First of all, I have to apologize…this year my postings have been a little bit sporadic, especially in the last months. Initially because one of my other blogs, Movies and Lyrics, got a little bit more attention from me than usual, but in the end, it was simply a case of too much going on in RL. At one point I made the conscious decision to focus on my usual Fairy Tale Character December reviews to ensure that they will be out no matter what. Especially since I have been itching to cover this particular character from the get go. I only held off on it because I wanted to do it during a December with five Saturdays, so that I could stick to may usual posting schedule while still being able to discuss as many adaptations as possible.
Even so, there are mountain of adaptations of Cinderella, too many to discuss in ten years, never mind one. You thought that Disney was first out of the gate? Not by a long shot!!! Cinderella already made it to the big screen in 1899 in a six minutes version of the tale made in France, and there already had been three feature length silent movies starring her (the one with Mary Pickford from 1914 is particularly worth a look) plus a number of adaptations of different length. It wasn’t even Disney’s first stab on the source material.
There is something about this story which inspires writers and viewers and I guess everyone has their favourite take on it. This month I will cover four of my favourites, so please be not upset if yours is missing. You are free to leave recommendations in the comment section, and on the last Saturday (which also happens to be the last day of this awful year), I will give a short overview of all of them. But be aware that I set myself some guidelines concerning the selection to make it a little bit easier:
- They have to be direct adaptations of the Cinderella lore, and not just vaguely related to it. So no Pretty Woman or similar.
- No spoofs or conglomerate of different fairy tale elements. Since the tale is so popular, there have been a lot of attempts to deconstruct that tale one way or another and it is often referenced in movies about fairy tales in general, but I want to discuss the tale itself for now. (So no Ella Enchanted or Into the Woods).
I also tried to go for as much variation as possible. The takes I picked are based on different versions of the tale and have all a very different approach.
The one Disney picked is actually quite interesting. I think the audience has gotten so used to criticizing the movie for its supposedly outdated gender portrayal that it has become way too easy to overlook how self-aware it actually is. When the fairy godmother turns up, she is all “yeah, naturally I am your fairy godmother, who else should I be”, when Cinderella and the Prince meet for the first time, the Grand Duke is commenting that love at first sight only happens in fairy tales and later on he rightly points out to the king that the shoe will certainly fit more than just one young maiden. Basically what the movie keeps doing is telling the audience “we know it is kind of ridiculous, just roll with it” – and it works surprisingly well.
But I think it mostly does because Cinderella is a very relatable character. It is so easy to root for her that it doesn’t really matter how she escapes the situation she is trapped in as long as she gets her happy end somehow. Yes, trapped in. I never understood the notion that Cinderella could easily leave the house, if she just wanted to. There is the scene in which she warns Bruno what will happen if he doesn’t behave, that he will loose his warm bed. But what she is actually doing is reminding herself that she has not one penny on her name during a time when people, especially woman, were still entirely dependent on their families to help them out. And that is not even taking into account that Cinderella has been trained by her Stepmother to obey her since childhood.
So, we have established that Cinderella is in a situation which limits her options considerably. But that doesn’t make her a weak character. There are a couple of scenes which reveal her inner strength.
- When she shuts the door in Lucifer’s butt.
- When she feeds the mice.
- When she interrupts the singing lessons.
- When she insists on being a daughter of the house, too.
- When she plans to redo her dress.
- When she ignores the Stepmother’s taunts.
- When she goes to the ball.
- When she is imprisoned by her Stepmother and keeps fighting for her freedom.
The first three scenes are important because they show that Cinderella isn’t the doormat some accuse her to be. She knows very well what she can get away with. Her stepmother might order her to do the work, but she decides how to do said work. And if she feels that she should take care of the mice, too, than she will do it.
The other scenes demonstrate that she is constantly looking for opportunities, and that she will fight for every chance that she sees. When the letter arrives, she is the one who insists that the invitation is also for her, and she immediately has an idea how to obtain a proper dress. Even though the whole deal is rigged against her from the get go, she comes very close to actually succeeding without the help from her fairy godmother. And once she has the dress, she doesn’t hesitate for one second. Despite knowing that her stepmother doesn’t want her near the ball, she grabs her opportunity with both hands and holds onto it as tightly as possible.
