Friday, 16 January 2015

Hans Christian Andersen (1952)

The fictional tale of the Danish poet and fairytale storyteller who's work has gone on to inspire virtually anything and everything for children...and Disney's cash cow. Its not a biographical film of course (the film even says that), its basically a fairytale of sorts that kinda focuses on Andersen's life at a certain point. At this time he creates The Little Mermaid out of love for a married woman. In the traditional Hollywood style of the 50's and previous years the film is heavily narrated through song and dance and has clearly taken pointers from other classics.

The film is essentially a romantic tale with morals about Andersen going off to the big city of Copenhagen to try and start a new business there. Whilst there he falls for a married ballerina at the theatre whose husband treats her roughly. Andersen writes her a love letter in the form of The Little Mermaid and dreams about rescuing her from her harsh husband. As we discover unfortunately for Hans he has misunderstood their relationship and returns to Odense.

The plot is much deeper than that though as the tale of the little mermaid, I believe, is suppose to mirror Andersen's heartbreaking situation. He is smitten with the beautiful French ballerina who appears to be living a life of angst married to the theatres dance choreographer. The mermaid is smitten with a Prince who ends up on the ocean floor when his ship sinks. The mermaid saves his life and falls in love at the same time, but like Andersen and his ballerina, they are both from different worlds.
Andersen a poor cobbler, the ballerina a wealthy famous dancer, the Prince a Prince and the mermaid is a sea creature. So the mermaid seeks help from the sea witch who transforms the mermaid into a human so she can go and find the Prince. Andersen dreams of rescuing the ballerina and them both getting married living happily ever after. Alas when the mermaid finds the Prince he has affections for another and the mermaid must return to the sea heartbroken (I think she actually dies in the original story). The same for Andersen who eventually manages to speak of his affections to the ballerina but she too (much to our and Andersen's surprise) actually loves her harsh husband. So Hans must return to Odense for of sorrow but luckily there is a much happier ending of course.

This was one of the first classical films my parents showed me and my brother when we were very young along with other golden Hollywood movies. I won't beat around the bush though, this film will probably sicken most kids these days as its extremely soft centred and full of wonderful musical moments. What's more I'm pretty sure most modern folk these days will think this film dances gingerly around pedophilia the way Andersen is portrayed as a child obsessed loner. Anyway despite how excellent this film is I too cannot deny that some of it is really really sickly...almost vomit inducing, the Ugly Duckling song for example.

The music isn't as sublime as other big Hollywood pictures of the time no doubt, but there are plenty of very catchy little tunes that you'll find yourself humming to once the credits have rolled. As said some will turn your stomach with the whimsical levels going through the roof, yet others are a joy to behold. Personally I always loved the sequence with Wonderful Copenhagen (try making a song with that city name in it!), The King's New Clothes is a fun little number with the kids at the start and who can forget Thumbelina. As I'm sure you have noticed these songs, and others, are famous works of the real Andersen which have become films in their own rights. Most of these musical numbers are squarely aimed at the kids, fun bouncy and the kids can join in, but the adults do get some serious dance sequences too. Very much in the same style as some Gene Kelly dance sequences if you ask me, visually at least. These are mainly dream sequences dreamt up by Hans so they are much darker in tone at times with Hans fighting the ballerinas husband Niels. A stark contrast to everything else in the film but much more enjoyable now for me as an adult.

The entire film looks like an explosion from an old fashioned candy store followed by an explosion from an old fashioned toy store. Everything is bright colourful and bold, it almost looks like a comicbook. Like many films of the era most every scene is obviously a set with forced perspective and matte paintings/backdrops but it all looks so vibrant and alive, it all looks good enough to eat. I'm not really sure if there is any kind of historical accuracy in the film with things like buildings and costumes, I kinda doubt it because all the costumes are so deliciously loud and zany but at the same time they do seem to have a genuinely realistic dated appearance. All this and I haven't even mentioned the actual ballerina sequences in the film with the real ballerina/dancer Zizi Jeanmaire playing Hans crush. If you didn't think you'd ever be interested in ballet then prepare for a shock...because these sequences will grab your attention as you watch Zizi glide around like a beautiful she could act and she's cute as a button!

I love Danny Kaye in the film because he really does come across as a nice guy and he really looks Danish in his outfit. He's a different kind of performer to Gene Kelly of course but he has a pleasant aura about him so what he lacks in dance moves he makes up for with vocals and looks. Other than Kaye and Zizi everyone else is kinda meh methinks, they all look good in their roles don't get me wrong but no one really blows you away.

I have always found this film hard to fully enjoy truth be told, one the one hand its a film for children and those parts are very sappy. On the other hand there are parts for adults which are obviously now much more to my taste as the kiddie parts fall away. So in affect you enjoy the film when you're young for some of the picture, and when you're an adult you enjoy the other sections of the film, unfortunately its hard to enjoy both. In fact there are some scenes I just wanted to spin through on fast forward. I think these days I'm more impressed with the actual dancing than anything else, the songs are cute, the casting is fair but its the dancing that really held me. The ballerina sequences are virtually inch-perfect in my book.

I can't be too harsh here because with a doubt this is a fantastic little fable, fairytale or folk tale...however you wanna look at it. To me it feels similar to 'The Wizard of Oz' in terms of visuals and being aimed at kids, yet its surprising how dark the film does delve at times. Yes the film is utterly outdated and the morals are presented in an extremely quaint and mushy way, but they do still resonate to this day to a least maybe for children. Overall the plot is a bit jumbled with bits for kids and bits for adults all centred around a tale of unattainable love basically...which is hardly what kids wanna see. None the less you simply can't help but be entertained by this sprightly multicoloured world with Kaye and his musical melodious lessons in life.