Chief Justice Michael Stailey is DVD Verdict's scullery maid.
Rediscovering a true Disney classic.
So this is love…
Facts of the Case
"Once upon a time in a faraway land, there was a tiny kingdom; peaceful, prosperous, and rich in romance and tradition. Here in a stately chateau, there lived a widowed gentleman and his little daughter, Cinderella. Although he was a kind and devoted father, and gave his beloved child every luxury and comfort, still he felt she needed a mother's care. And so he married again, choosing for his second wife a woman of good family with two daughters just Cinderella's age, by name, Anastasia and Drizella. It was upon the untimely death of this good man, however, that the stepmother's true nature was revealed. Cold, cruel, and bitterly jealous of Cinderella's charm and beauty, she was grimly determined to forward the interests of her own two awkward daughters. Thus, as time went by, the chateau fell into disrepair, for the family fortunes were squandered upon the vain and selfish stepsisters, while Cinderella was abused, humiliated, and finally forced to become a servant in her own house. And yet, through it all, Cinderella remained ever gentle and kind, for with each dawn she found new hope that someday her dreams of happiness would come true."—Narrator (Betty Lou Gerson, aka Cruella De Vil!)
Most people don't realize that Cinderella is the film that saved the Walt Disney Studios from bankruptcy. By 1950, Roy Disney—Walt's brother and the company's chief financial office—had resigned himself to the fact that the Disney boys had a good run and it was time to call it quits. The company was more than $4 Million in debt, decimated by WWII, kept afloat only by producing training films for the military, a full schedule of animated and live-action projects—including the still controversial feature film Song of the South—and a South American goodwill tour that resulted in the creation of Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros. Their last full-length feature animation film was Bambi eight year prior, and the film actually lost money at the box office. In Roy's estimation, they could sell off all their assets, pay off their debts, and retire comfortably.
Walt wanted no part of that idea. He gambled everything he had on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and proved to the world that feature animation was not only a viable storytelling medium, but a damn compelling one at that. Cinderella was a project on the studio's development slate as early as 1922 when he produced a black-and-white Laugh-o-Gram animated short. Earmarked for feature development, following the success of Snow White, the story went through innumerable changes even in the final weeks leading up to the film's release. But Walt was a master storyteller who surround himself with some of the finest animators and filmmakers Hollywood had ever seen, and they trusted each other's instincts implicitly. This trust and unbridled joy for the work they were doing gave the world Cinderella, a film that re-birthed the studio and carried it through the next thirty years.
I've never held the film in very high regard. This was the Disney pretty princess chick flick that fell far short of the majestic Sleeping Beauty (1959) and its climactic battle between good and evil. And yet here I am, in my early 40s, seeing the film in an entirely new light and marveling at what an amazing achievement it truly is.
Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees wrote a beautiful review of the film's 2005 Platinum DVD release, but there was a line in her analysis that caught me off-guard…"Disney's Cinderella is dated; there's no denying it." After watching the film three times before sitting down to write this, it struck me just how timeless and in some ways prophetic this story turned out to be. Cinderella was a woman ahead of her time. Her positive attitude and sweet disposition is unaffected by the life that's befallen her, unfazed by the petty jealousies of her step-sisters, and the rampant injustice afforded her by her step-mother. This type of unconditional compassion is what the Dalai Lama professes is the key to true happiness. Not even the devious actions of Lucifer the cat prevents her from showing him unconditional love. Yes, her heart does break when her sisters seemingly destroy her opportunity for meeting the prince, but she allows that grief to run its course and move on.
What I'm getting at is this…I had long believed Cinderella to be the poor, put-upon waif who requires a prince to ride in on a white horse and take her away to a life of wealth and prosperity. That's not the case at all. Walt, directors Clyde Geronimi, Ham Luske, and Wilfred Jackson, alongside a team of story guys lead by Bill Peet and Ken Anderson, and legendary animators Eric Larson, John Lounsbery, Ward Kimball, Marc Davis, Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, Woolie Reitherman, Milt Kahl, and Les Clark took Charles Perrault classic fairytale and made it their own. The mice, fronted by Jaq and Gus (voiced by Jimmy MacDonald), provide not only the film's comic relief, but also some of its greatest tension, as in the masterful Hitchcockian suspense sequence in which they're trying to get the keep up the stairs to free Cinderella before the Duke leaves with the glass slipper, only to be thwarted at the very last minute by Lucifer (voice by the inimitable June Foray). In fact, Lucifer plays a critical extension of the film's ever-present evil on a smaller scale throughout the entire film, even when couched in humor.
