Give that glass slipper to Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees. She'll make it fit.
"Why, it's like a dream—a wonderful dream come true."—Cinderella
The most popular fairy tale in the world, the story of Cinderella continues to resonate with every generation and has become a universally recognized metaphor. Whether we long for romance, escape from poverty, or recognition of our inherent worth, we all find something in common with the girl who rose above oppression and obscurity to become a princess. Walt Disney's 1950 animated interpretation of this tale set its own indelible stamp on the oft-told story, retaining many of the core story elements but combining them with distinctively Disney touches. Fifty-five years later, this Cinderella is a classic in its own right, a glowing example of the artistry of hand-drawn animation and the irreproducible magic that is Walt Disney's legacy.
Facts of the Case
This interpretation of the famous story largely follows the genteel Charles Perrault version, eschewing any Grimm gore. (See the link in the sidebar for a comparison of different versions of the Cinderella tale.) Our lovely, kind-hearted heroine (voiced by Ilene Woods) toils in domestic servitude for her malicious stepmother, Lady Tremaine, and her bratty stepsisters, Anastasia and Drizella. Her only companions are her dog, her horse, and the birds and mice she has befriended—especially savvy Jaq and naïve Gus. When the ruler of this tiny kingdom begins to hanker for grandchildren and invites all the eligible maidens of the kingdom to a ball to meet his son, the prince, the story truly starts. A magic spell, the stroke of midnight, and a glass slipper (or two) will change Cinderella's life, as she finds romance and goes from nobody to nonpareil.
Disney's Cinderella is dated; there's no denying it. But that is a fundamental part of its appeal. In contrast to the sterility of computer animation, it offers suppleness and warmth; instead of employing hyperactive speed and fast cuts, it gives loving attention to each moment as it unfolds. Instead of showcasing a restless, rebellious heroine, it celebrates one who is gentle, kind, and forbearing. Its humor derives from characters and situations, not belches and exposed underpants. It's old-fashioned in the best of ways.
Cinderella herself is in many ways a product of this movie's era, a forerunner of the ideal woman of the 1950s with her demure demeanor, domesticity, and maternal qualities (she mothers Gus the mouse and sews clothes for many of her animal friends). It's easy to dismiss her as passive, since she embodies unobtrusive virtues: kindness, optimism, patience, and resilience. As satisfying as it is to see more recent Disney heroines like Belle and Mulan seize their destinies, Cinderella's integrity—her refusal to allow her oppressors to bring her down to their level—makes her a heroine of real strength, even if her heroism is less active than theirs.
Although the Disney heroine has undergone a dramatic change since 1950, other elements we see here are still prevalent in Disney animated fare, notably the presence of animal characters who provide comic relief and mirror the main plot. Cinderella's own embattled relationship with her stepmother finds a parallel in the conflict between Lady Tremaine's spiteful cat, Lucifer, and the plucky mice. The pattern of the absent mother and loving father—in this case, the prince's father, the king—would be repeated in many later Disney fairy-tale films. Some of the innovations introduced in this Cinderella are so perfect that it's easy to forget that they were innovations, like the plot twist in which the crucial glass slipper shatters. It was also a dramatic change to the Perrault story to present the fairy godmother not as an ethereal, dazzlingly beautiful creature but as a plump, comfortable, grandmotherly old woman. The contrast thus created between the cozy, lovable godmother and the elegant but cold stepmother benefits the story immeasurably. Although I don't agree with the wisdom of all the story decisions (see The Rebuttal Witnesses), in many ways this is the Disney formula at its finest.
Like its heroine, this animated classic possesses a grace and warmth that are rarely seen in modern animated features. The hand-drawn animation has a tactile, friendly quality that isn't present in computer animation, and the naturalism of characters like Cinderella and the stepmother is simply a joy to watch. On returning to this movie after not having seen it in several years, I was particularly struck by the tiny physical details that make the characters come to life, like the motion of Lady Tremaine's cruel, fastidious fingers as she strokes Lucifer, or the ironic widening of Cinderella's eyes when she refers to the stepsisters' discordant music lesson. The brilliance of the lighting design also leapt out at me on this viewing as it never had before; throughout the film, the contrast between light and shadow creates a powerful emotional impact. In one scene, Cinderella is transfixed against the door of her stepmother's room by bars of shadow, as if she were in a cage—or a mousetrap. Later, when she and the prince emerge from the warmly candlelit ballroom into the dim, starlit gardens and waltz through shadows cast by the moon, the sheer beauty is unsurpassed by any other animated feature I can think of. I'm already looking forward to watching the film again just to revel in the ways the artistic lighting design enhances the emotional arc of the story.
