Release: 2004

Length: 85 minutes

Trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UBqSe6lgCto

Obligatory Pink Vehicle: A pink horse carriage, of course!

Barbie as the Princess and the Pauper (hereon referred to as BPP) is to its release date, the best Barbie film of the series.

Not a spectacular feat by any means, but a notable triumph considering BPP was the first film to arrive after the stepping down of Barbie auteur Owen Hurley. I’ve no idea what happened to Mr. Hurley (to be a fly on the wall in that dollhouse!) but I think we could safely assume that somebody over his head sat down and watched Barbie of Swan Lake. And that would be enough.

Hurley’s three entries in the Barbie oeuvre were a trip, stumble, and wipe-out away from a smooth transition into cinema history. His film’s morals were blatantly obvious at best and nonsensical at worst. His visual language was disappointedly limited. He had a fixation on inserting Barbie into ballet, but it never worked. When he didn’t deal with ballet (see: Barbie as Rapunzel), he threw everything and the kitchen sink into the screen: Witches? Dragons? Magic wands? Pick one, Hurley!

However, Owen Hurley’s biggest blunder lay in the way he dealt with children in his stories. These munchkin-sized doll-people were often never treated as children at all. In Barbie of Swan Lake, they’re dwarfs. In Barbie as Rapunzel, they’re mysteriously short teenagers. Barbie in the Nutcracker has the good sense of making children sound like children, but in turn, Mr. Hurley made them inconsequential to the story.

Further, in all three films, Owen Hurley and his cracknut team relegated the moral messages to bookends featuring a seriously traumatized Kelly. Instead of adding a dash of whimsy a la The Princess Bride, the bookends cheapened the films. It made them message movies. The problem is, these are messages children will have picked up a half-hour before Kelly can even confirm it. Kids don’t want to hear the same tired lecture twice if they don’t have to. They don’t even like to hear it once!

And there’s another problem with that. Kids can find these sort of belabored points on Nick Jr any day of the week. Why should they sit on a pillow in the living room and hear the same message again, but over ninety minutes? And why should parents pay to give their children the privilege? Don’t make audiences pay for something they can get for free.

For the 2004 entry in the Barbie series, Mattel needed a fresh voice. Someone who could shed some new insight into a story about dolls. Enter stage left, William Lau.

Believe it or not, this is as visually clever as Mattel gets.

THE STORY

BPP picks up into the early adulthood of two identical (but not related) women born in a magical kingdom; one is the princess (Anneliese), one is a pauper (Erika). Thus, the title of the movie.

But the similarities to Mark Twain’s original The Prince and the Pauper end there. Unlike Twain’s novel, which centered around two clever young men agreeing to change lives temporarily out of sheer fascination, Lau’s take on the story is a little more complicated.

::Deep Breath:: So, here goes: The Queen’s top advisor Preminger has been stealing gold from the kingdom’s mine for years so he can one day be King. How would that work? Well, if the kingdom can mine no more gold, Preminger reasons the kingdom will go bankrupt. It follows the Queen will try to marry off her daughter Anneliese to a wealthy suitor (see: another King) in order to consolidate the losses with a more powerful kingdom. But Preminger’s plan continues: if he can, at that point, kidnap Princess Anneliese thus insuring no marriage can take place, the kingdom will remain bankrupt and the Queen will grow more and more anxious to seek a financial solution. Preminger will then sashay his way into the Royal Court, armed with tons and tons of stolen gold, and seek the Queen’s hand in marriage with the promise of returning the gold to the kingdom’s treasury. Thus, he is king, no harm done to the royal treasury, and everyone lives happily after. Well, save for Princess Anneliese. But who cares about her?

The thing Preminger didn’t consider was Mother Nature’s cruel hand of fate. Pre-kidnapping, Princess Anneliese strolls around town people-watching the townies as if she were touring a zoo. She runs into pauper Erika and is shell-shocked by the remarkable likeness (their only differences: hair color and a shoulder birthmark). After an impromptu musical number (yes, this is the first Barbie Musical in the series), the two go their separate ways giggling about the similarities. Anneliese is kidnapped shortly thereafter and Anneliese’s loyal aide decides to place Erika in disguise in the castle so as to calm royal worries before anyone is the wiser of Anneliese’s disappearance.

Above: Preminger. Small issue: though this takes place in approx the 1300s, his hair and fashion sense are undoubtedly late 1600/1700s. Fashion forward, or villain from the future?

Meanwhile, Anneliese escapes her stupid captors, wanders into town and is mistaken for Erika almost instantly. She is put into indentured service, locked in a sewing room.

Preminger, dismayed by “Anneliese’s” sudden return but suspecting she is a fake, does all he can to find proof. He gets his wish when he discovers Anneliese is locked in a shack in town. Preminger stuffs the real Anneliese in the goldmine with her royal aide and blows the roof out, just as he blows the whistle on Erika’s con-job. With no Anneliese to marry the kingdom off, the Queen is left with no choice but to take Preminger’s hand. Everything’s going according to plan!

But of course, everything works out for the twin girls. Anneliese and her aide sneak out of the gold mine, team up with the arrested-and-escaped Erika and reveal Preminger’s big plan during a super-cliche Act 3 wedding sequence. Everyone except Preminger lives happily ever after.

Hairband? Straw? Ingenuity? It's MacGyver Barbie

THE TAKE

The story of The Prince and the Pauper strikes me as a no-brainer for a character like Barbie. After all, what is Barbie but a woman in a swarm of separate lives? Doctor, Lawyer, Movie Star, McDonalds burger-flipper… She’s done it all. BPP takes that idea and runs with it; this is a film through-and-through about identity. Characters large and small, male and female, human and otherwise take on various personas. Sometimes it’s to hide who they really are and sometimes it’s to hide how they really feel. Theme has never been as strong in a Barbie film as it is in BPP, and that’s worth some praise.

