DISCLAIMER: This blog is not for profit. All images used below are property of their respective companies unless stated otherwise. I do not claim ownership of this material. There is an audio version of this review HERE.
Around two years ago I read an interview with the head of Dreamworks, Jeffrey Katzenburg, where he outlined the studio’s plans for the next ten years or so. It was essentially this:
Two more Madagascar films. (the first of these has since come out)
Two more (at least) How to Train Your Dragons.
Five more Kung Fu Panda Movies.
The movie industry is, to put it mildly, in a state of panic. Its market share is shrinking in the face of competition from digital entertainment and television and it’s increasingly looking like it doesn’t really know what people want anymore. Adding to their problems, the only genres of movie that consistently generate buffo box office, (animated movies, superhero films, sci-fi/fantasy) are also damn expensive to make. Which is why, when one of those movies does well at the box office, it gets a sequel almost without exception.
Movie people are not bad people. They just want what we want: certainty. They just want to be sure that if they invest millions of dollars into a movie that they’re not going to be living out of a cardboard box by the time the box office receipts are tallied up. In the movie business, a willingness to take risks and be original, to gamble several fortunes of investors’ money on something that you have no way of knowing will be a success, to risk your reputation and your finances for a dream requires nothing less than balls of steel.
Consider this. In the thirteen years between Snow White and Cinderella, the Disney studio had exactly one, slam dunk, unqualified, smash hit success: Snow White. Pinocchio and Bambi did good box office but were simply too expensive to make to be financially viable. Fantasia was an out-and-out flop. The rest were successes in large part because they were so much cheaper to make. But Snow White was the most successful movie released in 1938, making four times as much as it’s nearest rival. It went on to be the most successful film of all time until Gone with the Wind was released two years later. If the movie had been made today, three sequels, a prequel and a spin-off TV show called Dwarfs would already be in the works. But Disney refused to repeat himself, constantly telling new stories and pushing what could be done with animation while trying to keep the studio from going under. It was only in 1950, with his company being crushed by debt, that Disney finally decided to return to the fairytale formula that had worked so well for him thirteen years prior. Cinderella can in many ways be seen as a reboot of Snow White, and of the Walt Disney studio as a whole, as it tried to create a new model for feature-length animation that could be both artistically ambitious and financially viable.
Comrade Crow? Are we talking about the same movie?
Da? You’re supposed to be Cuban, not Russian.
Fine. We being with the opening credits and…be still my heart…do we have…YES!!!!!
We begin with the typical Disney storybook opening and see Cinderella’s home, a tiny storybook kingdom beneath a great castle.
Ehhhhh….I think you might be reading a little too much into this. Cinderella’s kingdom is a magical storybook realm, not some kind of brutal dictatorship.
So anyway, we are introduced to Cinderella and her widowed father…
You can read my Pinocchio review for my theory on Cinderella’s parentage. Cinderella’s father loves her very much, but then he marries the Evil Stepmother and…
Okay. This is not Storytime with Unshaved Mouse. You all know the story of Cinderella. So let’s take a look at Cinderella herself. How does the second Disney Princess compare to the first?
If I had to sum up Cinderella in one word it would be…better. Like Snow White, she spends most of her time in a submissive domesticated role. The key difference is that Cinderella is trying to escape that. Snow White just starts cleaning and cooking for the dwarfs because she’s only a girl, silly. Cinderella, while mostly dealing with her domestic slavery at the hands of her stepmother and sisters with weary good nature, doesn’t like it. She clearly sees herself as deserving something more and better. Now, her method of escaping that is by getting hitched to the first eligible male that comes her way but still, baby steps people. Don’t get me wrong. We are still a long, long way from the awesome Disney female leads of the nineties.
But Cinderella is definitely a step up. She has more of a personality than Snow White and it helps that voice actress Ilene Woods sounds far more pleasant and less grating than Adriana Caselotti (Snow White).
It also has to be said that Disney hadn’t forgotten how to realistically animate human characters. They used live actors as references for most of the scenes with Cinderella and the various human characters and it really paid off. There’s never a moment where Cinderella’s movement is stiff or unnatural. I’m singling this aspect of the animation out for praise because unfortunately, I don’t really like the movie’s animation as a whole.
