Monday, September 1, 2008

A Princess by any other name - Part 1

Hey, remember when I promised a three-part series last month? Well, this is the first part, and it is spoilerific. If you don't want to be spoiled about an upcoming (well, in about four DVDs or so) episode of Strawberry Shortcake, better come back later. The other parts probably won't be as spoiler-filled, but this one is definitely the big one.

(Spoilers ahead!)

As I mentioned before, I watched the not-coming-out-over-here-anytime-soon episode of Strawberry Shortcake, A Princess Named Rap, a little while ago. This episode is a retelling of Rapunzel, and by retelling, I mean the only thing that it has in common with the fairy tale is the titular character living in a tall tower and having extremely long hair. Overall it was a decent episode, but that doesn't mean there weren't a few things that rankled me.
First off, Strawberry is the narrator and a character. Seriously, there are more than enough characters in this series, they really could have had someone else do either duty. Although now that I think about it, if not narrated by Strawberry, it probably would have been the dreaded Honey Pie Pony, so never mind what I just said. Although, if Ginger Snap narrated, this whole thing would have gone up fifteen points on my personal scale of awesomeness. (I am a firm believer that anything has the potential to be awesome.) Anyway, moving right along, the lesson of the story itself bugs me, not because it's a bad lesson, although it is a bit cliche. It's more the execution of the lesson.
The story begins with Strawberry narrating about how Rapunzel in this version is already a princess (played by Rainbow Sherbet), and how she "did things her own way" even as a toddler. This plays out with her deciding to call herself Rap (even though no one else does), and terrorizing the palace staff by jumping from treetop to treetop and just generally being a wild child. Again Strawberry narrates, telling us that Rapunzel's parents wanted her to be a good ruler, but since she's the most unprincesslike princess in the history of their kingdom, they hired Professor Grapes (Sour Grapes in her first non-villain role), known for being odd, but the best tutor in the land, to iron out their daughter's kinks. Just so I can stop writing "Strawberry narrates" every other sentence, I'm going to get this out of the way: this episode does way too much "showing, not telling." Most of the time, assume something is narrated rather than outright shown, especially when it comes to her parents (who are only shown from the neck down, but the Queen is obviously also Sour Grapes. The king, however, is not the Pie Man). Rapunzel meets Professor Grapes for the first time after executing a perfect back flip, and courtesies, even though she's wearing a t-shirt.
Professor Grapes leads Rapunzel away to a tower in the woods to live while she studies (and Strawberry tells us that her parents hated to send her away, but it was for her own good). Rap looks forward to reading all the books in the tower, but Professor Grapes begins with The Rearing of Royalty, a handy guide to raising perfectly proper princes and princesses (as Strawberry herself says, princess training is srs bsns). Every morning, Professor Grapes calls to Rapunzel, "Are you ready to learn?" and Rap always replies "Please, call me Rap." (This happens at least four times during the 22 minute show). Using TRoR, Professor Grapes has Rapunzel dressing in a hoop skirt and growing her hair so long it becomes climbable, yet the princess continues to be a nonconformist, doing her jumping jacks upside down (how is that even possible?!) and playing hoedown music on her violin instead of a concerto.
A brief interlude to let me note that I quite prefer Rapunzel's piled-on-top braid to her usual hairstyle. Very cute. Back in the story, Triple Ripple shows up for no real reason that I could tell, other than perhaps to offer a solution to how she didn't go crazy stuck up in the tower with no one but Professor Grapes for a companion. Also, this improves her science test scores. While Professor Grapes disapproves of the bird's disruptive behavior during class, she approves of Rapunzel's innate curiousity, although it manifests itself in a definitely unprincesslike manner. Like drawing lizards. Or the morning she jerry-rigged her braid into a harness and climbed up on the roof, prompting Strawberry to narrate Professor Grapes giving her a lecture on the differences between things that are unprincesslike and just plain dangerous.