And there’s something deeper about BPP revolving around identity. In the center of the film, we have an unnamed kingdom that’s essentially a one-industry town (mining gold). After the dastardly acts of an elite mover-and-shaker, the industry is washed up and the town teeters on bankruptcy. Sound like anyplace you know? Just about every Rust Belt city in America post-1980. And what defines a town’s identity more than…industry? Just like Anneliese, Erika, their pet cats, and the doting men in their lives, the kingdom is also in an identity crisis. What thematic focus!

Unfortunately, Mr. Lau buckles in Act 3 under the constraints of what he must perceive as the limitations of the genre: everything works out, and the ongoing conversation of identity boils down to a shallow message: “Be who you are! And don’t let anybody tell you different!”

The problem with a theme like this is obvious. Wasn’t the antagonist, Preminger, being exactly who he is? He’s a conniving, cynical jerk! He lied and stole and kidnapped! How can we hold him accountable, however, when he was just being himself? All of the tools were there to make a larger, more subversive comment on identities and social behavior. Mr. Lau talked a tough game coming up to the plate but in the end, he bunted to first base. There’s nothing wrong with making these films constructive to children in terms of theme, but they should actually teach them something, not lull them to sleep.

There's always room for a talking cat.

As I mentioned above, the story is far too complicated for its own good. Mr. Hurley ran into the same problem with Barbie as Rapunzel: he had what was essentially a one-page story and he blew it up until it was unrecognizable. Mr. Lau has taken the base concept of The Prince and the Pauper and turned it into something that shares similarities to Miss Congeniality, She’s All That, and the 1994 iteration of Richie Rich. A classic switcheroo should not morph into an 18-step plotfest, but here it has.

I find it fascinating that the film spends a considerably larger amount of screen-time with Princess Anneliese than with pauper Erika. It shows where the film’s balance lies: yes, these two women are essentially the same…but one of them’s a Princess! We just have to keep our eyes on her! Not surprising, really. Looking back at Barbie of Swan Lake, Barbie’s Odette is initially a lowly baker’s daughter but before you can say “pre-heat the oven,” she’s off to the Enchanted Forest where she can be a Princess or The One forever. Mattel must figure children don’t care to see Barbie in positions of poverty. Which, considering the amount of torture, abuse, and head-popping Barbie dolls typically go through, strikes me as a gross mistake.

The musical numbers in BPP are at first a welcome change of pace to the Barbie series (they’re certainly more exciting to watch than the snore-fest ballet sequences in prior films). However, you’ll find your opinion change when Preminger (voiced by Martin Short) opens his mouth and sings down in the cave. It sounds like he’s trying to channel the ghost of Rex Harrison, but grasped only at his worst impulses. ‘Channeling’ is a good way to put many of these musical numbers: the Act 2 montage-replacer “To Be A Princess” recalls through song pretty much every unlikely-royalty movie ever made. The opening showstopper “Free” evokes Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (which, of course, Mattel wishes they could adapt and not look like posers) and, strangely, Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Two musical numbers you’ll sleep right through: Anneliese’s and Erika’s stupid “I Am A Girl Like You,” and Erika’s thematically redundant “The Cat’s Meow” (wherein she tells her cat it’s okay if he’s different).

Reaction Shot in action.

In BPP, I finally identified a pressing issue that exists in (thus far) all of the Barbie films: too much reliance on reaction shots. If you watch a great animated film, you’ll notice the speed in which scenes soar along. They take no time for poorly rendered or hack-eyed drawn reactions; they just barrel through. Considering that the budgets on these Barbie films are probably quite minuscule when put in comparison of theatrically-released animated films,  I was at first befuddled as to why Mattel would include so many reaction shots: they don’t look good and they eat up screen-time, destroying the films’ pacing as a result.

Then it hit me. The Barbie films are using the reaction shots as a replacement for actually writing witty / funny / silly banter. In a great animated film (or any great joke-a-second comedy), there are few shots designated solely for reaction. The focus is on keeping the jokes flying out the door. In the Barbie films, however, they don’t have the jokes. The comedy is limited. So, instead of thinking of a good gag line, they render a dismayed / bemused / confused reaction glance from the character in question. Perhaps the idea is solid on paper, but when seen on the big screen, the result is quite dull. I highly doubt this issue will be fixed in later Barbie films, but it’s a fascinating dilemma in any case.

REALLY interesting note. In BPP, there is NO KISSING. Not even at the weddings. The earlier Barbie films had kissing; what gives? Is William Lau an avowed non-kisser? Did the FCC crack down on the smooching? There’s gotta be a fascinating story behind that one.

After the lackluster Owen Hurley releases, I find myself re-engaged under the tutelage of William Lau’s team. He brings a renewed sense of cinematic promise to the screen and I hope he improves on himself with the next release. The best thing of all? NO MORE KELLY.

The best rendered grass in Barbie cinema history.

THE VISUALS

To be honest, the actual human figures have improved very little, if at all, from Barbie of Swan Lake. Any improvements in the people are only evident in their facial expressions. The musical numbers allow for a much wider range of emotion, and that’s a huge plus.

Let’s talk about the musical numbers. They have seemingly opened a creative Pandora’s Box for the creative team behind the films, because they’re doing visual moves we’ve never seen in these movies. Huge plus. I’m not a big fan of musicals, but if including them keeps the DP on his toes, then keep them coming!

NEXT UP

Barbie: Fairytopia (2005)

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