2000s. First was A Basket of Wishes by Rebecca Paisley (1995). Then Twin Beds by Regan Forest (1996), A Little Something Extra by Pam McCutcheon (1996), Stronger than Magic by Heather Cullman (1997), Scottish Magic: Four Spellbinding Tales of Magic and Timeless Love (1998), A Dangerous Magic (1999), and Buttercup Baby by Karen Fox (2001).
A Basket of Wishes and Buttercup Baby, the first and last in this list, share a number of similarities.
Beyond the rather by-the-numbers plot setup, one of the most striking similarities is the fairy heroine whose tears are gemstones. The idea of tears becoming jewels has its own Aarne-Thompson motif number, D475.4.5. It appears in the Grimms' tale "The Goose Girl at the Well." In the Palestinian story of "Lolabe," the heroine weeps pearls and coral. This trope is often associated with mermaids. "Mermaid tears" is an alternate name for sea glass. There's a Scottish legend - recorded in 1896 when adapted into a poem - that a mermaid's tears became the distinctive pebbles on the shore of Iona. In Chinese legend, mermaids weep pearls; this idea was recorded going pretty far back, for instance by fourth-century scholar Zhang Hua in his Record of Diverse Matters.
Rebecca Paisley is the first person to apply this motif to pillywiggins. Karen Fox is the second. So far as I know, they remain the only two authors to do so.
As far as differences, they do take place in different time periods. Buttercup Baby is about the pregnancy and slice-of-life fluff. A Basket of Wishes, on the other hand, tends more towards high fantasy and some drama with Splendor’s realm being in danger.
Paisley's writing has a number of folklore references. Her pillywiggins (who are synonymous with fairies) live under a mound and tie elf knots in horses' manes. They are incredibly lightweight, like Indian tales of a princess who weighs as much as five flowers. They have no shadows, like Jewish demons and Indian bhoots or bhutas. Most intriguingly, Splendor reveals that her powers are not always limitless. She can't just vanish maladies like a stutter, an unsightly birthmark, or baldness, but must transfer them to someone else - which she does, giving those attributes to the book's antagonists. This harkens to the fairytale known in the Aarne-Thompson system as Type 503. In a common variation, two hunchbacks visit the fairies. One pleases the fairies and they reward him by removing his hunch. The second man is rude and greedy, and the fairies add the first man's hunch to his own.
Karen Fox, on the other hand, builds a world based on old English literature: A Midsummer Night's Dream and 17th-century ballads about Robin Goodfellow. She uses “pillywiggins” as a singular noun (which is not uncommon as a variant spelling). Unlike Paisley's version, Fox's pillywiggins are not a name for fairykind as a whole, but a specific subspecies.
Fox's use of Ariel as the pillywiggin queen points to Edain McCoy's Witch's Guide to Faery Folk (1994). McCoy was the first to give Ariel as the name of a queen of pillywiggins, and Fox is far from the only author to have followed suit. McCoy's book has been subtly but deeply influential, with large portions posted online by 1996. A now-defunct quiz titled "What type of female fairy are you?", online around 2002, advises the user that "Most of the information used in this quiz was taken (in some cases verbatim) from A Witches' Guide to Faery Folk by Edain McCoy." Pillywiggins are one possible result on the quiz.
The new mythology of pillywiggins has been spread mainly through the Internet through sites like this. Creators in the 80's, 90's and early 2000's, like McCoy, Paisley and Fox, used them as basic winged flower fairies. Later authors played with this. In 2011, Julia Jarman made Pillywiggins a singular fairy who stands out from her glittery peers as bold and boyish. The pillywiggens of Marik Berghs’ Fae Wars novels (2013) are “fierce hunters” who ride on birds. Even in these fiercer examples, though, there remains a focus on their minuscule size and "cuteness." Jarman's heroine receives doll clothes. Berghs' pillywiggens speak in chirps and eat crumbs.
