Today’s cinema adventure: Cinderella, Walt Disney’s 1950 animated adaptation of the classic folk tale immortalized by 17th-Century author Charles Perrault, a simple tale about a young orphaned girl, forced to work as a menial servant by her vain stepmother and stepsisters, who is granted a wish to attend a royal ball where her sweet nature and her beauty win her the heart of a handsome prince. The first fully animated feature produced by the Disney Studio after World War II, it was something of a gamble, an expensive undertaking which would have likely resulted in bankruptcy had it failed to attract an audience; it did not fail, however, instead becoming an overwhelming success which provided the financial base for the expansion of the Disney company during the 1950s, paving the way not only for more features, but for the establishment of their television division and the beginnings of their theme park empire. It remains one of their most enduring titles, commonly ranking near the top on lists of the greatest animated films of all time and continuing to enchant viewers of all ages as it inspires new generations of would-be princesses to believe in their dreams.
The basic plot of Cinderella dates back to ancient times, and can be found in folklore from a wide range of cultures and eras. One version even found its way into Shakespeare’s King Lear, albeit with a tragic twist, through the story of the mythic Princess Cordelia, who not only marries her dream prince but defeats her cruel and ambitious sisters with his army; another dark variation on the tale can be found in the stories of the Brothers Grimm, who included such details as the stepsisters cutting off portions of their feet and their being blinded by attacking birds. The most familiar version today, however, arises from Perrault’s story, which added the iconic elements now indelibly associated with it, including the fairy godmother and the magic pumpkin coach; Disney’s artistic team used this as their source, eliminating some of the darker aspects and placing a heavy emphasis on the peripheral adventures of the heroine’s animal allies, which are played for child-pleasing comic effect. Indeed, the main events of the plot comprise relatively little screen time, and the story is largely told through the behind-the-scenes perspective of the mice, whose machinations are largely responsible for Cinderella’s eventual triumph. The film opens with a narrated prologue in which the tale’s background is set; Cinderella is the daughter of a widowed aristocrat who takes a second wife with two daughters of her own, hoping to provide his child with a motherly influence, but upon his premature demise this new stepmother becomes a domineering tyrant, forcing Cinderella to live the life of a servant while doting on her own vain and mean-spirited girls. Despite her lowly existence, Cinderella grows into a lovely and sweet-natured young woman, befriending the animals of the household, including the mice and birds, and treating them all with kindness- even her stepmother’s spoiled and vindictive cat, appropriately named Lucifer. One day, an proclamation arrives from the palace that all eligible young ladies in the kingdom are invited to a royal ball in honor of the Prince, whom the King hopes will choose a bride from among them; Cinderella hopes to attend along with her stepsisters, but their scheming and jealous mother burdens the girl with extra chores in order to prevent her having the time to prepare a suitable dress. Her loyal animal friends manage to make a lovely gown from the cast-off scraps of the stepsisters’ wardrobes, but when the elated Cinderella rushes to join her family as they prepare to depart, the two selfish girls accuse her of theft, and rip the borrowed items from her dress, leaving her in tatters as they head off to the palace. Her tears of despair quickly disappear, however, when a kindly old woman materializes, proclaiming that she is Cinderella’s fairy godmother; she promptly transforms a pumpkin into an elegant coach and the girl’s torn dress into a sumptuous gown, and sends her off to the ball- admonishing her, however, that she must return before midnight, when the spell will be broken and all her magical accoutrements will return to their original, non-enchanted form. At the palace, the young Prince is bored and unimpressed by the procession of bachelorettes vying for his hand- that is, until the late arrival of a mysterious beauty, to whom he is immediately drawn. They waltz together and wander the palace grounds- until the clock begins to strike midnight, when she hastily flees, leaving behind no clue to her identity except a single glass slipper, lost on the palace steps in her hurry to escape before the final chime can break the spell and reveal her lowly state. Determined to find the mystery girl who has won his son’s heart, the King declares that the slipper will be tried on the foot of every maiden in the kingdom until a match is found, but Cinderella’s destiny may still be jeopardized by the efforts of her malicious stepmother, who is bent on seizing this last chance to secure a royal marriage for one of her own unpleasant children. With time running out, it will be up to the heroine’s animal friends to come to the rescue and ensure that her “happily ever after” dreams will at last come true.
