five propositions On cinderella
Unraveling Disney's remake of a remake of a remake of a remake.
Disney’s live-action remake of Cinderella is so bogged down by cultural, social, and historical reference points that it’s impossible to consider the film as an absolute object itself, apart from its contexts. It’s not enough, for example, to call it simply Cinderella; in order to precisely name it, we have to refer to it as Disney’s live-action remake of Cinderella. But even that leaves a lot out.
The Cinderella story, first of all, has a long history in European folklore. It first appeared in print as “The Cat Cinderella” in 1634 in a collection of folktales by Giambattista Basile. The most popular version of the story was published in 1697 by Charles Perrault, who also penned the story on which Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (1959) is based. And, of course, there’s the version by the Grimm brothers, “Aschenputtel,” first published in 1812, which underwent several revisions and re-publishings up to 1856.  The fairy tale is, essentially: evil stepmother condemns the kind and beautiful Cinderella to drudgerous housework; royal ball is held; Cinderella is forbidden to go; magical forces transform Cinderella into a princess, a pumpkin into a carriage, various animals into her retinue … but only until midnight; at the ball, the Prince falls in love with Cinderella; she flees at midnight, leaving a slipper behind, which the Prince eventually uses to find her again; happily ever after. While details vary in the myriad versions of the tale, this basic story runs through them all.
Its status as a Disney movie also places this Cinderella in a number of other traditions and contexts. Principally, it’s a remake of the 1950 Disney animated film of the same name. So our understanding of the film is tied not only to its faithfulness to that film, but also to its relationship to other Disney animated movies, from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves to Dumbo to Peter Pan, even up to The Lion King or Frozen. Depending on your interest in such classifications, these films can be broken up into the “Classic” films (Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty), the “Modern Classics” (Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas), and Disney’s most recent animated fairy tales like Frozen and Tangled, making comparisons to each of these movements or epochs also relevant. This Cinderella can also be considered as another in the recent spate of live-action remakes and/or adaptations of Disney animated classics (Alice in Wonderland, Into the Woods, Maleficent) making its association with those movies — in terms of its approach to adaptation, stylistic choices, etc. — another point of reference.
In other words, there’s no way this film can have meaning or value except in relation to all of its antecedents. This is obvious in the way critics and reviewers have written about it — one need only glance over any article on Cinderella to see anywhere from a few references to the topics listed above to entire reviews predicated on their relationship to the film in question. As perhaps the most obvious example, take the “Critics Consensus” on Rotten Tomatoes: “Refreshingly traditional in a revisionist era, Kenneth Branagh's Cinderella proves Disney hasn't lost any of its old-fashioned magic.”
In short, it’s a game of expectations. What we expect from a Cinderella story; what we expect from Disney; what we expect from a Disney fairy-tale; what we expect from a remake of a Disney animated “classic;” what we expect from a live-action remake of a “classic” Disney film given the recent glut of them; what we expect from a Cinderella film given, as one reviewer put it, the “post-Wicked good-girl/bad-girl reversals in the manner of Maleficent and (dare I say it?) Frozen.”
This is not to say that our understanding of the film should have nothing to do with all of its reference points; that would be nonsensical and impossible. Nor should or could any film be divorced of its references and influences. But Cinderella is so tied down by emotional, artistic, and cultural baggage that its meaning has almost more to do with preconceptions than its content. This affects not only our reading of the film, but also the actual making of the film. Watching Cinderella, it’s clear that the filmmakers are as aware of everything that has preceded it as we are, and are aware of it so keenly that it dictates much of the movie’s formal and dramatic elements. Essentially, we have here an artistic response to an economic imperative. I don’t think it’s controversial to say that this film is clearly a vehicle for Disney to market Cinderella products to a new generation of girls and boys. If this new Cinderella movie can simply remind people of all the things they’ve remembered and loved about Cinderella, by, among other things, making simple costume and plot details into weighty dramatic moments, it will have done its job. And it sure does its job.
Cinderella, directed by Kenneth Branagh, is a stately, well acted, and lavishly decorated fairy tale romance. Ella (Lily James) is the only daughter of a merchant and his wife, both of whom pass away when Ella is a teenager, leaving her with a wicked stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and two stepsisters who treat her as a common scullery wench. But against the wishes of her stepmother, and with the help of a magical transformation courtesy of her fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter), Ella attends a royal ball at the palace, where she falls in love with the prince of the kingdom (Richard Madden). Fleeing before the spell breaks, Ella leaves behind a glass slipper, which the prince uses to try to discover the identity of his mysterious love. Branagh, best known for his Shakespeare adaptations, is a great storyteller, and Cinderella, despite heavy doses of corniness, is carefully and gracefully told, developing complex relationships between characters while maintaining a mood of total levity. The film features an array of elaborately decorated sets, costumes, and props, which it relishes to the point of fetishism. Told in voice-over, storybook narration, the whole thing feels like a reminiscence, making the film nearly without tension; it’s as if at every moment it consoles you that it will all turn out like it should. Enjoyable but forgettable, like a Werther’s Original caramel hard candy, Cinderella will make you smile without making you think.