The attraction of the pillywiggin lies partly in its ability to put a name to the modern archetype of the cute, winged flower fairy. In the first known appearance of pillywiggins, they were listed as a type of flower fairy. However, when it now appears in modern Internet parlance, pillywiggin is the name for the flower fairy category.
Despite their similarities, Paisley's and Fox's works both show slightly different takes on pillywiggins. Nearly every author seems to have their own unique approach, while still subtly building up a new piece of folklore. At this point, I feel that if a pre-1970s source for flower-fairy pillywiggins ever shows up, it will be completely unrecognizable compared to the newly evolved myth.
Other posts in this series
I've been on a fairy research track recently, mainly going through my "Little Folk" page and trying to fact-check and add citations. That's going to be a long process.
On the way, I came across the book Strange Terrain: The Fairy World in Newfoundland, by Barbara Rieti. It took a while to get a copy through Interlibrary Loan, but I really enjoyed it.
It's Rieti's research, and a lot of the text is from recordings of interviews she had with locals. It's a great look into the folklore of Newfoundland, with meticulous sources and connections to previously recorded folklore.
There are also some interesting points about how folklore starts. It's easy to think of traditional stories as being hundreds of years old, off in some forgotten time, but Rieti mentions some real people, community figures whose oddities passed into local legends. Some of these cases were very recent.
In one case, Rieti was tracking down the source of a tale about a little girl named Lucy Harris who had been stolen away by fairies. To her shock, it turned out that the little girl was not only still alive, but only in her sixties, and rather offended by people bothering her about the story. In reality, she had been lost in the woods for more than a week, unable to move due to hypothermia, and eating snow to survive. Her legs had to be amputated. Rieti calls it "the most embarrassing episode in my fieldwork" but it is really enlightening. She also quotes some of the contemporary news articles, where miscommunications and misquotes are rampant, contributing to the spread of the local legend.
If you're interested in Newfoundland folklore or just how academic research is conducted, check out this book. It was hard for me to find a copy, but it was worth the hassle.
The Greatest Showman is a shiny, sugar-coated musical version of P. T. Barnum’s rise to fame.
I’ve written a couple of times about Charles Stratton, who used the stage name General Tom Thumb. Although there's been a documentary about him and he's been depicted in a few plays or movies about Barnum, this is the first time I've seen his story told onscreen.
Stratton is played by Sam Humphrey, who has skeletal dysplasia and actually stands 4’2”. (The real Stratton was a little over two feet tall when he began performing as a child, and eventually reached 3.25 feet.) Also, Humphrey’s voice is much higher in interviews. In the movie, he’s been dubbed with a different, deeper voice. I did think his face bore a pretty good resemblance to the real Stratton's and I liked his performance overall.
(EDIT: Thanks, Elizabeth, for the heads up - James Babson was the voice of Tom Thumb. I also found more information on how the movie was made. To make Humphrey look shorter, he knelt or was filmed with his legs out of frame, and his legs were digitally edited in scenes where they were visible.)
I had a feeling that his role might be little more than a cameo. The movie is about Barnum, not Stratton, after all. However, it turns out that General Tom Thumb is instrumental to the plot at a couple of points.
P. T. Barnum lives in poverty with his wife and two children until he comes up with the idea of opening his own museum. While at the bank seeking a loan, Barnum notices Charles, a sharp-tongued young man only two feet tall. (Here, he’s twenty-two years old, but in real life he was only four when he met Barnum.) Barnum then goes home and notices his daughter’s picture book about Tom Thumb, which gives him the rest of his inspiration. Instead of a museum full of wax figures and stuffed animals, he needs something living. Out to the street he goes, posting advertisements for human “oddities." He also pays a visit to the Stratton home, where he wins Charles over.
Out of the crowd of performers, Charles Stratton and the bearded lady Lettie Lutz have the most lines and the most screen time. (There’s also Zendaya as an acrobat who falls in love with Zac Efron.) The group quickly bonds and comes to see each other as family, as well as rediscover their self-worth and confidence. I would have liked to see more of their performances, but it’s mainly people dancing around with an occasional CGI lion or elephant thrown in.
