Sunday, March 24, 2013

Guest Post: Disney's Cinderella (from Matthew)

Disney’s Cinderella

or “Why This Movie Really Isn’t As Bad As You Think It Is” - by Matt Guion

Seriously, people. It’s not.

Okay, to be fair, Disney’s Cinderella is one of the earliest movies I remember watching. My family didn’t get a VCR until I was about three, and we only had a handful of VHS home movies, of which Cinderella was one, and one that I watched a lot. So yeah, there’s a fair amount of nostalgia attached with this film. But the same can also be said for Shirley Temple’s The Little Princess, and I have no qualms whatsoever about ripping that movie to shreds. So, that being said . . .

Cinderella came after something of a dry spell for Disney animation, partly due to the war and a reliance on “package films,” or movies that told more than one story. Cinderella was the first full length animated feature since Bambi to tell one story, and only the second full length animated feature to be based on a faerie tale. And like Snow White, it was a big hit, and effective started Disney’s classic era, which would sustain them for much of the next couple decades.

This time, Disney tackled a story that was well-known and universal, the classic rags to riches story, and while they definitely put the Disney spin on it, they also stayed pretty true to the source material. But what I have found, after watching it again, is that the things about this movie that I’m not crazy about are the things from the original story that they stayed true to. Pretty much everything Disney DID add their touch to, I liked better.

So, starting from the beginning: the movie opens, just as Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, with the storybook exposition, where a narrator gives us the beginning of the story. Cinderella -- who, incidentally, has that name with no sort of explanation behind it -- is the daughter of a wealthy widower, who marries Lady Tremaine believing that Cinderella needs a mother. Lady Tremaine has two daughters of her own, Anastasia and Druzella, both of whom are generally spiteful and mean-tempered. Then, Cinderella’s father dies (thus, taking care of that little problem from the story) leaving Cinderella at the mercy of her stepfamily, who now reveal their true colors and treat Cinderella as little more than a servant.

Which brings us to our first “issue” that people cite with this story. Why doesn’t Cinderella just leave, if her family is treating her so badly? Well, let me answer your question with a question: where would she go? It’s indicated that she’s still a child when her father dies, and thus, her stepmother is her legal guardian. When she is old enough to take her life into her own hands, as it were, she’s no longer the daughter of an aristocrat. She’s a commoner, a servant. Her stepmother has basically stripped away whatever legal claim she might have had to her father’s estate. And awful as Lady Tremaine is, she’s still giving Cinderella a place to stay. Yeah, Cinderella has to work, but she has a home, she has food on her plate, and a roof over her head. She’s not going to give that up lightly. Also, when you’ve been raised from childhood to be a servant to your stepmother, you kind of grow up with that inferior mindset into adulthood. Also, legality aside, I do think that Cinderella still sees the place as her father’s house. We’re told that it’s falling into disrepair, because Lady Tremaine cares little for it, and Cinderella has a vested interested in staying.

So for better or worse, Cinderella stays and allows herself to be treated as a servant. But it’s worth noting that this Cinderella is considerably more interesting than her Perrault counterpart, as well as more interesting than the other Disney princesses from this time before being a Disney princess was even a thing. She actually has a very enjoyable personality. Yes, she’s optimistic and kind against all odds, but she can also be vaguely sarcastic, as though she’s on the very edge of talking back at times. Unlike Snow White, who just seemed oblivious, and Aurora, who actually was oblivious, Cinderella seems fully aware that her situation pretty well sucks, but she’s trying to make the best of it that she possibly can. I wouldn’t call her content with her situation. More like resigned. Her attitude seems to be, “I may not like the lot life has dealt me, but there’s not a whole lot I can do about it, so I may as well try to make the best of it.” And unlike Perrault’s Cinderella, who isn’t even able to make her wish and has to have the Fairy Godmother do even that for her, this one does actually try to make her life suck less. It just doesn’t seem to work. She befriends a group of mice, and one of them accidentally gets into trouble. She sings while she works, and Lucifer the Worst Little Demon Cat Ever messes up the floor she was cleaning. She finds a dress to wear to the ball, and . . . but I’m getting ahead of myself.