I mean, yeah, it’s a long ways above something like Ichabod and Mr Toad. It’s certainly smooth and fluid but…I don’t know. Am I the only one who thinks the movie looks kind of…bland?
Partly it’s the colour scheme. It’s all soft pastels, light blues and pinks. Where’s the riot of colours of The Three Caballeros? The moody shadows of Pinocchio? The puppets of Fun and Fancy Free?
And while the animation is technically very good it’s missing something. Pizzazz, I suppose.
Anyway, like Snow White Cinderella has an
army of brainwashed animal slaves little helper friends. A flock of birds help her get dressed and make her bed and get washed and…this is our enslaved, put upon heroine? She’s got more servants than Daddy Warbucks!
We also meet…the mice.
Okay…probably the best way I can sum up the mice is with this simple equation.
Heresy you say? Blasphemy? Fie! They suck. I’m not afraid to say it. They are AWFUL. Can’t stand them. The high-pitched sped up voices (seriously, that shit was the fifties equivalent of CGI, it was fucking everywhere and it wasn’t nearly as cool as Hollywood thought it was.), the cutesy-pie mispronunciation, the little smurf outfits…
These mice. These fucking mice. If I’m ever put into Room 101 it’ll be with a cage full of these little bastards strapped to my face.
We’re introduced to the mice when the two above, Jacques and…friend, come to Cinderella to tell her that there’s a new mouse trapped in a mouse trap.
Cinderella of course goes to rescue this new mouse. And then she…puts clothes on him…and names him. She names him Octavius…
…but decides to call him “Gus” for short. Gus. Short for Octavius.
So. This is not so much a “rescue” as a “capture”. Cinderella gives him a new name, forces him to adopt a style of dress she believes appropriate and will presumably expect
Kunta Kinte Gus to wait on her hand and foot like the rest of the mice. And it gets even more sinister when you ask yourself the question; who set that trap? The step-sisters? We do not see them do a single, solitary household chore throughout the entire movie. The step-mother? Doesn’t taking care of vermin seem like something she would consider beneath her?
Which leaves only one possible culprit…
Yup. Cinderella is setting these traps so that she can build an army of brainwashed mouse slaves to kill her Step Mother, overthrow the King and rule the kingdom as the Mouse Queen!
Okay, so much for our comic relief. What about our villain?
We first see Lady Tremaine veiled in shadow, fondling a despicable-looking cat and wait just a damn minute here…
And I know she’s often ranked as one of the greatest Disney villains of all time but…sorry I don’t agree. I mean, yes, she is great villain, definitely in the top twenty, but…she’s practice. She’s played by Eleanor Audley, who would later play Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty, and Lady Tremaine even resembles Maleficent in appearance. The problem is, Maleficent is possibly the greatest Disney villain of all time, and whenever I watch Cinderella I can’t help but feel that Lady Tremaine is just the rough prototype. There are flashes of diabolical brilliance, certainly, but also moments where she loses her temper and seems more petty than evil.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention Lucifer, Lady Tremaine’s cat.
Lucifer is the first of a character type that will appear in many more Disney movies, the evil sidekick to the main villain.
Yeah, the Evil Queen in Snow White had that crow, but he didn’t really do anything.
Lucifer is actually a fairly major character, with a large and active role in the story. And he spends most of his time tormenting the mice, so can we even call him a villain?
Okay, so having established Cinderella, the mice, Lucifer, the stepmother and the step sisters, the movie now shifts focus to the castle, where we are introduced to the King and his chief lackey the Grand Duke.
The king is pissed because his wastrel son isn’t sowing his wild oats and siring grandchildren and…holy shit. Otto Von Bismarck, first chancellor of the German Empire?
But why? You unified the German states and led them to victory in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870! You created Germany as we know it and established a peace in Europe that lasted until World War 1! Why would you need to appear in a Disney movie fifty-two years after your death?
Aaaaaah. Say no more. Anyway, the King declares that he’s going to throw a ball for the Prince so that he can finally just pick a damn girl and start heiring already. The Grand Duke nervously agrees and from the way he acts it’s clear that he is absolutely terrified of the king.
