Well this film doesn’t need a big introduction. It’s the well-known rags to riches story that with this adaptation provided that for the Disney studio as well. It was a huge success that pulled the studio back from the brink after the lean years post world war two. Opening the doors for more feature films, more television shows, and of course Disneyland. But is it as good now as it was then?
This film like Peter Pan comes under fire these days for having elements that modern audiences tend to frown on. The criticism I usually find is that Cinderella isn’t working towards her goal, it’s just handed to her and the romance is the be all end of her dreams and that is a bad image to be sending to young girls. Now I actually went into this review ready to agree with these criticisms if I thought they had merit, because this film, unlike 90% of the rest of the Disney animated canon, doesn’t hold any childhood nostalgia for me. This is one of the few Disney films I didn’t watch all that much as a kid. In fact I’ve never even owned a copy of it until this latest release, I saw it a few times growing up and I knew all the songs of course, they’re Disney’s stock and trade right up there with ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’, but watching it now was the first time I’d really looked at as a proper film. So do I agree with the criticisms? Yes and no.
I think our main character is actually quite rounded, being nice and friendly with her friends, while also being just a little bit sassy in the way she talks to Lucifer and describes the ‘music lesson’ of her step-sisters. As to the idea that she gets everything handed to her I disagree to a point. Cinderella has a dream and she does work hard, but the two don’t connect I think as well as they could have and I think that’s where the problem lies. She has a dream, but as she says she can’t tell us what that is otherwise it won’t come true. Is her dream really about finding her prince charming? I personally think no I think it’s about having the life she used to know before her father died. Having everything she wanted and being provided for and by the end of the film that has been achieved. The hard work she is doing though isn’t pushing her towards that goal like say Tiana’s work in Princess and the Frog is. Tiana is working hard not only to save money for her restaurant, but is doing that by working in other restaurants. This allows her to develop good cooking skills and a good customer base by being a good waitress and providing a nice experience to the customers she serves so they remember her when she goes into business for herself. Cinderella is doing all her hard work for her ungrateful step-sisters and step-mother not towards anything that would benefit her.
Now this brings up the idea of why Cinderella doesn’t simply leave her family. She has no future there and there is no love lost between her and anybody else in the household. I initially wondered that because she is obviously up before them every morning she could leave and they wouldn’t know she was gone for a few hours. With that though comes the issue of abuse which the narrator says does happen to her. I like the way this is reinforced too when Cinderella backs up when Tremaine comes forward when she is talking to Cinderella about her dress for the ball, and Cinderella has this great look of fear on her face. It’s an indication that there was physical abuse in the relationship. And even if Tremaine never hit Cinderella with the dress ripping scene that follows we know that the step-sisters were allowed to physically harm her and Tremaine approved of it. In situations of abuse leaving the abuser is never as simple as saying “why didn’t you just leave them?” First off where would she go? She doesn’t have any friends or family to stay with. How would she find work to support herself? She can’t use her family’s name for clout and with her skills she could find work as servant or housekeeper to someone else, but would she really see that as improvement for herself? She’s doing the same thing she used to do, but at least with Tremaine she is in her father’s house and with her animal friends.
I do like that her being kind to her friends is shown as a positive trait and rewarded, because it is her friends who get her first dress ready to go to the ball simply because they want to help her. And it’s Gus and Jacque who get the key from Tremaine so she can escape her room and see the Duke at the end. Not for any reward on their part, but because Cinderella is their friend. So while her hard work isn’t related directly to her happy ending her kind and giving nature is. I think prompting being kind and generous to children is a perfectly fine set of values to instill in them. So Cinderella as a character works I just think her goal, dream really, needed to be more defined.
Also the idea that Cinderella, by marrying the prince and being a princess, is coming into a role with no real responsibility isn’t entirely correct. The Duke does say in his speech that when the prince’s father dies the prince and the princess will come to power to rule as king and queen. So Cinderella won’t always be a princess we just didn’t get to see her in that role of queen. We might have had the sequels not sucked, but we aren’t to those yet.
Now on the issue of romance I do think there is substance to the critiques of that. The romance between the two characters isn’t much of one because the prince is not so much a real person as he is a cardboard stand in. The prince represents the life Cinderella used to have he is not a character in his own right. So while ‘So This is Love’ is a good song I’ll agree the romance is fluffy and a bit boring. The idea that they don’t know who the other person is sort of works on the idea that Cinderella isn’t falling for the prince because he is royalty but because of who he is as a person. Except that they obviously don’t have anything to connect them because they don’t talk about anything they just dance together. She doesn’t know who he really is and he doesn’t either so why should I be invested in this romance other than the fact that Cinderella is going to be saved from her step-mother?
So the romance could certainly stand to be stronger, but I think much of the rest of the film is great in spite of that. It really is a beautiful film with memorable songs and a lot of fun side characters like the king and the Duke. There is also great voice acting here including Disney veterans Eleanor Audley as Tremaine and Verna Felton doing the voice of the fairy godmother, as well as Irene Woods as Cinderella. The mice however are now annoying to me. Obviously they’re there to appeal to the younger crowd and were certainly fine to me before I hit double digits in age. Now I find their voices grating. However, their animation is great, done by Ward Kimball again, and he also was the supervising animator for Lucifer the cat. Providing I think one of my favourite walks for a character in the way he slinks up the stairs like a snake when Gus is hiding under the teacups; very inventive and fun.
The film is also self-aware in many respects. The duke says the glass slipper could fit any number of girls and the Duke also calls out the love at first sight idea. In fact considering he’s the only logical practical one in the film and getting the short end of the stick here by being yelled at by the king all the time I’m going to go ahead a call him my favourite character. Really the film knows that it’s a fairy tale and never tries to be anything but that. That I think is why I can ultimately like the film even though it does have flaws. It totally works as a fairy tale. Our protagonist has worked hard and been trampled on and we want to see them get their happy ending and on that emotional level the film works great. It has a simple fairy tale moral: always be good and kind and one day you will get your reward, and it displays that fine.
Ultimately the flaws of the film don’t outweigh the good points for me. The whole look of the film is gorgeous, the voice acting is wonderful, and the moral is sound. Sure the romance could stand to be worked on the main character’s goal could have been better defined, but I really find those flaws quite minor when I watched the movie. Later Disney movies worked to make those flaws better in their works and that’s wonderful it means progress is being made, but I still like this film just as it is.