Welcome to FrockTalk, the web’s only costume-based movie review site. The goal of Frocktalk is to shed light on the magnificent artistry of costume design in motion pictures. Reviews on this site are written by working costume designers in the entertainment industry – people who know, better than anyone, what it takes to make it all happen. The focus of FrockTalk is not to comment on the big flashy costume dramas, but to call attention to the seemingly ordinary costume design work in film that silently and persuasively moves the audience toward understanding the characters. Costume design for motion pictures is an art form that deserves more recognition than it usually gets. Fancy, pretty costumes do not always equal effective, appropriate costumes. The art of the costume is in letting the audience know who the character is, before the actor even has a chance to open his mouth. Read on, and enjoy. ** CAUTION: ALL REVIEWS CONTAIN SPOILERS! **

The Magic Flute, It’s a Small World, and more

Hi everyone – it was been very hectic here, but I wanted to bring you up to speed on the happenings.  First, I want to talk about Ingmar Bergman’s The Magic Flute (1975).  I saw this movie in a theater in the late 1980s when I was studying abroad, and it levelled me.  Years ago, I found it on VHS, and I showed it this weekend to my young nephews.  They were rapt.  They could not tear their eyes away from the screen, and they are 4 1/2 and 2 years old.  If they like it, YOU will like it.

Many of you know the story of The Magic Flute, the classic Die Zauberflöte, by Mozart.  Here are the Cliff’s Notes:

Pamina, a beautiful princess, is being held captive by the (supposedly evil) Sarastro.  Pamina’s mother (the Queen of the Night) persuades a handsome young prince (Prince Tamino) to rescue her, in exchange for her (Pamina’s) hand in marriage.  Turns out that Sarastro is actually Pamina’s father, and he is keeping Pamina with him in order to protect her from her evil mother.  This is your basic domestic-dispute drama.  Tamino rescues Pamina, but gets caught by Sarastro’s evil minion, Monostatos.

Sarastro then discovers that Tamino is a good guy, and he decides that he would like Tamino and Pamina to rule the kingdom in his place after he retires.  He them puts Tamino, Pamina, and their lonely pal Papageno through a series of trials to prove their worthiness.  Meanwhile, Pamina’s mother has come to her in a trial or in a dream – hard to tell –  and has asked her to kill her father, to avenge her (Pamina’s mother), with the ultimatum that, “If you don’t do this, I will never speak to you again”.

Bottom line: Pamina does not kill her father.  Papageno finds love with his Papagena.  Tamino and Pamina pass their trials, inherit the kingdom and pursue their love. Everyone lives happily ever after, except for Pamina’s mother, who is not punished, but has to live a miserable life alone.

Bergman cut the libretto into a brisk and spritely action-packed opera.  He added a twist of his own (that Sarastro is Pamina’s father) which nicely wraps up the shortened version of the story.  The film is made with cuts to the audience (literally, the audience in the theater, watching the opera), and we see the actors behind the scenes, playing chess, sleeping, etc.  It is pretty brilliant.  Additionally, during the parts of the opera in which the moral message is clearly being delivered, there are printed cards at the bottom of the screen, displaying the words.  Since this was made in the 1970s, these are literally cards, like words printed on card stock, and the actors pick them up and change them out as they sing the words.  It’s hilarious, and it’s really endearing.

The opera is sung in Swedish, with English subtitles.  However, if you have children in your life as young as my nephews, who have not yet learned to read, you may have a bit of translating to do.  But let me say – it is absolutely worth it.  My nephews watched this beautiful film with their jaws on the floor – Bergman shot this film so lovingly, with a nod toward children.  There are scary parts, for sure.  The Queen of the Night, in her aria Der Hölle Rache kocht in Meinem Herzen (the one that goes up really high, the one in which she asks her daughter to kill Sarastro) her face becomes distorted by makeup, and she is shot in ominous lighting.  It’s really dramatic and captivating to adults, but may be scary for very sensitive children.  Additionally, there are a few scenes with knives and one with a noose that might require extra explanation.  However, the story is told so beautifully and simply that I think most children wouldn’t really even take in any kind of “scare” that they see on screen.  You just have to see it for yourself – it’s that good.

The costumes are very basic, very elegant and timeless.  They do not look one bit dated.  This film, obviously made in the 1970s, could have been a costume disaster, but wow, not so in this case.  These timeless costumes were designed by Karin Erskine and Henny Noremark, and I just found out, just now, that they were nominated for an Oscar for this film!  Wow, I had no idea about that!  The funny thing is, this film was made in 1975 for the Swedish TV market, but was released as a film in theaters here in the US, making it eligible for the Academy Award.  Okay, that was a major surprise.  Now you have to see this film.

