Saturday, May 31, 2014


RELEASE DATE: Wednesday 15th February 1950

The second coming of Disney.

After a very difficult decade of war, strikes and uncertainty, the Walt Disney company struck back in a big way in February 1950. Cinderella was a return to the classic fairy-tale, and the triumphant reawakening of the full-length animated feature. While the first five feature films were the experimental debuts and the following six were oddly-matching package movies, Cinderella marked the arrival of the Disney Renaissance.

Like with Snow White thirteen years earlier, Walt was betting the farm on this film. If Cinderella had been a commercial failure, the company would likely have gone bankrupt. Luckily, the film was a phenomenal success, setting the Walt Disney company on track to reclaiming its glory days and entertaining people all over the world for a whole new generation.

Just like in the previous classic stories, Cinderella begins with a book opening. It is a famous Disney trope that says, "This is an old story. You might have read about it before. Here is our version."

We begin the story with some narration from Betty Lou Gerson, who would later gain fame through her voicing of Cruela De Vil in One Hundred And One Dalmations. She tells us of a loving father who had a daughter named Cinderella. (Note there's no elaboration on the term "Cinderella" being a mock name for a girl named Ella having to sit by the cinders - her name is simply Cinderella.) Her mother dies, her father remarries, her father dies, and Cinderella is left to live with her mean stepmother and two horrid stepsisters.

Fast-forward a number of years later and Cinderella has been made into a servant in her own home and is forced to live at the top of a stone tower outside of the main chateau. As she wakes up we realise that Cinderella has a natural affinity with animals like Snow White before her. The birds and mice wake her up and help her get ready to face another day of servitude. The only thing that keeps her going is the hope that someday things might improve.

A mouse named Jacques informs Cinderella that there's a brand new mouse in the house, caught in a trap. Cinderella jumps into action and frees the poor creature. She names the new mouse Gus and leaves Jacques to teach him how things work around the place.

Jacques explains that the mice live under constant oppression from the resident cat who is called Lucifer. (Yes, seriously. The cat is named after the devil!) Lucifer is a pampered, spoiled and greedy kitty who would love nothing more than to catch any or all of these mice!

Cinderella is shown to be a slave at her stepmother and stepsiblings' beck and call. She is expected to bring them meals, do their washing and clean the house. (Note that the opening narration states that the chateau "fell into disrepair" and yet it all looks quite beautifully looked-after throughout the movie.)

The person instigating this cruelty is the stepmother herself, Lady Tremaine. A softly-spoken, subtle and yet terrifying villain, Lady Tremaine is a ruthless and powerful figure. The tone of her voice and her steely gaze make it clear that people do exactly as she says without question.

After meeting all of the chateau residents, the action switches to the royal palace a 17th century French skyscraper!

Inside the palace, the king (who is never given a name) is talking to his duke (who is never given a name) about his son the prince (who is never given a name...) It seems the king is a very lonely man and he wants to see grandchildren. Only problem is, the prince has no intention of getting married.

They decide that the best course of action would be to hold a ball and invite every eligible maiden in the kingdom. Surely the prince will like ONE of them... Meanwhile, back at the chateau, the stepsisters are having a music lesson, with Anastasia on the flute and Drizella singing.

They are interrupted with a letter arriving, inviting them to come to the ball. Cinderella claims her right as an "eligible maiden" to attend as well. Lady Tremaine agrees, only if she gets all of her chores completed first... "If."
Cinderella is, of course, run off her feet and has no time to fix up her mother's old dress. Lucky for her, she has an army of animal friends who do all of the work for her.

When the time comes to leave, it looks like Cinderella might get her wish to attend the ball after all. But Lady Tremaine is far too devious, and quick to recognise that some of the features of this new dress have been taken from Drizella and Anastasia's old clothes. In a fury, they rip Cinderella's new dress to shreds and leave her alone in tears as they head to the ball.
Heart broken, Cinderella runs to the garden and weeps. All of a sudden a figure appears before her. It's her Fairy Godmother, here to save the day.

With a wave of her wand and the magic words ("Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo!") the Fairy Godmother turns a pumpkin into a coach, the animals into horses and attendants, and she gives Cinderella a beautiful dress and glass slippers in a sequence Walt Disney himself called his all-time favourite piece of animation.

With hopes rekindled, Cinderella heads off to the ball!

Meanwhile, at the palace, the prince is doing his duty, but he is clearly bored.

Suddenly he sees Cinderella enter the palace and is instantly captivated by her beauty. The two of them dance the night away, romantically gazing into each others' eyes.
"So this is love," they sing...
Eh, no. This is dancing.

