Monday, February 16, 2015

Disney's Cinderella: Second thoughts

Second time a big storm whiffed this winter. Temperature went up, and then 30 cm of snow became just so much rain. Not all good news, though; flash freeze came right after and it's Jeremy Not Welcome out there right now. Also part of our ceiling leaked a lot, so we're not really happy about that. Still, I'm basically at "could have been worse" right now. Stuff can be replaced (summer job willing) after all. So yeah, this was a day. Moving on, right?

If anyone would have told me, back at the start, that Cinderella would end up being one of the best Disney movies I'd watch (to this point, anyway) I'd have laughed at them. Story I already know, princess-style fairy tale, weak idea for a villain (and already done by Snow White), there was a lot going against this one. So why do I like it so much???

Leaving aside the fact that I miiiiiiight have a crush on a cartoon character now, I think the compelling thing about this movie is the nature of the story they're adapting. The heroine doesn't have a protector to lean on, the villain isn't characterized by mad pyrotechnics or any kind of physical threat, even the supernatural aid Cinderella gets is limited and one-time only. Which makes it a pretty blank slate that Disney had to work off of, and wow did he ever fill it. Talking mice, Satan in cat form, an aging king's scheme to see some grandkids out of his heir apparent, everything's just got a bit of fun to it. Well, almost everything. I'll get back to that.

Obviously I'm enraptured (fantastic word) by the animation. It's come so far since Snow White that it's hard to believe. Cinderella is simply enchanting, all the characters manage to look distinctive, and they can animate both simple (Cinderella, the stepsisters) and complex (the King and most especially the Duke) outfits and character designs with great skill. The animals all manage a lot of personality - although Lucifer feels a lot more sloppy than anything else in the movie. Then again, given his role, that may be deliberate. Also, as mentioned, the Fairy Godmother looks and sounds a LOT like my Nan. Just a fun little thing for me :D

I'm not going to go much into the mice, even though they're the stars of the movie in many ways. Actually, because of that, since they often feel like padding. I don't mind them, and they're entertaining, but the movie uses them as clowns to occupy time in a story with very few dramatic beats to it and I think a lot of focus would take away from what they managed to accomplish. I also think Mice vs. Lucifer was a way to shoehorn in a conflict that was not just comic but also more physically oriented. In some ways, that kind of conflict is softer - it's definitely easier and more approachable - than the other kind. So I appreciate that they're in the movie, and I enjoyed their parts, but all in all they aren't the memorable bit for me.

Cinderella, especially this version here, is a story of women. Superficially, it looks like Snow White, or Sleeping Beauty, or Rapunzel, or any of those other damsel-in-distress, handsome prince swoops in, she landed a man so now she's got it made kind of stories (in fairness, Rapunzel is a lot rockier than that... so is that one version of Sleeping Beauty that... no. Juuuust no). However, the Prince has no agency (even less so in this adaptation, where his daddy takes exact words and plans to throw him into a wedding), the Duke has no power and the King really has no involvement - there is no contact between the King and any character except the Duke and implicitly the Prince. It's interesting, too, that this is a story of titles more than of names; anyone with any form of authority or inherent (social) power in the story is not named. Stepmother (though she does have a name, thank you Rachel), Fairy Godmother, King, Duke, Prince, none of them are ever named in the movie. Only Anastasia and Drizella get named out of the human characters, and just like Lucifer they have no real authority over Cinderella (look at her just hand off the clothing bundle like it's not a thing, and look how easily whichever ugly stepsister it is just takes it because she's not wired to handle confrontation). All of their power over her is borrowed, and they show it at every turn. The point is, Cinderella has no inherent power or status. That she has character at all speaks volumes about her.

So this is a story of women, and even though the goal seems like it's "marry the prince," Cinderella's actual goal was to enjoy herself and live her dreams just once, and she was pretty realistic about it. It's a story of three women, but really of two. The Fairy Godmother is, of course, a nice bit of intercession - means, if you will, and the first person in a long time who has been able to both recognize and articulate (sorry, mice) that Cinderella has real substance as a person, despite her life. The glass slipper becomes this great allegory for how nobody else could "fill her shoes" or "step into her shoes" as it were; her pampered and thoughtless stepsisters could never do so, because it would mean acknowledging the suffering and misery they've heaped on her. Like I said, though, it comes down to two; the hardworking, sweet-voiced practical dreamer who is able to temper her expectations but never loses hope; and holy shit that woman is the devil who authorized this.

