A Study in Disney: ‘Cinderella’ (1950)

| December 5, 2021

Disney is as much a part of our lives as love and death.  It’s wrapped around us, and not just in our childhood.  There are thousands and thousands of Disney movies by this point but the one that really shape the company and the culture are the animated features.  Disney busted out of the gate in 1937, intending to create a new artform and make an evolutionary leap in cinema.  So, every other day from now through March, I will be chronicling every single one of Disney’s canon animated features.  It’s a fascinating journey, and a lot of fun too.

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After nearly a decade of curtailing his artistic tendencies in favor of World War II and the frustrating limits of his own budget, Walt Disney celebrated the birth of the 1950s with his first narrative animated feature in eight years.  It was not just a return to the form that he helped to create but it was a return to the simply-told fairy tale genre that he always had in his sights.  Cinderella was about as basic a story as one could tell, and seemingly the most universal.  As with Snow White, this movie appealed to a fantasy element that was unquestionably popular at the time, but that were so “of the moment” (in spite of the common advertising claim of it being ‘timeless’) that its elemental message would become questionable in the wake of a massive culture shift in the decades to come.  The women’s movement and the rise of feminism would prove the antithesis for the rather limited message being given here.

Given the current cultural climate, one is compelled to ask: what is the value of Cinderella?  Where does its message really land when you get to the end of the story?  There has been a lot of talk about the film being anti-feminist, that this is the story of a young woman who is abused and works through her difficult situation until her prince shows up to make her life perfect.  Is that really true?  Is the movie selling young girls on a wish-fulfillment that relegates their destiny to looking pretty and landing a rich husband?  Is it limiting their choices?  It is always difficult to assess the textures of a film made in another time with a different and largely outdated set of values.  Approaching Cinderella with a 21st century mindset is a little like approaching Gone With the Wind.  You can see it as entertainment but you have to traverse a minefield of outdated, hack-strung ideas to get there.  Does that devalue the film?  No.  Certainly not.  Movies are a window onto the times in which they are made but with it come values that have changed and attitudes that are no longer an fashion.

There is no doubt that Cinderella is a film loaded with color and magic, but there is a lot to unpack.  Critics and historians love to pounce on these films for being out-of-date (see above) but given the universal popularity, it is hard not to ask questions of validity.  There are holes in the story that you could drive a truck through.

Most prominent is Cinderella herself.  She’s not a full-blooded character, and Prince Charming even less and you can’t ignore the emptiness with which the two leads come together.  Cinderella and Prince Charming get married at the end but it is difficult to overlook the fact that their marriage is based on function.  She’s pretty, he’s handsome and they danced under moonlight, so . . . wedding bells!  There isn’t much meat on this relationship.  In fact, the prince hardly has a line of dialogue in this movie.  He’s just sort of there.  They talk (allegedly), and they get to know one another (allegedly).  Yet, even with all that, he apparently never caught her name.  Actually, we don’t know because their time together is seen in a montage over music so we can’t hear what they are saying to one another.

Here it is important to remember the logic of cartoon romance.  In the mid-20th century, love and romance in the movies were not full-blooded relationships in which two people connected based on personality.  They were just a function of the plot, often played as a gag or played for emotional overtones.  It was the union that represented the climax of the film but what they were to each other beyond their romantic orientation often remained in the viewer’s imagination.  Think of Snow White and Cinderella, the union was based on function, not logic and certainly not on personality.

This sounds like unfounded carping, but in assaying the form and function of the Disney Princess dynamic it is important to deconstruct the underlying purpose.  Why was this film so popular upon release but then so contentious as we have crossed over into the 21st century?  Are we supposed to examine this story logically?  Yes and no.  Disney films in the early years were not based on logic but played their characters for dramatic effect.  Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, we follow a young girl who seems alone in the world.  Friends are hard to come by and so the yearning for something different is always part of their forward thinking.  Neither Cinderella nor The Wizard of Oz or in fact any of the early Disney pictures were airtight as far as logic was concerned but they were always better at conveying a certain level of emotion.  How we feel about Cinderella’s plight is possibly more important than examining how she logically gets to the final scene.

Cinderella is not a fully-rounded character but she has just enough personality for little girls to admire. She keeps a smile in place despite her difficult situation and she keeps faithful to her friends, even if they are a bunch of mice and in the end, they help her out when she is locked in her room when the archduke drops by with the lost glass slipper.  Her kindness is rewarded.  Maybe that’s a message that can be gleaned from this, that kindness is a much bigger and bolder weapon than manipulation.  Manipulation is easy but kindness takes time and patience and work, something that gets her the fairy tale ending she always wanted.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.