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Disney Sundays: Cinderella (1950)

You know the palace in the Disney logo that stands as a symbol of magic and dreams –it comes from this movie and there’s a reason for that. Cinderella is the quintessential fairy tale. It’s the one we think of most when we hear that term. It’s a good story with a valuable moral and despite its simplicity, is an icon. Though it was very famous before this adaptation in 1950, most of us have Disney to thank for introducing us to the story.
Cinderella was another of the few Disney movies my family had on video when I was a kid and there’s so much I remember about it. Which does kind of go without saying, this is where a lot of fairy tale stock characters, and clichés originate: the love at first sight, the evil stepmother, the gushy dance, the wedding, and happily ever after –a phrase which also instinctively brings back memories of this film’s ending. But is there more to this movie apart from a construction that’s memorable just because it’s so basic?
To refresh your memories, the story is about Cinderella, a young woman who lives with her stepmother the Lady Tremaine, and two step-sisters. She is forced to be their servant, constantly mistreated, ignored, and abused. The king arranges a royal ball so his son the prince can find a bride. Cinderella as an eligible lady is allowed to go, but her step-family sabotages her every move. However the night of the ball, her fairy godmother appears and creates a coach out of a pumpkin and a fine dress. She meets and falls for the prince but has to leave before the spell wears off leaving behind only a glass slipper. The prince issues a decree to find her not counting on multiple women having the same shoe size and …you know the rest. There’s no point not spoiling this story because you all know it. Even on the off chance you don’t know it, you know stories like this and the beats that play out. But yeah, some concessions should be given for the fact that this story is an original and that at its core is pretty good. The conflict is pretty good, the characters are pretty good, and the moral is really good. And it isn’t like this film doesn’t take liberties. Like many fairy tales, Cinderella is actually kind of dark with aspects like toe removal that obviously have to be cut for a Disney film (ironically Cinderella doesn’t have any toes to begin with). There are added detours that are really hit and miss. The scenes with the King and the Duke are great. They’re an alright pair and their comedy makes for a nice contrast to the serious story while still connecting with the film overall. But the mice don’t always work. Early on there’s an elongated scene of them trying to get some cheese while evading the cat Lucifer. It’s cute, but it doesn’t connect at all with anything significant so it feels pointless. There are more than a few of these Tom & Jerry routines and they do distract a bit, despite being fine in their own right. I do however like the scenes of the mice making the dress for Cinderella and their rescue of her from the tower. They shows how much she means to them, how they’ll come together for her -the benefits of her kindness. That being said, the fact she makes little clothes for them is weird, a sure sign that being kept in that tiny tower is driving her mad. It’s not enough she talks to them!
But speaking of Cinderella, I never got the unfortunate notion that she was just a damsel in distress and a poor role model of a character for girls. In fact she’s one of the few Disney princesses who really earned her happy ending. She worked tirelessly slaving for her stepmother and sisters, enough that I feel she deserved to fall in love with the prince. Unlike Snow White who took it upon herself to fulfil a role of domestic servitude, the domestic role was forced on Cinderella. But with a good degree of optimism she pulls through. I never saw the movie as being about a woman in her place waiting for a prince. To me, it always seemed to stress that hard work and kindness will eventually pay off, which is a comforting moral for kids. In that way it made Cinderella very relatable, and when I saw this movie as a kid, it was still a time when boys weren’t expected to relate to girls. But Disney himself related to her. It was his favourite fairy tale, and I can just imagine this theme of being rewarded for hard work really sticking with Disney through all his years as a struggling artist and businessman. Cinderella’s also kind and good-natured, but she has an attitude that can be seen in some of her interactions with the family. Hell, she has a character. Not a fully-realized one admittedly, but much more than Snow White or Aurora (we’ll get to her). She takes action when she needs to, tries hard, and if you need more proof she’s not a bad female role model, she’s not obsessed with marrying a prince. Yeah, go back and watch the film again. Before she meets him, she never once indicates a desire to marry the prince. In fact she never even mentions him. She has her song about “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” but never reveals what that dream is, and when she’s all excited to go to the ball, she has no idea the prince will spot her and fall for her. Her excitement could easily just come from the opportunity to get out, dance and be merry, to have a nice evening, an escape if only temporary from her squalor of an existence. It’s more about feeling on equal footing with her step-sisters and all the other eligible women than miraculously winning the prince’s heart. That however is exactly what she does.
While I’ll defend Cinderella, her prince is pretty boring. Not only does he look almost exactly like the prince from Snow White but he has just as little character, falling for a pretty face without even knowing her name. He is really just the prize. Why he couldn’t go out to find Cinderella himself, I don’t get. I’ll give Kenneth Branagh’s 2015 remake this, it did make the prince a more interesting character –not to mention Richard Madden was just born to play a Disney prince. The Fairy Godmother’s fine, the King and Duke are fine, Drizella and Anastasia are fine (if a little too forcefully “ugly”), and Jaq and Gus are fine. I really liked that duo as a kid but now I wonder if their personalities were designed to mimic Warner Brothers characters like Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig. But they’re Disney’s first comic relief duo and are okay. Lady Tremaine though is great. She’s not quite as instantly off-putting as the Queen from Snow White but she’s still plenty intimidating. The scene where Cinderella enters her chambers and she’s draped in shadow in her bed with Lucifer like a Bond villain, gave me chills when I was younger. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a character look more intimidating while lying in bed in a nightgown. Her thin design gives her an always devious look and her facial movements make for some intricate levels of anger, irritation, and cruel satisfaction. Eleanor Audley gives her voice the right amount of malice with an air of calm and power. And of course her actions maker her a pretty great villain, how she treats Cinderella and the lengths she’ll go to ensure her as little happiness as possible.
While I generally prefer this film over Snow White, I will say the former looked better. Which isn’t to say the animation on Cinderella is lacking, but it’s just not as striking. At times it feels like there’s a limited colour palette. But that may be due to the time period chosen to set the film in. The Cinderella story’s been around for a long time and I think it was very interesting that Disney chose to set their telling in the nineteenth century (and is it just me or did the King look a lot like Otto von Bismarck?). I like that, because it’s different next to so many other fairy tales that feel obliged to go for a medieval setting. It just doesn’t make for the most interesting animation. The best looking part of the film is the scene where the Fairy Godmother appears. It’s also the scene that gives the movie its Disney magic. The songs are decent. “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” is irresistibly catchy, “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” and “So This is Love” are just standard but could be worse. And I don’t know why, but I don’t find the Mouse Work Song irritating. Maybe it’s because I like the importance of that scene to the relationship the mice have with Cinderella, but those high-pitched voices just aren’t that grating to me. For now.
Cinderella should be watched again. It is a pretty standard fairy tale but if you can look past things like the rapid love at first sight, the whimsical animals and singing, evil stepmother, all those clichés, and realize they weren’t quite the tropes then that they are now, you’ll see the true worth of Cinderella. The fact that it has behind it a very good moral of kindness, patience, perseverance, and hard work, and how they may pay off. And that far from being a poor character for girls, or for that matter children to identify with, Cinderella is a character worth rooting for. She toiled for people who hated her but kept her good spirit throughout. Who else in the land is more deserving of a happily ever after?

Next Week: Alice in Wonderland (1951)

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