The 1950 Cinderella was my favorite movie as a child, though watching it again years later, I do not think it holds up well. For me, the 1950s is a rather dull period for Disney animation, lacking the ambition of the Golden Age of the ’30s and ’40s. Cinderella is quite representative of that period with its blandness; that it relies so heavily upon grating comic relief does not help matters. Truth be told, were it not for my youngest sister wanting to watch it, I would have not even bothered with this new Cinderella. Though Kenneth Branagh is in the director’s chair, very little of his personal touches are in the film; this is a studio concoction all the way. But still, for a studio concoction, it sure is a visually sumptuous piece and one that I will admit brought me back to my childhood for a few minutes.
[WARNING, THERE BE SPOILERS IN THESE WATERS]
Seeing as this film is still in theaters as of this writing, is it worth watching? Well, it all depends what you want out of the experience. If you adore elaborate, gorgeous, and mildly campy set design and costumes, and that’s enough to satisfy you as a filmgoer, then you’ll eat everything up. The colors are rich and vivid, the world of the film a blend of pre-Victorian and modern elements. The comic relief mice are reincarnated into rather freakish CG creatures, but their role is mercifully cut back. They do not wear clothes or talk or burn up screen time with slapstick antics. We have some nice performances from Cate Blanchett as the wicked Lady Tremaine, Helena Bonham Carter as an offbeat fairy godmother, and Derek Jacobi as the king, who manages to have one touching scene with the prince. (If anything, it’s nice that he’s played as a man concerned for the well-being of his son and his kingdom, and not a blubbering old fool who sees all the potential brides at the ball as breeding stock.) Throughout, the film is sweet-natured and genuine without being insipid or talking down to family audiences, which is always great in this age of cynicism and irony.
There is one glorious moment too: the ball scene, where we see Cinderella in that sea of a gown, twirling about the dance floor with her handsome prince. I cannot discern exactly why, but for a moment I was enchanted and brought back to my younger years. I felt like that six year-old girl in her lavender princess costume in front of the TV, playing the 1950 Cinderella VHS tape for the thousandth time. The little girls in the audience were enthralled to say the least.
So yes, the film is generally solid, though there are small flaws throughout. Well, small flaws and one rather large one, though we shall get to that in a bit. This is a generally straightforward retelling which plays it quite safe, though it does try to add in a few more elements to amp up the dramatic stakes. We have a political subplot, where the prince is promised to a foreign princess and the archduke teams up with Tremaine to keep Cinderella imprisoned in her attic to make it happen. This bit does nothing to help the story; if anything, it causes the last third to drag for much longer than need be. In fact, the film could have benefited from being fifteen minutes shorter. There is also an attempt to bring some depth to the stepmother. The filmmakers try creating a thematic link between her and Cinderella by having them both lose loved ones, but these glimpses of depth are fleeting, so fleeting and leaving so little impact upon the audience’s perception of Lady Tremaine that you wondered why they even bothered.
But the biggest issue with Branaugh’s Cinderella is its heroine. It’s not because she’s traditionally feminine and soft-spoken; these are not bad qualities. It’s nice that the film is celebrating idealism, quiet resilience, compassion, and forgiveness. There’s something unsettling about this Cinderella, how happily passive she is. Early on, Cinderella is asked by one of her old servants why she stays at home and puts up with the abuse; she responds that she feels the presence of her deceased parents in the house and cannot bear to leave it as a result. While it’s nice that they gave her some reasoning, it’s still flimsy on a dramatic level. It may have been better to have it where Cinderella has nowhere else to go should she run away, no connections and no friends, much like in the underrated 1955 adaptation, The Glass Slipper; that’s a much more credible motivation to stay in her current situation.
The unsettling nature of this characterization didn’t hit me until the climax of the film, where Tremaine locks Cinderella away in the attic after discovering she is the “mystery princess.” In the 1950 version, Cinderella is distraught and desperate, banging on the door and pleading. If she could wrench open the window and climb out without falling to her death, you know she would. In contrast, 2015 Cinderella retreats into her memories of her happy childhood and the ball, gazing into space and singing to herself. When the prince and his entourage come to the house with the glass slipper, the mice go to inform her, but Cinderella no longer cares to take any action at all. I find it funny how people moan about how Cinderella was essentially saved by mice in the older version, but here, the same thing applies, just this time with Cinderella not wishing to escape at all. This is actually an interesting reaction…. were it portrayed as tragic. But the film acts as though her behavior is to be applauded, that living in your head is the best way to deal with an unhappy reality. There’s quiet strength in the face of adversity and then there’s this.
Still, I cannot write off this Cinderella entirely. It is beautiful to look at, plus I have to admit it’s refreshing to have a traditional take on a fairy tale in this age of revisionism. Not to say all revisionist fairy tale adaptations are bad, but it is nice to know an old-fashioned version can still attract mass audiences as well. If the portrayal of Cinderella herself had not been so passive, then the film might have been considered one of the best takes on the tale yet; as it is, the 2015 Cinderella is passable, a bit too safe and conservative, but you could certainly do worse. Just go in well aware of the problematic elements, especially if you plan on taking the kids.