After slogging through the package era of the late forties, Walt was desperate to get back into doing regular, full-length animation. Not to mention, he had projects like Alice In Wonderland, Peter Pan, and Lady and the Tramp in the works as far back as the late thirties. In fact, look at this screenshot from 1940’s Pinocchio on the left hand side. See any titles that look familiar?
How about this from 1941’s The Reluctant Dragon?
Of course, when you have a bajillion creative ideas and no money, you just gotta deal and accrue capital just so you can splurge on something you really, really, want to make. Like, say, a new fairy tale adaptation you may or may not personally identify with? So in 1950, Walt Disney gambled heavily in producing a brand new animated feature, his first non-package feature since 1943’s Bambi, Cinderella.
Let fancy a friendly feast in finding this feature film!
The plot: A young woman named Cinderella (Ilene Woods) is basically a serf to her cruel stepmother, Lady Tremaine (Eleanor Audley), and equally despicable stepsisters Anastasia (Lucille Bliss) and Drizella (Rhoda Williams). Meanwhile, the king desperately wants grandkids, so he prepares a ball for his son, inviting all eligible maidens in the kingdom. Cinderella wants to go, but her family goes as far as shredding her dress to prevent her from attending. This prompts the arrival of her fairy godmother (Verna Felton) to whip up a little magic and allow her to attend the ball. Will she get the happily ever after she’s dreamed of for so long?
How’s the writing?: A key feature in this film is something that is incredibly difficult to pull off if a Cinderella movie were made today: sincerity. Cinderella is such a renowned story from various parts of the world. In addition, Cinderella has been told, re-told, recapped, adapted, spun, recycled, twisted, rehashed, and told once more for posterity so many times that the “The Plot” section from above is more pointless than a direct-to-video sequel. (Wait…they did? How many? Two?! And the one about time travel was halfway decent?! What in ambivalent deity almighty’s name-right. Review.). Anyway, my point is that the story of our ashen-named maiden is not a new one. And in trying to adapt to modern sensibilities, they keep trying new gimmicks to keep the story seeming fresh and new. Especially since, you know, we all know how the story ends. Disney themselves tried this 28 years earlier, when Walt and Ub’s start-up business Laugh-O-Grams made a “modern” version, taking place in the roaring twenties. Then we remember the 2015 Kenneth Branagh film where it had an over-extended backstory, lavish costumes, and a few plot twists that just kind cluttered an otherwise streamlined story.
But the 1950 animated film doesn’t need gimmicks. Yes, there is a lot of the movie dedicated to the mice and Lucifer. Yes, the shoe breaking near the end is a bit of a twist. But there is zero cynicism. No snarky commentary. (Okay, fine, there’s a moment when the Grand Duke prattles off typical tropes as they happen at one point, but it’s a joke so understated it’s kind of brilliant). It’s a fairy tale fully committed to making a good story without feeling the need to get meta. Honestly, for as dull as it may be, it is refreshing. Because sometimes a fairy tale just needs to be a fairy tale.
Does it give the feels?: Going on that idea alone, I would say decidedly yes. If you’re willing to relax and indulge in a sweet tale like this, something’s gonna nail you in the heart.
First is the dress-ripping scene. It’s staged and executed brilliantly. The setup is incredible: Cinderella, excited and thrilled to be going, is dressed in such a baby-pink dress she looks even more innocent than usual. You watch Lady Tremaine meticulously orchestrate the inevitable fracas, with Cinderella’s eyes growing wide. Once the sisters launch into their destructive tirade, the gradient red background is vivid and horrendously intense. Cinderella’s reactions are sickening…all before it goes creepily quiet, and the calm demeanor of the villains just emphasizes their inherit cruelty.
The second is when Cinderella gets locked in her tower. Cinderella is not known for her vibrant personality, but it still hurts to see someone suffer so needlessly, only for her clear shot to happiness is shut down by such a spiteful woman. Just hearing her desperate pleas is agony.
Who makes it worth it?: I’ve always been more partial to comedy than really any other form of entertainment. As such, Cinderella is kind of a dry movie for me, considering how relatively bland Cinderella herself can be. The mice and Lucifer are funny, no doubt, but even their gravelly chatter can be kind of obnoxious. No, for me, I love the fairy godmother.
I’ve seen so many adaptations where the fairy godmother is a straight-up comic figure. It makes sense: a magical being whose purpose in the story is to do magic things. Magic, being the be-all, end-all of random everything because it’s magic. This kind of thing reached its zenith with Robin Williams’ Genie in Aladdin, but back in Walt’s time, humor wasn’t so fast-paced and manic. Even Alice in Wonderland seems slow in comparison to the Genie.
I think about Helena Bonham Carter’s interpretation, who came across as just kind of wacky because the actress does things like that. It fell flat. Even Whitney Houston just kind of trusted her own natural charisma to carry the role. But Verna Felton played it carefully, like a sweet grandmother. She’s silly, a tad forgetful, and kind, but it’s not exaggerated. She’s just a sweet older woman who happens to possess some magic with just a touch of whimsy. She was a unique take who didn’t need strong wit or spastic movements to be the great character she turned out to be.
Best quality provided: The art is gorgeous. The concept art was done by Mary Blair, and it shows. She did concept art for movies like The Three Caballeros, Alice in Wonderland, and Peter Pan, but her simple, pastel shapes are best known as the aesthetics for It’s a Small World. Her artwork was adapted beautifully and the backgrounds look as every bit the fairy tale images you want them to be. Even the sense of scale is incredible, from the grand entryway of the castle to the towering stairs to Cinderella’s room.
What could have been improved: So…was the subplot with the king really necessary?
The subplots with the mice and the king are meant to pad out the movie as well as provide additional comedy to fully flesh out the world. Otherwise, Cindy’s story is a half hour long at best. And while I understand how some find the King’s antics with the Grand Duke are seen as funny, they do nothing for me, and worse, rob any and all autonomy from who should be the more important character, the prince.
The King’s motive is clear: he wants grandchildren because he’s lonely. But he’s such an over-the-top eccentric I get lost in watching him what basically amount to insane temper tantrums. I mean, doesn’t he have a kingdom to run? Give King Triton or the Sultan a break: at least they seem level-headed enough to understand the pressures of ruling a kingdom. The king here bounces on his bed, swiping his sword at the Grand Duke in a fit of uncontrolled rage. And for a guy so dead set on getting a wife for his son, why does he duck outfit the ball so early?
Yes, it’s nitpicky. I admit. It’s extra comedy that I’m thinking too deep about. And his leaving is meant to shift the conflict up for the Duke for the rest of the movie. I get it. But I can’t help but wonder if there might have been better ways to set up and develop the king?
Verdict: I’d be lying if I said I watch this one a lot. While the bits with the king annoy me, they don’t hamper the rest of the movie. It’s a classic Disney movie for good reason. I award this story eight misplaced glass slippers out of ten.
Wait…why doesn’t the castle at Walt Disney World look anything like the one in the movie?