In reality, when Barnum took five-year-old Stratton on tour through England, his shows consisted of acting, singing, telling jokes, and doing impressions. (Again - five years old.) After a lot of work, Barnum managed to get them an audience with Queen Victoria. This allowed them to come back to America and start advertising with more gusto than ever.
The movie has a brief, creative adaptation of this. After the circus finds success in America, Zac Efron’s character obtains the invitation offscreen, and the whole circus family just bops over the Atlantic to visit the queen. When they have their audience, Queen Victoria specifically mentions having heard of General Tom Thumb. In turn, he manages to make her laugh with an irreverent comment. The visit is a success, and while at court, Barnum meets the opera singer Jenny Lind. This launches the movie into its next act.
I’d recommend this movie if you’re looking for a fun family film with lots of singing and dancing. My mom went with me to the theater and she loved it. Personally I liked the actors and the music. It’s not historically accurate and doesn’t try to be, but I don’t mind that. From the trailers, I expected that it would gloss over the reality in favor of feel-good follow-your-dreams be-yourself Hollywood glitter. It met my expectations there.
I do mind that it wipes away anything uncomfortable. Rather than exploitation, Barnum’s work is “a celebration of humanity.” Plus, other than lying to get a loan from the bank, Barnum doesn’t do much hoaxing. We see him exaggerating things, such as putting an already tall man on stilts, but we never see him fabricate anything. There are no Fiji mermaids here. There's certainly no Joice Heth (an elderly slave woman whom Barnum advertised as George Washington's 160-year-old "mammy"). So when Barnum talks about wanting to do something ‘real’ for once, or embraces his title as the Prince of Humbug, it’s a little confusing. His performers may be exaggerated, but they’re still genuine.
I would love to see something that delves more into the historical events and lets Barnum be his real, problematic self. I’d especially love to see a movie devoted to Charles Stratton or his wife Lavinia Warren.
Tom Thumb and Thumbelina are closely associated in pop culture, for obvious reasons. They've starred together in two direct-to-video movies. They appear as a couple in Shrek 2. I've also found mistaken statements that General Tom Thumb's wife used the stage name Thumbelina.
It's interesting to see how these crossovers treat the characters. The Adventures of Tom Thumb and Thumbelina was basically just a retelling of Thumbelina; despite getting first billing, Tom was barely the deuteragonist and bore no resemblance whatsoever to his original fairytale. Tom Thumb Meets Thumbelina seems like it took inspiration from both fairytales, but otherwise just kind of . . . does its own thing.
In a Nutshell, by Susan Price, is a fairly short book published in 1983. It can be a little hard to find in libraries. The main characters, Thumb and Thumbling, are a pair of tiny fairies who anger King Oberon. As punishment, he takes away their powers and gives them to human families. However, the tiny man and woman decide to find each other and get back to Fairyland - which is a tall order for a couple of people only two inches tall.
It's one of the most interesting mashup of thumbling tales I've read.
Though Thumb is (like Tom Thumb) based in England, and his parents use that name once, his adventures of riding in a horse's ear and being used to fetch stolen goods for robbers are all Thumbling. Thumbling, given to a lonely woman in Denmark, is Thumbelina, and the quest and conclusion are strongly based on The Young Giant.
The characters are unlikeable. They're supposed to be unlikeable, as fairies are played up as uncompassionate creatures, but it's still hard to get invested when they act as callous as they do. They only start to come around and grow into better people near the end. One touch I liked was how much we see the danger of their lives; Price does a pretty good job of making it feel like they are constantly threatened. Even their adopted parents could easily harm them, and overpower them by far.
I don't think this book is going to be remembered as a classic or anything like that, but it was an interesting read, and I have it on my bookshelf now.
You don't see thumblings in pop culture that much, so I take an interest whenever anyone does adaptations. I collect dolls, and one of my Christmas presents this year was an Ever After High doll: Nina Thumbell.
Ever After High is a doll franchise by Mattel. The basic concept is that the dolls are all the children of fairytale characters. One day, they're all supposed to live out the fairytales like their parents before them, but some of them rebel against this idea.