As I said, Cinderella--being a Disney princess--has animal friends. Birds, who don’t talk, and mice, who sadly do. (And if befriending mice in your house doesn’t force you take a step back and reexamine your life situation, then I don’t know what will.) And this is the one thing Disney did that I’m NOT wild about: the mice. And really, it’s not even the mice themselves. It’s their voices. The mice themselves actually have very enjoyable personalities, with Jaq and Gus taking on an Abbott and Costello style friendship. In a way, this movie is kind of their perspective of the story. Cinderella from the point of view of the mice. I mean, yeah, it’s mostly a bunch of filler material of Tom and Jerry-style antics with Lucifer, but they’re still enjoyable to watch.

So, the plot properly gets going when Cinderella answers the door to a royal official with an invitation to the ball, which she promptly takes up to her stepfamily. And again, to her credit, unlike Perrault’s Cinderella, this Cinderella does actually assert herself here. While her stepsisters are laughing at the idea of her going to the ball, Cinderella points out that EVERY eligible maiden is to attend, and that includes her. Lady Tremaine reluctantly agrees on the condition that she finish her work AND find something to wear . . . which she will, of course, make impossible by keeping her constantly busy.

So, singing mice to the rescue! Cinderella has a dress and an idea of how to fix it up, but she doesn’t have time to do it herself, so . . . the mice do it. This leads to one of the more creative, though also sillier, sequences of the movie where the mice and the birds fix up the dress . . . while singing. (Ugh.) It also leads to another fun sequence with Lucifer, as well as the whole “Leave the sewing to the women,” line that kind of irritates me. But regardless, Cinderella tells her stepfamily that she’s not going, tries to make herself feel better and fails, and then the mice surprise her with her newly updated dress. Delighted, she puts it on, and rushes downstairs to join her stepfamily in going to the ball.

Unfortunately, the mice, in their innocence, used things that the stepsisters had discarded in order to work on Cinderella’s dress, specifically a sash and a necklace of beads, and they use that as an excuse to rip Cinderella’s dress to pieces. The stepfamily leaves Cinderella standing in the ruins of her dress as they go off to the ball without her.

So, yeah . . . SHE FREAKING CRIES. Guess what? So would I! She’s been trying to make the best of a crappy situation for so long, she thought she’d finally have a chance to escape, at least for a little while, and then she’s attacked by her stepsisters -- and I mean physically attacked, that scene is creepy! -- while her stepmother did nothing. This was the breaking point. This was the point when she just couldn’t take it anymore. We’ve all been there, and Cinderella has been through more than most. Cut her some slack, folks.

Anyway, she’s had enough. She’s hit her lowest point. She doesn’t even see the point of dreaming anymore. And that’s when the Godmother shows up. Not when she’s doing her best to dream and hope and do what she can, but when she’s lost all hope and needs someone to give her some. And the Godmother doesn’t just grant her this wish on a whim. This is exactly what Cinderella needs, and not just because the Prince is going to be there. So, the Fairy Godmother is not someone who rescues a helpless damsel in distress, but someone who gives hope to someone who has lost it.

So, the Fairy Godmother sings her song and casts her spell and gives Cinderella her warning, and Cinderella is off to the ball. Now, we’ve been ignoring the prince all this time, so let’s turn to him for a bit.

 . . . Yeah, not much to say about the Prince. He doesn’t show up until the ball, and has little to no personality. But we can talk about the king and the duke for a bit.

So, the King is the one who is so gung-ho to marry his son off, very simply because he wants grandchildren. This seems to be partly practical -- carry on the family line -- and partly personal -- his son has long since grown, and the King misses the child he once was. So really, the King is the real love interest in this story. He’s the one with the schemes and the desire for his son to be married. He’s looking after his own happiness rather than his son’s, but the character is so funny and likable that we don’t really mind how selfish and unreasonable he’s being. The King has a very belabored Grand Duke, who basically does all of his bidding and helps to carry out the King’s schemes.