The video restoration on this release showcases this artistry with a picture that's nothing short of ravishing. Up to now I thought the VHS release of some years ago looked pretty spiffy, but next to the new digital restoration it looks murky and garish by turns. The clarity of color in this DVD restoration is astonishing; in scene after scene, it revealed detail I had never seen before. The acid test for me was the section of the ball scene in which Cinderella and the prince are dancing in the ballroom in close-up; in the dim lighting, Cinderella used to have a muddy complexion and hideously clashing tangerine lips. Now her coloring is less extreme, more natural and pleasing, and the colors don't jar against each other. The picture is also simply pristine, free of all of the dirt and visual noise that were present on the earlier release. I simply can't imagine the movie looking better than it does here.
Similarly, the audio has undergone a remarkable restoration. The enclosed booklet points out that "Cinderella had the distinction of being the 'noisiest film restored yet'" (although who is being quoted it doesn't say). Even without knowing the state of the audio track before the restoration, however, I was amazed at how clear and lifelike it sounds. The highs are crystalline, and Cinderella's soft, gentle voice has an immediacy and clarity that make you feel she is in the room with you. The new home theater mix provides an effective dispersion of sound, largely leaving voices in the center speaker but spreading out sound effects and the evocative orchestral score, and the overall effect is subtle and very natural. It was so unobtrusive, in fact, that only when I compared it to the original mono (also restored for this release) did I realize just how much breadth and depth of field the soundtrack had gained in the new mix. It definitely immerses the viewer in the world of the film in a way the original mono track does not.
I expect a lot from a Platinum Edition in terms of presentation, and Disney has come through. The menu designs are charming (although I wearied of hearing the orchestral arrangement of "So This Is Love" played so often on Disc Two), and the quantity and variety of the extras are impressive, to say the least. There is such a diverse array of bonus materials to choose from that everyone is bound to find something to divert and delight them. Yes, everyone—even football fans. You will, however, need to consult the case insert for the identities of some of the dramatis personae; the featurette on Mary Blair, for example, never troubles to point out that she was Cinderella's art director, and I only learned this from the booklet. Here's the full breakdown of bonus content:
• Music videos. Disney's Circle of Stars—youngsters from such TV series as That's So Raven and Phil of the Future—perform a new dance-pop version of "A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes" (3:40) and appear in a behind-the-scenes featurette on the making of the video (3:20). This revamp of the song is less painful than a Celine Dion version would have been, but I'm too much of a traditionalist to embrace it. There's also an animated music video, "Every Girl Can Be a Princess" (2:25), sung by a spurious Cinderella, which is bland but inoffensive.
• "Sneak Peeks." The usual trailer onslaught warrants mention for two reasons: It awakens anticipation for the 2006 Platinum Editions of Lady and the Tramp and The Little Mermaid (woo-hoo!), and dismay that another straight-to-video sequel to Cinderella is on the way. Cinderella III, planned for 2007, apparently endows the wicked stepmother with the power to turn back time and thwart the fairy godmother's magic. Ugh. I'll be skipping that one.
• "From Rags to Riches: The Making of Cinderella" (38:40) is a highly satisfying behind-the-scenes featurette that takes us through the development and making of the film. I was surprised by many of the revelations here, especially that Cinderella might well have been the Disney animation studio's last film had it not been a financial success. We also learn about the surprisingly extensive use of live-action reference footage in the film and the animators' attitude toward it. Of the original voice cast, there are appearances by Ilene Woods, Mike Douglas (the singing voice of the prince and a longtime TV fixture on The Mike Douglas Show), and Lucille Bliss, the voice of Anastasia. It's a treat to finally get to know some of the people behind the voices, but the omission of Luis Van Rooten, who voiced both the choleric king and his beleaguered grand duke, is puzzling.
