- Release date: 15 February, 1950
- Run time: 75 mins
- Director: Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske, Wilfred Jackson
- Cast: Ilene Woods, Eleanor Audley, Verna Felton
- Inspired by: Cinderella (Charles Perrault)
“Young man, are you sure you’re trying it on the right foot?”
Things were getting tight for poor old Walt at the beginning of 1950. He’d endured a series of flops and then been left struggling as the Second World War raged (although, to be fair, many people had more pressing worries between 1939 and 1945 than the success of an American animation studio). By the time he reached the end of the 1940s, Disney was $4 million in debt and on the verge of bankruptcy. While some of the package films had helped to claw back some money, the studio was in desperate need of a hit. Work had begun on three possibilities – Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan. Leaving nothing to chance, Walt opted for the one closest to his only real hit to date – Snow White – and work began in earnest on the story of Cinderella. At the same time, Disney was also turning his attention to live action films as a way of making a quick buck and putting the studio back on track (we’ll get the first full live action movie in the next post), leaving the animators to do what they could without the sharp eye of their boss on them every hour of the day.
The result proved to be a hit, both critically and commercially, helping to finally turn Walt’s fortunes around. It even found itself up for three Oscars – including one for best song. In fact, the film (and its tie-in merchandise) proved such a money-spinner that Disney was able to create its own distribution arm (to this point it had relied on RKO for this), move into television and, perhaps most significantly of all, give Walt the cash he needed to start his ‘Florida Project’ – a small development that would eventually grow into Disney World. Fair to say, the studio owes more than a small debt to Cinders.
Original idea? Once again, Disney has turned to the world of fairy tales in order to find his muse. Although various versions exist, dating back 2000 years to Greek storytellers, the version chosen by the cartoon’s writers to focus on was the one written by Charles Perrault in the 1600s. The Frenchman is responsible for numerous tales still popular today (including Red Riding Hood, Puss in Boots, and another of the Disney classics, Sleeping Beauty). It was Perrault who is credited with adding the pumpkin, the fairy-godmother and the glass slippers, turning it into the version we all now know. The Brothers Grimm, gathering stories 100 years later, turned their own spin on the tale – including the step-sisters mutilating their feet in an attempt to get the slipper to fit – but it is Perrault’s more sanitised version which Disney’s writers chose to adapt.
Family situation? Certainly not the happiest of families; when we are introduced to Cinders, she is living with her step-mother, Lady Tremaine, and step-sisters, Drizella and Anastasia. In an all too familiar scenario for Disney movies, both of Cinderella’s natural parents are long dead, leaving our heroine to fend for herself with her adopted family. Not that there is much love shown to her; these delightful women are forcing Cinderella to work in her own house as a general dogsbody. It really makes you wonder how she ended up with such an awful step-family – at what point did her father, who presumably married Lady Tremaine following the death of Cinderella’s mother, think that his new wife was better than life alone with his only daughter? Aside from this, having the step-family as such vile villains does nothing for those children being brought up in homes where one or both of their natural parents are no longer on the scene. And while it may not be universally true that all Disney films feature a wicked step-mother, Cinderella did much to introduce the idea that this is often the case.
Y’know – for kids? Perhaps more so than some of the previous entries, this is clearly much more suitable for a younger audience. Certainly the mice (who we will come to shortly) help to create a sense of safety for children. But parents must surely need to question the underlying messages of the movie: wicked parental figures; forced child labour; vermin problems – the list is long and lengthy. There is much to be said in defence of films produced in the past, but the cry of ‘different times’ only gets you so far when the female mice are depicted as the domestic sewers while the male mice are the hunter/gatherers, attempting to whisk the food away from under Lucifer the cat’s nose. It is safe to say that, while the storyline is more child-friendly, the societal ethics leave a lot to be desired.
