Monday, March 16, 2015

'Cinderella' Gives The Titular Character A Personality - Yay!

For those of you who like to cover your ears and hum loudly whenever I start to review a Disney movie, be comforted: I liked this one, so I'm going to be kind. Not least of all because the entire point of this movie was that kindness can be a sort of superpower if you do it right, and I like that moral enough to end up endorsing the whole film for it.

So yes. Those of you who cringe and wish I wouldn't be so mean to Frozen and the other Disney Princess movies, I did like this film. It was good. And I was surprised by how much I appreciated it, considering that generally speaking, Cinderella is my least favorite fairy tale. It's certainly my least favorite animated Disney movie.

My problem with Cinderella, at least the animated one, has always been that Cinderella never really *does* anything. She never chooses anything, and as far as you can tell in the movie, she doesn't have any control over her life or what happens to her. She seems to just drift through the world, falling into things. And sure, she's nice and sweet and kind, but it seems less like a personality trait and more like the drugged smile of someone on a lot of mood stabilizers. Trust me. I would know.

The animated Cinderella relies therefore not on the intelligence and personality of its heroine, but on the actions of other people around her, like the Prince, her Godmother, the mice, and her Wicked Stepmother. All of those characters have far more say in what becomes of Cinderella than she does. 

And worst of all, she doesn't seem to care about that. She doesn't seem to care about anything. Cinderella experiences no grief or frustration or elation or anything. She is cheerful and perky, but never seems to care that she lost both her parents, that her stepmother and stepsisters have abused her for years. Sure, she cries a few times, but, again, it doesn't feel like it really means anything. 

All of this is why I was skeptical going into the new live action Cinderella movie. Not because I've never seen a Cinderella film done right, but because I knew this movie was going to be based firmly on the animated version, and, frankly, that idea does not appeal to me. So color me shocked that I not only tolerated this movie, I actually actively enjoyed it.

Who knew?!

I think the big reason why I liked it is first and foremost because they took all my criticisms of the animated film and seemingly addressed them. Instead of telling just a bare framework of a film where Cinderella goes from being a cheerful servant to a cheerful princess in a scant eighty minutes with pretty much no character development or explanation from anyone, this film decides to actually explore the whys and wherefores of how the situation got like this, who Cinderella actually is as a person, and what it means to have a kind heart.

Those are all things I can appreciate. But the biggest reason I like this movie more than its predecessor is simply this: they let Cinderella have a personality. She is a person. She chooses things. She has agency in her own life. It doesn't just happen to her, she is in control of her own destiny. And that matters a hell of a lot.

"Have courage and be kind."

So, the film starts by giving us a picture of what Cinderella's life used to be like. It explains in loving voiceover that the child, Ella, was born to adoring parents who lived in a happy home on the edge of the forest. Said parents (Hayley Atwell and Ben Chaplin) are sweet and wonderful people who are infatuated with each other and raise their daughter to be kind and good hearted. Aww. 

But then tragedy strikes one day, out of the blue, and Ella's mother falls sick and dies. Ella and her father are devastated but, eventually, they learn to move on. And, one day, when Ella is almost grown (and now played by Lily James), he asks her if she would be all right with him marrying again.

Ella is all right with the idea, and though she doesn't much care for her new stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and stepsisters (Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera) she is happy and willing to pursue a relationship with them. They are less enthused about her. Interestingly, however, they are not outright contemptuous. Her stepmother, certainly not a kind woman, is not immediately cruel either. She is just out of place, a woman not meant for country life, and clearly still mourning the very recent death of her husband.

All of this is why, when Ella's father makes plans to leave on what will be his last trip abroad (because he dies, and I refuse to put spoilers about a fairytale that's over five hundred years old), we can see so clearly how the stepmother comes to hate Ella. All the stepmother wants is to know that her new husband loves her at least a little and that he cares for the new family he has taken. But all he seems to care for is his daughter and honoring the memory of his sainted first wife.

It's one of those terrible situations where no one is exactly wrong and also no one is really right. Of course Ella's father should love and cherish her and honor the memory of her mother. But he's not right to outright ignore his wife. And clearly the stepmother has some issues, but can't you feel her pain at realizing that she will never even come close to the true affections of her husband? Meanwhile Ella is trapped horribly in the middle. Then her father dies and we are told that to the last he spoke only of his daughter, Ella, and her sainted mother.