Frank Thomas shares a great story in one of the bonus features in that they intentionally grounded two of the characters in reality—Cinderella and Lady Tremaine—and made everyone (and everything) else a caricature, so as to underscore the emotional core of the picture. And it works unbelievably well. Ilene Woods effervescent Cinderella is the antithesis to Eleanor Audley's maliciously immoral Lady Tremaine. Maleficent (also voiced by Audley) has long been the reigning queen of the Disney villains, but in watching Cinderella now I'm not so sure Tremaine couldn't dethrone her even without an absence of magic. This woman (and by extension her cat) is pure evil. So much so, I found myself shouting some very inappropriate words at the screen to express my frustration, and any film that can elicit that type of response from the viewer is doing something very right.
Where there is darkness, so must there be light, and Verna Felton's Fairy Godmother delivers it in spades. Though she appears in only one sequence, the love that fills each frame is overwhelming. Yes, she's dotty and has her comic business to play, but take away the princess trappings and underlying all of that is a level of acceptance and unwavering faith we all need in our lives. It's those moments that carry us through our darkest hours and give us the strength to view life and unforeseen opportunity in an entirely different way. Cinderella connects with a young man she doesn't even realize is the Prince and is disheartened that she didn't get to spend more time with him. And that's what blows all of this fairytale nonsense out of the water. Walt and his team were showing us life is what we make of it, not what people hand to us on a silver platter, or take away from us in a moment of jealous rage. And that realization has forever changed the way I view Cinderella.
Presented in 1.35:1/1080p high definition full frame, Disney gives us the option to watch the film in its original presentation, or to fill the empty sidebars with the beautiful artwork of Cristy Maltese in their patented "Disney View" format. Personally, I recommend the latter, though there are a couple moments (like the race to the tower sequence) where the transitions between interior and exterior art can be a bit jarring. Regardless, these breathtaking visuals, scrubbed free of their original film grain (a sticking point with some film preservationists, but not me) and aged imperfections, are beautiful to behold. The meticulous ink and paint work of hundreds of talented Disney craftspeople (many of which were young women trained specifically for this work) is painstaking and majestically preserved for the ages. What really struck me here are the use of shadows to emphasize the complete lack of morality which makes up the aura of Lady Tremaine, and just how deep those contrasts come through in HD.
Once again, Disney's audio artisans set forth a magnificent DTS-HD 7.1 Master Audio mix, whose channel separation and balancing never ceases to amaze me. Having grown up on these films in their theatrical re-releases and later on home video in rather flat two-channel stereo, the ability to take everything in with such an immersive experience is awe-inspiring. It's so easy for us to take for grain, nted the technology filmmakers have at their disposal to create rich environments for their tales, but the inventiveness of the Disney engineers in the 1930s, '40s, and '50s is nothing short of pure magic. And for those who prefer the original Mono track, that option is here for you as well, alongside the standard def Dolby 5.1 Surround alternate language tracks in French and Spanish.
Of course, the bonus features is where these Diamond Edition Blu-ray editions shine and Cinderella (Blu-ray) is no exception. While there isn't as much new material offered here as more recent classics, the incorporation of the previously released Diamond Edition DVD features is oh so appreciated. Just realize, not everything from the DVD was carried over, but the best of the best did make the cut. Gone is the ridiculous 30 min "ESPN Cinderella Stories" hosted by Joe Namath, which was nothing more than a studio cross-promotional tie-in. Also welcomingly jettisoned are the pop music rendition of Cinderella tunes by then Disney Channel stars, "House of Royalty" an 18 min guide to being a modern day princess from fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi and actress/princess Catherine Oxenberg (Dynasty), "The Royal Life" DVD-ROM interactive features for your pre-teen princess in waiting, and "Princess Pajama Jam" a dance video instruction guide. The one feature that should have been carried over was a self-guided image gallery of production photos and concept art. In any case, here's what is included, content old and new alike…
* Introduction NEW! (1 min)—Walt's daughter, Diane Disney Miller (whose husband Ron ran the studio in the 1970s), provides a brief welcome from the family's new museum on the grounds of The Presidio in northern California.
* Bibbidi-Bobbidi-You! NEW!—Disney's Second Screen technology is employed here to download a storybook version of Cinderella to your iPad or laptop, so you can follow along with the film as the story unfolds. This is unlike the more recent Second Screen applications which serve as a picture-outside-picture look at behind-the-scenes information.
* The Real Fairy Godmother NEW! (12 min)—The heart-warming story of Mary Alice O'Connor, wife of Disney background layout artist Ken O'Connor, who was used as the model for Cinderella's fairy godmother, and in real life was an amazing woman whose love and charity forever changed the community of Burbank, California.
* Behind the Magic: A New Disney Princess Fantasyland NEW! (8 min)—Once Upon a Time's Ginnifer Goodwin provides this backstage look at the development of Walt Disney World's $1 Billion Fantasyland expansion.
