Cinderella has always been one of the mid-tier Disney princesses to me. She’s not as dynamic as Ariel or Jasmine, but she’s not as useless as Aurora or as childish as Snow White. Her movie was one that I watched often enough as a child, but never with the excitement or frequency granted to The Little Mermaid or Aladdin. As I prepared to re-watch it as an adult, I predicted that I probably wouldn’t care for the movie, since the mice would be annoying and Cinderella would be too bland and vanilla to carry the film. In the film’s favor, the great Eleanor Audley (Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty) voices the villainous stepmother, Lady Tremaine.
The story: Cinderella’s father dies, leaving her alone with her stepmother and two stepsisters. She is forced to do the chores while her stepmother pampers and spoils her daughters. The King, meanwhile, is eager for his son to start a family, so he throws a ball and invites every woman in the kingdom, reasoning that with such a large selection surely someone will capture his son’s eye. With the help of her fairy godmother and her animal friends, Cinderella is able to attend the ball. She and the Prince fall in love, and since you surely know this fairy tale by heart I’ll just move on.
Cinderella was the first full-length animated film made by Disney after Bambi - the six movies released in the intervening years were all package films, made up of shorter animated stories. I imagine that the animators must have been really excited about working on a “real” movie after so many shorts – at least, I would have been! Certainly, the studio needed Cinderella to be a success – Disney was never much for managing his money. Cinderella would succeed tremendously, infusing much needed cash into the company and enabling Walt to embark on his next great creative project: Disneyland.
It’s easy to see why this movie was such a hit. It cashes in on the optimism of post-WWII America, when the belief that anyone could achieve the American Dream if he just worked hard and lived a moral life was everywhere. Cinderella and the Prince are both attractive by the standards of the day, and the music echoes popular music at the time. Cinderella is just so darn wholesome that I don’t think it could have been produced at any other time.
There’s a lot to like. The character design is pretty good. As always, the best-looking characters are the villains. Lady Tremaine is threatening and scary even though – let’s face it – she’s not a grand and powerful character. She has no magical powers. She doesn’t run a corporation. She’s a noblewoman, yes, but an impoverished one that can’t afford servants or the upkeep of her household. In the wider world, she’s a nobody, but within her household she reigns supreme, and this makes her terrifying. Plus, whoever designed her really nailed it – she’s all sophistication and gloss, but all the Lady need do is raise one eyebrow, and it’s clear that trouble has come. Then there’s her cat, Lucifer. Lucifer is the most cat-like kitty I’ve ever seen in a Disney movie. He is selfish, conceited, cruel, affectionate (to the Lady), whimsical, and malevolent. I love this about him. He’s not a human wearing a cat suit, a la The Aristocats – he’s the real deal. Watching him run across the screen after the mice, or sneak around Cinderella’s heels…well, let’s just say he reminds me of plenty of cats I’ve known.
The Fairy Godmother looks great as well. She’s as round and bouncy as Lady Tremaine is lean and angular. Her song, “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo”, is by far the best in the movie. One reviewer that I read criticized her role in the story because, prior to her appearance, there was no indication that Cinderella’s world is magical. To which I must reply – dude. Talking mice. Not mice that talk to each other, but mice that talk to Cinderella, and she understands them. She also makes clothing for them. Some kind of magic is at work there!
Ugh. The mice. They set up some great sight gags and they’re well animated, but good grief they are annoying. Jaq wasn’t so bad, if I ignored the fact that half the time I can’t understand what on earth he’s saying, but Gus makes me want to tear my hair out. He’s so freakin’ stupid. They should have left him to Lucifer, since time and time again his greed screwed up the best-laid plans. I know Gus redeems himself at the end, but I just don’t care at that point – I want him gone.
I wouldn’t mind if a lot of the music went away. It isn’t bad – compared to some of the films in the 1960s and 1970s, it’s quite good – but it is very schmaltzy and sentimental. “Oh Sing, Sweet Nightingale” sounds like it could be a decent little lullaby, but hearing it butchered by Cinderella’s stepsisters and only partially sung by a chorus of Cinderellas doesn’t make the film’s recording of it very appealing. I do wonder if a complete version of the song was written.
The King and Duke are delightful meddlers. What’s more, they’re laugh out loud funny – the only thing in this movie I really find to be so. (The mice try, but alas…) Now that I’m of an age where my parents drop hints about how they’d sure like some grandchildren, I can appreciate the King’s position. I don’t blame the Prince either, though, for refusing to wed. Argh. The Prince. I forgot about him. Don’t you? He has very little screen time, and virtually no personality! All he does is dance with Cinderella. I question if he loves her at all, or if he just picked her because she was pretty and had nice, child-bearing hips. I mean, he doesn’t even go out and search for her – he makes the Duke do all the grunt work. He is, hands down, the dullest Prince Disney ever produced.
Not that Cinderella’s an exciting, vibrant princess. I called her ‘bland and vanilla’ before, and I stick to that assessment. She works hard, and doesn’t protest her stepmother’s cruelty. But she isn’t witty or feisty or prone to action – just good. Nice. Good nice good. Stephen Sondheim poked fun at that in Into the Woods for a reason!
I do find Cinderella (the character) rather fascinating because of recent changes to her appearance. In the film, I’d call her hair a strawberry blonde. It’s definitely got some orange in it. Her dress also usually looks white or silver. However, as the Disney Princess product line took off, Cinderella’s hair was changed to a sunny yellow color, and her dress became a vibrant sky blue. In the past year or two, the character was further redesigned with a new, modern hairstyle and a dress both sparklier and deeper blue than ever before. I don’t hate the new version – it always bothered me that the original character design had no ears – and I understand the marketing rationale behind it, but now Cinderella looks like just another Barbie doll and it isn’t as much fun.
But this is not a bad fairy tale. When one considers the films that came before it, it’s much easier to appreciate the good things about Cinderella while forgiving the bad. It’s so much better than Melody Time or Fun and Fancy Free! It is well deserving of its status as a classic.
But those mice – again, ugh!