This is Disney Reflections, a series of monthly posts in which I compare Disney animated fairy tales to the original stories.
The fairy tale: I covered three versions of the Cinderella legend for the Fairy Tale Tuesday project, from Jamaica, Russia and Germany, but not the Perrault version! It closely resembles ‘Ashputtel’ only with a fairy godmother instead of a vicious bird and considerably less gore.
The film: In a “tiny kingdom…rich in romance and tradition” – and presumably hard cash, to pay for the fancy houses – a widower with one young daughter marries a widow with two daughters of her own. She’s introduced looming at a window, flanked by sullen little girls and petting a large cat, like a Bond villain in disguise. When her husband dies, she lavishes all his money on her daughters Anastasia and Druzilla, while all the work of the household falls to Cinderella. Forced to abandon her bedroom in favour of a rickety tower room, running in circles to patch up the neglected house, the story pulls no punches about her storyline – this girl is being abused.
Fortunately, Disney bluebirds maintain their alliance with disenfranchised stepdaughters and act as friendly, feathery alarm clocks. Cinderella covers her head with a pillow, thereby endearing herself to me at once; the well-meaning wake up call interrupted a wonderful dream. When the nearby clock tower chimes in its two cents, she shoots a glare its way, like it has personally betrayed her. “They can’t order me to stop dreaming!” she declares defiantly. She means her step family, who would indeed order her to stop dreaming if they could.
Dressing swiftly, with the aid of the aforementioned bluebirds and a gaggle of drowsy rodents, Cinderella is almost ready to start her day when a pair of frantic rats come racing into the room. A new rat is in the house. Cinderella’s first priority – picking out an appropriate outfit from her stash of dinky clothes – is sidelined when she learns the rat is stuck in a trap. She not only releases him, she gives him the name Octavius (quickly shortened to Gus) and places him in the particular care of Jaq, a more worldly wise rat familiar with the perils of the household. Chief of these is the stepmother’s cat, Lucifer. He’s a huge fluffy grump with his own canopy basket. Cinderella’s big, clueless dog Bruno dreams of chasing him, but in reality Lucifer has it all over him and Cinderella too.
She tries to make peace while preparing three breakfasts and feeding the chickens, throwing down extra corn for the mice. In order to reach this feast, they need to circumvent Lucifer; Jaq stages a ‘Great Escape’ style diversion but Gus overestimates his carrying capacity and draws the cat’s attention at exactly the wrong moment. Despite Jaq’s valiant efforts, Gus is cornered under a teacup. Cinderella unwittingly comes to the rescue once more; the teacup is one of three which she has to carry upstairs, and Gus is delivered right into the lap of an outraged stepsister, who runs straight to her mother for vengeance. Lucifer runs in the same direction, because if there is a side you want to be on in this house, it is the stepmother’s. She sits in the shadows of her bedroom, all death stare and heart’s blood lipstick, plotting terrible things. The rat in a cup incident earns Cinderella a lengthy list of jobs to add to her already hefty schedule. Even Lucifer feels she’s gone too far – probably because she wants Cinderella to bathe him.
Meanwhile, at the castle, the king is throwing a hissy fit and really anything that comes to hand. He’s desperate for grandchildren – as evidence of his terrifying paternal pride, he has a portrait gallery of baby photos culminating in a painting of his adult son that’s got to be about ten times life size – and is infuriated at the prince’s lack of co-operation. His friend/ lackey/ captive audience, the duke, tentatively suggests that maybe he should give the prince some space, letting him find love on his own terms. “Love,” scoffs the king. “Just a boy meeting a girl under the right conditions. So we’re arranging the conditions.” His son is due to arrive home today, so the king’s throwing a huge welcoming party – and inviting every eligible girl in the land.
Two of those eligible girls are Cinderella’s stepsisters, currently polishing their musical skills. They would not be ugly if they’d just stop scowling, but they’re certainly tone deaf. Outside, Cinderella is scrubbing the floor and singing sweetly amidst a cloud of psychedelic bubbles. Lucifer spoils her fun by gleefully prancing all over the clean floor with grubby little feet. This movie is going to a lot of effort to make the audience dislike him, but I will love this cat until the day I die.
Cinderella has to leave off scrubbing anyway to collect the mail and interrupts the music lesson to deliver the king’s invitation. She’s still in the room as it’s read aloud and declares her intention to attend the ball like everybody else. There’s a calm resilience to Cinderella, an undaunted willingness to stand up for herself, that you can’t help admiring. Unless you’re her stepmother, who smoothly agrees Cinderella may attend…if she gets all her chores done first and finds something suitable to wear. Cinderella plans on wearing an old ballgown of her mother’s, but it will take extensive modification and her family soon find a million other uses for her time.
The posse of girl rats who live in her room take over. They have her sewing supplies; they can do this thing. Jaq and Gus eagerly volunteer but the girls reject them based on outdated gender stereotypes and send them to forage for trimmings instead. This means another run-in with Lucifer. Undaunted, they return with a sash and blue beads, both abandoned by Cinderella’s stepsisters. They get to help out with the sewing after all and judging from the way they handle scissors, the girls had good reason to want them elsewhere. Together the rats and bluebirds whip together a stylish pink and white confection, then eagerly await Cinderella’s return.
She’s had a bad day. Having given up all hope of attending the ball, she bids her stepfamily goodbye with immense dignity and poise, and climbs to her tower…where she finds the rats’ present. With ecstatic cries of thanks, she dons the gown and rushes downstairs. Her stepmother, initially shocked, quickly recovers. Drawing her daughters’ attention to their repurposed accessories, she stands back and allows a sartorial bloodbath. The girls literally tear apart Cinderella’s clothes, it’s genuinely disturbing. They then flounce into the waiting coach, and Cinderella runs out into the garden to cry.