We can only hope and assume that there is a lot of talking that goes on during these hours that we don't get to see. Everything seems to be going well for the young lovebirds (even though they don't even know each others' names yet and Cinderella has no idea he is actually the prince...)
Unfortunately, the clock strikes midnight and the magic spell expires. Cinderella has to rush home before the prince sees her dressed in her rags! On her way down the staircase she drops one of her glass slippers but hasn't the time to go back for it.

She just makes it out of sight before the spell is broken and everything returns to the way it was. For some unexplained reason, the shoes remain.

The following morning, the king is delighted at the thought of his son finally getting a girlfriend. It is up to the poor duke to deliver the bad news that the mystery girl ran away before anyone could find out who she was.

Since the only clue they have is the glass slipper, the prince decrees that a search be undertaken. Whoever's foot fits the glass slipper shall be his bride. News of this decree reaches the Tremaine household and the stepsisters are beside themselves with excitement. Cinderella suddenly realises that she is the girl they are searching for, and her companion was the prince. Lady Tremaine begins to suspect something...

Not wanting Cinderella to be present when the slipper comes, she locks her away in her tower. Cinderella's only hope now is her animal friends. Jacques and Gus go on a king-sized mission to reclaim the key and bring it all the way to the top of the tower so that Cinderella can free herself.
Meanwhile, the stepsisters are trying on the slipper without any hope of fitting into it.

One has to ask why the prince made this decree, and why he isn't there to look with his own eyes. Surely he could take one look at Drizella and say, "No way. That is NOT the girl I danced with!"
Anyway. After an exciting race against the clock (and against a cat) Cinderella is finally freed and rushes downstairs to try on the slipper.

Cinderella and the prince are soon married and they live happily ever after. Of course.

IRVYNE: The story of Cinderella is a very basic one, and to pad it out to a full-length feature, Walt and his artists created a number of sub-plots. On the one hand, we have the animals, particularly the mice and the cat Lucifer, who have madcap slapstick scenes that wouldn't look out-of-place in a Looney Tunes cartoon. On the other hand, we have scenes involving the king and duke, which mainly serve to show what's going on at the story's secondary location.
A criticism that COULD be made is that only about half of the movie is actually ABOUT Cinderella. I don't buy this criticism though, simply because the animals' plotline and the king's plotline are both entertaining and funny. There is not a dull moment in Cinderella. The only real weak link I can see in the story is the prince, who is nothing more than a plot device. He is given no character, and he is really only on screen for a couple of minutes. We're never told WHY he doesn't want to marry. We're never shown what he's doing while the duke is out searching for the glass slipper. We really know nothing about him, other than the fact he's hugely desirable to every lady in the kingdom. This lack of personality is only forgivable because every other character is so fantastic.
Lady Tremaine is one of animation's most magnificent villains. She has no special powers, no political standing, and yet... she is a frightening presence. It's no wonder that actress Eleanor Audley was invited back to voice the villainous Maleficent nine years later.

Walt's love of Mary Blair's concept art came into full effect in Cinderella. She inspired the look of the entire movie, particularly the shapes and colour schemes. Have a look at some of her concept paintings for Cinderella.

Just from these it's easy to see how much of her style made it into the finished film. It's a wonderful-looking film, with very saturated colours and grand locations. In particular, notice how tall everything is. Even a simple door in the chateau or palace is impractically tall, but it gives an impression of grandeur and extravagance that matches the time period the film is set in.

One of the new techniques they used to create realistically-moving human characters was to film almost the entire film in live action, and then use that footage to inform the animation. There was some resistance to this from some seasoned animators - it almost felt to them like they were cheating - but it resulted in some very lifelike movements from the main cast, Cinderella in particular. It also allowed the animators to observe the actors' facial expressions and add in some very realistic subtleties in the performances.

Meanwhile, the non-human characters (such as the mice and Lucifer) were animated with such joyful absurdity, you might think they wouldn't look like they belong in the same world as the more realistic human characters! Somehow it all fits together perfectly. Ward Kimball was in charge of animating the animals, and he claims that he wouldn't have had the patience to work on the humans, but he had a lot of fun bringing the wacky animals to life.

IRVYNE: One thing that really stood out to me about the look of this movie was the cloth animation. I know it's not something that jumps out at the viewer - nor is it something that SHOULD jump out at you - but it really is magnificent. Look at Cinderella's dress, curtains, etc. Every piece of drawn cloth moves with amazing authenticity.
Other elements that I think make this movie a marvel are the special effects (all of the magical particles had to be drawn by hand, bit-by-bit. It's a phenomenal achievement!) and the sense of perspective in many shots. There are some very interesting "camera" angles used to show the action in a way that conveys a certain mood. You can see that by 1950, the Disney artists were really refining their craft to a new level.