The Prince, therefore, is bored out of his skull during the ball . . . until Cinderella turns up. He sees her, wandering through the palace lost, and approaches her for a dance. And somehow, Cinderella is unaware that this is the Prince. I mean, okay, he’s dressed like any other nobleman at the ball, but given that everyone’s, you know, looking at him and deferring to him, you’d think it would’ve been obvious. But never mind. They dance, obviously infatuated with each other, while we hear “So, This is Love.” Whether they’re actually in love . . . well, I personally think the question is irrelevant, for reasons I’ll explain later.

The dance the night away, and the clock strikes twelve, and Cinderella is off and running. The Prince makes a few token protests (seriously, three lines and a song, that’s all this guy gets) before he is engulfed by adoring young women and obscured from the remainder of the plot. The Duke, who has been charged with keeping an eye on them and informing the King when the Prince proposes, runs after her instead and sends the palace guards after her, knowing that his neck is on the line. (Again: the duke does all this. Not the Prince.) And of course, Cinderella loses the slipper.

Cinderella’s ensemble changes back to pumpkin, mice, horse, dog, and rags, and since the palace guards aren’t looking for those things, they run right past. Cinderella, far from being disappointed, is actually quite happy, and why shouldn’t she be? She got out of the house, away from her stepfamily, got to go to a royal ball, danced with a handsome guy, basically had a one-night stand without the sex, and even though she has to go back to her old life, this night just might be enough to restore her hope in the future again. And of course, she still has the other glass slipper. And no, it’s never explained why the other things disappear and not this. I guess we have to assume that the Fairy Godmother had enough magic to at least let her keep the shoes.

The scene that follows, where the Duke tells the King that the girl got away, is one of the most hilarious scenes in the movie, as the King goes from being giddy at the thought of his son getting married to flying into a murderous rage when hearing that the Duke let the girl get away, and then back to delighted once he learns that the Prince has said he’ll marry the girl who fits the slipper. So here, the King sees an opportunity. The King isn’t really terribly picky whether the Prince marries the girl he loves or not, he just wants him to marry someone. So since the Prince has, probably in a fit of passionate grief, sworn he’ll marry the girl who fits the glass slipper (most likely meaning the girl who owns the slipper), the King intends to hold him to that exact promise, probably thinking that someone is bound to fit the slipper, it doesn’t matter who. Just so long as she can bear grandchildren.

Next morning, as the stepfamily is suffering a post-ball hangover, the King’s proclamation arrives. The stepmother sees the same opportunity that King did, though from the other end of it. The shoe could easily fit either Anastasia’s or Druzella’s foot as well as anyone’s. Once she explains this to her rather dense daughters, they immediately fly into a frenzy, ordering Cinderella around as usual so they can get ready for the arrival of the Duke.

Cinderella, however, isn’t listening. Because she has caught on as well, and this is one thing I love about this moment of the movie. Cinderella not only realizes that the guy she danced with last night is looking for her, but that he’s the Prince. Cinderella had already given up ever seeing him again, dismissing her feelings as infatuation that she would get over eventually. But this isn’t just any suitor: this is the Prince. This is someone who can finally get Cinderella out of her crummy situation. This is her way out.

And once she realizes that, she STOPS listening to her stepfamily. She doesn’t do what they’re ordering her to do; she hands off the clothes and goes to get ready for the Duke. She essentially extends her middle finger to her stepfamily, and goes off to do her own thing, never thinking for a moment that there’s a damn thing they can do about it, because the Prince is looking for HER, and she knows it. Unfortunately, she completely underestimates her stepmother’s bitchiness, and gets locked in her own tower.

So, it’s not like she does NOTHING here. She knows she’s finally getting her break, and prepares for it. The reason why she is thwarted here and has to be rescued is because she’s locked in a remote tower. She can’t jump out the window, she can’t yell for help, and she can’t break out of the door. There’s literally nothing she can do.

So once again, mice to the rescue! As the stepsisters are comically trying on the tiny slipper on their overly large feet, Jaq and Gus retrieve the key from Lady Tremaine’s pocket and start laboriously moving it up the stairs. And can we just stop and look at how freaking badass these mice are? I mean, did you SEE all those stairs? Damn.

