It is perhaps unsurprising that Cinderella (1950), the 12th classic animated feature from the House of Mouse, is often regarded at being all a little bit twee and superficial and possibly not as fondly cherished as the rest of the iconic and immortal early canon of peerless classics. It lacks the menace and the darkness, and the bold fantasy that the acknowledged gemstones seem to have in abundance.
I mean Snow White had an evil queen and a septet of personality-labelled dwarfs. Sleeping Beauty had a witch and a dragon to give us nightmares. Dumbo had psychedelic and slightly demonic elephants for us to trip out to. In Fantasia we had the soul-devouring demon Chernabog to contend with, and a sobering-yet-resplendent glimpse at how life evolved on Earth. Pinocchio was about a wooden doll with aspirations of humanity and, as such, a veiled observation upon the purpose and existence of the soul. And then there is Bambi … but let’s not go there, eh? There was very often genuine life and death at stake, and certainly a few moral conundrums to be signposted. With our Cinders, though, the whole dilemma centres around a much-put-upon and derided chick, who is clearly a babe, undergoing peer-pressure from a gaggle of snotty bitches that are envious of her latent charms, and all because she wants to go to a party.
It doesn’t have the same imagination-expanding clout, does it?
But perhaps in addressing far smaller concerns, Disney tap into themes that are much more relevant than mere vanity with magic mirrors and poisoned apples.
In a fairytale realm, a young girl, Cinderella (voiced by Ilene Woods), is doted-upon by her loving, though sadly widowed father. But tragedy strikes again when he takes another wife, the Lady Tremaine (Eleanor Audley), and he, too, dies regrettably young. Disney doesn’t belabour this wretched run of parental ill-health, which really wouldn’t bode too well for the potential for life-long happiness of this would-be princess, if you think about it. Left with her spiteful stepmother and her two greedy, obnoxious daughters, Anastasia (Lucille Bliss) and Drizella (Rhoda Williams), Cinderella quickly discovers that her father’s choice in matters of the heart wasn’t very good. And, in the time-honoured tradition of such matters, the stepmother proves to be a harridan who adores her own ever-whining brats but despises the meek and complimentary Cinders. And, thus, the poor innocent girl is given a dog’s life of servitude, waiting upon her unwanted yet forever wanting surrogate family like a common skivvy.
The years pass and she grows older, yet she retains a goodness of heart and a sense of charity that belies her downtrodden existence. She dreams of happiness and often looks out of the window in her tower-garret at the shining castle that commands the valley, yearning to be swept away from the drudgery and doldrums of life with the terrible Tremaines. Together with her only friends – a gaggle of highly skilled mice (they can sing and dance, go on commando raids and even make dresses) under the buffoon-like, but affectionate leadership of Jaq and rotund new-arrival Gus (both voiced by flappy-lipped Jimmy MacDonald), her father’s faithful hound Bruno (also voiced by MacDonald) – she seeks to find as much happiness as she can in a rambling chateau populated by despicable harpies who make constant demands of her.
But opportunity for escape arises when the King of the land (Luis Van Rooten) decides to celebrate the homecoming of his son, the eminently eligible Prince Charming (voiced by William Phipps, yet sung by Mike Douglas), by having a fancy ball to which every potential bride in the realm is cordially invited, in the hopes of finding one that is suitable to become the new Princess. It’s almost like Saturday night dating show Take Me Out crossed with an arranged marriage.
