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"Hello Kitty's Once Upon a Time": Kitty Does Aesop (Proud)

Today Pikachu seems to be the spokesanimal for anime cuteness, but for decades cuddly feline Hello Kitty ruled the roost (litterbox?). She still presides over a vast merchandising empire, and her likeness is ubiquitous the world over. Why, even I can remember owning a pair of Kitty-chan’s scissors way back when. No, I’d prefer you didn’t quote me on that. Over the last few years Kitty has been enjoying something of a renaissance in the form of a barrage of DVD releases, the latest of which, Animation Theater Volume 1: Once Upon a Time (gasp!), revisits a collection of classic fairy tales from Aesop, Grimm, Andersen and others.

Only a real man would dare to buy this in publicOnce Upon a Time was my first exposure to the animated adventures of Kitty, heretofore known only by the office supply product that must not be named, mountains of stuffed animals, and, in Japan, various pink handbags, backpacks, and cell phone accessories. Can you say Lolita? Anyway, not being a fan of the excessively cute and sugary I expected to flat-out loathe this disc, but to my shock and horror this was not the case. Although as much of the credit must go to the writers of the original tales as to the producers of this DVD, it was actually mildly entertaining and not that sappy. Delivered in bite size portions of ten to twenty minutes, these adventures are surprisingly digestible, in large part because they do little to fix what isn’t broken.

Indeed, all eight stories are presented in a manner which is very faithful to the source materiel, albeit much cuter. Six of them are very famous tales with which the reader is surely intimately acquainted. Kitty stars as Snow White, mischievous penguin Bad Batsumaru stars as The Boy Who Cried Wolf, Snoopyish Pochakko stars in Jack and the Beanstalk, Kitty and the unfortunately named feline Dear Daniel star in Hansel and Gretel, rabbit My Melody stars in Little Red Riding Hood, and the fish Hangyodon stars in The Emperor’s New Clothes. Yes, that last one’s a stretch.

The other two stories are likely to be somewhat less familiar, at least to American viewers. Kitty and twin Mimmy star in King Midas’s Donkey Ears, in which an angry god causes the lion King Midas’s head to sprout donkey ears when the king doesn’t favor his musical ability. Hairstylists Kitty and Mimmy stumble upon the embarrassed king’s secret, and he forbids them to tell anyone on pain of death, which proves a trial for the loose-lipped Kitty.

Finally Kitty stars in The Bamboo Princess, one of Japan’s most beloved folktales. Probably the best of this collection, it’s both amusing and moving. I suppose it helps that I haven’t heard this story dozens of times like the others. In this tale a bamboo cutter finds a baby girl (Kitty) mysteriously hidden inside a bamboo stalk. He and his childless wife lovingly raise the girl as their own, and on account of her great beauty she becomes known as the Bamboo Princess. When she is of age five eager suitors come to ask for her hand, but she prefers to stay with her beloved foster parents so she bids all of them bring her virtually unobtainable gifts in order to win her heart.

Only Batsumaru’s tale seems to take slight liberties with the original story. That is, if you don’t count the majority of the roles being played by cute animals as a “liberty.” For starters the technically correct but disturbing subtitles tell us it is called “A Wolf’s Come.” Somewhat akin to a Dennis the Menace episode, it tries to elicit a few laughs with Batsumaru pulling pranks on the villagers, who give their best Mr. Wilson impressions.

Otherwise we get animated adaptations that are faithful in a way only anime could be. By which I mean that no attempt is made to sugarcoat the more adult aspects of the stories. Most notable is the queen’s order to the hunter to kill Snow White and bring back the arrow with her blood on it. It is a bit unnerving to watch him level his bow at the innocuous Kitty’s head. If this were a Strawberry Shortcake production I believe a substantial rewrite would have been in order. There’s also Red Riding Hood and her grandmother’s trip down the wolf’s gullet, although we are thankfully spared the grisly details of the ensuing surgery in which they are replaced with a surely fatal pile of rocks. Finally Hansel and Gretel’s stepmother’s obsessive desire to murder her charges has to rank her as one of animation’s most sinister villains, not to mention the cannibalistic witch who gets burned alive. Apparently inmates could earn handsome quantities of cigarettes publishing children’s books in the old days.

It is actually the eccentric minor characters that are the most engaging in these tales, easily upstaging the Hello Kitty all-stars. Apart from being cute and friendly the main characters don’t really have any distinguishing traits. Only troublemaker Batsumaru stands out, and he’s more annoying than anything else. I guess every cuddly kids franchise has to have its Elmo.

Perhaps the most entertaining aspect of the whole enterprise is the opportunity to examine all the wacky aspects of these classic tales. Snow White is particularly bizarre. I don’t recall why Snow White decides to eat the queen’s poisoned apple in the original, but here it seems a wildly dubious decision. Would you accept a piece of half eaten fruit from a creepy old witch who forces your window open? Then you have Prince Charming turning up as a complete stranger at Snow White’s funeral and insisting on kissing the body. Must not be too many women in his kingdom. Oh, and as the evil queen’s punishment, the king has her wear burning hot shoes. I don’t remember the king’s sadistic streak from the original, but maybe Snow White would be better off staying with the dwarves. Just imagine if she dented the royal carriage.

The animation is quite simple and two-dimensional, but it’s so bright and attractive that it actually doesn’t look cheap. Some character designs are appallingly cutesy, although I suppose that’s the selling point. I do have to take issue with the incredibly sugary theme song, which filled me with an overwhelming urge to see my lunch again.

Maybe you’ve been feeling pressed for time lately. With work and the kids and all, you have a really hard time squeezing in four hours of bonus features. Well ADV has heard your pleas, and included absolutely no features on this disc. To be fair, there is no shortage of Kitty’s DVD releases, and probably only so many busted ankle outtakes.

Hello Kitty’s Animation Theater Volume 1 Once Upon a Time is a pleasant adaptation of great stories that kids are sure to love. I’m certain that better quality productions of these tales probably exist elsewhere (Disney’s Snow White and Mickey and the Beanstalk quickly come to mind), but for young children this is a great introduction in a concise compilation. Although it won’t hold the attention of any adults in the room for long, it shouldn’t repel them either. I can’t speak for any diehard Kitty fans in the crowd, but I can tell you where to find a pair of vintage scissors cheap.

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