Cinderella, 1950, 75 minutes
Cinderella is the first full-length feature film to feature one full story since 1942’s Bambi, and my goodness it is good to be back to classics.
Disney hit a home run the first time out with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and while it made very good films after that, none were quite as successful. It seems odd, then, that it took 13 years, and 10 movies in between, to repeat the princess formula with Cinderella.
The movie opens with a wonderful title song, and very attractive titles, followed by a wonderfully whimsical narrated introduction that starts off with storybook pictures before transitioning into a morning scene in our protagonist’s bedroom. She is talking to the animal friends, another commonality she has with Snow White. Her alto voice is more modern and conventional, to our 21st century ears, than the shrill soprano of Snow White. The movie is gorgeous, in sound and sight, and while the landscapes are not as lush or detailed as those in Snow White, it is clear Disney is investing much more into this picture than they have since Bambi.
The pace of this movie is a bit more reserved and deliberate than Snow White’s, and it takes a bit longer to get going. This is a good thing, however, as Cinderella herself has a lot more to do and say than Snow White did. Right from the start, she is friends with the birds and mice that are in her house, and she helps them much as they help her. She is the maid of the castle, though slave may be a more accurate title. Her beauty is resented by her stepmother and stepsisters, and she is forced to do, essentially, all the work in the house, for no reward.
While the animal friends in Snow White played a large role, they did not speak, and existed more as an extension of Snow White and increased greatly her ability to take care of the dwarfs’ cottage. In Cinderella, the mice, cat and other creatures are given a few lengthy scenes of their own, most of which are early on in the movie, and while charming enough, the scenes do not add to Cinderella’s journey, nor are they nearly as interesting as the rest of the story. Much like the lengthy circus scenes in Dumbo, these diversionary moments in the film are just that, a diversion. They do not add much to the story, and feel like they are padding out the runtime of the picture. On top of that, the mice are pretty annoying, with Alvin and the Chipmunk-like pitched-up vocals.
When you disregard the lengthy animal sequences, the film is quite good. Cinderella herself is beautifully drawn, with the most expressive human face we have seen from the company yet. Lady Tremaine, the evil stepmother, is a more captivating villain than The Evil Queen/Old Witch in Snow White, as the motivations for her cruelty are not immediately spelled out the way the Evil Queen’s are. She is resentful of her stepdaughter’s beauty not just in comparison to her own, but also in comparison to her biological daughter’s. She only wants her own daughters to receive any fame, fortune, or love.
The conniving nature of Lady Tremaine is despicable, and outright disturbing. She is the greatest villain Disney has crafted thus far, and her undermining of Cinderella’s attempts to go to the ball are heartbreaking. While she is not as outright despicable as the Coachman in Pinocchio, the way she treats her own family member is so awful, that it makes us absolutely despise her. She also has such a compelling, ugly, yet somehow beautiful design. She is voiced by Eleanor Audley, who would go on to voice the greatest Disney villain of all, Maleficent. In many ways, Tremaine is a prototype of Maleficent, though neither as scheming, nor outright…malicious (groan).
Cinderella’s defeated moment, right up until she meets the Fairy Godmother, is one of the saddest moments in a Disney film, as she and the animals have worked very hard to get this far. Unlike Snow White, when Cinderella ends up with Prince Charming, it feels earned. She has put up with her horrible family for her entire life, and the one chance she had to get out and potentially meet someone was thwarted by her despicable stepsisters.
The film is beautiful, though it is somewhat muted compared to earlier Disney films. Unlike the lush, increasingly detailed backgrounds from Snow White to Bambi, Cinderella’s backgrounds are much more stylized. This leads to an inconsistency between scenes, with some scenes having beautiful, detailed backgrounds, and others, such as the wide shot in So This is Love, having boring, almost amateurish paintings as their backdrop. The character animation, both in humans, and animals, is not quite as detailed as we’ve seen in some earlier films, though it is still quite beautiful, and has more consistency than several other films.
There are several sillier scenes, such as the aforementioned animal chases, and an extended sequence involving the Duke and the King, jumping on the bed for a while. It is funny, and unlike many of the earlier scenes, it does push the story forward, as the two ridiculous royal men are talking about the prince’s potential love interest, the one that left her glass shoe. These slapstick moments are funny enough, but their inclusion is a symptom of the film’s general lack of story. The film’s story moments are quite touching, and while Cinderella is a lovely protagonist, she does not have a ton of screen time.
While the story is lacking, the film also does not have any large set pieces, which make it stand out significantly from all previous full-length Disney stories. There’s no scene where Dumbo flies, there is no chase out of the forest from Bambi, the film instead decides to be mostly low-key. Its only fantasy elements, outside of Cinderella talking with the mice, are when the fairy godmother shows up and grants Cinderella the coach and horses. The film, especially compared to Snow White, feels a bit drab, and is somewhat humorless, with the only really “funny” moments coming from the mice. It’s too bad, as the moments with Cinderella are quite sweet, and touching, but these moments are offset and somewhat cheapened by the more slapstick scenes. The humor in Snow White helps deepen her relationship with the dwarves, and strengthens the film’s heart, but in this film, the humor takes away more than adds.
Cinderella is good, but a bit of a mess. I kept thinking, watching it again, that I had forgotten large chunks of it, but after finishing it, I realized there just is not a lot going on. It’s a good return to form for full-length Disney features, but it leans a bit too heavily on the animal friends.