Which is how, a time later, we come to where the story really begins. Ella has become the family's servant as her stepmother manipulated her into a series of degrading diminutions in stature and dismissed the rest of the family help. She sleeps in the attic or by the fire and she no longer can consider herself the lady of the house. She is just a servant, a drudge, and it's purely by force of will that she keeps herself going. The movie even gives her a motivation for this: as long as she doesn't leave, she can still lay claim to the title of the property, her ancestral home, someday.

Until one day she breaks and runs off, trying to lose some steam by riding a horse bareback through the fields.* She's going and going until, with a jerk, the horse stops because he's now nose to nose with a giant freaking stag. Ella and the stag are face to face when some trumpets sound, Ella realizes it's a hunt, and, with her big heart, she urges the stag to run.

It's moments after this that our heroine meets our hero, the Prince (Richard Madden). Or, as he actually introduces himself, Kit. Kit stumbles across Ella in the woods and she chides him for daring to hunt a stag like that. He's charmed by her forthrightness, and also by the fact that she clearly has no idea who he is, and they get to talking. He tells her he's an apprentice at the palace, learning his father's trade. She demurs about what her name is, but admits that she's not happy where she is. What really catches Kit's attention, though, is that instead of complaining about her life or taking this chance to vent, she simply says, "They treat me as well as they are able."

And he likes that. He likes all of her, obviously, but what makes this scene work is that Kit is so clearly taken with the way that Ella views the world around her. She is so kind and so good, and not because she's just naturally like that, but because she has so clearly chosen to be. Kit falls in love with her, and so do we.

In fact, it's because of this chance encounter in the woods, after which Ella makes him promise not to hurt the stag, saying, "Just because that's how it's always been done doesn't mean it's right," or something, that Kit returns home and tells his father's he's marrying that girl in the woods, if she'll have him. His father, the King (Derek Jacobi, because why not?), is appalled by the idea of his son marrying a "simple country girl" and reminds Kit that as the prince he has a duty to make an advantageous match. They're not a powerful or large country and they have many neighbors who would love to make war. Kit must marry a princess and so produce an alliance. It's the only way.

All right, Kit agrees, but only if the ball where the princesses come to vie for his hand (and I love that reversal idea, that Kit is the one being married off) can be opened to all the people of the land. It'll be good for public moral, give the people a chance to meet their new queen before she's crowned, and give him a chance to hopefully run into the charming girl from the woods again.

The story goes pretty much as you expect from there. I don't think it's really worth my time to explain, except to say that at every turn I was delighted to see Ella taking initiative and choosing for herself. Her stepmother won't let her go to the ball because the cost of the dress would be prohibitive, so Ella makes her own dress. When they ruin that dress and Ella is weeping, she comes out of her sorrow to help the poor old woman who's come to beg.

And when that woman turns out to be her Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter, being herself), Ella isn't shy about asking for what she wants. Specifically, she wants some say in how things go down and what dress she wears. In other words, Ella has opinions and a personality and it's so nice. So nice.

There's also a subplot in here where the Archduke (Stellan Skarsgard) has secretly already bargained the Prince's hand in marriage to a foreign princess, and the stepmother finds out and blackmails him. It's a quite good addition, actually, because this is a story that could use some complexity, and it points out, again, that there are halfway decent political reasons for not marrying Ella. Which I like.

Frankly, there are a lot of reasons to like this film. As I've already mentioned, there's the moral, the "have courage and be kind" thing, that runs through the film and is some of the best advice I've ever heard. That it's delivered by Hayley Atwell is just a bonus, and seeing the way that kindness is an active choice in Ella's life is really fantastic. There are moments when we the audience can tell that she is debating internally over what her reaction will be to any given situation, and yes, she does almost always decide to be kind, but the debate is important. We watch her choose, and it empowers us to see kindness as not the realm of idiots in fairy tales, but as something we ourselves can choose to do. So that's awesome.

But there's also loads of other good stuff. Like, yeah, it's only shown a little bit, but Ella has female friends. She's not "the only decent girl in the world". And the makers of this film have clearly been reading my blog, because the crowd scenes actually contained actors of color! In a fairy tale movie! What is this progressive utopia we have found?! Some of the princesses are even non-white, and it's never referred to, it's just a thing. Hooray!

