As much as the classic Disney movies have their reputation for Disney Princess movies, it actually took the studio 12 animated features to release their second (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was their first animated feature ever). That second princess movie, Cinderella, is the first to be released in the 1950’s and the first post WW2 movie that isn’t a packaged film. Going into Cinderella’s release, Disney was in serious debt, and if Cinderella failed, Walt Disney would have likely closed shop permanently. With a $3 million dollar budget, a lot was on the line for this one.
Not only was Cinderella a success, but it was a massive one. Combined with its soundtrack sales, Cinderella completely got the studio out of debt, gave Walt Disney enough money to start his own distribution company and funded several ongoing movie projects, both animated and live action. Including its several re-releases, it’s earned more than $260 million. Not bad for a 1950 release. It also received three Academy Award nominations (Best Musical Score, Best Original Song and Best Sound Recording).
That said, as an adult man who didn’t enjoy Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, how does Cinderella stand up?
This might surprise you, but I kind of enjoyed this one. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t love it and I’m in no real hurry to watch it again. There are things I feel could have been improved on and I’ll talk about some of them below. Cinderella did hold my attention though. Most people reading this know the basics of the story so I won’t go into too much detail. Instead I’ll focus on the characters, the soundtrack and the technical aspect of the film.
Unlike Snow White (the archetypical damsel), Cinderella is an actual character here. She’s living a rough life serving her step mother and step sisters, in the very manor her father once owned. She often gets frustrated by their demanding tasks for her but tries not to let them see it. The stepmother is devious and manipulative on top of her cruelty, while the stepsisters are idiotic yet are no kinder. That said, Cinderella makes the best of her situation, and she actually tries to do things herself instead of just waiting for someone to rescue her. She doesn’t initially want to go to the ball to find someone to love. She really just wants to go for a good time, and she could really use a break.
The evil stepmother doesn’t have too much depth outside of being evil, but that’s not really a problem. She’s got this calm, cold demeanor as if she’s always calculating her next move. She’s got just the right level of malice while still being convincingly manipulative. The daughters take after their mother’s level cruelty, but they’re also incompetent in a number of ways. Their music lessons are audio torture fests, but in a way that’s mildly amusing to the movie audience. You almost feel sorry for them – their ineptitude is pretty much all their mother’s fault.
Other characters include Cinderella’s mice friends and other animals that enjoy her company. This, along with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, secured the Disney Princess trope of the princesses being very good with cute animals. For that matter, it also helps firm up the trend of princesses with at least one dead parent. Anyway, for a movie aimed at kids, the cute animals are fine. The mice aren’t obnoxious, they have distinct personalities and their antics lead to some decent slapstick humour. It’s not laugh out loud funny, but it’s entertaining enough and kids will likely enjoy it. I do think the movie focused a bit too much on the animals at the end, but more on that later.
The strongest aspect of this film from a storytelling standpoint may be the dress that the mice make. The movie spends quite a while showing the mice trying to help Cinderella by gathering the materials they need, creating the dress, and presenting it to her right when she’s ready to give up on getting to the ball. It might sound weird that the movie focuses on the mice for a while, but in truth, watching them trying to avoid the cat is more interesting than watching Cinderella do chores for 20 minutes or so. The song the mice sing when they create the dress is meant to be cute. I usually don’t care too much for songs that are cute for the sake of it – sometimes I find them obnoxious, but this one’s ok. There’s a lot of build-up and a sense of relief when Cinderella puts the dress on, only for the step sisters to tear it apart. It’s a harsh moment, and it’s hard not to feel Cinderella’s pain as her step family leaves her behind after she worked so hard to get all her chores done so she could go to the ball.
The Fairy Godmother is also an entertaining character. She’s very kind, and perhaps a touch eccentric with slight signs of senility. Her song, Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo, is just the right level of whimsical for her role in the movie of helping Cinderella get to the ball. It was the song nominated for Best Original Song after all. The animation in the Fairy Godmother’s scene is fantastic – easily the best I’ve seen since I started this Disney series. The sparkles being thrown around by the Godmother’s wand, and especially the transformation sequence with Cinderella’s new dress, still hold up well today for hand-drawn animation.
With all that said, Prince Charming is basically a non-character. I’m willing to forgive the quick falling in love side of the story since it’s an older animated movie based on a fairy tale with only so much runtime, but the Prince is only in this movie to fall in love with Cinderella. He doesn’t even join his men when they’re searching for the owner of the glass slipper. You’d think he would. Comic writer Kelly Sue DeConnick often talks about women’s lackluster roles in fiction by using a lamp metaphor. It goes something like “if you can replace a female character with a lamp, she’s a bad character”. You could pretty much do that with Prince Charming.
The soundtrack playing during the dance is great, but there probably should have been more time spent at the ball for Cinderella and the prince to talk, even if only to develop the Prince a bit more. Instead, we get an overly long sequence at the end of the movie, where Cinderella’s locked in her tower while the prince’s men try the lost glass slipper on the step sisters. It’s a decent action scene showing the mice and animals struggling to get the key up to the tower while the cat is trying to stop them, but it could have been cut down by several minutes. If anything, it would be more exciting if it was shorter, and certainly more believable. I know I’m talking about a family feature here with fairies and singing mice, but still.
Before I conclude this post, I might as well mention the live action remake they released in 2015. I watched it for the first time not long before I started doing these posts, and it’s bad. In their attempt to expand on Cinderella’s character, they removed a lot of her agency and her emotional depth. They gave us an extended intro that feels 10 minutes too long. In their attempt to expand on the prince, they created a boring character. They changed the Fairy Godmother into a scatter-brained comedian of sorts that comes across as a bit annoying.
Although Cinderella and the prince meet before the ball, they only talk about vague moral ideas for about half a minute, and somehow that’s enough for the prince to completely obsess over her. It’s like they tried to make this movie mature and their love story more realistic, but it makes everything feel fake. Worst of all, it’s a 2 hour movie that pretty much tells the same story as the animated original, stretched out to the point where it’s boring. And yet of all the things they expanded on to make the 2 hour mark, they severely cut down on Cinderella’s first dress, so we don’t care nearly as much when it’s torn apart. So yeah, just stick with the original animated version.
Or if you want to watch a live action Cinderella movie, watch Ever After. That movie is brilliant.
Walt Disney’s Cinderella surprised me. I thought it would be an outdated princess movie about a passive, useless young woman like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was. Instead, I watched a movie with a young woman in a very tough situation, imposed by her evil stepmother, and doing her best to improve on her situation while keeping herself honest and kind. Although it’s true that Cinderella needed the Fairy Godmother’s help, she tried her hardest to make it to the ball on her own. I wouldn’t really recommend this one to most adult men like me, but I don’t see any problems with showing this to kids. There’s a reason why this is considered one of Walt Disney’s all-time classics.
Seriously though, what is with Disney Princess movies and the princess having at least one dead parent – usually the mother?
Next up on the list is Alice in Wonderland, and I’m really looking forward to watching this one again. It’s the classic Disney movie that will make you feel like you’re on drugs. Right after that, it’s one of my childhood favourites, Peter Pan.