As you may have already guessed, Nina is the daughter of Thumbelina. No, the doll is not thumb-sized. This character can magically grow and shrink. More on that later.
I have mixed feelings on her fashion sense. I like how her skirt resembles a tulip, but the plaid shirt is kind of weird, and my mom remarked that her vine boots looked like green silly string. Seeing the doll in person, the color combo is growing on me. I also like that the face molds are now more unique and expressive, although in other areas the new dolls lack the small details that appeared with older dolls. (For instance, the box doesn't include a doll stand as the older ones did, and Nina lacks the earrings that she wears in promo art.)
I will say she is very fun to pose.
Unlike the other dolls, Nina's box does not include a diary, but has only a small card bearing a brief description.
The lack of a diary was the one thing that really disappointed me when I opened the box.
Nina does appear as a cheerleader in the diary of another character, Faybelle Thorn, and in one of the tie-in books, Fairy's Got Talent by Suzanne Selfors (2015). She isn't really fleshed out there, but seems mainly cautious and fearful and tends to go with the flow. This contrasts with her fearless characterization in other media.
She is allied with the Rebels, the faction thats want to throw off their destinies, rather than the Royals, who want to follow in their parents' footsteps. She really only gets a spotlight once, in her webisode Thumb-believable. The other characters shrink down to her size so that she can give them a tour of Ever After High as she sees it. There are some pretty fun scenes where they climb through the walls and enter Nina's room, which appears to be inside a locker. She loves exploring and has a pet cat.
Her profile page on the Ever After High website provides more information on her personality.
What does that mean?
In this aspect, Nina is like the "animal" characters (like the Cheshire Cat's and White Rabbit's daughters) who can turn into human form. These are characters that are marketed as dolls - not, notably, the Three Little Pigs or the Billygoats Gruff. A proportional Nina doll would be a tiny speck, not really a great doll to play with.
However, her power kind of breaks the story. It's hard to see how the challenges Thumbelina faces would be challenges if she could shoot up to five foot three at any time.
One person on a fan wiki suggested this was because of Nina's fairy heritage from her father, which I thought that was clever.
Because her fairytale's about people trying to force her into marriage
A short joke, but also suggests a side of her that hasn't been seen yet.
Because she's a flower fairy.
Another short joke.
And that's about all there is to know about Nina Thumbell at this point. Unfortunately, considering the direction Ever After High has been going recently, I'm concerned that we may not see much more of its characters, including Nina. I'd love to see more books featuring her.
I went to see Moana on Thanksgiving and enjoyed it very much, even though I wasn't expecting it to be particularly good. One thing I was particularly delighted with was that Disney finally used something that wasn't straight European, Grimm or Andersen. I don't think they've used mythology since Hercules, either.
In some ways it felt like a return to the princess musical formula, and in others it was a departure. The animation was beautiful and realistic.
It was also, like their recent adaptations such as Tangled and The Princess and the Frog, more inspired by the tales than a straight retelling.
(Some of the following may be spoilers.)
They reference Maui being thrown into the ocean by his mother Taranga and raised by the gods, raising the islands from the sea, raising the sky, and catching the sun (which is very similar to other stories I've written about). The story of him stealing the heart from the island goddess is reminiscent of the Maori tale where he tries to steal immortality for humans from the goddess Hine-nui-te-pō and dies in the attempt.
They left out Maui's multiple brothers, whose number varies by version, but all of whom are also named Maui.
He was apparently a miraculous birth. He was born premature and unformed, or miscarried. Some sources say he was miscarried or aborted. The result is that his mother threw him into the ocean, but there the seaweed wrapped around him to save him. A god found him and raised him. Maui eventually returned to his mother, proved his identity, and his family accepted him. There are many different versions. Edward Tregear's Maori-Polynesian Comparative Dictionary lists quite a few of them.
Overall, I'd recommend this one. Disney's been making some good movies, but none of their films have wowed me like this for a while now.