The movie also does an amazing job making you care about the characters, to the extent that when Ella's parents die and later (incredibly minor SPOILER) the King dies we feel genuine loss and sorrow. These people were so well characterized that we understand their children's grief.

Which brings us to another worthwhile point: Ella and Kit actually have chemistry and have a relationship that is clearly built on compatibility and mutual respect. Imagine that! The movie gets us invested in them not because we have to be because they're the leads, but because they make each other better people. Ella inspires Kit to be kind and Kit inspires Ella to be brave. That's explicitly in the text, and that's great. I mean, they're even able to console each other and talk about grief, which is a pretty big deal for a movie like this.

In all honesty, I find this movie to have less in common with the animated 1950s Cinderella than it does with the revisionist 2000s era Ever After. And while Ever After is still definitely my favorite (because who doesn't love that movie?), this version comes shockingly close in my esteem. It's almost up there with the 2000s Rogers and Hammerstein Cinderella starring Brandi. Almost.

Lily James does a good job as Ella and an especially good job considering that this is patently her first time in such a huge role. And, as usual, Kenneth Branaugh is a skilled director whose real talent lies in elevating superficially simplistic plots to Shakespearean proportions - because he started out doing Shakespeare. 

Cate Blanchett is phenomenal, and her portrayal of the wicked stepmother as a fundamentally broken women is devastating and amazing, adding real gravitas to the story. Helena Bonham Carter is great, but not really doing anything shocking. And Richard Madden is lovely, as usual, but he didn't have a huge amount to work with. 

I will say that the one issue I really have with this film is the whole controversy about Ella's dress for the ball. You might have heard about this, but apparently Lily James went on record admitting that the corset for that dress was so tight and so tiny that she had to go on a liquid diet in order to fit it. And deeply distressing. Especially since I sat next to a maybe eight year old girl watching this movie and she loved that dress. Wanted one of her own. Was enthralled. And I hate the fact that this girl now has an idea of beauty in her mind that is literally unachievable by healthy standards.

I mean, seriously! Why did her waist have to be that tiny? Give me one good reason. It's not like Lily James isn't dainty and tiny already. She is a very small, very slender person. A fitted corset would have worked just fine, honestly, and no one would have thought anything of it. It's not like people would have watched the film and gone, "Hey, that human woman's waist does not match the proportions of a cartoon made sixty five years ago! How dare they!" No. No one would have noticed because we're not all crazy. The decision to make that corset so incredibly tiny completely baffles me and does actually detract from my love for this film.

But not so much that I actually stopped liking it. Just enough for me to compose a couple of really angry emails to the executives at Disney. Because I like to let them know when I'm annoyed.

Still. That is my one really big complaint about the film. Other than that, I really liked it. Could it have been better? Probably. Most things could be better in some way. And is it a perfect feminist masterpiece that you should show your child without reservation? No. It's worth talking some things through with your child when you all see this movie.

But I do like it. It's got enough of an edge, enough personality and verve and life and agency, that I can say comfortably it's my favorite version of Cinderella in years. Top five for sure. And if Disney is going to keep on making live action versions of its fairytales, which it seems bound and determined to do, then between this Cinderella and Maleficent, I have to say that we're off to a good start.

There. I did it. I got through a whole review on a Disney Princess movie being kind. I want a cookie.

*This scene was very pretty but not particularly spectacular for me. My friends who love horses, however, assured me that it was the highlight of the film. I defer to their superior judgment.


  1. I feel like we watched a different movie. I did not like it. Maybe my expectations were too high (because I liked maleficent so much). Is it better than the animated movie? Yes, but that doesnt say much cause that movie was very boring.

    When I was a kid a always wondered why is cinderella still nice to those people, why doesnt she just leave? answering only these 2 question could made the movie great. I had my own theories:
    Shes nice because shes afraid, shes not brave enough to stand up for herself. Being nice of course is important but that shouldnt be your only personalty. You shouldnt let people walk all over you, which i think is just as important message as be nice to people.
    She couldnt leave cause where would she go? A girl her age in that time couldnt go anywhere. She was a prisoner.

  2. Wow. I was very much on the fence about this whole 'live action princess' business, but this actually sounds quite good! I think I will actually watch this! At least so I can compare it to Ever After which, as you say, is the shizzle (Leonardo DaVinci as the fairy godmother will never not be a wonderful thing). I'm really glad this film nailed the idea that niceness is a choice and also does not equal blandness, or being a total doormat.

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