Well, you all know how it goes. Cinderella wants to go the ball, but her stepmother and stepsisters have other ideas and make it virtually impossible for her to do so. They pile on the work for her in the hopes that she will be too tired to put on her glad rags and go partying, leaving Anastasia and Drizella free to smother the Prince with their ghastly attentions. And when, with the aid of her little furry and feathered friends, she appears in a beautiful dress that has been accessorised with Anastasia’s bead necklace and Drizella’s sash, the sisters descend upon her in a ripping, tearing frenzy to reclaim their gear … leaving poor Cinders in shreds and tatters. Literally. With no time left for cosmetic repairs, she retreats to the garden to weep in a rare moment of self-pity, as the others leave excitedly for the ball. But I think we can guess what’s coming next. As the sympathetic animals gather around the crying girl, little stars begin to flutter and dance, finally coming together and coalescing into the form of a big blue wise-cracking genie. Whoops – no, sorry, wrong Disney. A little blue-cloaked and cuddly old lady who soothingly reveals that she is Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother (Verna Felton) appears before her, and she isn’t about to leave the girl in the lurch. With a twirl of the magic wand, a sprinkling of wishing-dust and a bouncy, flouncy jingle of gibberish, she turns a pumpkin into a regal carriage, the mice and the hound into a team of noble horses, a coach-driver and a footman, and she rustles-up an even more fabulous dress and a couple of splendid glass slippers. And a whole quicker than Gok Wan could!
“Oh, baby … you are smokin’! Your carriage awaits … and that Prince you’re so keen on? Well, he ain’t gonna know what’s hit him!”
Every little spell comes with a price-tag, though. And that bloody moral that lurks like a fate-shaped shark beneath all the potential fun that Disney characters can have is revealed when the Fairy Godmother explains that the magic will wear off at the stroke of midnight, and Cinderella’s dress, slippers and coach will all return to normal … so she’d best make herself scarce from the ball once the clock strikes twelve! What kind of deal is this? Doesn’t she know that most club-it kids don’t even go out until after midnight?
But Cinderella makes it to the ball and does, indeed, wow the britches off the Prince, and the two dance the night away to the chagrin of all those other ladies who had such high hopes of bagging some blue-blooded stud-muffin. All’s going swimmingly, but before the Prince can waltz this mysterious lady up the stairs to check out his royal etchings, the clock begins to chime for the midnight hour. And, in a blind panic, the gorgeous girl is hot-footing back to her carriage and hurtling away into the night. He didn’t even get her mobile number.
Ahh, but what’s this?
She’s left a glass slipper behind. Aha, thinks the Prince, all I’ve got to do is find the girl who can fit it on her foot, and I’ve got the girl of my dreams! Providing that foot isn’t all battered and bruised and festooned with splinters after giving it toes out of the castle in such a hurry.
Will he find the right foot? Or was it the left?
Will the wicked stepmother and the gruesome twosome hoof the heroine’s chance of harmony out the window?
Can Cinderella give the slappers the slip and slip on the slipper?
And if the Prince finds the tootsie of his dreams, who’s going to foot the bill for the wedding?
It’s all kicking off, isn’t it?
Well, one thing’s for certain, Cinders and Charmers ain’t gonna be footloose and fancy-free for much longer.
The theme of bullying is something that is always going to be relevant. No matter what race, creed or society you find yourself in, there is always going to be someone wiling to have a pop at you as a result of their own perceived sense of superiority. Nowadays, Cinders would be character-assassinated on social network sites, and cyber-bullied by text and email. Disney’s film is not, therefore, riddled with metaphor and allegory. It is about as up-front as can be regarding the implications of subjugating another person, though only Cinderella’s last-straw collapse as her dress is torn away shows the real effect of such systematic abuse. Otherwise, the stepbitches are rather daft and comical, and Cinders just seems to take their nastiness in ridiculously good spirits.
Of course, the story is about a little bit more than being able to finally turn the tables upon your tormentors.
Perhaps the most popular of all pantomimes, Cinderella is the quintessential rags-to-riches tale of a put-upon innocent who is able, by chance and circumstance and good, old fashioned perseverance, to win the day and change her fortunes forever … simply by holding true to her own trusted values and making a highly justified wish at precisely the right time. She wins by attrition and courage … and not by exacting revenge, which is another lofty ideal that Uncle Walt liked to entrench in impressionable minds. And the original fairytale, as written by Charles Perrault, neglected to exact any sort of retribution upon the trio of moaning miscreants.