As with all of Disney’s early productions, the screenwriting and directing duties on Cinderella were handled by multiple individuals, working in concert under the tight supervision of Walt himself and in close collaboration with the chief animators. It is a testament to the strength of Disney’s vision that these films emerged as cohesive works of art, blending the styles and influences of their various contributors together into a unified whole. At the time of Cinderella, the studio had spent several years languishing under the budgetary constraints of wartime, when their output had been limited to the obligatory shorts- still popular, but eclipsed by the success of Warner Brothers’ edgier Looney Toons and Merrie Melodies cartoons- and omnibus features which packaged several of them together or mixed short animated segments with live action footage. Though the great features of the pre-war era had earned them much acclaim and a formidable reputation, only the first of them- Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs– had been a bona fide hit, and full-length animation was too risky to warrant the considerable expense required for its production during the wartime economy; even so, the studio had honed its skills during these lean years, particularly in its recognition of the importance of music as a means to generate interest- and additional income- for their films. Disney’s return to the field of feature-length animation was therefore bolstered by a deliberate effort to create songs which could not only add to the movie’s appeal, but which could become an asset in their own right, and Walt enlisted three established popular songwriters- Mack David, Jerry Livingston, and Al Hoffman- to compose tunes which could also be marketed on their own through the studio’s music division (the song rights for the previous films had been sold to other music publishers). Even with this hedging of its bets, Disney was taking a major risk with Cinderella, releasing a family-oriented fairy tale into a market dominated by the grittier, world-weary cynicism and social commentary that had grown prevalent in post-war American films; but, whether by instinct, luck, or savvy foresight, Walt’s return to the medium which made him famous came at precisely the right time, heralding a revival of optimism and a growing taste for glossy fantasy that would mark the new and prosperous decade.
Watching Cinderella today, it’s remarkable to see the seeds of Eisenhower-era sensibility so clearly visible in its framework. The “American Dream” is here encapsulated by the movie’s story of success earned by hard work and a positive attitude, and its focus on the feminine perspective emphasizes the role of women in that objectified way of life- namely, to strive for fulfillment through the ultimate life accomplishment of marriage to a successful man. Cinderella, after all, is trained from the outset to be a devoted wife, with a deep attachment to her father and years of experience tending to every household chore; and her fitness as a mother is plainly seen in her nurturing relationship with her animal friends- particularly the two foremost mice, Jaq and Gus, who are more or less characterized as children in animal form. Of course, the importance of beauty is also stressed, most strongly in the significance of Cinderella’s ball attire, with both the simple-but-charming dress constructed by the animals and the sumptuously dazzling gown into which it is magically transformed being afforded considerable weight in the film’s plotline. Throughout the movie, even in the animal subplots, traditional gender roles are subtly reinforced, and the principal male characters- the human ones, anyway- are firmly established as the natural beneficiaries of masculine privilege, a status heightened by their identification as royalty in the hierarchy of the story. On top of all these social foreshadowings, the visual design of the film is replete with precursors to 1950s fashion, from the rich color palette, to the lines of the clothing, to the predominance of old-fashioned Euro-elegance in the settings and decor. As a final touch, the lush and dreamy music, at once catchy and soothing, fits directly into the mold of the popular songs that would dominate the sound of the coming decade- until the advent of Elvis and his rock-and-rolling ilk, that is. In short, Cinderella, in the clarity of hindsight, looks very much like a blueprint for life in the ’50s, and one which may have had more influence on the shape of that decade than its creators had ever envisioned.