She’s sobbing so hard she doesn’t notice the little sparkles that presage imminent magic. Next thing she knows, her head is on the knee of an apple-cheeked old lady. Cinderella realises this is her fairy godmother – she has to work that out on her own, because her godmother is busy looking for her wand. I swear she plucks it out of midair just to show off.
“The first thing you need,” she proclaims, “is a pumpkin.” Cinderella is skeptical, but her godmother gabbles gobbledygook with such authority that the vegetable blossoms into a glittering carriage. Next, she turns all the watching rats into shiny white horses, and the actual horse into a coachman. Bruno the dog becomes a footman. With that, she thinks Cinderella is all set to go – it takes a gentle nudge for her to remember the rags and tatters state her goddaughter is in. A flick of the wand fixes that. Clad in a sparkling dress and glass slippers, Cinderella is so far over the moon that she doesn’t even care all this magic has a very limited expiry date.
We’re in the middle of the film and still haven’t met the prince. We glimpse him now, on a red-carpeted stage, greeting a queue of single girls with the occasional discreet yawn and sarcastic look at his impatient father. He only wakes up when, over Anastasia and Druzilla’s heads, he glimpses Cinderella wandering around uncertainly at the far end of the room. He walks straight off the stage to meet her. The watching king stage manages some romantic lighting and a dreamy waltz. Sure that the evening’s end game has been won, he toddles off to bed, leaving the duke to settle final details. Since the prince dances off with Cinderella, that leaves the rest of the guests to entertain themselves. I hope the food’s good.
Floating together through the blue and white dreamscape of the royal gardens, Cinderella and her prince are sweeping each other off their feet. Just as they are about to kiss, the killjoy clock tower starts striking midnight and Cinderella leaps up. “I haven’t met the prince!” she cries, as a weak excuse. He tries bewilderedly to explain who he is, but she’s already racing down the stairs, leaving one shoe behind in her rush. The duke – noticing too late that the romantic moment has gone awry – wildly overreacts and sends a scary swarm of riders in black to catch her. Luckily, the carriage disintegrates on the last stroke of twelve and they are left with no trail to chase.
The king, assuming his son has proposed, greets the duke the next morning with cigars (HELLO 1950’s TOBACCO FETISH) and a knighthood. The duke unwisely explains the failure while his monarch has the sword raised. To say the king is disappointed is the understatement of the century: he goes on a rampage. “You were in league with the prince,” he howls, while doing his level best to cut the poor duke in half. He only calms down when he hears his son has developed an obsession of his own and sworn to marry only the girl whom the lost shoe fits. The duke is sent out to try it on the foot of every girl in the land.
Hearing the news, the stepmother wakens her own daughters. Very sensibly, they don’t see the point, since the shoe belongs to neither of them – their mother, clearly infuriated that her daughters have acquired this streak of common honesty, insists they make every effort to get the shoe and the prince too. They begin running about, throwing clothes at Cinderella in their haste to get ready. She has overheard the news; lost in giddy daydreams, she pushes the clothes back at her startled stepsisters and glides off, humming last night’s waltz. Her stepmother’s eyes practically glow with wickedness as she puts the pieces together. She follows Cinderella up to her tower room and locks her in. Then she calmly descends to greet the exhausted duke.
Jaq and Gus follow, committed to retrieving the key. While one stepsister and then the other attempt to squeeze into the tiny glass shoe – assisted by a truly committed footman – the rats steal away the key and haul it up stair after stair. This is the rodent equivalent of climbing Mount Everest. They are so close, right outside Cinderella’s door, when Lucifer pounces. He catches Gus, and therefore the key. The other rats charge forth, armed with forks and a lit candle; the bluebirds hurl crockery; all to no avail. Lucifer is impervious to their frantic attacks. Then Bruno comes charging up the stairs and Lucifer is so terrified he JUMPS OUT OF THE TOWER. We never find out if he’s okay. I am really properly upset about this. Setting dogs on cats is not normal and not funny. It is cruelty.
I just Googled the Cinderella sequels. (There are two.) Lucifer is all right.
I’m still angry.
Anyway. Unaware of the battle raging upstairs, the duke is about to depart when Cinderella runs downstairs. He takes in her teeny feet and excellent manners with a surge of optimism. The footman hurries forward and is deliberately tripped by the stepmother; the shoe flies off its cushion and smashes into fragments on the floor. Cinderella calmly reveals the other half of the set, slipping it easily onto her foot. The duke looks like he wants to marry her himself out of pure relief.
The actual wedding takes place at once. Cinderella loses her shoe again on the church steps, fleeing a rain of confetti; her adoring father-in-law returns it. Climbing into the honeymoon carriage, she finally gets to kiss her prince.
No word on how the stepmother takes this emotional blow.
Spot the Difference: Again, Disney sticks fairly close to the fairy tale plot. In both the original story and the movie, the godmother transforms everyday things into a party ensemble, including rats – they unsurprisingly get more screen time in Disney’s version, chewing up the scenery with several separate chase scenes and cute Donald Duck-esque babbling. Lucifer is an original character, of course, and the king, while he certainly exists, had nothing like the narrative presence. He basically writes the romance so he can get grandchildren. Still, with their matching levels of mild sarkiness, Cinderella and the prince are not the worst couple ever. I just hope they swapped names before they got married. It seems an important detail to overlook.