I was never much of a Disney princess person. My favorites from the Mouse House were more along the lines of Aladdin and The Lion King than Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, and Sleeping Beauty. This isn’t one of those horribly misogynistic Not Like Those Other Girls rants–“Disney princesses are for girly girls who only care about dresses and makeup and hair, ewwwwwww“–just a simple statement of where I was coming from when I went to a screening of Disney’s live-action Cinderella, directed by Kenneth Branagh and starring IRL Disney princess Lily James. The story of Cinderella, my inner child told me, is OK if you’ve misplaced your Mulan* VHS, but it’s kind of bland and, really, I’m only watching for Gus Gus.**
Thank you, Cinderella, for opening my eyes. Spoilers follow…
Here’s the thing about Cinderella: It is a giant, froofy, amazing “f*ck you” to the idea that stories have to be “edgy” or “gritty” in order to be taken seriously. It’s a trap that Disney fell into with their previous live-action Maleficent and Alice in Wonderland, adding bacckstories or battles to “update” their stories for a modern audience. Ditto the non-Disney Snow White and the Huntsman. But here’s the thing about fairy tales: They have a magic that transcends time. They teach children that they should be brave, can be loyal and kind and true and good, and that those values are worth something, even when one is up against insurmountable odds and it’s easier not to stick up for oneself.***
In Cinderella, screenwriter Chris Weitz gives princess-to-be Cinderella (aka Ella) a defining ethos, one that was imparted to her by her dying mother (spoilers?), played by Hayley Atwell: One must always be courageous and kind. And that’s shown as being difficult for Cinderella, at times. She has to struggle to keep her resentment towards her evil stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and stepsisters (Holliday Grainger, Sophie McShera) at bay. At one point, she runs away from her ill treatment at home. But always, eventually, Cinderella chooses that that is not who she is. She forgives her stepmother. She returns to her home, not because she’s a weakling who has no thought in her head other than to be ordered around, but because the house is all that’s left of her parents, and it’s incredibly important to her. She’s courageous enough to weather the storm and not be driven away.
She’s not broody. She’s not angsty. Her entire character motivation is “I want to be a good person,” and if you think that’s inherently less interesting or less difficult to achieve than “My parents were killed when I was a child, and I have to dress up like a bat to avenge them, graaarrrrrrgh,” then there’s the door. There’s this idea that a gritty film is adult, while a more fun, lighter one is childish and dumb. This dichotomy recently reared its head in a statement by Warner Bros. CEO Kevin Tsujijara, who said that DC movies are “steeped in realism” and “a little bit edgier than Marvel’s movies.”
Exsqueeze me? A-baking powder? The “edginess=realism” thing kind of loses its panache when you’re older than 16. Superman, an alien who flies, is not somehow made more “realistic” than Captain America, a scrawny kid from Brooklyn who was experimented on by the military and fought in World War II, just because Zack Snyder has Supes kill someone and bust up half of Metropolis.
Similarly, Cinderella being a fun, happy, above all earnest movie where a fundamentally good person has some struggles and works past them to get her happily ever after doesn’t mean it has less to say than one where you give your main character an “edgy” backstory (turns out Cinderella’s father was killed by the stepmother, who was an assassin hired by the king, so Cinderella has to go to the ball to try and take her revenge, but then she falls in love with the prince, who has to choose whether to turn against his father, and the rats have to go into battle in tiny suits of armor, oh no!) for the sake of pulling in adults. Newsflash: More than one bona fide grown up film reviewer was almost driven to tears in my screening. Just make a good movie instead of relying on narrative trickery.
This is especially directed at Disney, whom I hope will stay the Cinderella course with their upcoming live-action adaptations of Beauty and the Beast, The Jungle Book, and Dumbo.**** All fairy tale movies don’t necessarily have to be fun and positive, but I do believe that those sorts of movies are what Disney, at least, was put on this Earth by God Almighty to do.
And we all lived happily ever after.
*I know Mulan is technically a Disney princess, but we’re not going to have that fight here. Also, Aladdin had a Disney princess in Jasmine, but I was more about that flying carpet and genie.
**Best Disney animal sidekick. Suck it.
***Unless we’re talking about the original fairytales, which often involved their protagonists suffering distinctly Grimm fates at the end. But I’m writing about the versions that have become part of the cultural landscape, here.
****Given Tim Burton being tapped as the Dumbo director, I’m not incredibly hopeful, but I’m going to give my inner Cinderella a chance and keep the flame of optimisism burning.