Defending Disney: Cinderella

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Cinderella is by far the Disney film that has earned the most controversy –and this fact blows my mind. I honestly, truly do not understand this, and not because I think the film is good. No, this is absolutely my least favorite Disney Princess movie. No, my confusion is simply because this movie is so incredibly bland that I don’t really see how it can be offensive.

My problems with Cinderella are not ideological at all. I have the least political reasons imaginable, and probably the nerdiest, for disliking this movie. My first problem is that the animation changed. If I recall my film history correctly, it’s because of one or more deaths in the company, but I don’t have a citation on that so someone may need to check for me. Regardless, the Grimm’s illustration-style, dark, broody, lush, Germanic look of Snow White and Pinocchio  (which I am not going to review other than to say it is actually a really scary movie) was replaced with a French-inspired, light, frothy, pastel look. It’s been compared to illustrations by C.E. Brock, which I’m not sure is intentional, but makes sense.

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However, I simply don’t like it. My artistic tastes are for more detailed, lush animation styles and I find Cinderella a little too clean and polished and frothy for my liking.

Cinderella and the prince

My other problem with Cinderella is that the music is actually really bad. Sure, the film won an Oscar for best song, but other than that song, really think about the soundtrack. Do you ever find your self humming it? Do you think, “You know, Cinderella has some really classic tunes!” My guess is not. The music is extremely bland. The love song is literally dominated by humming, which is never a good sign. The second most sing-able tune is “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes”, which is in itself a lyrically vague statement and paired with a forgettable la-de-da type tune, which is only memorable because it is so simplistic. “Sing Sweet Nightingale” serves no storytelling purpose, is lyrically not even related to the plot, and is extremely boring. Sure, it’s technically interesting, from a sound-mixing perspective. Ilene Woods harmonizes with herself in the scene, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t admit that she does have a very nice voice. But, since this is 1950, and I do like my music of the era, I have to say that song is not really something you want to tune into now. And, then there’s the mice. I hate the mice. I hate their voices so, so much. I’ve heard people say that their song is actually good, but no. It can’t be. Because it’s sung by the mice! I’ve never been into that chipmunk sound, and this is no exception. If I wanted to hear that, I’d just suck helium from a balloon.

So, my two major complaints are out of the way, what can we say about the story and what are the controversies?

On the left: Cinderella is the worst role-model for women ever, because she is passive, never does anything for herself, and waits around to be saved from her situation.

On the right: Like Snow White, this film doesn’t offend most conservatives, but some have been pointing out that the prince is just incidental.

Everyone:  The prince falls in love with Cinderella because of her clothes.

First of all, I’d like to make a wild and daring statement and say that Cinderella suffers from unsophisticated storytelling. Oh, I know. Radical. I bet everyone thought this was the animated Rashomon.

A dream is a wish your heart makes... five different and conflicting ways, and even beyond the dead!

A dream is a wish your heart makes… five different and conflicting ways, and even beyond the dead!

I know, it’s a children’s film, it’s Disney. We shouldn’t expect extremely complicated storytelling. However, I think that story expectations are where the problems come in. For example, the story is set in a fantasy world, and it has castles and royalty. But, the art design borrows heavily from 1950s fashion. Without making a clear setting in the story, the viewer starts to get an idea that this is the 1950s, but with fantasy elements. And, because of this, Cinderella seems like kind of a putz. In the original story, she cannot leave. Where would she go? But, if this is the 1950s, there’s a real sense that Cinderella is suffering from codependency and could probably leave if she wanted to. That’s why so many feminists find her infuriating. However, I’d like to point out that Cinderella isn’t a 1950s woman. She just looks like one. Think of it this way: Cinderella, the drawing, is a 1950s woman illustration who was “cast” as Cinderella the character, a fantasy character in a semi-medieval world where she is not going to be able to leave, go to New York, get a flat and work as a typist. For all intents and purposes, Cinderella is stuck and has nowhere to go.

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Honestly, I find this controversy fairly silly because it’s actually a great parable for how not to be as a woman. In a world where women are often pitted against one another, through competition and a consumer culture which encourages this kind of comparison to one another, Cinderella shows just how ugly jealousy and pettiness really is. The dynamic of the evil stepmother and Cinderella, as well as the step-sisters (who are more stupid and bratty than straight-up evil) is actually very interesting and carries some valuable lessons. Lady Tremaine is manipulative, cunning, and her one sense of control and power is to ruin her step-daughter’s life. We all have met people who are like this in some sense, whether they are classmates, peers, co-workers, relatives, employers, and so on, there are people who find their power trips just through trying to destroy another person. They tend to narrow in on sweet-tempered people, as well, like Cinderella. This could be useful to point out to children, how manipulative and power-hungry people can behave. And, it’s interesting that the mother twists her daughters into doing her bullying for her, daughters who the film portrays as otherwise just kind of lazy. They’d probably be happy with just eating breakfast in bed and lounging around, but their laziness, pettiness, and delusional belief that they will become celebrities (marry the prince) makes them downright abusive. If that’s not a timely lesson to this day, I don’t know what is!

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Even though I never really liked this movie as a kid, it was hard not to feel sad right at this scene.

Even though I never really liked this movie as a kid, it was hard not to feel sad right at this scene.