Considering how different the most recent Cinderella is from the 1950 Disney animated feature, it’s questionable whether it can even be called a remake, making many reviewers’ insistence on its utter faithfulness to the “original” a little baffling.
The 1950 Cinderella, while telling the same story as the 2015 version, resembles a feature-length Looney Toons cartoon with a side plot about a servant becoming a princess. Almost all of the action of the film centers around the animals Cinderella befriends, specifically two anthropomorphized mice. I haven’t made a tally, but I’d hazard to say that more screen time is taken up by Cinderella’s animal cohorts than by Cinderella herself. Most of the action of the movie, apart from the scene at the palace with the prince, and the magical transformation by the fairy godmother (which features the animals heavily) happens without Cinderella. The climactic scene, in which the two mice must somehow steal a key from the stepmother, take it up to Cinderella’s room, and let her out so she can claim her slipper, takes place almost entirely between the two mice and the stepmother’s cat, Lucifer.
The 2015 Cinderella movie, at 113 minutes to 1950’s mere 75, takes up most of its extra time developing complex characters and interpersonal relationships. In the 1950 movie, the Prince is hardly characterized at all. He speaks only a few words, and we know almost nothing about him; it’s enough simply that he’s handsome and a prince. In 2015, his personality is a much more important point of the movie. Unlike the 1950 version, he and Ella meet before the ball, and she falls in love with him not because he’s a prince but because she’s attracted to him physically and emotionally. The prince is characterized as a good and strong leader like his father, but with a more approachable regality; he’s kind, romantic, and idealistic. He wants to marry for love, not, as his father and the Grand Duke insist, for strategic interest, and so he chooses Cinderella for his bride over the bevy of foreign princesses that are presented to him at the ball. Interestingly, in the 1950 film, the fact that Cinderella is a “commoner” and not a princess is of no importance; in the 2015 film, it makes for a major source of conflict — between the Prince and his father, the Prince and the Grand Duke, and, later, once the King has been won over to the virtues of true love, the King and the Grand Duke.
The stepmother has also been developed for this modern Cinderella. In 1950, the reason for her mistreatment of Cinderella is simply that she’s “jealous of Cinderella’s charm and beauty.” In 2015, it’s much more complicated. Her desire for upward mobility is more explicit, bordering on desperate. She has been widowed twice, and needs to marry, specifically to marry “up,” not simply in a vain quest to gain a higher social status, but in order to secure her and her daughters’ future. It is a necessity, and we feel it as a necessity, that she maintain or improve her class status from a practical, economic standpoint. Two successive husbands and breadwinners have died, and her skills are limited — she could no sooner become a farmer or a peasant than Cinderella could kill a mouse. In all this, Cinderella becomes a symbol and constant reminder of her failure to secure her future by her marriage to Cinderella’s father, a man who never loved her as he loved his daughter or his first wife. Cinderella’s charm and beauty, then, is a double-edged sword; in it the stepmother sees not only her own lack, but her failure to secure her future. Her damning of Cinderella to housework, then, serves an important purpose in both a practical sense (no one else can take care of the house) and a psychological sense.
Various other plot elements draw out the emotional and psychological content of the story in this updated version. The death of Ella’s parents is given much more sentimental and temporal weight; her mother, who’s dead at the beginning of the 1950 film, in this one is alive for the first ten minutes or so, and even gives some parting words of wisdom — “Have courage and be kind” — that resonate throughout the movie; Ella’s relationship with her father is expanded, and his death — glossed over in 1950 — is leaned into heavily. They’ve added a measure of conniving between the stepmother and the Grand Duke to keep Cinderella’s identity a secret. They’ve given the king an illness, and turned him from a bumbling, fat old sod who only wants some grandchildren, into a sympathetic father whose dying words are a concession to his son’s wish to marry for true love, not status.
Another fundamental difference is in the mode of storytelling. In this updated Cinderella, the plot functions less as a series of events and more as a series of titillations. Since the audience presumably already knows all of the major plot details (evil stepmother, handsome prince, fairy godmother, pumpkin turning into a coach, royal ball, glass slipper, etc.), it becomes less a question of, What’s going to happen? than, How are they going to handle this plot point that we already know is going to happen? As such, the movie ends up lingering over certain details and situations in a game of tension and release, of withholding and revealing, in which the significance of things are blown entirely out of proportion, so that only by relying on such a wealth of antecedents could they hope to prop themselves up.
What does it mean to call Cinderella traditional? Does it mean that the film belongs to a tradition? Does it mean that it portrays traditional values? Does it mean that it simply strikes us as not contemporary? If so, what does contemporary mean? What are traditional values? To what tradition does it belong?
