Disney, Fairytales, and Women, Part 12: Cinderella (2015)

Have courage and be kind.


Well, I know I just said I was putting this series to rest for the time being, but I honestly didn't think the new Cinderella would be worth discussing. Once again, Disney managed to make a truly great movie look bland, boring, uninspired, and uninteresting in the trailer. Luckily I've learned, more or less, to ignore the trailers, and although I went into this movie expecting the worst, I was very pleasantly surprised by this interpretation of the Cinderella story. Everyone and their goldfish has already written straight-up reviews of it, but in keeping with this series I'd like to discuss some of the fairytale-specific tidbits, expansions, adaptations, etc. (I would recommend, if you haven't already, reading the installment in this series dealing with Disney's 1950 Cinderella first.)

Spoilers behind the cut!
The film begins with a slightly extended look at the heroine's early life, which is normally relegated to a sentence or two before the mother dies. Rather than simply telling us Ella's childhood was happy, we actually see her (and I'm so glad they cast a relatively normal-looking girl as young Ella, rather than some child I sit there looking at going "literally no one is this beautiful when their age is in single digits, what is going on") happily interacting with her wonderful mother, played by the always charming Hayley Atwell, and her adoring father. We see how Ella's mother significantly influenced her daughter and was instrumental in teaching her the mantra, "Have courage and be kind." The heroine of Cinderella stories is always brave, sweet, and gentle, but usually her mother is not given so much credit for instilling this in her. Occasionally the goodness of the mother is mentioned, but in the film we are shown rather than just told. It's still a relatively short interlude, but it is really beneficial to Ella's character and to the story.

I do want to note that I feel this emphasis on the mother really, really lent itself to the common device in Cinderella stories in which the mother takes the role of the fairy godmother. Perhaps the most notable example of this is the Grimms' "Aschenputtel," which you may have seen in Into the Woods; Cinderella plants a seed on her mother's grave which is watered by her tears and grows into a tree, and when Cinderella goes to the tree and cries about not being able to go to the ball, her mother's spirit sends her the gown. Even if Disney wanted to stick more to the Perrault-inspired version they used in the 1950 animated film, they could have had the mother return as the fairy godmother. It serves the same purpose and it brings the mother even more into the narrative, which it really seemed like they were setting up at the beginning.


Cinderella herself has been fleshed out much more than her 1950 counterpart. She's still based on the most boring heroine of Cinderella-type stories, but she feels genuine. And what was most interesting to me was how clear the film made it that though she clearly has courage and kindness in her innately, she is struggling and trying really, really hard to remain brave and kind in the face of injustice and mistreatment. When she collapses by the well sobbing, "I'm sorry, Mother, I've tried to have courage and be kind and I can't do it anymore," you get this sudden realisation that Cinderella has more depth than we're used to seeing in her on-screen. She is trying so hard and she thinks she's failing, not only herself but her mother. Even in written Cinderella tales the heroine often comes off as naturally perfect; her kindness and gentleness come so easily to her that it takes no effort on her part to be the way she is. This Cinderella is pretty close to perfect still, but the knowledge that she's trying to be that way makes her more relatable and less like the perfect goody-two-shoes her predecessor was.


Of course, once again, the heroine's unfailing kindness is presented as something good, even in the face of abuse from her stepmother. I already went through the issues with that in my previous Cinderella post, and those problems remain. Cate Blanchett's Lady Tremaine is an excellent portrayal, though. More here than in the animated film, you get the sense of the backstory that is behind many step-parents in fairytales. Step-families were a very common reality even hundreds of years ago, particularly due to high rates of mortality in childbirth or just young deaths in general. In the case of Ella's father and Lady Tremaine, it's a common real-life story. Often step-mothers would mistreat their step-children in order to secure the future of their own children, knowing inheritances were limited and not wanting their spouse's previous children to be privileged over their own. This film actually shows Lady Tremaine realising how much Ella's father dotes on her and loves her more than both herself and her own daughters, which motivates her cruelty. This was true of the animated film as well but it's not something we explicitly saw, and this film does a better job of hearkening back to that fairytale trope (I especially liked having Lady Tremaine constantly dressed in envy-green to underline that). My only minor quibble is when Ella asks Lady Tremaine why she is so cruel, and Lady Tremaine responds, "You are so good and kind and sweet, and I'm-" and she cuts off and leaves the room. It's kind of heavy-handed and it's not really what her issue is, although that's conceivably what she would've said. I doubt Lady Tremaine would've been like, "My issue is securing my daughters' future!!" That truly would've been heavy-handed. I suppose I don't know why that exchange was there in the first place. Though Ella's outburst wasn't something her animated predecessor would have ever done, so it was interesting to humanise her by making her unable to keep her thoughts inside all the time. Anyway.


The story between Cinderella and her prince was also expanded a bit. In most written Cinderellas, the heroine isn't initially pursuing a prince, in fact. The oft-repeated Kiera Cass quote, "Cinderella never asked for a prince. She asked for a night off and a dress,"is true of most of the fairytale versions, including both Perrault's "Cendrillon" and the Grimms' "Aschenputtel." Ella and Kit in this film met before the ball, but he didn't reveal himself as the prince, and though Ella is going to the ball in pursuit of him, she isn't chasing the idea of the prince as her step-family is. Kit has much more of a personality and we see much more of him than the nameless 1950 prince who had maybe all of 5 lines. Although we are supposed to infer that Cinderella, being good, loves the prince for more than his title, as opposed to her step-sisters, who are bad, we don't actually see proof of that in the animated film. In this film we see more of the two of them alone at the ball, and we definitely see that they love each other for who they are.

Overall this film did an excellent job bringing Cinderella closer to her roots, even though it is more inspired by fairytales than a direct adaptation of any one version. Interestingly there is a nod to the written "Beauty and the Beast," (the step-sisters asking for lace and parasols, Ella asking for a branch of the first tree her father passes) which I hope is a sign of good things to come in the upcoming live-action remake of that story. This story is new and different but has fairytales in its backbone, and it was unexpected and wonderful. The fact remains that this is yet another European-Fantasyland all-white-main-characters fairytale, and there is yet again no reason this couldn't have been set somewhere else in the world or at least cast with main characters of colour. The week of this film's US release, Tumblr celebrated "#cinderellarevival" with art and graphics celebrating the 1997 Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella starring Brandy and Whitney Houston, a made-for-tv movie that still nearly a decade later has a huge and devoted following. Keke Palmer recently finished her run as the first black Cinderella on Broadway. Disney is behind the times on this one - hell, they were behind the Brandy version! They should know how desperate people are for diverse character representation and how popular such representation becomes. That said, I hope the beautiful story of this film is a sign of good things to come, and I hope we get more diversity in future fairytale live-action remakes.

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