Lady Tremaine (thank you Rachel) is the most evil Disney villain I have seen - AND I SAW FUCKING SATAN. It takes mad character presence to be able to lie in a baggy nightgown in a draped bed with an ugly cat and still fill a whole room with utterly sinister. You know what? It's like that scene in Return of the Jedi, the Emperor's throne room. Power is there and it's conveyed so well and so simply. Her widened eyes and the way Cinderella just shuts up at one crack of the voice-whip (and you can read on her face how defiant she feels and how much she just wants to put the old bag in her place) convey power like nothing else. I can't see her on the screen without shuddering, and it comes down to just how devastating it's implied the emotional abuse she's laid down on Cinderella really is. I would have liked there to have been a threat just to ease my mind, to make it justified that
Cinderella should ever knuckle under. That there isn't one, that the ice-voiced old hag can just utter demands and flash her eyes and that's life, ohhh that's so much worse.

She's obviously emotionally battered her own daughters, too, in different ways; look how much they cling to her for any scrap of borrowed agency. Look how quick they are to assault Cinderella and humiliate her not just verbally but physically - stripping someone is sexual assault and that's basically what they're doing. It says more than it should that Cinderella does nothing to defend herself besides plead for mercy; it says that Lady Tremaine has mastered emotional manipulation of the entire house, and that it's pretty likely physical abuse has been on the menu before. The fact that Cinderella still has any trust in her "word," any faith at all that permission might be extended to go... I'm shuddering again now. Partly cause it's cold as tits (tits aren't cold, who came up with that phrase?) but in the main because how on earth did she manage to string along Cinderella's hope that there would be any decency to her actions, ever? How many times has she dangled a carrot, struck with a stick and then tsk tsk tsk tragically implied that it's Cinderella's own fault she couldn't have a carrot this time? And of course at the end, where any prospect that Cinderella might find happiness, even when it's no longer a threat to her own daughters, has to be forcibly extinguished. You can practically read it all when she knows and the world grows dark: "I'm smart enough to emotionally manipulate you into gifting us with luxury after your wedding, but you dared to be happy and nothing is worth the knowledge that you aren't completely miserable every single day." Holy cats I hate her and she's absolutely fantastic in that context.

Let's talk music, because wow that was long-winded and I want to wrap up. There are some very nice songs in this one; a traditional nonsense song, a work song that reminds me of the one from Snow White (intentional, I bet), a pointless slow-song that just lets them show off animation (where have we seen that before?), the "what I want" song (a better version, right down to some musical similarities, of Someday My Prince Will Come), an actual love song, annnnnnd the blah title song they've done a few times now with that top-end-heavy choir that was all the rage back then and would someone shut them up? Always hated that sound. Bibidy Bobidy Boo and the dream song (not sure of the title) are clear winners here, with "Cinderelly" coming up a close third. So This Is Love and Sing Sweet Nightengale are both... surprisingly pleasant, even though they're killing time. All in all, it's probably the best Disney soundtrack since Fantasia.

So yeah, in short, they had to pad this one with everything from a superfluous song to cartoonish mice antics to a subplot about a hyper-pissy king with a latelife crisis going on, but at the same time the way they expressed the story itself... I'm enraptured. :D


  1. The dream song is called "A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes" (How imaginative of them, to title the song after its first line.) It and When You Wish Upon A Star are kind of the semi-official fanfares of the entire company now.

    This is definitely a major transitional point for Disney, of course. You'll probably have caught up with a couple of the other ones from the 50s and seen how they develop from here.

    I think in general the "princess" movies are where they really tend to step up their game in general, which is why they became popular enough to constitute a sort of franchise unto themselves. On the whole I like Snow White a little better out of the two you've seen but mostly because I feel like the mice are a little too filler-y-- the core of Cinderella is definitely equal and possibly better, and certainly Cinderella is certainly more of a treat to look at.

    The choir thing persists through Disney's 1950s, but the opening songs do rather improve, in my opinion, after Alice.

    I do hope being rained in will have the positive advantage of giving you some opportunity to catch up with the other three from this decade, they're some of my favorites.

  2. And this plays a huge role in making disney princesses A Thing. It's not just what kicked them off, it's something they've done twice, and including their biggest success to date.

  3. Power is there and it's conveyed so well and so simply. Her widened eyes and the way Cinderella just shuts up at one crack of the voice-whip (and you can read on her face how defiant she feels and how much she just wants to put the old bag in her place) convey power like nothing else. I can't see her on the screen without shuddering, and it comes down to just how devastating it's implied the emotional abuse she's laid down on Cinderella really is.

  4. Has anyone seen the live-action movie of this for this year? From what I've seen, they had to spread the "cheekiness" out more evenly instead of having a few "serious" characters, and I don't know if that diminishes the effectiveness of the evil stepmother some.

    You might also want to clean up some spam posts.