Ellen Murray continues her series with a look back at how Disney took a risk on releasing Cinderella in the post-war market and explains its appeal.
The 1940s was not a good decade for Walt Disney. WWII had made it almost impossible to export American films to the European markets and the studio was suffering for it. Despite producing a number of critically acclaimed hits throughout the decade, such as Fantasia (1941) and Bambi (1942), none had been a box-office success and Disney Animation Studios was verging on the brink of collapse. As such Cinderella, being the first full-length animated film with a three-act narrative made by the studio in a number of years, had a lot riding on it. Luckily for Disney the film was a smash, both in the box office and with the critics. The film also marked Disney’s return to the classical fairy tale – something it had not focused on since the studio’s first major success, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, in 1937. As to whether or not Snow White or Cinderella was the first official ‘Disney Princess’ is still the hotly debated topic amongst girls (and boys of course!) in the schoolyard.
Perhaps the appeal of Cinderella lies in its relatability. After all, who doesn’t dream of magically achieving a life better than the one they currently have? Some people call it the ultimate tale of class transcendence but that is a rather glib interpretation. The moral behind the tale that most people buy into, and I would count myself amongst them, is that kindness and goodness will ultimately be rewarded while greed and cruelty will simply perpetuate the same, just as Lady Tremaine’s mean disposition is reflected in her two daughters. It’s true that this is an overly simplistic moral that doesn’t really hold any bearing in the real world but it’s a pleasant one all the same and through its simplicity the base concepts of integrity are conveyed to the film’s young audience. Maybe just be prepared to suspend disbelief. You never know ladies, your shoe size may one day be indicative of whether or not the love of your life is willing to marry you, or not! Disney’s adaptation is a decisively cleaner version as well – in the original fairy tale Cinderella’s step-sisters cut off their toes in an attempt to make the glass slipper fit. Truly a gruesome twosome.
Forgoing the self-mutilation in favour of friendly animal sidekicks and song, Disney’s Cinderella still makes for a charming watch. Feminists claim that the film poses a problematic precedent for young girls – namely that Cinderella is very passive and relies on the actions of others to achieve anything. The Prince (who is never actually given a name or indeed a personality) falls in love with her simply because she is beautiful. These criticisms are legitimate but to give Cinderella some credit what little we do get from her is pretty good. She’s kind, she works hard and she manages to retain a positive attitude even with her unfortunate circumstances. I know I would become bitter if I had to sleep in a draftee attic and wear dresses made by a bunch of rodents who were also my only companions.
Much of Cinderella’s pleasantness is down to her voice actress, Ilene Woods, who manages to make something of a pretty one-dimensional character. The voice acting throughout is actually executed perfectly, particularly in the form of icon Eleanor Audley’s Lady Tremaine (Audley would later go on to voice the badass that is Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty). What makes Lady Tremaine work so well is that we all know someone like her in real life; this character is subtle yet drastically over the top and, for all her airs, is just a downright scornful bitch. She’s the perfect foil for the perfect Cinderella. For all the forced comedy in the film, courtesy of the animal characters, there’s also a surprising amount of more nuanced jokes scattered throughout. For example, when Cinderella first arrives at the palace for the ball we get a quick shot of the guards trying to get a sneaky look at the mysterious beauty’s derriere. It’s what Dara O’Briain would call ‘Something for the Dads’.
Undoubtedly, the strongest element of the film is its animation. This is Disney after all and Disney is all about producing the best. The soft colours and fluidity of the film lend it a dreamy air that suits its fairy tale origins down to a tee. The scene where Cinderella’s dress is transformed into a magnificent ball gown was said to have been Walt Disney’s favourite piece of animation produced by his studio and it’s easy to see why. Her dress looks like a floating glittery cloud. The film is also very creative with how it allows its mice characters to move around the chateau, getting some very interesting shots and angles in. The songs make for nice listening too though they are very much of the time. Seriously, try getting Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo out of your head. You can’t, can you?
Cinderella may not have been one of Disney’s most ground-breaking works but it contains enough striking imagery to retain its place in the pantheon of animated classics. It delivers on what it promises and, for many, remains the epitome of classic Disney. Let’s be honest, any film that can make glass shoes seem wearable contains a special brand of enduring magic.