Do We Really Need a New Cinderella?

Scarlett Johansen – Disney Dream Portrait Series
Photo by Annie Leibovitz

(We interrupt your regularly scheduled blog post to bring you this very important post because I actually had a free evening to run away from work and see a movie).

Although Beauty and the Beast would have you believe it’s a “tale as old as time,” I think the fairy tale that rightly deserves that subtitle is Cinderella, a story that is returning to theaters this weekend.

It’s a story that, frankly, I’m surprised Disney is remaking. Other stories like Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and The Wizard of Oz have been done in so many different ways that it seems like there’s always something new to find in those worlds. But with Cinderella, every variation, save for a few extra plot elements to add drama, has been quite the same (which is odd since the Cinderella formula can be found in innumerable variations throughout the world and throughout history). Gregory Maguire’s Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister is fun, but a live-action adaptation of that story has yet to really hit mainstream audiences. After the success of Maleficent, which turned Sleeping Beauty on its head, I was curious to see if they’d take a similar angle with their next live action fairy tale. Instead, based on the first trailer, we got what looked like a very lovely and very faithful adaptation of the story we all knew. Later trailers revealed that there were some extra elements to shake up the story a bit, but all in all, it seemed, at that point in time, that Disney was taking it very cautiously with this adaptation.

So the question that arises is this: do we really need a new Cinderella story?

Disney’s Cinderella (1950)

Disney’s 1950 animated classic is probably one of their flagship titles. It’s become THE version of the fairy tale with other versions just acting as variations on a theme. It takes Charles Perrault’s “Cendrillon” (1697) and then, bibbidi-bobbidi-boo, adds the talking mice to flesh out the run time. It’s squeaky clean, crisp and gorgeous. It’s really the only Cinderella we need, right?

Well, what about the Grimm version?

Anna Kendrick as Cinderella in Into the Woods (2014) based on the 1987 musical of the same name

The only real mainstream version of that rather gruesome tale, known in German as “Aschenputtel” (1812), comes to us via Stephen Sondheim and his 1987 fairy tale mashup musical Into the Woods. It gives us the magic tree, the three day ball, the prince catching Cinderella by spreading pitch on the stairs, the mutilation of the stepsisters’ feet by the stepmother, and their subsequent blinding by a flock of retribution doves. It’s not the most family friendly version, which is why it hasn’t showed up much in pop culture. But if you’re in the mood for a VERY German tale, you should check it out. Also, you should check out Anne Sexton’s take on the tale in her brilliant collection of fairy tale poems, Transformations (1971). She uses the Grimm version to gruesome effect.

In terms of important versions, The Brothers Grimm version is more used by fairy tale enthusiasts to make fans of the Disney movie feel less superior because they decided to like the version that doesn’t feature blood as a major plot point. It’s fun, but it’s probably not the version we need.

There’s also the Rodgers and Hammerstein version of the story, which is much more family friendly.

Brandy and Whitney Houston as Cinderella and the Fairy Godmother, respectively, in Cinderella (1997)

In 1957, Rodgers and Hammerstein were asked to make a musical adaptation of the classic fairy tale that would air as a one-time television special event starring a 21-year-old Julie Andrews. It was a smashing success. In 1997, The Wonderful World of Disney and Whitney Houston paired up to make another made-for-TV version of that musical with Brandy in the lead role, Bernadette Peters as the Wicked Stepmother, and Whitney Houston herself as the fairy godmother. It didn’t have a huge budget and was very obviously aimed at a very young audience, BUT, it proved that one could make a fabulous adaptation of the story with a racially diverse cast, moving away from the whitewashed world of previous versions. It also gave us, in my humble opinion, the most adorable and charming of all the Prince Charmings, Paolo Montalban.

It’s a fun variation, and what it lacks in nuance it makes up for in zest.

Ok, well then there’s Ever After (1998).

Drew Barrymore as Danielle, the “real” Cinderella, in Ever After (1998)

Ever After purports to add some realism and depth to the story, giving us the “truth” that inspired the fairy tale. Gone is the fairy godmother, the talking animals, and the stroke of midnight canceling everything out, but it still works. It’s maybe not an iconic movie on the level of Disney’s 1950 film, but it is a fun movie that really adds life and vitality to its female characters, giving the heroine an inner strength and 90’s girl-power fierceness. Anjelica Huston is also a fabulously evil stepmother and the attempts to make the story “real” by including Leonardo da Vinci and by setting it in France offer a nice alternative to the magic-laden versions that are so popular. Drew Barrymore is, well, Drew Barrymore, but her sweetness and innocence works with the character. Up until now, it was probably one of the all time best live-action adaptations of the story.

And so, do we really need another Cinderella?

Lily James in Cinderella (2015)

I think we do.

Feel free to disagree with me, but first hear me out.

Disney’s latest film, directed by Kenneth Brannagh (who shows us here that, not only is he really good at filming Thor’s abs, he’s fantastic at filming opulent ballgowns) is absolutely gorgeous, visually. The plot is very much embellished from the 1950 film, but it doesn’t feel like a live-action remake of that movie specifically, which is good. The acting is well done, especially by Lily James and Cate Blanchett (who are both just fantastic). And the script is tightly written and well-paced. Overall, I liked this movie more than I did Maleficent (2014), Disney’s last live action fairy tale adaptation. Would highly recommend it.

The reason why I feel like this was a good time for such a straightforward Cinderella story is that we are now moving beyond the reaches of postmodernism and post-9/11 bleakness, which is a relief. Postmodernism would have us tell the story from the Stepmother’s point of view, with Cinderella being a spoiled, entitled source of conflict. Or it would have us place the story in a nightmarish urban landscape where Cinderella must navigate drug addicts and disease in order to find an ending that isn’t necessarily happy. Or it would have Cinderella stumble from the pages of a child’s storybook and learn that there are no Prince Charmings in the real world.

We’re past that, thank heavens. What we need now is to find enduring meaning in these stories as opposed to ripping them to pieces in the name of deconstruction. And I think this version, spectacle-laden as it is, does that fairly well.

Lily James’ Ella is gifted with supernatural patience and optimism, but when she is beaten down, you feel as though someone is beating your own optimism down. She’s not meant to be realistic, of course. She’s an archetype. And it’s nice to see Cinderella being an archetype again, speaking to a new generation of children about the importance of that Greek maxim: “know thyself.” She’s not a parody nor a cardboard cutout. She’s Cinderella without a hint of irony, a shining symbol of courage, kindness, and forgiveness. For many, this movie will just be a treacly diversion of color and sound, meant to tide kids over until Frozen 2 comes out, but for the rest of us, I think this stands as a symbol of something else.

This Cinderella would never have made it in the decade after 9/11. Her inherent goodness would have doomed her to ridicule, but she works now, having come out of her cocoon of societal gloom and pessimism to once again speak to us. That means that, as a society, we’re finding our optimism again, our belief that things CAN work out. And we really need that.

I don’t think this movie will become any sort of new culturally significant version of the story that will oust the original animated film, but I found myself incredibly uplifted after seeing this (and it wasn’t just because your heart sort of soars every time Cinderella spins around in that gorgeous blue dress). It made me feel that sense of boundless optimism that only children truly understand. And it felt like I had somehow lost sight of that, regardless of how optimistic a person I am.

So go and enjoy it for what it is, a beautiful reminder that it’s OK to enjoy a fairy tale happy ending once in a while, and a reminder that such beauty can be found outside the pages of a storybook.

Also, everybody needs a gorgeous gown to feel pretty in once in a while.


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