* The Magic of the Glass Slipper: A Cinderella Story NEW! (10 min)—Renowned shoe designer Christian Louboutin and his staff star in a live-action/animation short film about finding the inspiration for Disney's commissioned glass slipper. Sweet and funny in the vein of John Lasseter inspired storytelling. Who know Louboutin was so engaging a character?!
* Alternate Opening NEW! (1 min)—New voice-overs bring to life vintage storyboards from the Disney Animation Research Library, detailing a different start to the film laid out during the development process.
* Tangled Ever After NEW! (7 min)—It's Rapunzel and Flynn's wedding day. The kingdom is electrified and prepared for the celebration to end all celebrations. What could possibly go wrong? Giving the rings to Maximus and Pascal…not such a wise idea. This gag-driven short is hilarity personified. Released theatrically with Beauty and the Beast 3D.
* Deleted Scenes (10 min)—Producer Don Hahn walks us through three recently discovered unused sequences for the introduction, the work song, and "Dancing on a Cloud" (a sequence Walt tried in vein to work into each of his pictures).
* Title Song (2 min)—Demo audio for the film's opening title sequence. Unlike the later feature films, where Walt's go-to in-house composers Richard and Robert Sherman pounded out song after memorable song, these tunes were crafted by the gifted music makers of New York's Tin Pan Alley.
* Unused Songs (18 min)—Demo audio for seven potential songs to be used in the film—"Sing a Little, Dream a Little," "I'm in the Middle of a Muddle," "The Mouse Song," "The Dress My Mother Wore," "Dancing on a Cloud," "I Lost My Heart a the Ball," and "The Face That I See in the Night."
* Radio Programs (13 min)—Also the master marketer, these are excerpts from three vintage radio shows in which Walt showcases elements of Cinderella to audiences nationwide—"Village Store (1948)," "Gulf Oil Presents (1950)," and "Scouting the Stars (1950)."
* From Rags to Riches: The Making of Cinderella (7 min)—My favorite elements of these releases are the talking head retrospectives exploring Walt, the studio, the development process, and the people involved in the making of the film. Historians, authors/biographers, composer Richard Sherman, film critic Joel Siegel, director Gary Marshall, Ilene Woods, Mike Douglas, and animators Andreas Dejas, Glenn Keane, Ollie Johnston, Frank Thomas, and Ward Kimball. I also love being able to compare and contrast the film clips shown here with the powerful HD restoration done.
* The Cinderella That Almost Was (5 min)—Don Hahn once again introduces us to a collection of story ideas, script notes, and early development storyboard sketches that detail a very different take on this classic fairytale, with a Walt Disney impersonator bringing his written comments to life, and interview segments from artists Marc Davis, Ken O'Connor, and others to flesh out the reminiscense.
* From Walt's Table: A Tribute to the Nine Old Men (22 min)—Before Leonard Maltin became the mouthpiece of these Disney releases, Good Morning America film critic sat down with present day Disney animators Andreas Deja, Glenn Keane, Brad Bird, John Musker, Ron Clements, Don Hahn, and Mark Henn to discuss the accomplishments, influence, and legacy of Walt's all-star team of artists behind the studio's most famous films. The feature is worth its weight in gold to animation buffs.
* The Art of Mary Blair (15 min)—One of Walt's favorite staff concept artists, the magic of artist Mary Blair is still felt to this day, not only in films like Cinderella and Alice in Wonderland, but in Disney attractions like It's a Small World and the layout of Fantasyland.
* Storyboard to Film Comparison (7 min)—A picture-in-picture look at how the opening sequence developed from artistic concept and live-action model reference to final execution.
* Cinderella: The 1922 Laugh-o-Gram Short (8 min)—Long before the Disney studios was born, Walt and Roy began producing Laugh-o-Gram short subjects, and this silent comic take on Cinderella is a rough and tumble look at how animated storytelling began.
* Mickey Mouse Club Excerpt (1956) (4 min)—The kids visit a news stand only to meet up with Helene Stanley, Cinderella's live-action reference model, who gives them a crash course in acting out the story for animators.
* Theatrical Trailers (10 min)—The original 1950 theatrical trailer and five subsequent re-release trailers. Boy does this give us a look at the various state of disrepair the film was in, compared to what we see on this Blu-ray!
* DVD Copy—Standard def version of the film.
Having been raised on a steady diet of Disney films and theme park visits, I thought I had a pretty good handle on the canon of classic films and where they rank in my list of favorites. But having revisited Cinderella on Blu-ray, I'm struck by what a profound change it's had on me. I highly encourage you to seek it out, if you haven't already done so, because this Diamond Edition release has earned a place of honor in every Disney collection.
This is love. Not Guilty.
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