Now, in all fairness, there is a point to Cinderella’s character problems, but it’s not anti-feminism. In fact, supposedly this was the fairytale Walt Disney related to the most, because he had received such luck in his own career and art. (There’s a good review for the movie on http://www.thatguywiththeglasses.com, if anyone is interested.) If he related to Cinderella, it seems unlikely he’d create her to be a character with bad morals. No, Cinderella’s problem once again goes back to some unsophisticated storytelling. She’s just really boring. She’s passive. If Snow White is an optimist with a go-get-’em attitude, who is always doing something to improve her situation and make friends, Cinderella is the opposite. She’s actually not very optimistic and gives up easily. When she’s interrupted in making her dress, she doesn’t decide to sneakily make it at night. She just leaves it, wistfully, and the mice and birds make it for her. Her character doesn’t do very much. And, I think the writers realized this because we have endless padding with the mice and birds doing all the action we’d probably rather see the main character do. This, I assume, is actually a fault of the same technical difficulties in Snow White: humans are hard to animate, and mice aren’t. Unfortunately for me, I hate the mice, so all of these scenes are tedious and annoying to me.

However, I don’t think Cinderella is a bad character. I think she’s a poorly-written character. But, she does have good traits. If Snow White is optimistic, Cinderella is hopeful. She doesn’t see the good in all her situations like Snow White does (which, again, is because she’s in a literally abusive household, so that makes sense) but she is hopeful. She has an idea that someday things will get better. That’s the message of the story: life gets better. And, sometimes children are in bad situations that they can’t really change. We do need messages that life sometimes just does get better. Kids change and bullies grow up and you eventually graduate and life can get better. It’s a good idea to remember when this film was made: 1950. This is a postwar movie. And, the world needed a little of that sort of hope, that despite situations the civilians could not change, life does indeed get better. That’s a good message.

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Now, as for the prince, he, too, suffers from being poorly written. He’s not really an important character, again hampered by animation technicalities but also just not being important. If you think that boys won’t get into the movie because of this, then I don’t blame you. But, here’s the thing, I never related to either Cinderella or the prince as a kid. I used to pretend to be many Disney characters, and I don’t remember ever pretending to be either of these two. I found them extremely boring. I think that the filmmakers kind of realized this and so we do have active characters, male and female, in the mice and birds. Tragically, for me, these characters are just nails-on-a-chalkboard annoying, but I know some kids really loved them. And, I admit, I did like Gus as a child. Though, now, I just like the cat. The cat the the fairy godmother. But, if you think kids are going to get ideas that women should just wait around and men are prizes for being good, I think you might be too invested in Disney as your moral compass in adult life. Kids probably won’t get that idea and most likely will see a very simplistic good-vs-bad story that also includes magic and talking animals. I wouldn’t worry too much.

However, for all the conservative worry about how fathers are portrayed in media, I’m shocked no one seems to hate the king. The king is horrible. He is like this tyrant who has an all-consuming drive to have grandkids, not because he wants heirs but because he’s lonely. And he’s willing to sell out his son to all the fame-obsessed women of the community just so they will breed. He even tries to kill the duke when this doesn’t work out. The duke is literally terrified of being executed when he accidentally breaks the glass slipper. The king is an ass. A lonely ass, but an ass. However, as a kid, I never got how creepy that was, so my guess is it’s not too damaging. It is, however, really weird. The prince doesn’t even go searching for Cinderella. The king sets that up because he’s maniacal in his desire to be a grandfather. This is a super weird twist, and I don’t know why people don’t mention it very often.

The madness of King Disney-guy...

The madness of King Disney-guy…

As for the prince only picking Cinderella for her clothes or whatever else people have problems with: the prince is barely a character. His voice actor is not even credited. Male characters are just technically hard to animate, and the story isn’t written well. It’s not a scheme or a plot to teach bad lessons. But, it isn’t written very well, and these problems will later be addressed in the far-superior Sleeping Beauty.

I feel like I’ve been unfairly harsh on the movie, however, and I’d like to point out some decent scenes. While I don’t like the overall look of the film, I do appreciate Mary Blair’s original concept, which is very much based on Romantic and Rococo art.

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I don’t like Rococo. It makes me anxious, and I think it looks cluttered and garish. But, this is a matter of taste, and I have to admit that at least there is a lot of thought and effort that went into emulating the artistic styles for the movie.

Portrait of Mademoiselle Guimard as Terpsichore by Jacques-Louis David Jacques-Louis David

Portrait of Mademoiselle Guimard as Terpsichore by Jacques-Louis David Jacques-Louis David

Also, the movement looks wonderful. Cinderella moves in a far more fluid manner than Snow White and the characters look more realistic. There’s a lot of grace to Cinderella’s movements. She’s very elegant, and there must have been incredible patience in getting all those frames to create her beautifully fluid motion. Also, there are some animation scenes that I do like and think really work. I love the scene when the fairy godmother creates her coach and horses, et cetera. And, then there’s the scene when Cinderella finally gets her dress and glass slippers. This is a technically brilliant moment of animation, and Disney himself considered it the most beautiful scene in any of his films. And, yeah, it’s that good. Even though I don’t think that the movie is as artistic as Snow White, and I do find a lot of the film very boring, every time I think I wouldn’t recommend it to a child I remember that the child wouldn’t get to see this scene. And, this is an important scene in animation, cinema history, and art. It really does capture the magic and wonder of a faiytale, and it works beautiful. It’s a damn good piece of animation, and I think it actually justifies the rest of the film’s existence. It’s that powerful.

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So, I don’t think this is a great film, but I also don’t think it’s an offensive film. I don’t think the movie encourages bad behaviors in children or portrays women or men in a bad light. I think it suffers from bad storytelling, but in the end I’d call this an innocuous bore with a few moments of brilliance. And, the message of hope remains timely and true. So, for all my dislike of the movie, I am actually happy it exists. Sometimes, we need a movie that says life gets better, and which gives us that sense of awe at seeing a beautiful moment in animation. Maybe that’s enough.

Cinderella - getting the slipper

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