• "The Cinderella That Almost Was" (14:05), a kind of supplement to the making-of featurette, gives us a fascinating look at the development the story and characters went through in the almost thirty (!) years that Walt Disney contemplated bringing the Cinderella story to the screen. His planned 1933 Silly Symphony version didn't come to fruition, but some of the comic gags the animators proposed for it survived into the feature film. We also see storyboards for two comedic sequences deleted from the 1950 version, one of which features the deleted character of Professor La Poof, the stepsisters' frustrated music teacher. Here as in "Rags to Riches," I love getting a window into Walt Disney's mind as he crafted the film—and I definitely applaud his decision to jettison Jabber the crow.
• Storyboard-to-film comparison (6:50). Here the opening scene of the film, in which Cinderella is awakened by her animal friends, appears simultaneously in its finished form and as conceived in storyboard art and live-action reference footage. Check out those stand-ins for the mice.
• "From Walt's Table: A Tribute to Disney's Nine Old Men" (21:50) is a lively introduction to the legendary group of animators that shaped Disney animation from the end of World War II into the 1960s. Current animators (including Brad Bird, The Incredibles) and film critic Joel Siegel gather at the former watering hole of this influential group to discuss their legacy as both artists and individuals. Vintage interview clips with some of the "old men" themselves help to flesh out the picture. I was grateful for this feature, which filled in a significant blank in my knowledge of the evolution of 20th-century animation.
• "The Art of Mary Blair" (15:05) was another eye-opening featurette for me. I had never heard of Blair before, and I was surprised to learn about her significant influence on the look of Disney films. I found that the distinctive style of the Cinderella backgrounds, and the film's powerful use of color to enhance emotion, reflected this artist's sensibilities and skills. It's exciting to learn about one of the few women pioneers in the field of animation, especially one who contributed so significantly to Cinderella.
• Unused songs and song demos. A number of songs were written for Cinderella but not used, and the original demo recordings for seven are provided here. They range from the sentimental ("The Dress My Mother Wore") to the jaunty ("I'm in the Middle of a Muddle") to the sophisticated ("The Face That I See in the Night"), and all are fascinating glimpses of a different path the film could have taken. We also get to hear the original demo recording of the title song. I was deeply impressed by the audio quality of these recordings, and I'm sure they underwent extensive restoration. Although some of the demos featuring Ilene Woods suffer from irremediable damage, in most respects this selection is a pleasurable listening experience.
• 1922 Laugh-o-Gram Cartoon: Cinderella. Walt Disney's first screen interpretation of the Cinderella story is played for laughs, with a flapper Cinderella and a prince who wears a newsboy cap. It's illuminating to contrast the animation here—which seems hopelessly crude to modern eyes—with the exponentially more sophisticated and natural animation of 28 years later. It has more value as a historical artifact than as entertainment, however; young viewers will probably find it unwatchable.
• Vintage TV and radio excerpts. These fun vintage materials give us a taste of how Cinderella was promoted at the time. A clip from The Perry Como Show offers renditions of some of the movie's songs as performed by the Fontaine Sisters (in mouse ears), Ilene Woods, and Como himself. Excerpts from three radio broadcasts (1948-1950) showcase Ilene Woods. I enjoyed all of these extras for the sense they provide of the era in which Cinderella was made—and it was fun to hear Ilene Woods sing "When You Wish Upon a Star." A later (mid-'50s) TV excerpt from The Mickey Mouse Club features Helene Stanley, the physical model for Cinderella, allowing us to finally see her in motion after having seen her in so many still photographs.
• Still gallery. A bounty of art is on view here, with the option of viewing it as a slide show. Its categories include (but are not limited to) character design, costume design, Mary Blair's art, live-action reference footage, and publicity. It's wonderful that so much of this material was preserved and is available for us to see here; I'm so glad Walt Disney was a pack rat.