The inclusion of the merry mice and Lady Tremaine’s menacing moggie, Lucifer, is the quintessential Disney touch that gives us both an excuse for action and slapstick and a means to understand the threat to Cinderella in a more viscerally flamboyant yet cleverly covert fashion – in that the menace and danger does not actually affect the girl, herself, but we still feel the urgency and the danger to her existence within the usurped family home by feline and rodent proxy. This Tom & Jerry shtick is enjoyable and, let’s be honest, if it wasn’t there the film would only be half an hour long. Lucifer is a great creation too. Seen initially as an agile and cunning younger kitty, the passage of time, as Cinders virtually runs the household singlehandedly, has bloated his leering and malicious carcass into one big fat cat. Nevertheless, he has a mean streak and a relentless determination to both devour the mice and drop Cinderella right into the smelly stuff with her stepmother at every opportunity. He’s not fussed on Bruno the dog, either, as a nasty claw-swipe indicates.
The comedy comes thick and fast with such cat-and-mouse games, even if this scenario does occasionally smack of cute time-fillage.
The songs are sugary and light. Cinderella floats her yearning desires over a view of the castle gleaming in the sunlight to A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes, and then there is the terrifically catchy conjuration of the Fairy Godmother’s magically jolly ditty of Bibbidi-Bobbodi-Boo that really sticks in the mind. It’s so infectious that Perry Como even had a stab at covering this jaunty ode to spell-casting.
Foreboding is not really much in evidence. There are no spooky gothic castles, and no occult witchery to fester in the shadows. When Cinderella enters the stepmother’s boudoir, the visual intention is clearly to bestow the hatchet-faced ice-maiden (just what did her father ever see in this ghastly hag in the first place?) with a degree of fearsome eloquence. Swathed in darkness, we see only her eyes and those of Lucifer, who is cuddled up next to her, before her vulture-like visage cuts through the noir. The black magic angle is implied with the attachment of the dark and satanic cat, the typical witch’s familiar. And if you didn’t get that less-than-subtle clue, they went and called him Lucifer. Funnily enough, a lot of these early Disney tales focussed upon female treachery, with the fellers often a bunch of ineffectual fops until the valiant final hour. The ugly sisters aren’t much of a threat – just an annoyance – but Lady Tremaine is a force to be reckoned with.
Cinders, herself, is actually a very likeable young lady. Her resilience in the face of such exploitation is commendable, and her transformation from floor-scrubber to belle of the ball is quite intoxicating to behold. Although you always have the sneaking suspicion that she could easily overthrow the dictatorship in the house, you do feel for her plight, especially when the last ditch trick that the stepmother pulls of locking her in the tower, threatens to keep her foot from finding that gleaming slipper and herself from a well-earned date with destiny.
The only real letdown to the story is the lack of any development, or actually worthwhile presence afforded to the lantern-jawed Prince Charming. Originally he had more to do, with a sequence showing him play-hunting a friendly deer, and an extra scene in which he learns of Cinderella’s humble background and is virtually reintroduced to his bride-to-be. Now it could be argued that these scenes are quite unnecessary to what is, essentially, Cinderella’s story, but they would have provided the dashing hero of the piece with more of a personality and added a welcome, even if still only slight, depth of character to someone who, as it now stands, is one of the blandest of narrative asides. He doesn’t even accompany the Grand Duke on his seek-and-locate slipper-mission. Walt Disney, himself, axed these elements, preferring the hugely punchier conclusion that we have now. He also excised what would have been a nice little scene of Cinderella overhearing the ranting of her stepmother and stepsisters disparaging the “mystery girl” who bewitched the Prince at the ball with the excuse that it would given her something of a spiteful and vengeful nature, qualities he feared audiences would not respond well to. I can see his point but, from a more modern viewpoint, I don’t actually agree. One of the film’s biggest mistakes is that we never see any sort of comeuppance that the Tremaines should suffer for their cruelty. Disney assumes that the very fact we see Cinderella and Prince Charming riding off into the rosy-hued sunset, and that we are told they will live happily ever after, should be enough of a conclusion. But, even back then, this lack of poetic payback for the persecutors was going slightly against the grain. You can’t imagine Snow White being roused from her poisoned slumber and then shrugging her shoulders with indifference if the evil Queen hadn’t been squished by a great big boulder. Or Sleeping Beauty just giving her Prince a groggy, gummed-up snog if he hadn’t just vanquished the dragon. So why should these vindictive miseries be let off the hook so easily?
