Cinderella Without Cinderella

Cinderella has always been one of my favorite fairy tales, probably because the heroine actually does something instead of lying there and waiting to be awakened. She has a goal that she sets out to achieve. She gets help along the way (the nature of the help and where it happens depends on which version you’re looking at), but she does at least strive toward a goal.

The Disney Cinderella was one of my childhood favorites. I’m pretty sure I saw the actual movie at some point, but I mostly experienced it through the “story and songs” album, and that was one of my favorites. I loved Cinderella’s voice, and I liked singing along with her songs. It was easy to put together Cinderella costumes, both her work clothes and her ballgown, from things in my dress-up clothes box. I’d play the record, dress up, and act out the story. I even went as Cinderella for Halloween one year, in one of those terrible 1970s costumes that involved a plastic mask and a tunic with a picture of the character on it (today’s kids who get actual costumes that look like what the characters wore rather than just having a picture of the character on them are so lucky). I also went to see the movie when they re-released it while I was in high school or college.

But after this rewatch, I’ve got to say that they made some rather odd narrative choices. For one thing, Cinderella isn’t really the main character of her own story. The mice get more screentime than she does. In a way, this movie is several “Tom and Jerry” mice vs. cat cartoon shorts wrapped in a Cinderella framing story. Two of them are at least related to the plot, when the mice steal the supplies for making Cinderella’s dress and when they sneak the key to her, but there’s a 10-minute sequence of the mice trying to sneak past the cat to get the chicken feed and bring the corn back inside that has nothing to do with the plot. You could cut it out and make it its own mice vs. cat cartoon short and it would make total sense, and it wouldn’t change the Cinderella movie’s plot at all. I suppose you could look at it as setting up the mice vs. cat situation for when it does affect the plot, but do you really need to set up a “clever mice, evil cat” scenario?

The emphasis on the mice even takes away some of Cinderella’s agency. She sets the goal of going to the ball, gets out the old dress and plans to remake it, but then her stepfamily keeps her too busy to work on it, so she just gives up on her goal. It’s the mice who make the dress for her. It does pay off her kindness, previously established, but it takes away from her character that she just gives up and does nothing toward achieving her goal. At least she comes up with the idea to call the dog to deal with the cat to lead up toward the resolution, but otherwise they’ve managed to make one of the more active fairytale heroines more passive.

Then there’s the treatment of the prince, who is a total nonentity. They even take away some of the things that the prince usually does in the story and give them to a different character. Not that the prince gets much of a role in the fairy tale, but this version takes away even that. We never get to hear his perspective on why he’s reluctant to marry. We just get scenes of the king and the grand duke talking about that. When Cinderella leaves and drops her shoe, the prince doesn’t get to find it. It’s the grand duke who finds the shoe. I guess they were trying to give a reason the prince couldn’t catch up with the girl in a long dress who was running in glass slippers by having him get caught up in a gaggle of girls, but he could have eventually broken free to find the shoe himself. We don’t get to see the prince declaring his love for the girl at the ball and announcing that he’ll marry the girl the slipper fits. Instead, we see the grand duke telling the king this. The prince doesn’t even get to be present when they find Cinderella and she produces the spare shoe after the first one breaks. It’s the grand duke who kneels in front of her and puts the shoe on her foot in the story’s climactic resolution.

I’m not sure what they were thinking here. There’s been a lot of discussion among writers on Twitter this week about whether or not the “show, don’t tell” rule is valid, but I think that having a scene of the grand duke telling the king that the prince said he was in love instead of a scene of the prince saying he’s in love would be the bad kind of telling. I can’t imagine why they thought it was better to focus so much on the king and the grand duke rather than the prince himself. Pixar may make animated films that work as kids’ movies while also being told from the adult perspective, but this film has a really odd disconnect, with the Cinderella story being overshadowed by a kid-targeted mice vs. cats comedy and two old guys talking about how one of them wants to be a grandfather. It’s ironic that they eventually made the Disney Princess a brand and realized that this was the draw, given that they marginalized the princess in this movie.

I know it’s generally considered blasphemy to say that the live-action version of a Disney animated movie is better, but I do think the live-action Cinderella “fixes” the animated one. It’s not truly a remake, but rather a new telling of the same source material with a lot of references to the original, but it drastically reduces the role of the mice and beefs up the roles of Cinderella and the prince. Cinderella makes her own first attempt at a dress. We see that she’s choosing to stay where she is because she’s trying to protect her home, so she seems like less of a victim. We see the clash between the prince and his father instead of hearing about it, and the prince gets to be present when they find Cinderella.

Not that the animated version is bad. It just doesn’t hold up to a lot of analysis. I do like the music, and I still love Cinderella’s voice. The dress is less of a disappointment than most other Cinderella dresses. It does at least have some magical sparkle to it. The animation of the dog is surprisingly realistic. They get the facial expressions just right, as well as the doggie dreaming. All the ingredients are good enough to make me wish it could have been better.

I don’t know what I’m going to watch this weekend. The church newsletter doesn’t seem to have gone out, so I don’t know what the sermon focus is going to be, and I’m not sure what I’m in the mood for. I don’t know whether to stick with the era and maybe hit Pinocchio or Dumbo or to go with princesses and do Sleeping Beauty.

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