Sunday, March 11, 2012

Night and Day It’s “Cinderella”

Disney’s Twelfth Animated Feature – 1950
The 1950s were a magical decade for Disney. The studio produced a slate of memorable, winning films including Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and Lady and the Tramp, book-ended by two iconic princesses: Cinderella in 1950 and Sleeping Beauty in 1959. Some decades you can do no wrong.

Cinderella is the first full-fledged feature produced by the Disney studio since 1942’s Bambi. Artist Mary Blair—who joined Disney in 1940—is responsible for the concept art for Cinderella. That’s a series of illustrations that drive the overall look and color story of an animated film. Blair is responsible for the studio’s shift to a more modern, streamlined animation style. Walt Disney referred to Mary Blair as his favorite artist and considering the talent surrounding Disney, that’s no small compliment.

There’s something of David Copperfield in the telling of Cinderella, the well-off child whose fortunes fall when her parent dies, leaving her at the mercy of her selfish, mean-spirited step-mother. Cinderella earns her keep cooking, scrubbing, and doing laundry as an unpaid servant dressed in patched clothes, sleeping in a cell of a room. Her stepmother and stepsisters live in the lap of luxury, enjoying the many comforts Cinderella provides.

The deck is stacked against Cinderella, and even a lucky break like the king’s edict ordering every eligible young lady to attend a ball to meet the prince doesn’t help Cinderella. This moment makes a powerful statement about vulnerable people. Those with power can do a lot to rig the system and ensure that disenfranchised people stay down. In Cinderella’s case, it took an actual Fairy Godmother to enable her to break free of her formidable burdens. She was trapped with few if any options, not unlike women of the nineteenth century, but also similar to women in 1950, the year of its production. It seems fashionable to knock stories like Cinderella and all “princess” stories, but why be so dismissive? Within the confines of her era, Cinderella created her own version of happiness while living in a veritable prison. Some (especially me) might call her brave.

Cinderella keeps her chin up through thick and thin. She’s a character with much in common with Anne of Green Gables and other steadfast, optimistic young women. Like the iconic Disney princess who came before her (Snow White), Cinderella’s friends are the animals. Cinderella even stitches tiny clothes for her mouse friends. (Is she a sweetheart or what?) The mice return the favor by remodeling a dress for her, but more importantly, by sneaking her a key, releasing her from her locked room in time to claim her rightful place beside the charming Prince.

There’s a lot to love here, but I also have my beefs with this film. I wish that the stepsisters weren’t ugly and untalented as an exclamation point to the fact that they’re cruel, petty, and selfish. It makes an association between looks and essence that doesn’t play out in real life (I know this isn’t real life; but still!). Their depictions certainly did make me nostalgic for Snow White. The wicked but beautiful Queen in Snow White taught a subtler lesson: don’t judge a book by its cover. Oh well, nobody (and no story’s) perfect.

Having said that, Cinderella is filled with magic, fun, and great songs, including the bouncy “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo,” the song/magic spell the Fairy Godmother uses to turn a pumpkin into a coach and create Cinderella’s now iconic pale blue ball gown. And the simple, charming, “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes,” that has become a Disney anthem (hear it in the clip above). And don’t forget the glass slippers. The famous glass shoes speak to an earlier time, when traits like small feet were desirable. It’s hard to imagine such an issue ever being important, but there’s the folly of man.

This film is filled with memorable characters, including the cruel Stepmother, the two cloddish Stepsisters, the Fairy Godmother, and oh, those mice, especially Gus. The mice stick up for their pal “Cinder-ellie” and why not? She’s lovely. In the end, things break her way and she’s a perfect example of opportunity meets preparation. Without her mouse friends as well as her loyal dog, Cinderella would never have been able to escape her locked room, try on the slipper, and claim her prince. If she hadn’t earned their love and loyalty, she’d be sunk. Message: we’re nowhere without our friends! And throw in “you can’t keep the little guy (or gal) down forever!” Not bad messages at that.

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