• "House of Royalty" (17:55) is geared toward young girls. Hosted by perky moppet Alyson Stoner of Mike and Sally's Super Short Show, its three segments provide expert advice on achieving the princess lifestyle. Fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi discusses how to dress like a princess, although his gown selection struck me as being more Drizella than Cinderella (Vera Wang would have chosen a more classic style, I'm sure). The Extreme Makeover Home Edition staff transforms a bedroom into a princess's boudoir, using Disney's upcoming line of paint colors; I picture lots of little girls clamoring to go to Home Depot after watching this segment. Finally, real-life princess Catherine Oxenberg gives tips on curtseying and other behavior appropriate to the present-day princess. The emphasis in all three segments is surprisingly hip and modern; little girls who love the timeless world of Disney's heroine may not be completely delighted by it, especially when Alyson teaches Catherine Oxenburg to break-dance.
• "The Royal Life" DVD-ROM design studio. I had a blast playing with these DVD-ROM features, and I can only imagine how thrilling they would have been to me as a little girl. These activities allow youngsters to design their own princess gown, dream room, and palace. The options are plentiful: For the princess gown, you choose not only the style, accessories, and jewelry, but even the model's skin tone and hair color, and you can scan in your own face to truly personalize her. When she's complete, she appears in a slide show of different ball settings (with or without the prince, your choice). The room design activity similarly gives you a multitude of choices, from wallpaper and window treatments to fantasy elements like Jaq's mouse hole and the bell jar from Beauty and the Beast. The palace design activity lets you select towers, banners, and landscape elements, among other features. All three activities allow you to choose different colors for almost every addition. This activity is guaranteed to delight young girls who like to picture themselves in Cinderella's world—and even older girls, too. (One of my colleagues has installed "her" palace on her computer as wallpaper.)
• "Princess Pajama Jam" is a head-scratcher. It purports to be a game, but it's actually a kind of dance instructional video cobbled together from movie clips and narrated by a chirpy anonymous rhymester who directs viewers to follow the princesses' moves—twirling like Aurora, dipping like Ariel, and so on. I guess this is a harmless way to get the little 'uns off the sofa and burning off energy, but I can't say I found it an enhancement to the Cinderella experience.
• Trailers. Six trailers dating from the premiere through the '80s give us a time capsule of Cinderella advertising.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As much as I enjoy and appreciate it, I find this version of the Cinderella story unsatisfying in a number of ways. I've always resented that it squanders so much of its running time on the mice and their shenanigans. The mice are cute, and their rescue mission toward the end of the movie creates nail-biting suspense—but they hog the movie. Why not invest some of that time in developing other parts of Cinderella's story—like the man she ends up marrying? The prince is so underdeveloped, so little present in the movie, that he exists more as a symbol than a person: He stands for the wealth, romance, and social stature that Cinderella gains. But it really would be nice if we could get to know him and be sure that he's worthy of our heroine's love. A later movie adaptation of Cinderella, the charming live-action musical The Slipper and the Rose (1976), remedies this problem by developing the prince's character thoroughly—even more than Cinderella's, in fact. But we learn in "The Cinderella That Almost Was" that Walt Disney jettisoned several sequences that would have let us get to know the prince better; he evidently wanted to keep this character distant, enigmatic. Perhaps he felt that the prince's glamour would be diminished by familiarity. Sadly, for many viewers the effect is not glamorous, but dull.
A less serious quibble, but one I am compelled to mention nonetheless, is the misinterpretation of Cinderella's name itself. "Cinderella, as lovely as your name," goes the title song, but in Perrault's story the heroine received this nickname (which today might be translated as "Cinderina" or "Ashette") because she became grubby from sitting at the kitchen hearth, trying to keep warm. Disney's heroine is always clean and tidy, never sullied by cinders, and what was once a jeering insult has been accepted as a pretty name for a fairy-tale heroine. I suppose I should get over it, but I can't help feeling that part of the power of the story has been lost in this whitewashing.
A genuinely heartwarming experience, this Cinderella has established its place in the fairy-tale pantheon; for better or worse, it simply is the story of Cinderella for countless viewers. Its DVD treatment is practically all one could wish for. Although I would have enjoyed a before-and-after restoration comparison, the gorgeous transfer and bountiful extras make this two-disc set a must buy for animation fans and romantics of all ages.
No need to call out the royal guard; all parties are declared not guilty and are free to go. But court will reconvene when Cinderella III hits the shelves…and then heads may roll.
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