Fairy Tale: A True Story is available on Netflix now. It’s based on the story of the Cottingley Fairies, which I’m fascinated by, so I gave it a watch, skipping through some scenes because it was late. I enjoyed it more than I expected.
It is indeed based on a true story. Starting in 1917, two cousins in Cottingley, England, named Frances Griffiths and Elsie Wright, produced photographs of themselves with what appeared to be real, live fairies.
It’s strange to think that these photographs convinced so many. Even with the camera quality, their gnomes and sprites look flat and sharp-edged, like paper cutouts . . . which, of course, they were. Elsie’s father picked up on this, but somehow the “proof” of real fairies became huge news. This was mainly thanks to one of their most prominent champions, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Yes, the creator of Sherlock Holmes was totally on board with it.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that Frances and Elsie admitted that it had all been faked. The delicate, dancing figures were copied from picture books onto cardboard and supported with hatpins. They still maintained, however, that they had really seen fairies.
The film, which came out in 1997, wholly embraces the idea of the real live fairies. They are constantly flittering around. However, this makes the film somewhat disturbing on another note, because so much of it is about faith and belief in things unseen, in a higher power. It opens with a performance of Peter Pan, with the lead character crying, "Clap if you believe in fairies!" The audience of children applauds and cheers. One character is having a crisis of faith and searching for hope after her son's death; characters talk about belief again and again. And then it all turns out to be real. Yay!! But the “true story” it’s based on was a hoax. The filmmakers most definitely knew that it was a hoax. The end result is that the film feels like a mockery.
That said, we never actually see the girls take a photo. And in one of the final scenes of the movie, juxtaposed with two other cases revealing hoaxes, a reporter discovers the paper fairies on their hatpins, in exactly the poses from the photo. However, the scene then turns around, and the supernatural takes back over. A ghost appears and frightens him away. The movie later ends with fairies filling the family's house and even the skeptical father finally being convinced.
Perhaps the filmmakers were trying to portray the girls in the most positive light. Frances and Elsie always said, even after confessing to the hoax, that they really had seen fairies. Still, I don’t think it’s right to market this to children as "A True Story," with taglines like "Believe!" because it cheapens the truth. It's like saying "You can believe in this thing! Well, in this case, the proof turned out to be a bald-faced lie, but you should still believe in the thing because it's a happy thing that brings you joy!"
And the fairies feel like a marketing ploy.
That's right - there were books and a doll line. "Fairies of Cottingley Glen." But at least it was well-researched.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a spiritualist who by all accounts wanted to believe. His father, Charles Altamont Doyle, was an alcoholic who suffered from epilepsy and depression, and spent the latter part of his life in a mental institution. While there, he filled sketchbooks with elaborate, fantastical artwork of elves and fairies. The movie touches briefly on this and it makes Doyle's motivations much more understandable.
There was one scene that I actually stopped and rewound because the girls are walking through the woods calling the names of the fairies, and they’re all names from real folklore. A cast list reveals the names of even more fairies.
I've read about the Cottingley Fairies before, on the Internet and in The Fairy Ring: Or Elsie and Frances Fool the World, by Mary Losure. This book is written for children, but is a great read and incredibly well-researched. However, like the movie, it still clings to the idea that the girls really did see fairies, and they faked the photos because . . . um . . . they saw fairies.
Back to the movie. There’s beautiful scenery, the effects have aged surprisingly well, and I found myself enjoying it overall. Still, I was still bothered by that whole faith/fakery complex, and also the feeling that the fairies were real so that the moviemakers could sell toys. I would have much preferred to see the movie simply reveal that yes, the fairies were faked, and leave it at that, with maybe a faint hint at real supernatural events rather than full-blown "FAIRIES ARE REAL AND THEY'RE IN YOUR HOUSE." Even better, it'd be nice to see the girls actually taking the photos.
(I must say, I never expected to see Dame Habetrot or the Shellycoat marketed as cute, big-eyed Barbies with fluorescent hair. The Shellycoat!)