Walt took a different path than usual with the music for Cinderella. He employed the skills of Tin Pan Alley, a New York-based music writers' collective. Songwriters Mack David, Al Hoffman and Jerry Livingston were commissioned to create the songs which are still sung all over the world today.
The beautiful ballad "A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes" is up there with "Someday My Prince Will Come" and "When You Wish Upon A Star" as a genuine Disney classic.
"Oh Sing Sweet Nightingale" was fairly groundbreaking for its day. Although the song on its own is a nice simple ballad, Walt himself came up with the idea of overdubbing the singer Ilene Woods and having multiple Cinderellas seen in the bubbles rising from the cleaning suds. The concept of recording a singer over the top of herself was very new at the time, and it was another case of Disney using new technologies to push the envelope.
"The Work Song" is cute and catchy, and fits the scene of the animals making a dress perfectly.
"Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo" is another instantly singable song, full of nonsense words. It was nominated for Best Song at the Academy Awards that year.
"So This Is Love" is a bit schmaltzy and cliche, but it works for the scene it is in.
There's no denying that Cinderella has one of the most memorable and beloved soundtracks that the company has ever produced. They clearly knew that they were on to a good thing before the movie was released, since this was first time Disney published the soundtrack and music merchandising completely themselves.

Cinderella stands up remarkably well today. It is still a very entertaining movie, and there isn't a moment at all where it sags. The story is expertly and economically told, it is full of wonderful characters, and it is a marvel to look at and listen to. In my mind, it was undoubtedly the greatest movie Walt and his company had produced up to this point and set the ball rolling for a run of genuine classics that would follow shortly after.

MALEFICENT: This movie flies by so quickly!

ANNA: It annoyed me that Cinderella's hair kept changing colour.
IRVYNE: It didn't change colour, that was just the lighting.
PASCAL: My favourite characters are the mice. I love the mice!
HAKU: The Tremaines definitely have a rodent problem... They're like the original minions.

SHENZI: Gus-Gus is my favourite! He's so cute!
ANNA: At least you can understand the mice easier than Chip and Dale!
PASCAL: And Donald Duck!

HAKU: That's what I feel was missing from other movies like Snow White, those humorous sidekick kind of scenes.
IRVYNE: Snow White had the seven dwarfs. They were the comic relief in that.
HAKU: Yeah... It seems a lot more sophisticated in Cinderella.
IRVYNE: Agreed. It has much more of an edge to the comedy.
HAKU: But I want to know... when the spell broke and she was in the coach...
WENDY: How did she not get trapped in the pumpkin? I wondered the same thing. I also wondered why the king's horsemen were so scary-looking! The horses had glowing red eyes!

IRVYNE: It just adds to the tension and danger of the scene! Meanwhile, I want the king's bed

WENDY: It's wonderfully impractical!

SHENZI: The king reminds me of the sultan in Aladdin.
WENDY: Much more clucky though! I don't think the sultan cares that much about grandchildren.

IRVYNE: Have you noticed how many dead parents there are in this movie? Cinderella's mother dies. Anastasia and Drizella's father dies. Then Cinderella's father dies. The king sleeps alone, so we can only assume the prince's mother is dead.

WENDY: At least the prince was drawn fairly masculine-looking, which was nice.
ANNA: He's not a very lively prince.
IRVYNE: He's not really much of anything.
MALEFICENT: Just about the only thing I don't like about this version of Cinderella is that the stepsisters are ugly. In the original story they were beautiful on the outside but ugly within. Not that I would question Disney!

IRVYNE: I think having them as ugly characters makes it natural for them to be jealous of Cinderella's natural beauty. If they were beautiful as well, they'd have nothing to be jealous of.

MALEFICENT: I love all the other characters: Jacques and Gus-Gus, evil Lucifer and of course the Fairy Godmother. Even though her song is nonsense, it's the most magical song Disney ever did.

PASCAL: It's great to see some strong females in this movie. There may not be many girls in the Mickey Mouse world, but in this, all of the main characters are women!
SHENZI: The film looks really nice. There's a real sense of grandeur to everything.
ANNA: I loved the DisneyView art on the sides of the screen.
HAKU: I think that's the best I've seen DisneyView. It was really good.
WENDY: And Cinderella has got the most memorable music. It's a beautiful soundtrack.
MALEFICENT: The only song I don't like is the opening credits song.
IRVYNE: I always used to get a bit confused by the lyric: "Cinderella, you're as lovely as your name..." Because I always thought that the name was supposed to be an insult to a girl named Ella. Like if your name was Dave and you were called "Dustbin Dave." But anyway...
Apart from the fact that everything in this film just works really well, coming after the '40s and all those package films keeping the business treading water... To have a full, complete story that's wonderfully told... It's so refreshing!
WENDY: It definitely stands the test of time. Kids still adore this movie. Cinderella is like the classic Disney princess that all the little girls want to be like.