To some extent, yes. Cinderella belongs both to a tradition of Cinderella stories (of the popular versions, it keeps closest to Perrault’s telling), and to a tradition of Disney fairy tales. It also portrays “traditional” values in that it’s incredibly innocuous and inoffensive, almost cloyingly so. I mean, they took no chances whatsoever, other than remaking such a well loved film. Finally, it also strikes one as not particularly contemporary because instead of “updating” the story the filmmakers have simply chosen to expand its emotional-psychological content.
On the other hand, it’s clear that the film transposes a lot of contemporary values, at least in terms of storytelling, onto this film. Back then, for example, it was fine for a stepmother to be evil simply because she was evil, a prince to be desirable simply because he was a prince, a king to be a blubbering oaf who just wants some grandkids pattering around and who can, on seeing his son pass over one princess after another, say things like “There must be one who’ll make a suitable mother! Ahem … a suitable wife.” Today, we have to be able to understand and feel empathy for all these characters. The stepmother is jealous of Cinderella, whose beauty and grace reminds her of her failures; the prince is a good and idealistic guy, who wants to marry for love; the king is an old dying man who wishes for his son to be a good ruler, but whose heart is touched by the boy’s romanticism.
I would argue that, to an even greater extent, the film is committed to a portrayal of what seems traditional in a contemporary context. The masterstroke of Cinderella, what makes it successful, is that the filmmakers are as aware of their film’s historical-cultural-social baggage as we are, and, rather than working in opposition to that baggage to create a new film — through, for example, revisionist narratives (Maleficent), stylistic novelty (Alice in Wonderland) — they’ve made a film that exists in perfect harmony with that baggage, a film that feels “old-fashioned” and “traditional.”
This explains a lot of the stylistic and narrative choices we see in the film. It explains the fetishistic, titillating tension and release of various plot details. For instance, the Fairy Godmother’s creation of the glass slippers, the final element of Cinderella’s wardrobe for the ball, which in the 1950 version are given only a passing comment, (“And look: glass slippers”), but in this film get maybe two or three minutes just to themselves (“Shoes are my specialty,” the fairy godmother claims), and are continuously marveled over by all who see them (“They’re made of glass!” the prince exclaims during a moment of foreshadowing, when he replaces a slipper that falls off her foot while they idle outside the ball on a swing). Or Ella’s christening as “Cinderella” by her stepsisters a third of the way into the film. Or the slow and dramatic reveal of Cate Blanchett (of course it's Cate Blanchett!) as the evil stepmother, even though she appears in nearly all the ads for the movie. Or the inflation of the royal announcement maker from a passing detail into a real character with defined traits and emotions. Or the decision to retain the better remembered elements of the transformation (pumpkin into carriage, mice into horses), while substituting others (a goose instead of a horse for a coachmen, lizards instead of a dog for footmen).
The film knows that we all know what’s coming. And since it’s decided not to tell the story from a different character’s perspective, or update it to a modern setting, or fuse it with several different fairy tales, or do any of the other things that are so often done with stories of this kind, all it can do is really linger over these details, give us time to really relish all these familiar things. If it moved briskly past all of this, as in the 1950 Cinderella, what would be the point? Why make this movie at all? In response to that question, Cinderella practices a studied massaging of our anticipations, not so much an explanation as a reassuring “Shhhhhh … the part with the fairy godmother is coming up. Check out what we did with it.”
That’s why Cinderella seems to us to be traditional — because it strokes all the familiar muscles (strokes them with finesse, I might add), without challenging the viewer with anything new apart from a fuller realization of character and narrative. Basically, it’s Cinderella’s utterly earnest approach to its subject, a jarring break from the cynical detachment we’re so used to in the Internet age, that marks this film as “traditional.” They have not made the movie new, nor made it different. They only made it more.
Of course, Disney is running a business, and the point is for us to buy stuff. With a Frozen short preceding the film, and production announced or underway for live-action versions of Beauty and the Beast, The Jungle Book, Mulan, and Dumbo, it’s clear that Walt Disney Pictures has the extension of its product licenses in mind. It’s ancillary markets like TV, DVDs, theme parks, and apparel, not movies, that bring in profits for the media companies, and Cinderella certainly opens the floodgates for a slew of new products. Disney knows that simply making the public connect with something so many people are already aware of and sentimentally attached to is a much more practical proposition than trying to forge those sentimental attachments through a new set of characters and ideas. Much safer to bank on a 65-year relationship than to start a fresh one — there’s a lot less convincing to do. So we can all look forward to more Cinderella action figures, pajama pants, cruise ships, amusement park rides, movie sequels, video games, Burger King promotional kids' meals, and apps compatible for Android and iPhone in the near future. Enjoy the movie!
//Philip Conklin is a co-founder of The Periphery.