Aside from these signposts of its place in the timeline of cultural history, Cinderella also offers a look at the state of its art form at the time. Despite Warner’s’ dominance in the realm of popular cartoons, Disney was still the undisputed master of the genre; nobody else could do the things they were doing, and their drive to continually advance the art was still strong, perhaps even more so after years of being held back by the war. Even so, the creative juices flowing through Cinderella seem flavored less by the hunger of young visionaries than by the confidence of mature artists; there is an obvious delight in their work here, a feeling of seasoned professionalism taking enjoyment in showing off a hard-earned mastery. There is also a softening in tone, a gentleness which marks a shift from the more heightened drama of such films as Pinocchio and Bambi to an easier-going sensibility more in keeping with the middle-of-the-road values the studio would come to represent over the coming decades. This is not to say that Cinderella is devoid of drama or suspense; on the contrary, it takes full advantage of its creators’ cinematic skills in order to increase the tension in a story which is, to be quite frank, lacking in the type of high-stakes conflict found in the studio’s earlier classics- extreme perspectives, rapid editing, heavy use of light and shadow, and all the other tricks of the trade with which these animated filmmakers not only enhanced their storytelling, but which were imitated by live-action directors and thereby bore significant influence on the future development of cinema in general. Even so, it is undeniable that Cinderella is more calculated, for want of a better word, in the sense that it makes a deliberate effort to evoke reactions to its narrative, rather than allowing its form to be a direct expression of the needs of the story itself. This is, perhaps, an intangible distinction, and one which arises more from the nature of the story being told than a change in the attitudes of the artists, but it is a noticeable factor in the ongoing development of the Disney animation machine, and one which would later result in what many critics would characterize as a decline in the immediacy and relevance of their work.
None of those later criticisms apply, however, to Cinderella; it’s a fresh and heartfelt piece of entertainment, and whatever subliminal social agenda might be read into it by progressive modern thinkers, it transcends such retro-fitted concerns with its imaginative approach to a timeless story. Sweet without being sugar-coated, funny without undermining its deeper themes, and stylish without being shallow, it is a fine representative of Disney at its magical best. It goes without saying that the animation is stunningly executed; in their quest to infuse the film with a high level of reality, the animators turned once more to their technique of utilizing live action footage as a guide, filming a heavy percentage of the movie with real costumed actors and models in order to give themselves a reference from which to capture the illusion of real movement and expression. This was not accomplished through rotoscoping- the actual frame-by-frame tracing of live footage- but by free-hand drawing to recreate the filmed sequences, a painstaking process, but one which affords a considerable amount of leeway for artistic interpretation. In this way, the Disney artists seamlessly blend the realistic style of their human characters with the more overtly cartoonish animals, bridging the two worlds with the intermediate characterization of such comic figures as the King and the Stepsisters. It’s a fully realized world, enhanced further by the magnificent work of the background artists and the conceptual designers. I am not one to belittle the advances in technology which have given us the remarkable computer-generated wonders seen in today’s movie houses, but when confronted with the sheer beauty of a film like Cinderella, made all the more dazzling by the intangible influence of the direct human touch, it is difficult not to lament the all-but-lost art of hand-drawn animation.
The visual artistry here, as usual with a Disney production of this nature, is in the service of a story that, for all its simplicity and kid-friendly humor, strikes deep chords in the hands of these gifted artists. Though contemporary audiences may quibble about the story’s pre-feminist underpinnings, Cinderella‘s message is not simply a reinforcement of the traditional belief that a woman’s place is in the home with a man to take care of her; rather, the emphasis is placed on the theme of believing in yourself and having faith in your dreams. Likewise, though outward appearance is clearly a factor in the fantasy being portrayed- Cinderella must be lovely, after all, and the Prince must be handsome, just as the stepsisters cannot be anything but homely- it is not these surface qualities that are central to the plot; it is Cinderella’s kindness and good nature that make her deserving not only of our sympathies, but of the fierce loyalty of her animal friends and the help of her fairy godmother, and it is the selfishness and jealous vanity of her two stepsisters that make them truly ugly. Disney knew what he was doing, too; Walt himself made cuts to the screenplay in order to remove episodes that implied less attractive qualities in his heroine, and great care was taken to ensure that her happy ending hinged not on her pretty face, but on the positive effects of her inner beauty. Finally, the brightness of the slick romantic fantasy is countered by the palpably dismal atmosphere surrounding Cinderella’s family life; despite the extensive humor provided by the mice and the comic exaggeration of the stepsisters’ unpleasant personalities, the film makes clear the grim reality of its heroine’s existence, making the best of a miserable situation in which she is treated, essentially, as a slave and a prisoner, and victimized by the severe psychological abuse of her menacing stepmother- whose cold and calculated cruelty is no less horrific for the certainty that she will, in the end, fail to prevent her ward from finding happiness.