What’s more, the ball is to be that very night. And every eligible woman in the kingdom HAS to come. Not “is invited to come”, you’ll note.
Actually Crow? Yeah. This King is a complete monster. He just expects every woman in the kingdom to drop everything and be paraded in front of his son like Swaziland maidens during the Reed Dance (look it up).
Anyway back at the château, we hear the song Sing Sweet Nightingale, first being butchered for comic effect by the step-sisters and then sung straight by Cinderella as she scrubs the floor. There is a very pretty scene of Cinderella being reflected in the myriad bubbles while she sings. The song is not exactly one of the all time greats, but it is sweet and well performed by Woods. The order to attend the ball arrives and the step-sisters are excited to go because they don’t realise that they are ugly and therefore undeserving of happiness. Cinderella asks…actually, no. Cinderella demands that she be allowed go and it’s a very strong moment for the character. She points out to her stepmother that she is still a member of the family and that the decree is that EVERY eligible maiden attend the ball. Lady Tremaine, no doubt realising that the king would probably burn the house to the ground for the slightest disobedience, agrees. She tells Cinderella that she can go to the ball if she can finish her chores and find something appropriate to wear.
The Step-Sisters can’t believe this, but Lady Tremaine reminds them that she said “if”.
Cinderella finds an old dress of her mother’s but before she has a chance to fix it up, the Step-Sisters call her away to do more chores, leaving the mice alone with the dress. And…no. No. You wouldn’t Walt. You couldn’t. You didn’t give them a song?
Godammit I can’t stand this song. I know, it’s probably the most famous from this movie, and probably the most loved but I just can’t take it. It’s the high-pitched Alvin and the Chipmunks voices. Can’t stand it. I’m not crazy about the lyrics either.
Aaaaand fuck you very much.
So anyway, the mice manage to find time in between reinforcing regressive gender roles to finish Cinderella’s dress by borrowing some of Drusilla and Anastasia…
Wait a minute. One of the step-sisters is called Anastasia? As in Tsarina Anastasia who was killed by the communists…
Well, leaving any pro-Communist subtext aside, Jacques and Gus “liberate” some of the Step-Sisters cast-offs and it looks like Cinderella will get to go the ball. But Lady Tremaine casually points out the parts of the dress that are stolen and the step-sisters lose their shit, leaping on Cinderella, pulling her hair, tearing at her clothes, stripping chunks of fabric off her bare exposed flesh…
The step-sisters and Lady Tremaine leave Cinderella cold and shamed, lying naked on the floor…
She goes to the garden and cries, her seemingly indomitable optimism finally shattered. It is then that we are introduced to Cinderella’s “Fairy God” Mother. She’s voices by Verna Felton, who did quite a few roles for Disney and was a very versatile actress, sometimes playing warm, maternal figures like the “Fairy God” Mother and Flora in Sleeping Beauty, stern matriarchs like the Head Elephant in Dumbo, or out and out villains like the Queen of Hearts in Alice and Wonderland. She also played Fred Flintstone’s mother in law.
She comforts Cinderella, and like all guilt-ridden absentee parents she tries to win back her daughter’s love with a pimped out ride and some new clothes. She changes a pumpkin into a coach, the horse into a coachman, the mice into horses…
…and finally turns Bruno the dog into a footman which should be fine until she gets to the ball and he starts humping the other footmen to assert dominance.
Finally, she gives Cinderella her dress and glass slippers and warns her to be back before the stroke of midnight when the spell will break.
Cinderella arrives at the ball (and I have to mention the painted backgrounds in the palace here, they are simply gorgeous) and she and Prince Charming first lay eyes on each other.
They dance, and the King is delighted that his fiendish scheme to establish a dynasty of despots that will still be ruling the tattered remnants of humanity when the sun turns red and bloated is proceeding as planned. He tells the Duke that he’s going to bed, and that if the Duke doesn’t make sure that the Prince closes the deal with Cinderella, he will cut his frickin’ head off.
As the Prince and Cinderella waltz the step-sisters and Lady Tremiane try to guess who she is but don’t recognise her.
