It’s been perplexing me for weeks why I disliked Disney’s latest live-action version of Cinderella so much. At first I thought it was about the unabashed damsel-in-distress storyline. Sorting through the issues with the film there were questions I felt needed to be answered. Why is this story so endearing and enduring? Looking at the story critically, am I tearing down innocence with my adult perspective? Why did I, a 52-year old woman, want to go see it in the first place?
Disney’s new Cinderella is true to the old tale but, unlike the original 1950s animation or any other version for that matter, it is incredibly boring. Director Kenneth Branagh tends to make his films feel long-winded and Cinderella is no different. From beginning to end the whole thing is a teeter-totter of juxtapositions: a stunning cast with predictable and dull dialogue; fantastic artistic design with slow, stilted framing. The lack of freshness to the story, as well as not putting enough live-action into the live-action translation, adds to the dullness factor. The animated version knew itself much better where the live-action plays so close to reality at times the fantasy portions feel out of place.
Endearing and Enduring
The Cinderella trope can be found as far back as 7 BC. There are innumerable variations in almost every culture – the “persecuted heroine” who achieves unexpected recognition. There are just as many arguments as to why Cinderella is such a globally appealing tale: rags-to-riches, becoming a real princess, justice being served, and even the American dream. There is not just a single reason that explains it... except maybe that it’s one of the most basic and original tropes.1
In the recent waves of online social justice, the word "trope" has taken on a negative connotation when it’s simply a literary term used in the fascinating study of the different types of figurative language used in creative works. Tropes are a communication tool of the artist. And like all tools, they can be used for good or evil in the hands of the creator. The trope of Cinderella was handled respectfully in the original 1950s animation, but not so in Disney and Brannaugh’s 2015 version.
From Child to Adult to Child
The 2015 screenplay, written by Chris Weitz, was not modernized in the least little bit and had no adult appeal whatsoever. Weitz is adept at telling stories from a male perspective (About a Boy), but he wrote a flat, boring story that portrayed the worst parts of the damsel-in-distress trope.
The most common feminist complaints about the Cinderella trope are that, to escape her predicament, Cinderella must be rescued by a man and marriage, and that a man is her salvation. There are no other options available to this healthy, young, intelligent but naïve woman except servitude. This message came through loud and clear in the live-action version. Ella2 is an object who shows very little fight or self-identity.
But I don’t think we should ensconce with the whole trope. The original animation has depth and fight. Cinderella has a dream her life will get better but she doesn’t define that as marriage simply as happiness. She struggles, as we all do, with hanging on to that dream against all odds, overwhelming authority, and the need for self-preservation.
When Cinderella is introduced in the animation, she sings about believing in your dreams – a good message for little girls. But then, in the kitchen, she turns around and tells Bruno, the dog, to quit dreaming about catching Lucifer, the step-mother’s cat. Why? Because if you like having a nice, warm bed to sleep in, you’ll learn to like cats. This is a complete contradiction to what she said in her opening scene. In her room all things are possible and dreams live, but in every other part of the house is the harsh truth of her life.
In the end she doesn’t compromise and learn to like being abused but chooses to fight for her dream. To break down the door between her room (the dream) and the house (the reality), she calls on Bruno to live his dream by chasing away Lucifer who’s blocking the door. This is a great message of courage, friendship, and strength.
Twirling in Glass Slippers
I didn’t really understand my desire to see Cinderella but it felt very… female. What finally pushed me to leave my comfy, leather sofa was the article in EW magazine by Clark Collis called “Cinderella: How to Dress a Fairy-Tale Princess.”
You remember the 1950 animated classic: the golden-voiced heroine, the adorable mice, the devilishly evil stepmonster. Now Disney is putting a fresh spin on the bibbidi-bobbidi-boo of it all with a live-action Cinderella dripping in lush details fit for a fairy tale.3
Dante Ferretti was the production designer for Cinderella 2015 and Sandy Powell was in charge of costume design. When Collis describes the design as “lush” he’s not kidding. The carriage that carries Cinderella to the ball was painted and gold leafed by hand. The infamous blue ball gown had around 10,250 Swarovski crystals applied by hand. Powell said, “I wanted the dress to look like a moving watercolor.” The fairy godmother’s dress was wired with 4,000 LED lights. And the glass slipper – a single solid piece of Swarovski crystal. Wow! Who doesn’t want to see that?
So besides a boring story and a paper doll protagonist, my complaint is that Helena Bonham Carter and her LED dress didn’t get enough screen time. As it turns out, for me, it’s all about the dresses and shoes.
I’ll Give You a Topic
- What was your favorite Disney movie as a kid (be honest)?
- Are you offended that unattractive women are shown to have large feet?
- Do you like the original 1950s Cinderella animation by Disney?
- Is romance a societal construct used to define genders?
- Why do we desire romance? What is romance?
1 “Trope” has gained popularity just in the last twenty years
2 Ella is the protagonists name until her step-sisters rename her Cinder-ella because she’s covered in soot
3 Clark Collis, EW, March 20/27, 2015, #1355/1356