Other titles: The Princess and the Magic Mirror, Meñique y el espejo mágico (original)
This movie not technically a thumbling story. It’s a thumbling story insofar as Le Petit Poucet is. Here, Meñique, or Tom Little, is extremely short, about half the height of anyone else. It comes from the fairytale “Meñique,” published by Jose Martí in La edad de oro in 1889. Since then, it has become something of a cultural touchstone in Cuba. A very small peasant boy finds magical tools, defeats a troll, and marries a princess. Basic stuff.
It’s actually Martí’s translation of a tale called “Poucinet,” published in French in 1864. And that tale was based on a Finnish story. I haven’t found the original, but it seems to be a mashup of “Boots and his Brothers” and “Boots Who Made the Princess Say 'That’s a Story.”
This movie was Cuba’s first ever full-length CG animated movie, and they had to basically make it up as they went, because they didn’t have access to other countries’ technology. That cuts this movie a little slack, but not enough, because it is just plain bad by any standard you try to hold it to. I wonder if they just jumped into too much too soon.
On to the story. It takes place in this really weird fairytale world that sometimes has highly advanced technology.
It begins with some landscapes and music that are actually pretty nice. Then we see the city at night, where a thief clad in a skin-tight purple outfit is crossing rooftops, stealing gold and distributing it to poor families Robin Hood-style. Anyway, when she flees from some guards, she drops a compact mirror into a peasant’s cart.
The peasant—Tom Little’s brother, Peter—travels home and we see a little of the odd fairytale kingdom, which is home to fairies, a sea monster, a fire-breathing dragon, giant spiders, and so on. The pacing so far is very slow. (Is that Don Quixote?)
The cart approaches a tiny house in the middle of a desert. We learn via infodump/guy shouting at a portrait that the three brothers are destitute after their father’s death, and Paul blames Tom for convincing their father not to sell the farm when it was still worth money. We see that Tom is walking around on mechanical stilts, singing and tending the farm with the help of cute little animals.
Tom tries to cheer everyone up, saying that they’ll soon have luck with the farm. Suddenly crops sprout from the field. Hurray! … wut? Then a cloud of bugs flies in and devours the whole thing in seconds. What? What just happened?
Apparently this is a plague that’s forcing them to move on, but that was still a bizarre turn of events.
Back to the city, where the greedy King is taking a bath in gold coins (which msut be painful). His advisor and nephew – my notes read “who I thought was a woman but may not be”– accompanies him everywhere. When the King’s daughter, Princess Denise, asks for money for some new outfits, the king lies that he’s too low on funds. The conversation turns to her future husband. Her mother gave her a “soulmate mirror” that she wants to use; however, the king secretly doesn’t plan to let the princess choose her own husband.
In her room, the princess has a 2D-animated daydream of meeting her knight in shining armor and saving him with a hang glider. However, upon looking for her mirror, she realizes to her horror that it’s missing.
Of course, we already know that it’s at Tom’s house. When he’s moping outside that night, he finds it and it begins to speak in an incredibly annoying squeaky voice peppered with French phrases. I can’t stress how annoying this thing is. It shows him a hologram of the princess, his true love (how convenient that it ended up with him).
Meanwhile, the king’s nephew is approached by a green-skinned, broom-riding witch. It turns out she’s his mother, the king’s sister-in-law, who’s returned from the dead with new powers. (I sense some backstory here, but we don’t really get much.) They come up with a plan to steal the king’s gold and have the nephew marry the princess (who is his cousin, just to be clear).
The witch happens to have a “cutting-edge magic wand, the last of its kind” (oxymoron?). She uses it to make a tree grow to a huge size and surround the castle, with a sound effect which I’m pretty sure comes from iMovie.
The king calls for woodcutters to cut down the massive tree, but any cuts they make instantly grow back. It has surrounded the whole palace and instantly regenerates from any cut. Apparently the court has begun using beer and wine for showers because their well is also blocked by a stone. The advisor plants the idea that the king should offer the princess’ hand in marriage in exchange for cutting down the tree.