There are campy costumes, like the dragon in the beginning, and the animals of the forest (including a walrus??) that are pretty hilarious.  But there are very, very clever costume elements at play – witness the removal of clothing, piece-by-piece in the Papageno/Papagena number.  Oh, it’s pretty brilliant.  And the harlequin jester-like costumes worn by Monostatos and his henchmen are quite unforgettable.  The women’s costumes have an Empire-feel to them, while the men’s costumes are more like “period-non-period”, creating a mythic, fairytale feeling.  We know it’s from the “Once upon a time” era, we just don’t know exactly when.  And we don’t really care, because we get so quickly swept up in the story.

Color plays a big role in the telling of this tale as well, light versus dark, red versus green… it’s really nicely done.  I can’t believe that I didn’t know it was costume-Oscar-nominated until just now.  I have loved this film for a long time, and I should have known that!

In any case, Netflix it – or if you’re a Bergman lover or an opera lover, buy it (in the Criterion Collection Edition) on Amazon or at your local movie depot.  You will not be disappointed.

Switching gears, today I went to Disneyland.  I haven’t been to Disneyland in about two years, and this is the first time I’ve been able to see the newly-restored “It’s a Small World” ride.  This ride fascinated me to the point of obsession as a child.  It was like, all the costumes in the entire world, put on singing dolls, in a giant diorama, accessible only by water: dream come true!

The new restoration retains the original feel of the ride/exhibit, but adds a few new twists.  So, to discuss specifically, let’s look at some pictures:

First, I want to discuss what working at Disneyland would be like.  Okay, you’re a costume designer at Disneyland.  Can you imagine?  It would probably be pretty crazy, between manufacturing the walkabout costumes, stage costumes for performers, etc., and then also designing the doll costumes for “It’s a Small World” and the puppet costumes for “Pirates of the Caribbean”?  And granted, there may be separate departments for puppet/doll costumes and human costumes.  There may be further separation between walkabout costumes and stage performance costumes.  There is probably an entire department just for uniforms: churro-stand worker uniform, parking attendant uniform, ice cream parlor uniform.  Think about it.

My friend was on his Blackberry today all day, trying to comprehend the enormity of Disneyland, and he came across a statistic that there are 10,000 “cast members” at the park… “cast member” meaning every employee from churro-stand worker, to Tigger walkabout character, to litter sweeper-upper.  There must be some kind of quartermaster for uniforms there at the mouse house.  That is a huge job.  So that is number one:  the Quartermaster job.  Number two: the doll/puppet/human costume designers.

Have you taken a look at the detail in the doll and puppet costumes at Disneyland?  Here are more images from “It’s a Small World”:

These dolls don’t even move.  Their bodies might be made of this costume-looking apparatus.  Hard to tell.

Another scary clown

Another scary clown

I don’t even know what to say about this one.  I think his body is just painted, and it was way up, kind of like fifteen feet above the water level, so you could barely see him and the other clowns, but the detail..

So here are the Middle-Easterners with a flash…

And here they are in ambient light – what a difference!!  And how beautiful – even the cut of the pants is good.  Use of notions and fabrics, good, especially considering the lighting situation.

I love this one – it’s like Egyptian meets Thai.

And this one, mildly disturbing as this Tahitian little girls (? they look like little girls to me?) shake their tukas and give a glassy “come hither” stare.

The "Americans"

The Americans

I love this.  this is supposed to be “the Americans”.  In the “American” section it’s like cowboys and indians, period.  Hello!  Disneyland has a long way to go to get with the times (including the eyebrow-raising “wife auction” in the Pirates of the Caribbean ride… you really want your kids to be thinking about buying a wife in an auction?  That human beings are for sale?  Ahem, but I digress…)

These girls look a little more Saudi than our previous Middle-Eastern friends…

Even the English kids, tending their sheep and their geese (what century is this?!) are nattily appointed.  Hey, even the geese are well-dressed.

I could go on and on about the beefs I have with the antiquated Disneyland philosophy – the promulgation of patriarchal doctrine, narrowmindedness in interpretations of other cultures (all Swiss yodel and herd goats; all Hawaiians surf; all Middle Eastern women wear veils, etc), and the devaluation of women (wife auction? Jessica Rabbit? Snow White and her ilk only free when rescued by men?) – but this is Frocktalk, not Humanist Sociology 101.

Is Disneyland the happiest place on earth?  I don’t know, but I would sure like to ask one of their costume designers.  You guys know any of them?  Please have them get in touch.  I smell interviews!!!


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