Directed by Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske and Wilfred Jackson
After the deaths of both of her parents, young Cinderella is forced to work as a servant in her own family home for her stepmother and two stepsisters. When the king announces a ball with mandatory attendance from all eligible women in the kingdom (in the hopes of marrying off his son), she is initially forbidden to attend. Her mouse and bird friends help her to finish all of her chores and prepare a dress for her in record time, but Cinderella’s stepsisters brutally attack her, ruining her dress and leaving her behind. After they have left, Cinderella’s fairy godmother appears, and gives her a coach and a dress with glass slippers. At the ball, the prince falls immediately in love with her, but Cinderella is forced to leave early, as her gifts will vanish at midnight. She barely makes it out in time, leaving behind a single glass slipper. A search begins for someone whose foot fits the slipper, and Cinderella’s stepmother attempts to prevent her from participating by “accidentally” destroying the slipper. However, Cinderella still possesses the other half of the set, and is able to prove her identity and marry the prince.
Cinderella had been in the works for almost as long as Disney had been producing features. A treatment for the film was written as early as 1940, and by 1943 it had reached the pre-production stage with a projected budget of $1 million. However, Disney’s financial troubles, coupled with a rotating cast of screenwriters, kept the movie from moving forward for years.
By 1947, Disney had finally managed to convince his creditors that the best way for the company to regain profitability (and therefore for them to get paid what they were owed) was to resume the production of full-length feature films instead of the package movies. Of the three potential candidates in progress, Cinderella was the most like Snow White, and was therefore the one that was greenlit first. The movie was finally finished in 1949, and premiered in early 1950 to the best reviews a Disney movie had gotten since Dumbo. It was the sixth-highest grossing movie of the year, and the revenue generated by the film and its merchandizing paid off all of Disney’s debts, and enabled him to move into television and theme park production.
This is also the movie that established Disney’s famous Animation Board. Since Disney himself was busy overseeing the production of their first live-action film, Treasure Island, supervision of the animation on Cinderella got delegated to a team of nine animators, all of whom had experience on Disney projects going back to Snow White. Though none of them was older than their mid-30s, they were nicknamed the “Nine Old Men”, after FDR’s name for the Supreme Court, and the name stuck. They’d go on to be some of the most famous animators in the business, and would be responsible for training an entire generation of talent.
If Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the original Disney Princess movie, then this is the codifier of that genre’s tropes. Pretty much every aspect of the genre that gets parodied in other media can be found here, down to the cute little bluebirds that wake Cinderella up at the beginning of the movie. It’s possibly the Platonic ideal of the “Disney movie.” And after almost a decade of cheap package films, it’s definitely a relief to finally get back to something with more substance.
For their first feature length movie post-war, Disney wisely went back to the same source that they’d used for their one unqualified hit so far: European fairy tales, in this case the French version published by Charles Perrault. The plot sticks fairly closely to the original source material, though it omits the part from the Grimm version with the maiming of the stepsisters at the end. As in some versions of the tale, Cinderella is helped in her tasks by a group of friendly birds, and to that Disney decided to add a bevy of mice as well. The mice speak in a rapid-fire patter that’s somewhere in between accent and dialect, and I’m surprised that I never found it annoying at all.
The mice actually take up a good deal more of the running time than I had remembered. They not only help to assemble Cinderella’s dress while she’s otherwise occupied (complete with misadventures in avoiding the family cat while obtaining some of the materials), but their attempts to avoid the cat prior to the announcement of the ball takes up a good fifteen-minute chunk of time in the first half of the movie. The film felt a bit like a Tom & Jerry cartoon at times, with the hapless cat causing havoc among the humans as it tries to corner the mice.
Lucifer the cat, for all of Cinderella’s worry that he might eat her rodent friends, isn’t all that much of a threat. Cinderella’s stepmother and stepsisters are a much different matter. Her sisters are not only cruel and verbally abusive, but turn against Cinderella physically when it comes time to leave for the ball, ripping her dress to shreds for daring to use items that they themselves had rejected hours before. And her stepmother, Lady Tremaine, just watches and smiles. Lady Tremaine might be one of the most effective portrayals of emotional abuse in any film aimed at children that I can think of – I think only Mother Gothel from Tangled comes close.
Of course, enjoying the movie doesn’t mean that I can’t find fault with it either. It’s still very much a product of its time. The prince character is practically a non-entity – I’m not entirely certain that he actually has a single line of dialogue in the entire movie – and his father arranges a ball for the express purpose of getting him to marry quickly based on looks alone (he actually threatens his advisor if his son doesn’t propose by the end of the night). That seems to be the Fairy Godmother’s plan as well, for as far as we can tell the Prince falls immediately in love with Cinderella at first glance. He certainly wasn’t charmed by her personality; Cinderella has a bit more anger and frustration in her than Snow White did, but she’s still a mostly one-note character.
So while the movie definitely isn’t perfect, it’s still a huge step forward from the middling fare that Disney had been peddling throughout the 1940s. This is the twelfth movie in this re-watch, but it’s only the third so far that I believe actually deserves its “classic” status. Let’s see if we can keep the ball rolling next week with Alice in Wonderland.
Animation: A (Disney movies haven’t looked this good since Bambi, and maybe not even since Pinocchio)
Main Characters: B- (If there’s one fault with the movie, it’s that Cinderella herself isn’t all that active of a participant in her own story. The mice do most of the work on the dress, and all she has to do to get the prince to fall in love with her is show up)
Supporting Characters: B+ (I never found the mice annoying, despite their accent, and enjoyed their, err, cat and mouse game with Lucifer. The prince is just kinda there, though)
Villains: A (The sisters are awful, and the stepmother is one of the most realistic portrayals of uncaring abuse I’ve ever seen)
Music: A- (The music is mostly excellent, though most of the songs were shorter than I’d remembered from pop culture exposure)