Song-and-dance numbers abound in Steven Universe. The cast travels to exotic locales. One of the major recurring motifs is transformation; one of Steven's family of demigods changes shape for fun, and all of them can fuse together into bigger and more powerful entities. At the end of the first season, when all seems lost, another member of Steven's family conquers evil with a song about the power of love, banishing it to the bottom of the ocean. Even when it gets into limp theater-kid politics, which it does fairly often, it's pure magic, witty, meticulous and delightful.
And yet, everything in Beach City is a little desaturated. Not the people, but the sand, the stores, the boardwalk, the breakers, the sky, all of it is just a little drained of color. And whenever the heroes leave town, they enter a world of windswept ruins, colossal wrecks that stand as the only monuments to a vanished civilization. They imbue the show with a vague sense of lost innocence that lurks at the corners of every episode.
This is one of the aesthetic choices—one of the subtler ones, maybe, but a choice nonetheless—that have made Steven Universe so important to its fans. You can praise it for its sophistication and progressive stance all you want, but that sadness is what gets you in the meat of your heart. But we have to ask, why all the sadness in the first place? How do we explain a deep sense of melancholy in a show about a cute kid and his nontraditional demigod family?
Does it just prove something about the strange enchantment of boardwalk towns? Certainly they've acted as a metaphor for lost innocence before, for Fellini as well as Springsteen. So is Steven Universe the cartoon incarnation of a Springsteen song? Maybe at first glance, but let's take a look at its genealogy, at the palettes of imagery that prefigure it and, to a certain extent, determine what it can and cannot express. Moving-image media, after all, have a short and well-documented history, and a film critic doesn't have to hunt quite as hard as a literary critic for source material. Look back a mere hundred and twenty years, and Steven Universe reveals exactly what it is. It's a féerie.
The féerie, or fairy play, is often called a "forgotten" genre of theatre, but that's not completely true. We only forget it the way we forget our DNA most of the time. The féerie genre is a ribonucleic blueprint for whole genres, and not that much genetic drift has taken place between it and Steven Universe.
The féerie genre first coalesced in Paris in the years following the French Revolution. To fill the void left by the beheaded aristocratic theater, playwrights started producing new plays, with characters drawn from Punch and Judy shows and French strains of the commedia dell'arte, plots derived from the agrarian fairy tales that the peasants had brought with them to the city, and a moral order that was comfortingly conservative without ever explicitly calling back to the hated Church. What emerged was a type of play in which, typically, two young lovers were pursued through a series of perils by an old pedant and some demons. In the end love conquered all, which had been and continues to be the safest bet, statistically, across all genres, for an ending.
Since the aristocratic patronage system was gone, the new plays had to sell tickets. A typical féerie, by the middle of the nineteenth century, appealed to the mass audience with songs, dance numbers, chase sequences, hair's-breadth rescues, and immense outpourings of melodramatic passion. The real star was the effects, though—plays took place before as many as twenty discrete tableaux, each of which had a set to go with it, and all of this would melt away in the middle of a scene, assisted by cranes, lights, pulleys and buckets of smoke. People were turned into frogs and back. People flew through the air. The bestselling féerie ever, a play called The Devil's Pills, featured a scene in which the villain was run over by a train and then his dismembered body parts crept back together, reassembling the actor's body.
The crown jewel of each féerie was what was called an apotheosis scene, an enormous deus ex machina in which the guardian angel of the heroes would descend, reunite the lovers, banish their rivals, and evaporate the demons that were following them. After this there would be an enormous song-and-dance number, more slapstick, and a final bow.
When féeries were popular, they were the best-selling theater genre in France and maybe in the world, but their decline was precipitous. By 1900 they were more or less extinct. Most of what we know about the sociology of the genre now comes out of a few honorable obsessives doing academic research, studying box office records, reconstructing theaters, identifying periods of stylistic conservatism or change. It's in some sense strange that we have to do this, though—it's strange, and it's a good example of how most of what we call "art" is actually an accretion disk of criticism and received wisdom—because the experience of seeing a féerie play was preserved in exemplary fashion. The ineffables of the experience, I mean, not the sales or the engineering but the stuff you had to be there to see. The pacing, the effects, the goofy mime-like acting style—all of it was preserved, between 1898 and 1914, in hundreds of short movies by the great filmmaker Georges Méliès.
Conventional wisdom about Méliès, the silent pioneer from whom much of filmmaking issues forth, is that he was a stage magician by training, and that his astonishing faculty with visual effects is an outgrowth of that training. It's true that he had spent ten years as the star of a successful magic show when he went to one of the Lumière Brothers' early cinematograph exhibitions and, mythically, offered to buy their camera off of them (they refused, so he reverse-engineered it himself); it's likewise true that he was the first one to realize how seductive trick photography could be. But it's not quite accurate to say that his invention of film effects is a function of stage magic. In Paris, stage magic was just a cash-poor version of féerie.
Méliès's films offer a faithful visual record of what it was actually like to see a féerie. In the ten or twenty minutes his movies usually last, his characters rocket through five or ten fabulously beautiful tableaux, land on the surface of the moon, encounter ice giants, battle skeletons, and finally preside over some kind of apotheotic triumph. They're ingenious, undeniable fun, crafted with Daedalian care, every bit as beguiling as the féeries of Méliès's youth.