Once Professor Grapes leaves, Rapunzel sings a preteen rock anthem about "The Real Me" which is actually very catchy (I've spent more than one shift with it stuck in my head), where she laments the fact that princesses can't get physical ("A princess needs to have command/Not do a perfect handstand," she sings). She confides in Triple Ripple that she worries she'll never be a perfect princess, then decides to put everything she's got into her lessons to make her parents and Professor Grapes happy, and be the best ruler EVAH! While working on her multiplication tables, she beats out a rhythm, somehow attracting the attention of the traveling Squire Huck and Maid Strawberry. They strike up a conversation with the princess and ask to come up. Rap would love them to come up, but her homework prevents it, so Strawberry promises to help her with it, and whammo, they become fast friends (as Strawberry tells us). They even call her Rap. Strawberry latches onto the violin and plays a jig, and starts to teach Rap how to do it, too. For days, Strawberry and Huck come over and help Rapunzel with her studies, bringing in frogs and extra books to study (don't tell me she read all the ones in the tower already!), practicing violin together, and climbing all over the ceiling. But this starts to take its toll, as Rapunzel falls asleep reading and oversleeps one morning, and her overall "less than royal" behavior starts showing up in her lessons again. So Professor Grapes spies on Rapunzel after she leaves for the day and catches Strawberry and Huck with the princess.
Rap hopes for understanding, but Professor Grapes whisks her away from the tower and they walk all the way to the ocean, much to Rap's delight. But her joy is shortlived, as Professor Grapes rows her out to a tower on an island. As the professor rows away, Rap wonders how she'll learn to be a great ruler on a deserted island. Probably the same way you would have in the tower in the woods, my dear. She sees her professor is riding the tides, not getting anywhere, so she chops off her braid with nary a thought, and uses it to climb out of the tower and then hold together a raft she built from driftwood. Professor Grapes, meanwhile, has no idea that she in any danger and just focuses on how Rapunzel could have turned out so poorly, in spite of her attention to The Rearing of Royalty (which she just happens to have in the boat with her). Rapunzel shows up on her raft, driven by a sail made out of her skirt (she still had her pants with her, apparently), and rescues her teacher (for some reason they go on her raft instead of the rowboat). Rapunzel shows off her prowess with her raft and navigates by the stars, proving to her professor that she is a strong princess and capable of ruling.
By morning, they make it back to Royal Bay, and Tangerina Torta and Banana Candy get a very short cameo. The King and Queen arrive to greet them (how they knew what was going on is not explained, nor why they are "berry berry proud," as Strawberry puts it), and Strawberry and Huck are there, too. Rap remembers to get TRoR out of the raft, but Professor Grapes thanks her not for saving the book, but for "being you," and sings a song about how she's pulled a 180, and won't try to change Rapunzel anymore. She even goes so far as to say the only place for TRoR now is in a museum. She also tries to resign as Rapunzel's teacher, but as the princess points out (via Strawberry's narration), she was a good teacher when she wasn't focusing on the princessy stuff. So Professor Grapes gets promoted to Head Teacher, Rapunzel get to learn in the castle instead of a tower, and even got Professor Grapes to call her Rap. Plus she got to teach everyone else how to be wild (by hangliding?), and that's where the video ends.
Like I said before, it's an all right episode, and the songs are actually pretty good, which is never a guaranteed thing with this series, but the execution just kills it for me. For one thing, there's too much story being crammed in here, hence the need for all the narration. That, and the way the aesop is played out just rubs me the wrong way, seriously. I mean, Rapunzel is meant to be a nonconformist, an unprincesslike tomboy (which was already done way better on Fushiboshi no Futago Hime, but then, they had 52 episodes to show it), but she mostly comes off as being a disruptive child running wild. It's no wonder that her parents didn't object to having her sent away. I'll go more into detail about this is part two, but it's a delicate balance you grapple when you try to put this kind of moral into your story, and I don't think the writers handled it very well here. But really, I think that with a little more time to tell the story, it could have been pretty good instead of just all right.

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