I especially love the way she enters the palace, somehow hesitant and dwarfed by the giant building. She has every reason to feel small and insignificant. Imagining myself in the same situation, I think I would be terrified. An unfamiliar place, people she never met and the danger to be discovered, all this would make me more than a little bit nervous. Seeing her pushing forward nevertheless is especially uplifting if you consider what happened beforehand, which is easily the most cutting scene of the movie (no pun intended). When the stepsisters destroy her dress, they are downright vicious. And this is not just about a piece of cloth anyway, it is nothing less than the symbolical destruction of Cinderella’s hopes and dreams. When she runs in the garden, it is easily the saddest scene in Disney canon which doesn’t involve someone dying or leaving forever. Though it leads into what might be the core of the controversy surrounding the fairy tale.
The question is how one reads the scene with the Fairy Godmother showing up and helping her out. Some would say that Cinderella gets rewarded for being “demure”, hence encouraging the idea that silent suffering and obedience is the way to success. And when it comes to some adaptation of the fairy tale this is actually a fair criticism. But not when it comes to the Disney version. As I already pointed out, Cinderella isn’t that demure in the first place, and the godmother turning up is less a reward and more a lucky break. The kind of lucky break you get if you happen to impress the right person or a friend knows someone who can help you out. That doesn’t diminish Cinderella in the slightest, because if she had given up on her dreams, the fairy godmother wouldn’t have come.
Cinderella might look outdated from our modern point of view. We are nowadays kind of trained to expect lead characters which are active and sassy. But isn’t there dignity in Cinderella enduring what is thrown at her, secure in the believe that one day she will get the opportunity? Isn’t the scene in which the Stepmother mocks her for not “wanting” to go to the ball while she is hiding her feelings reminiscent of a bullying victim not giving its tormentor’s the satisfaction of showing tears or anger? There is nothing more difficult than protecting your own ideals and not getting bitter or insecure if your feelings are constantly assaulted. The strength Cinderella shows is no less impressive than a character swinging a sword and the happy ending she gets is well deserved.
But what about the sequels?
I have gushed quite a bit over this movie, and obviously I am not the only one who loves it. Cinderella wasn’t the first Disney Princess, and yet she is considered the leader of them. She is always front and centre in the marketing, and with two sequels and one remake, the movie is one of the properties Disney milked quite a lot. Sadly.
The first sequel is really deserves to be called a cheapquel. The animation is so awful, it is nearly unwatchable. The stories are insultingly simple. But the worst thing about it is that, while I never had a desire to see what happened after “Happily ever after”, an examination of Cinderella trying to fit in at the palace and how her stepsisters deal with no longer being spoiled beyond reason could have made quite a good story, especially if Anastasia finds her inner beauty due to some serious character development. But the way this movie approach those topics is just too flat to really work. As is the animation.
The second sequel “A Twist in Time” on the other hand is one of the few cheapquels which actually have some fans. I have even encountered people who claim that this is a better movie than the original, mostly because Cinderella is more often in danger and therefore seemingly more active. I personally think that the xenafication of the character doesn’t do her any favours, but the actual issues I have with this take starts when they get to the search with the shoe.
Or, to be precise, that the movie actually has a scene about the Prince wanting to find his true bride by using the shoe. Wait, what? Did any of the script writers actually watch the original movie? Because that never happened there, it is the King who starts the whole search with the shoe because he desperately wants the Prince to marry. Inaccuracies of this kind drive me crazy. Plus, I feel that the scene is mostly in the movie so that the script writers could scoff about the notion that the shoe would fit only one person. Because this is so edgy. I mean, it is not as if the original movie didn’t do this already, right? Riiiight????
“A Twist in Time” wants to be way cleverer than it actually is, and it does so by acting all high and mighty about a movie, which is way superior. So, yeah, not a fan here.
But what about the remake?
To say this upfront: I have yet to see a Disney live-action remake I actually loved (haven’t gotten around to Jungle Book yet, though). And, as I already pointed out in the past, I absolutely hated Maleficent. So I approached this one with more than a little bit trepidation. But to my relief, it became clear pretty early on that the writers didn’t feel the need to turn Cinderella into something she is not, and that they treated the source material with a lot of respect. It was especially the line “Have courage and be kind” from the trailer which reassured me in this regard.
