Directors: Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske, Wilfred Jackson
Cast: Ilene Woods, Eleanor Audley, Verna Felton, Rhoda Williams, Lucille Bliss
Plot: Cinderella (Woods) lives with her wicked stepmother (Audley) who forces her to slave away as her maid. Salvation comes in the form of a royal ball and a handsome Prince.
Those that criticise this film based on a feminist reading, while not totally wrong in their accusations, are slightly missing the point. In fact for most of the movie, the male characters are largely absent, more symbolism that any form of functioning character. Perhaps the best way to stomach Walt Disney’s classic tale of a girl breaking out of her oppressive family unit, is to simply envision Prince Charming as the light at the end of the tunnel, rather than an anchor to male dominance. Prince Charming symbolises a better way of life, that dream job, ideal home… he symbolises an escape. And that is what Cinderella is: pure escapism. Out of all of the Disney movies that came before, this is easily the simplest yet, stripping away a wider universe or any distracting bad guys – Cinderella is all about a girl trapped in a way of life and determined to escape.
And Cinderella is not quite as frustrating a hero as you remember. Yes, she is quite often let down upon reflection, based on her constant simpering over a man she barely knows and her willingness to submit to her stepmother’s rule, but there are also some positive trademarks behind the character. Her spirit rarely breaks. She is a woman who is essentially enslaved, forced to work for no pay and little gratitude, treated under shockingly poor conditions. Yet despite the misery she is forced to endure, she never lets her situation break her dreams and ambitions. The movie doesn’t open with the bad, focusing on an introduction scene where Cinderella wakes up and carries out the obligatory classic Walt Disney scene of singing and interacting with the wildlife. We get the impression that she is a bright young girl, eager to please and kind without any expectations from others. When we are slowly revealed to the extent of her stepmother’s cruelty, it shocks, as we are suddenly left impressed that Cinderella is able to keep this sunny disposition, despite everything. And that is what Disney’s latest movie is about. Staying positive about what the future might hold, no matter how bleak your current position. Yes, the reading is hurt by the fact that Cinderella is saved by her Fairy Godmother, rather than breaking out and finding Prince Charming on her own two feet, although again, this is where the symbolism rather than realism takes over. This story is the stuff of dreams, not really a place to go for advice. What you should take away from Cinderella is how her personality is never diminished by the horrors she is forced to endure. The one time her resolve breaks is the highlight of the film. Ready for the ball, Cinderella is attacked by her stepsisters, stripped of her dress and pride. She breaks down, finally broken. It is a painfully horrible thing to see, making Cinderella easier to connect with than Snow White was.
And then there are the villains. Disney movies have always been a surprising place to find the best bad guys in movie history, although maybe it shouldn’t be all that surprising. Disney strips back their motivations to show true evil, creating some fantastic archetypes that cinema has been drawing from for years. In Snow White, we saw over-encompassing greed. In Bambi and Dumbo, we saw ignorant cruelty. With Cinderella, we get lazy malice. The stepmother is a fine figure to add to the Disney canon. The difference here is that she is devoid of plot. She has no schemes, no reason to oppress Cinderella. She does what she does out of a vague dislike for her deceased husband’s child. It makes her abuse all the more chilling, because there is no way to combat something that has no motive. Her actions feel like a second thought rather than an active desire to inflict emotional torture upon Cinderella. The finale of the movie is made up of impulsive acts of nastiness that will get you hating the character with every bone in your body. She is accompanied by the stepsisters, whose cruelty is at least explained by their jealously. If they weren’t so vile, an alternate reading might have helped us pity them. Ugly and talentless, their actions are born out of frustrations with their own failings. However, the moral there is that your personality makes you just as ugly as your appearance. Bringing up the rogue gallery is the fun villain, Lucifer the cat. With most of the supporting cast comprised of mice, Lucifer acts as the lurking presence. He is bogged down by slapstick humour, but his best scenes are when he is curled up next to the stepmother, the audience realising that they are almost one and the same, in terms of personality. I was, however, shocked to see how Lucifer’s story ambiguously comes to an end. Definitely not something I thought I would see in a children’s movie.
Final Verdict: Cinderella acts as a heart-warming tale of escapism, if you are willing to look past the feminist readings.
I love the point you make about Lucifer resembling the Wicked Stepmother.