They just get completely forgotten about.
Well, that’s how a bloke sees the story, anyway. And, in fairness, it would be wise to remember that Cinderella, perhaps even more so than The Little Mermaid, or Beauty and the Beast, or Tinkerbell, is aimed directly and very deliberately at little girls. It’s theme, its style, its very texture is in-synch with the hopes, dreams and fears of those small ladies with big hearts and wide, fanciful eyes. I’ve sat and watched all the Disney films with my daughter – especially the ones that her older brother had steadfastly refused to see even when he was a tot – and there is an undeniable transference of that indefinable “magic” that we, as grownups, have long-since forgotten and can only witness taking place with envious eyes. My five-year-old girl, Lucy, also watches things with sharks, werewolves and muscle-bound heroes wielding big guns (well, what do you expect, she is my daughter, after all), but there is something charming and totally innocent, completely un-cynical at work when vintage Disney holds court. There may not be any depth to these characters, but they are dream-ciphers that uncorrupted imaginations totally buy into. And their stories, however whimsical, have a power and a message that is perfectly valid and important to them.
On a technical level, Cinderella actually seems quite light and superficial, with less obviously showboating finesse or dazzling invention than many of the Disney outings that preceded it, such as Bambi and Fantasia. But this is deceptive. The settings and backdrops, the action and the characters are full of nuance, and the film has plenty of fantastical breadth to the spectral garden, the scintillating castle and its opulent, melt-the-eyes décor, and to the halls and kitchen and tower of Cinderella’s mansion-house. The animation was based, once again, on live-action studies of actors performing against modest sets. Helene Stanley would “play” Cinderella, heavily affecting how the girl would be drawn and animated. Stanley was so adept at breathing life into what would become a resolutely 2D character that she would repeat the duty for Sleeping Beauty and for Anita Radcliffe in 101 Dalmatians. The magical arrival of the Fairy Godmother, appearing almost as a cushion for the weeping Cinderella is marvellously effective. The chaotic duelling of Lucifer and the mice is enjoyably kinetic, and just look at that lolloping pumpkin that bounces across the garden before morphing into a carriage. There’s a real Halloween gaiety at work there – slightly reminiscent of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
You know where you stand with vintage Disney – entertained and bewitched and, at the end of the day, happily and cosily satisfied. The tale of Cinderella was always ripe for this sort of treatment, yet there is no escaping the fact that it is slighter material than the true heavyweights that Uncle Walt produced during these early decades - though this is surely one of its shining qualities. It’s very simplicity. Like The Aristocats or 101 Dalmatians, Cinderella doesn’t ask too much of you, and doesn’t overburden little minds with more issues than that of simple wish-fulfilment. It merely sets out to entertain. And there is nothing at all wrong with that.
It remains a cracking film that may be light on drama and suffer from one of the most abrupt and trite finales ever lensed, but remains joyfully breezy and effortless, and both inspiring and romantic. The animation is typically sublime, the songs are transitional – both traditionally choral and frothy and fun – and the film carved the demarcation line between classic and peerless Disney of the thirties forties and the more frivolous fifties.
As far as the fairytale depiction of a young girl’s innocent dreams goes, Cinderella is the one to beat.
This BD is encoded for A,B,C region playback.
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