Until I saw them repeat this damned line again and again like a damned mantra. To make this perfectly clear:
But okay, I can work with that, there are worse ideals to follow. It certainly fits the story and all in all, the movie shows, unlike “A Twist in Time” a lot of respect towards the original. It is beautifully shot, the characters are played by first class actors who elevate the slightly thin script, and I would even argue that it is superior in one point, and that is the portrayal of the stepsisters. Don’t get me wrong, the animated versions are fun to watch, but that is exactly the problem. Cinderella’s stepsisters aren’t supposed to be ugly, they are supposed to be beautiful but ugly in character. The remake hits this aspect pretty much spot on.
When I comes to the Prince, well, he does have more screen-time, but he is kind of generic, so I am not sure if he is an improvement. After all the advantage of having a Prince who doesn’t speak is that he can be whatever the viewer considers “his” version of a perfect Prince Charming.
Anyway, the remake came close, very close, to being a pretty good adaptation. But they botched up one character. And that was sadly Cinderella. Or Ella. Because apparently that is now Cinderella’s real name because some American writers said so – sorry, this always bothered me, the character’s real name is never mentioned in any adaptation, and the explanation with adding the “Cinder” in front of “Ella” really only works in English. It is a fairly new addition to the lore. Well, at least this makes it easier to write the article. From now on, I’ll refer to the remake version of the character as “Ella” and to the animated version as “Cinderella”.
I mentioned before that I can work with “Have courage and be kind” but not if this means that the main protagonist of the movie has to act as if she is constantly under drugs. Yes, Cinderella was kind, but there were certainly limits to her kindness. She didn’t just stand there smiling as if she had taken to many happy pills taking everything which got thrown at her, instead she was ready to hit Lucifer with a broom in righteous anger. And as I pointed out above, she kept trying to improve her situation whenever she saw an opportunity. Ella on the other hand actually has the opportunity to leave, she has friends who would help her, but she sticks around because she has promised to cherish the house in which her parents were so happy. Really? She certainly has no problem to leave with the Prince in the end.
Honestly her holier than you attitude is so pronounced, I wanted to smack her half through the movie. But I might have been able to deal with that one, too, if she wouldn’t walk through the plot like a puppet. When Ella enters the Palace, there is a moment in which she supposedly looks insecure, but one split second later she walks into the ball room full of confidence. When she realizes that the nice apprentice she encountered in the woods is actually the prince, she is barely angry or even annoyed about the deception. And when her carriage nearly falls down a cliff during her flight from the palace, she falls back into the seat and says: “Oh my goodness.”
Oh my goodness? OH MY GOODNESS????????? She nearly died! I would scream my head of at this point, not act as if I stumbled a little bit. But the kicker comes in the end, when she is imprisoned in the attic. First of all, how dumb can you be? If she had agreed to the demands of her stepmother, she would have never been there in the first place, and nothing would have prevented her from doing whatever she wanted once she was safe in the palace, including throwing her stepmother out. But okay, maybe she is just not cunning enough to lie. That doesn’t excuse her not screaming for help as soon as she sees people near the house. Yeah, she might not believe that they have come for her, but who cares, she is a prisoner and that is her chance to get some attention. Cinderella not only kept hammering against the door, she also encouraged her friends to fight for her and she was the one who told them that they should fetch Bruno. She was an active participant in her own rescue. Ella can’t even be bothered to open a window.
So, yeah, I am not particular fond of the remake. The costume porn is nice and all. But in the end even the references to the animated movie work against it. Because it keeps reminding the audience, that there is a vastly superior version out there, with a way more layered heroine.
Quote: “Well, there is one thing. They can’t order me to stop dreaming.”
All in all, I recommend the original Cinderella movie, especially if you like a good old fairy tale and are ready to enjoy a story which doesn’t rely on action beats. The cheapquels better remain forgotten and the remake, well, if you are really into costumes, you might want to take a look. It is not that bad of a movie, but there are a number better adaptations of the fairy tale out there.
Which reminds me: you might have noticed that I didn’t write much about the origin of the fairy tale this time around, nor did I address changes to the source material. The reason should be obvious, just talking about the Disney version resulted in a 3.000 words article. I promise, I’ll discuss the different origins of the tale next week. Until then, feel free to suggest other adaptations or to tell me that I am totally wrong about any of the Disney takes. And, if you want to, any of the icons I added to this article are free for grabs. Consider this my apology for being absent so long, as well as a nice little treat at the beginning of Advent.