Okay, so they bring the key to the top of the tower, but just as they are about to slide it under the door, Lucifer the Cat That Just Needs to Freaking Die Already, traps Gus and the key under a cup and won’t let him go. And now, we have to look at what Cinderella does next. When the birds are having no luck deterring Lucifer, Cinderella remembers the dog, Bruno. Now, earlier in the movie, Cinderella scolded Bruno for terrorizing Lucifer, even though Lucifer totally deserved it, because they had to learn to live together and get along. But now that Lucifer is directly keeping Cinderella from happiness, she says, “Fuck that shit, get the dog up here so he can get rid of this little spawn of Satan.” The birds do, Lucifer falls out the window, and Cinderella is able to free herself and rush downstairs before the Duke storms out in a huff. Lady Tremaine trips the Duke so that the slipper falls and shatters, but even as the Duke is freaking out, Cinderella just calmly pulls out the other slipper. She already knows that she’s won.

And she has. We don’t know what becomes of the stepfamily, but Cinderella and the Prince get married and go off to make grandchildren for the now ecstatic King, and they all live Happily Ever After.

It’s easy to write this movie off as “Just another Disney movie,” but I think they did a much better job with this movie than people give them credit for. Again, if anything, the problems in this movie have more to do with the source material than how Disney adapted it.

But to the checklist:

Give Cinderella control over her destiny: I would say check. Though this Cinderella isn’t the most active of the Disney princesses, she’s still a hell of a lot more active the Perrault’s Cinderella. This Cinderella is very much an optimist, someone who tries to make the best of things, who does actually make an attempt to go to the ball on her own, who makes a conscious choice to leave her stepfamily for the Prince, and who does what she is able to do to get herself rescued. She receives help only when her own efforts have been thwarted by circumstance and general bitchiness. She’s a lot more interesting and active of a character than I think most people give her credit for

Enhance the role of the Prince: Heh, no. But to be fair, they do enhance the role of the people who ACTUALLY want to see the Prince get married--namely the King and, to a lesser extent, the Duke--and I think that actually does a lot. I think that reinforces the fact that despite the way it’s often romanticized, this is still, at its heart, an arrange political marriage. Yes, the Cinderella and the Prince make googly eyes at each other for a bit, but that’s not where the focus is. The focus is on the King scheming to marry off his son by any means necessary, and Cinderella using the fact that the Prince happens to like her to escape from her family. Not that the two of them don’t like each other, I’m sure they do. But it’s more of an added perk to the marriage than something that the story actually revolves around.

Address the plot transgressions: SOME of them are addressed. Cinderella’s dad dies, so isn’t around to see his daughter being treated horribly. Cinderella doesn’t run away because her life with her stepfamily is really all she has. The Fairy Godmother shows up when Cinderella is no longer capable of being optimistic and hopeful and has pretty much reached the end of a very long rope. And it’s not really the Prince using the shoe to identify Cinderella as it is his father taking advantage of the Prince’s grief and using whatever means he can to marry him off. I might be reading quite a lot into a simple story, but I think the characters are well-defined enough in this movie to fill in a lot of these plot holes, and I think that’s really key in this adaptation. They don’t really address the question of the impracticability of a glass slipper or the fact that the slippers don’t disappear with the rest of the outfit, but given that those are iconic parts of the story, and this is an adaptation rather than a retelling, they couldn’t very well get rid of them. So, I’ll give this three-fourths of a check.

Cinderella might not be the best of the Disney faerie tale movies, and maybe my childhood nostalgia colors a lot of this, but I still think the movie holds up pretty well. For all that it’s romanticized, both by Disney lovers and by Disney detractors, the movie actually manages to keep a fair amount of the romance OUT of the movie, and just focuses on telling a compelling story about a girl who gets handed a bad lot and finally gets her break . . . not unlike the previous Disney princess, as it turns out. Walt Disney loved stories about the underdog, the downtrodden protagonist who finds him or herself and rises above adversity. Really, romance was a secondary concern. Viewed in that way, this story works, and much better than I think a lot of people think that it does.

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