Cinderella and the Prince sing So this is Love, and, I’m sorry, no it isn’t. You met five minutes ago. You should be singing, at most, I Just Met you (And this is Crazy). She doesn’t know he’s the Prince and is just about to kiss him when the clock strikes twelve and she has to hightail it out of there. Now, this is where it gets creepy. While trying to stop her from leaving, the Duke orders the castle gates to be shut, and when Cinderella’s coach gets through he sends the palace’s freaking army of Dark Riders after her.
What are they planning on doing? Dragging her back to the palace at swordpoint? Forcing her to dance, and smile and have fun on pain of death?
Cinderella evades the Nazgul and finds herself home. The “Fairy God” Mother’s spell has worn off but she still has one glass slipper because shut up that’s why.
Back at the castle, the King is asleep and happily dreaming of grandchildren riding him around like a pony.
The poor Duke has to break it to the King their attempted unlawful imprisonment of Cinderella failed and the King then tries to kill the Duke with a sword because of course he does. But he calms down when the Duke tells him that Prince has sworn he will only marry the girl who fits the glass slipper that was left behind at the ball. The King then orders that every woman in the kingdom has to try it on. The Duke, because he’s not insane, points out that a shoe can fit more than one woman, but the King simply says that that’s the Prince’s problem and that he’ll have to marry one of them.
Back at the château, Lady Tremaine tells Anastasia and Drusilla that there is a chance that one of them could fit the slipper and bag the Prince. The two step-sisters excitedly start gathering up clothes for Cinderella to wash and prepare for them. But in a lovely moment Cinderella, realising that she’s about to get her ticket out of this hellhole, simply tosses the clothes back at them and walks out. Lady Tremaine finally realises just why the woman at the ball looked so familiar.
Lady Tremaine locks Cinderella in her room to prevent her from trying on the slipper, but she has not reckoned with the power of the Queen of Mice! The Duke arrives and Drusilla and Anastasia try desperately to force the glass slipper unto their massive, inhuman hind feet while Jacques and Gus manage to pickpocket the key from Lady Tremaine and drag it up to the tower where Cinderella is trapped. But Lucifer is guarding the door, and fights off all the mice like a goddamn boss. So they call in reinforcements from Cinderella’s dog Bruno, who chases Lucifer out the window where he falls to the ground below.
Cinderella gets out and runs down just as the Duke is leaving, but Lady Tremaine causes the glass slipper to smash so that Cinderella can’t try it on. Which would be a game-ender, except that Cinderella has the other slipper.
So the movie ends with Cinderella’s dream coming true: Marrying the only heir of an insane, despotic tyrant.
Cinderella is not a bad movie, not by any stretch of the imagination. But it does feel a lot safer than the Tar and Sugar movies. It really doesn’t reach for the same emotional levels that something like Bambi or Pinocchio did. It also seems to deliberately avoid the darkness that was so prevalent in those movies. This is Disney toned down, trying to satisfy the widest possible audience. And on that level, it certainly succeeded. This was a HUGE hit for Disney, their largest since Snow White. If Cinderella had failed, the Disney studio would not have survived the fifties. Thanks to its success, Disney was able to return to big, full length animated movies and build Disneyland. In that sense, it may well be the second most important Disney movie after Snow White. I have to respect it for that. But I don’t have to love it.
Technically excellent but at the same time somewhat bland.
The Leads: 09/20
An improvement on Snow White, but that’s ALL Cinderella. Prince Charming is every bit as bland and nondescript as…wait, was the Prince in Snow White also called Prince Charming? Was it the same guy?! THAT MAN SLUT!
The Villain: 16/20
Yeah, Lady Tremain’s fine. But she’s no Maleficent.
Supporting Characters: 08/20
Those fucking mice need to die. Lucifer is great. And I must admit a soft spot for the “Fairy God-” Mother.
Bibbidi-bobbidi-boo is actually the only song I would consider in any way memorable. In a good way.
FINAL SCORE: 57%
‘Twas brillig and the Unshaved Mouse,
Made Batman jokes amid the wabe,
Reviewed Alice in Wonderland,
And running gags were overplayed.
Neil Sharpson AKA The Unshaved Mouse, is a playwright, comic book writer and blogger living in Dublin. You can follow him on Twitter. The blog updates every Thursday. Thanks for reading!