With their farm doomed, Peter and Paul are heading off to the city. Turns out Tom has snuck along in their wagon. They come across a town just in time to hear the royal decree that the person who cuts down the tree will get the princess’ hand in marriage. Tom recognizes her picture and is awestruck. Shortly afterwards, with his brothers encouraging him in order to get rid of him, he follows a melody up a hill into an enchanted forest. And then a rapping axe appears.
Here, my notes read “It is still rapping. I think I’m in pain.”
After a brief altercation, Tom frees the axe from a tree and sweet-talks/reverse psychologies it into coming along to cut down the tree. When he holds the handle, the axe flies him away Marvel Thor-style to meet the next tool, a shy, deaf pickaxe. Their next stop is at a singing fountain, which accompanies Tom as a really freaky-looking nut.
The purple-clad thief is out and about again. So the king is being stolen from by his nephew and his daughter both at once. He’s greedy and all, but you know. Meanwhile, the witch spots her. “My wicked instinct tells me that I must follow that little thief.”
The thief sees Peter and Paul racing along in their cart—they’ve just encountered a giant and are fleeing. At an inn, they are surprised to encounter Tom. He declares that he knows how to open the well and cut down the tree, to much mockery. Many great woodsmen have already failed—we even see the Grim Reaper standing in line with his scythe.
The thief, who recognizes Peter as the peasant whose cart she dropped her compact mirror in, enters their room to look for it and accidentally awakens them. Tom chases after her with his flying pickaxe. The witch realizes that Tom has the magical objects and starts throwing spells at him. Her wand still makes iMovie sound effects. With the situation drastically changed, the thief helps fight off the witch, and the two heroes both end up riding away on the broom. The two end up on a tower and Tom grabs her, because she may have helped him, but she also broke into his room. She protests that she was just looking for her compact mirror. Tom claims he hasn’t seen it (although he has, really). However, the compact appears from Tom’s pocket and shows them that Peter was the one who stole that money.
Inside the church, they talk more. Tom explains that his soulmate is the princess. When told that the princess is vain and self-centered, he says her eyes are intelligent and kind like the thief’s. Oooh, love is in the air.
But the thief says that she thinks the princess will want to marry a prince and she can’t picture her with Tom. She’s acting fairly mean as she pokes fun at Tom, asking how they would kiss on their wedding day. Tom tries to demonstrate, and she smacks him.
In the morning, Peter and Paul try to tag-team the tree. It almost works but then the tree turns them into puppets. They end up in the stocks and condemned to harsh punishments. I don’t know why. We didn’t see this happen with anyone else.
Tom arrives to try his luck, and everyone laughs. The guards are about to drag him away when the princess asks the king to have mercy. With the magical tools, Tom manages to shrink the tree to its former size, replace the well with an elaborate fountain, and fill it with clean water. The King announces that Tom will marry the princess in one week; however, the princess doesn’t seem impressed
Meanwhile, Tom’s brothers have teamed up with the advisor and the witch. We learn the witch can’t step on a shadow or she’ll be sent back to the “world of darkness.” They plan to tunnel under the castle to the king’s treasury, and plot to send Tom to his death by making him fight the giant. (Remember the giant?) The witch sends the princess an enchanted peach to eat.
Tom wakes to find his brothers weeping by his bed, apparently asking for forgiveness, but they were actually replacing his magical objects with fakes. The magical objects themselves are pressed into service in the task of tunneling under the castle, and believe that Tom has betrayed them. I don’t know why.
Tom goes to visit the princess, who—surprise!—is under an enchantment, has greenish skin and is acting cruel. She demands that he capture the giant to be her servant. As Tom leaves, she kisses the advisor. Fortunately, the magic mirror awakens her from the curse, and she faints.
Out in the woods, Tom approaches the giant’s home. He’s angry with the princess, and realizes that “it’s her I’m in love with!”, apparently referring to the thief. Just then, the giant named Talos arrives, and Tom realizes that his tools are missing. He’ll have to talk his way out of this one. Back at the castle, Princess Denise is woken by the mirror and realizes that she has sent Tom off to his doom.