Princesses, villains and comedy sidekicks? We have already covered the villains of the piece – Cinderella’s ‘wonderful’ step-mother and step-sisters. And while they are not truly evil, like the Queen in Snow White, there is a nastiness to them which is all the more real; how many children watching will have been forced into doing jobs by domineering parents? I don’t mean the necessary task of teaching youngsters to look after themselves and accept they have responsibility; rather the parents who have worked their children to the bone while they sit idly by. It must hit a few raw nerves with some parts of the audience.
The comedy sidekicks, however, do make up for it and lend a sense of comfort to proceedings. The wonderful mice – in particular Jaq and Gus – have the ability to give the audience a sense that, even in this world of enforced labour, there are still those who will stand by the downtrodden and given them a feeling of hope. Gus, above all, provides some wonderful comedy moments (aided by Lucifer the cat – who isn’t so much villain as straight man) that are cleverly played out by the animators.
And while Cinderella may not be a princess (although – spoiler alert – she does become one eventually), there is a handsome prince to sweep her off her feet. Like many of these leading men before, such as his counterpart in Snow White, Prince Charming does seem to lack any real personality and is dominated by a father who seems determined to marry him off because reasons. It makes you wonder if Cinderella would have been better served by the Fairy Godmother if she had been given a way of living on her own two feet without her step-family, rather than being given no other option for escape than with this drab (and presumably equally dysfunctional) royal family.
Sing-along a showtune? As ever, there is the usual fare of slightly sappy romantic, dreamy ballads, not least A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes. It follows all the usual conventions of the time, meaning it now sounds rather slow and insipid. If you’re not into the Disney Ballad (like me), this is not going to make you change your mind. Thank goodness it’s relatively short – while Cinderella may curse the clock chimes that interrupt her prove to be a saving grace for the rest of us. By and large, the stand-out numbers are few and far between in this movie – not helped by the chirpy mouse chorus that has all the annoying sounds of non-Disney rodents Alvin and the Chipmunks. The Work Song is akin to fingernails being scratched across a chalkboard. They are that annoying when they sing (it’s a good job they work so well as comic foils, otherwise this film would soon leave viewers feeling very angry). In general, the musical score is best described as functional – it does the job but never really wows.
However, there is one song that stands head-and-shoulders above the others: the delightful nonsense song Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo. Performed by the perfectly cast Verna Felton, it really is a fab song, predating the equally ridiculous and brilliant Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious from Mary Poppins by 14 years. It may be short, but it is still a fun little number that matches the delightfully ditzy character of the Fairy Godmother. If one song can save a movie, it is this.
I have questions: I won’t touch on the obvious question about how come the shoe only fits Cinderella (clearly it’s magical and…look it’s because reasons, ok?). But I am starting to have some serious questions about the fathers in these stories. Why do they seem to have such bad taste in the women they choose when they remarry? And what is it that is then killing them off (or, at the very least, taking them off the scene), leaving their beloved child with a evil stepmother? It’s as if they simply say to themselves ‘Sod it – I’ll just marry the first woman who comes along. What could go wrong?’
I also have some serious questions about Cinderella’s ability to do her job. For someone in charge of cleaning the house, why on earth does she befriend all those mice? Y’know – those pests that, if they infested your house, would leave you reaching for the phone to call Rentakill. Surely all those rodents (and birds) would be covering the house with all their droppings. They must be swimming in…well, you get the idea. Seriously, Cinders – you need to get rid of them. It would significantly make your job of cleaning that much easier!
Feel-good factor: Cinderella doubtlessly set the standard for Disney, creating the archetype for the classic fairytales from the studio. Without it we would have no Disney empire. It’s just that, as films go, it’s all rather toothless. You never feel any warmth towards the characters. Cinderella, clearly a grown woman who can stand up for herself, should surely just tell her step-family to get lost and move on with her life. It’s all so…meh. Likewise the prince seems equally wet. It does bring a smile to the face – the mice are fun when they aren’t singing – but it isn’t really one that will give you a much needed boost. No more than a five out ten.
You can watch the trailer below:
Next movie: Disney turns its hand to live action movies with its version of the adventure classic Treasure Island (1950).