What scholars miss about these movies, though, among all the pipes and timbrels and wild ecstasy, is that they're all suffused with deep, almost unbearable sadness. These people onscreen, going through their silent, pastel-colored motions, are like ice skaters in an old snowglobe, or wax flowers under a bell jar, or carved dancers in an antique music box. Deathless, but somehow also dead.
Who knows whether all féeries were like that, but here are a few things to note about Méliès: he was 7 when his elementary school was bombed to rubble during the Siege of Paris; by 1896 he was referring to his camera, one assumes with black humor, as his "machine gun"; in 1907 he made a movie (not a filmed féerie, to be clear) featuring a scene at the second Hague Peace Convention, which descends into a brawl; in 1912 he shot footage in Tahiti, where Gauguin had committed chemically-assisted suicide ten years earlier. His creative career lasted from 1888, at the height of the belle époque, until 1914, when the world ended.
Think about those dates. Méliès lived in the same world as the Impressionists and the Decadent poets. It was impossible to escape pessimism about the rotten edifice called Western Civilization. Every artist was trying to erect a surrogate morality, a surrogate religion, a surrogate world. For Rimbaud it was opium; for Van Gogh it was the Provençal countryside; for Satie it was a bedroom in Montmartre. For a swathe of them, broadly including Proust, Apollinaire and Monet, it was memory, childhood and the kind of kinky thrill you get when you really wallow in feelings of loss and irretrievability. Proust's tea cake is the obvious objective correlative here, but think about Monet's water lilies, which have all wilted by now, or his studies of fleeting light conditions, never to be repeated; think about the torrents of memory in Apollinaire's Zone, or about the childish squiggles he twists his poems into in Calligrammes, or about the fact that his first book, Bestiaire, was an entry in a child's genre. Think, finally, about Méliès preserving the last moments of a dying theatrical genre, forever.
Godard has a character in La chinoise say that Méliès was not a fantasist but something like a hyperrealist, a Brecht before Brecht. Unclear how seriously Godard wants us to take this, but consider that Brecht came out of an impressionist tradition, and that his dada allies worshipped Mack Sennett, an American who used Méliès's techniques liberally. It might be literally, factually true.
Certainly Méliès's influence has been formidable. From Cocteau (the living paintings from Beauty and the Beast are an old féerie trick) to Svankmajer to Wes Anderson, Méliès is like a mitochondrial Eve for movies. Buñuel and Dalì drew on Méliès when they made Un chien andalou. The Fleischer Brothers drew on Buñuel and Dalì, I think it's clear, and their shorts are sort of like nightmare féeries. Disney stole a lot of ideas from the Fleischers, and in fact their movies are organized around a set of character archetypes—an ingenue, the man she loves, goofy servants, possessive fathers, and a scheming rival—that would have been familiar to the young Méliès.
Think about The Little Mermaid, for instance: we have a starry-eyed young woman. She falls in love with a handsome youth, disapproved of by her stern father. There is a cruel, ugly villain who transforms herself into a romantic rival—although, in a postmodern twist, she's competing with the ingenue and not the youth. There are servants, who appear as animals to literalize their appetite and incompetence. There are transformations and exotic locales. At the end, there is an apotheotic reprise of the heroine's theme. It's a féerie, even down to the undersea setting, which would have been familiar to a nineteenth-century viewer from the play Ondine, or the Nymph of the Waters.
In the 50s the American occupiers started offering Disney movies to Japanese families, many of whom had just come to the cities. By the 80s this had turned into anime, an animation style full of transformations and apotheoses. By the 90s Japanese companies were selling it to American networks. By the 2000s, American animators had co-opted the style themselves, creating an American version of a Japanese version of an American version of a French genre. This is a feedback loop that will last as long as global trade. Its most recent product is Steven Universe.
Think about the structure of the show. Despite the gags and the (usually) lighthearted tone, Steven has all his adventures as he's poised on the edge of adolescence, awakening from his dusty beach-town childhood to an adulthood full of dangerous monsters, failed role models, and strange, polymorphous sexuality. He and his family battle against genocidal villains who want to repair the lost civilization whose ruins dot the earth, reincorporate it into a frictionless network of galactic trade, and purge it of human life. To defeat them, our heroes have to make sure that the ruins stay ruined, that the beach town stays dusty and desaturated. It's a show about fighting for your right to be nostalgic.
Sometime between moving to Paris in 1842 and publishing Les fleurs du mal in 1857, Charles Baudelaire wrote a poem called "L'Irréparable," in which he describes the experience of watching a fairy banish Satan from the stage. This fairy was probably a prop, not even an actress, judging from his description of it as "light, gold and gauze," but he conceives of it, specifically the ease with which it defeats Satan, as a hopelessly beautiful ideal, a paragon of grace and purity that stands in cruel counterpoint to his doomed struggle with depression and regret.
So we've been doing it for a long time, watching fairy plays as a kind of therapy. In Baudelaire's time the end goal of that therapy was the rapture into which the apotheosis scene would deliver its audience. Since Méliès's that rapture has taken concrete form, as a surrogate world. Steven Universe wants to give a kind of you're-not-alone vibe to that surrogate world. But in the end, neither Baudelaire nor Méliès nor the genre itself can wriggle out from under their determinants. Neither can Steven Universe. And neither, on the far side of the happy ending, can you.