As previously observed, Cinderella is the result of extensive collaboration, and there is little point in reciting a list of names here; the names of the directors, writers, supervising animators and designers, all of whom deserve praise for their work, can easily be found on any number of other websites. A few individuals, however, deserve to be singled out for their particularly notable contributions. Perhaps most significant of these is Mary Blair, credited as “color stylist,” whose concept art featured a distinct array of primary hues but went beyond the creation of a color palette to infuse the entire film with her own subtly whimsical-but-elegant visual style; her work on this and subsequent Disney projects- including the creation of Disneyland- helped to define and influence the familiar “look” of much of the studio’s output throughout the next two decades. Also important is the voice work done by a talented cast of Disney stalwarts, particularly Ilene Woods (as Cinderella)- who landed the role after friends recorded her singing voice and sent the tape to Disney without her knowing, and who ended up also modeling the character in the live action reference footage, a duty she would later repeat for other Disney heroines- and Eleanor Audley (as the Stepmother), whose chillingly austere vocal talents would be used again in another iconic villain role- the evil Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty– and in Disneyland’s “Haunted Mansion” attraction. Lastly, the aforementioned trio of songsmiths provide one of Disney’s most memorable and popular scores, which includes at least two songs that would become signature tunes for the studio (“A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” and the Oscar-nominated nonsense tune, “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo”), and which yielded a number of successful recordings by popular singers of the era.
I must confess that though I am, perhaps obviously, an unrepentant fan of Disney movies (at least, of their canon of classic animated features), Cinderella has never been a particular favorite of mine. Perhaps it is that my own taste runs towards the darker, more dramatic flavor of the studios original array of classics, or that the “princess” theme doesn’t have a strong appeal for me. Even so, I am quick to acknowledge the superb artistry behind it; every frame is rich with the kind of imaginative detail that infuses the movie with a life of its own and separates a Disney film from the pedestrian efforts of lesser producers. It contains many of the studio’s most beloved and iconic sequences, such as the architectural construction of Cinderella’s would-be party dress by the determined crew of mice and birds, the architectural construction of the fairy godmother’s magical creation of the coach and gown, the lovely scene in which a scrubbing Cinderella sings harmonies with herself while reflected in floating soap bubbles, and the ethereal beauty of her rendezvous with Prince Charming (who is, incidentally, never referred to by that name- nor any other, for that matter). The character animation is superb, bringing to life one of Disney’s most disturbing villains in the Stepmother- a completely human monster who is more terrifying than many of the supernatural antagonists created for the studio’s other films- as well as the delightfully engaging mice, Jaq and Gus, and their nemesis, Lucifer the cat, whose ongoing conflict provides much of the film’s real action as well as its comedy. Lucifer, in particular, is a marvelous creation, with an instantly recognizable feline personality and just the right balance of menace and silliness to make him both a tangible threat and a buffoonish foil for the antics of his rodent quarries. All in all, there is a lot to love about Cinderella, a radiant and charming piece of filmmaking with its heart in the right place, no matter what accusations may be leveled by modern-day social critics; even if, in the end, I can’t say it places as highly on my personal “best of animation” list as it does on so many others, I still recommend it heartily, without reservation, as a fine example of Disney artistry in its prime. In the end, or course, my opinion- or that of any other critic- is irrelevant; Cinderella is a classic, destined to remain with us for a long time to come. After all, it has appealed to generations of children- and quite a few grown-ups- as strongly as it did upon its first release, over a half-century ago, and all those little princesses certainly couldn’t be wrong.