Interview with Manuel Betancourt about "The Prince"
Because The Cardboard Kingdom was created with such an amazing group of collaborators, I wanted to take some time and interview each one about their experience working on our book! First up is Manuel Betancourt who contributed "The Prince."
CHAD: Manuel, since “The Prince” explores how animated films and fairy tales can influence children’s ideas of identity and romance, I was hoping you could tell me a little bit more about your own early experiences with Disney films and other children’s entertainment.
MANUEL: Well, how much time do we have? Because my childhood was pretty much synonymous with animated fare, especially the Disney kind. We had quite an extensive VHS collection (yes! VHS!) of Disney classics which included Snow White, Cinderella, Bambi, Pinocchio and then the newer ones I got to see on the big screen: Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, etc. Add in my obsession with watching the Disney Channel, aka one of the few networks we got in Bogotá that was completely in English and you had the makings of a Disney kid. Animation always struck me as cinema’s most magical invention: it cracked open my imagination and the possibilities of what an image could do. This was all before 3D animation took over and what I most responded to was the tactility of hand-drawn animation, like a hat-trick that wowed you and showed you how it was all done at the same time. I knew that shape-shifting genie was all penciled lines and a voice-over but that didn’t stop me from being in awe of what that looked like when it was all put together.
CHAD: The whole time we were working on “The Prince,” I had no idea that your own family has roots in the animation industry! -- can you tell me more about that?
MANUEL: It’s true! My mom runs an animation company back in Colombia — one which boasts being the very first one to have produced a half-hour animated show in the country. That meant I grew up visiting an animation studio every weekend, seeing animators draw by hand, reading what animated scripts look like, and, when I was old enough, getting to work on scanning and coloring the hundreds of pages that were churned out daily at the office. Getting to see the behind the curtain, as it were, is what made me fall even deeper in love with the moving image — and what made me attuned to seeing how the watercolor backgrounds in Lilo & Stitch gave that film a different look and feel than the 3D-assisted vine-swinging scenes in Tarzan. All that’s left me with a keen eye for visual storytelling, even when I’m a horrible artist in my own right (I am not too bad at coloring, though, and I make a mean amateur designer when I have to be.)
CHAD: You were raised in Colombia, is that right? How do you think young readers there would respond to “The Prince” and the rest of The Cardboard Kingdom?
MANUEL: I was born and raised in Colombia, yes. Which surprises people, I find. I think it’s my (lack of) accent — yet another reason why all those hours of watching Disney's Adventures of the Gummi Bears and Under the Umbrella Tree paid off! From the beginning I always envisioned “The Prince” as the story I wish I had as a kid. Growing up in a country where it felt like homosexuality was almost an impossibility, I took refuge in movies. I hope if The Cardboard Kingdom ever does make it to Colombia (in Spanish!) that it can offer a glimmer of hope for kids who, like me, needed more validation and encouragement.
CHAD: Do you have a favorite Disney prince?
MANUEL: I do, except he’s not a prince! Which is to say my favorite male Disney character is Hercules (something about his rippling pectorals), but if I must adhere to regular princes I’d have to say Prince Phillip from Sleeping Beauty — which I think was one of the visual references I first sent to you when we started working on “The Prince.” He’s the quintessential Disney prince to me: more of an idea than a fleshed-out character, the better to project anything you want on him.
CHAD: When we were developing “The Prince,” we needed to create our own “Disney” movie that would serve as the basis of the children’s role-playing thereafter -- can you recount how we settled on “The Prince and the Pea”?
MANUEL: This was one of the most fun aspects of writing up that first draft of “The Prince.” I think what I did first was go through Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales and see which ones hadn’t yet been turned into Disney films. Also, I’m a big musical theater fan so I have a soft spot for Once Upon a Mattress (a musical adaptation that first starred Carol Burnett back in 1959). It was the kind of property that seemed ripe for rediscovery but also very open to some comedic interpretations, which was key to how we ended up structuring the story. Mostly though, I was looking for a fairy tale that had an iconic tableau, and I found that with the princess atop the bundle of mattresses. Then, once I began thinking how a 21st century Disney version of it could look like (riffing on what they did with “Rapunzel” in Tangled and “The Snow Queen” in Frozen) I started to have a great time. I also enjoy that even in its new title (“The Prince and the Pea”) we somehow sidelined the princess, who is so often front and center in these tales — leading many to think these are ultimately “girly” stories.
MANUEL: Also, I should take this time to say that one of my favorite panels in “The Prince” is the wall full of other movie posters that always seemed like one of those panels you had such a great time drawing. “The Sword in the Stove” will never not make me laugh.
CHAD: There’s a really interesting dynamic in “The Prince” between two specific characters, and I was wondering whether you had any thoughts on it. There is Miguel, who is awkwardly trying to make sense of his new same-sex attraction, and then there is Jack, a fairly flamboyant boy who is all too happy to ham it up playing female roles. Did you see a certain amount of tension or commonality between them?
MANUEL: I’m so happy you brought this up because it’s one of the things I love most about The Cardboard Kingdom in general and “The Prince” in particular. I so do enjoy the tension between Jack and Miguel. Or, rather, not the tension but the plural vision of what queerness can feel like in kids that age (or any age!). Where Miguel opts to co-opt the romantic images he sees on-screen (focusing on the prince), Jack is so clearly more besotted with the villains in those same films and having them play and play-act together is, to me, a lovely way of not pitting them against each other. Instead each approach is shown to be equally valid and generative for the other. Just as there is no one way to be a girl in The Cardboard Kingdom — you can be a Sophie or a Connie or an Amanda — there is no single way to be what one of our youngest readers perfectly described as a “soft boy.”
CHAD: Manuel, have you found your Prince Charming?
MANUEL: I have! And ours is a kind of twenty-first century fairy tale as we met via Twitter! His name is Matt and he’s my greatest cheerleader and my biggest fan. But more than that he is, like Nate is to Miguel, a fellow adventurer, someone I’m eager to follow wherever he’ll take me.
Manuel is a freelance writer based out of New York City. He’s a regular contributor to Electric Literature, where he writes about novel-to-film adaptations, Backstage Magazine where he works on features on actors, writers and directors, and Remezcla, where he covers Latin American film and culture for an English-speaking Latino audience. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Esquire, Vice, INTO, them., and Catapult among others. Follow him on Twitter: @bmanuel.