At the giant’s house, Tom and the giant are having an eating contest. This is meant to prove whether Tom is honest, so naturally, he wins by cheating, pretending to eat while actually hiding the food in a bag. Then he claims that he’s full and wants to empty out his stomach a little, and cuts the bag open. The terrified giant agrees to do what he wants and they become firm friends, united by the bond of mutual trust and honesty. Woo.
“We’ll teach the king’s petulant daughter a lesson,” Tom claims.
The witch’s evil plot to steal the king’s gold (as opposed to the princess’s good plot to steal the king’s gold) is going well. Tom’s brothers laugh gleefully at thought of Tom’s painful death. The tools overhear this and escape through the tunnels; the nut creates a flood that washes all of the gold into the tunnels.
Still thinking that Tom is in danger, and knowing that he’ll blame her, the princess changes into her thief outfit. The mirror singsongs, “The princess loves Tom, the princess loves Tom,” showing off its great sense of priorities.
The advisor sends the guards after the thief. She’s cornered until the giant arrives with Tom just in time. The king thanks Tom for capturing the thief and names him a Duke, but Tom turns it down and announces that he has fallen in love with the (surprised) thief.
The thief explains that the princess was bewitched and the king is hoarding a fortune. She slips up and calls the king “Father,” prompting Tom to pull off her mask and realize that it really is her.
Suddenly, the witch reappears and turns the king into a baby. She sends Tom, the princess and the baby king into a cave filled with lava, and pursues them as a dragon. They keep zapping to new dangerous places, where she becomes different monsters. Back at the castle, after much prompting, the giant manages to destroy her wand, which brings the group back to reality. The witch stumbles into a shadow and is sucked back into the underworld, taking her son with her.
Cut to the church, where Tom and the princess are being married, with all of the characters in the congregation. The princess once more mocks Tom’s small stature (are we really supposed to like her?), but then backs down the steps so that they’re at the same height. The movie ends as they kiss.
The CGI is bad, but as said before, that can be excused. The stilted wooden dialogue and ugly, unappealing character designs are harder to get past.
Also, scenes end abruptly with no conclusion, leaving them feeling unfinished. They always end with a fading out effect that often doesn’t seem appropriate to the mood. In one case, I almost missed a significant plot point because it was on screen for half a second before it started to fade out.
There’s also a recurring problem with the female characters. The princess, witch and background characters are often so ridiculously big-busted and wasp-waisted that she makes Barbies look realistic. Their clothes are very tight or low-cut and some of them appear to be wearing bodypaint rather than actual clothing.
There are quite a few references, like a scene where the Grim Reaper is in line to cut down the tree, and I think Don Quixote pops up at one point. There is a truly surprising line from the hatchet about “volunteer work for the Hobbits of the Shire.”
There were quite a few plot points that were baffling at first or just plain baffling, like Peter and Paul being thrown into the stocks with no prior explanation. Some of it can be blamed on the dub. At one point, Tom scoffs, “A giant as a servant? I’d rather make a jar of juice with half an orange.”
This seems to be a reference or pun that was lost in translation—the magic mirror is apparently the Magic Mirror of Half an Orange, or something like that.
It also dabbles in off-color humor, like a fountain with babies urinating, and a gag with a dog and a tree.
One of the most offputting things, however, is the characters. The princess is called “petulant” and she really is. They were trying to create a character who seemed shallow and selfish at first glance but was really kind and noble, but they keep taking steps back into shallow and selfish. Her teasing of Tom comes off as just plain nasty, and she frequently sounds like a bratty teenager, not particularly appealing. Tom himself can also be rather unappealing with his dishonesty.
In conclusion, this . . . just is not a good movie. The CGI, the character designs, the storytelling, the acting—nothing is redeemable. It seems to have gotten a fairly good reception in Cuba, Spain and Venezuela, apparently being nominated for an Goya award, but its main interest is as a point of trivia.
Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.