I was enchanted last night at Cineplex with the new 2015 Cinderella. Let's not for a moment take this film too seriously. But Disney had a few tricks up its sleeve that I think are important to take down.
Directed by Kenneth Branagh and starring Lily James (plays Cinderella, known for role in Downton Abbey), Richard Madden (plays the prince, known as Rob Stark on GoT), Cate Blanchett (plays the stepmother), and Helena-Bonam Carter (plays fairy godmother).
Disney takes us on a journey through Cinderella and her mice companions with a few modern twists.
1. Where does this film take us? To a mystical enchanted world where mice understand little girls, Princes fall in love with chambermaids, and fairy godmothers turn lizards into chauffeurs. A world with depth and reasoning. We finally get to hear the side of the evil step mother and the side of the Prince. The aesthetic is enchanting, almost Tim Burton meets British romance. Perhaps too over the top for Jane Austen, but perfectly acceptable for this film.
2. How did this film make us feel? First, I left feeling happy. I literally hummed and waltzed out of the theatre. But then I realized something else as I was discussing it with a friend. Now, I'd like to talk about two key emotions: neutrality and frustration. There are three important mourning scenes for the three deaths in the film. A Disney film actually shows three characters dying. BUT, this film being of course and instrument of instruction as well as entertainment, teaches young children to have courage through the bad times and enjoy the good times as they come. Cinderella has her dad as comfort during her mother's early death and the mice for comfort while she mourns for her father alone. This is an important and strange emotion for young children and it is important to show strength and courage. Both the men and women in the movie are encouraged to cry and say "I love you." Therefore, Disney does away with its usual hyper-masculine figures like the Prince and introduces a more realistic and personable character. The Prince is even named Kit, not just "prince." While I felt a strong pull to comfort both Ella and Kit, I also knew they would overcome the death and move forward in life, carrying their important familiar education forward: have courage and be kind. My only slight let down is the way Cinderella confronts her Stepmother. I was hoping for more confrontation, not just a pardon at the end. It is as bad to over react in these situations as it is to under react, to say nothing and let the abuse continue. Not everyone can hold out and wait for prince charming to come cantering through the forest one day. Something to work on Disney?
3. There are two characters that were expanded upon which lead me to understand their worlds a lot better: Kit (Prince) and the Stepmother. Kit is a young apprentice with humour and a propensity to be a good ruling monarch. He is loyal to his father but stubborn in his ideals. He doesn't let class or position in life rule his feelings. All are equal, regardless of birth. This we can see in the final marriage proposal scene when Ella says, "If the shoe fits will you take me as I am? As a young country girl?" To which the Prince replies, "Will you take me as I am? An apprentice Monarch named Kit?" When Kit's father is dying in bed, Disney does not instruct the Prince to be strong and to save his tears. He let's them go freely, and lies on his dads chest like a child. I did not see this as emasculating or even childish. It was simply a display of strong love and emotions. This is important for Disney to break away from its usual male portrayals. And what did we learn about the stepmother? Well, she was once a young innocent beauty and in love. She was unlucky in the marriage with the birth of her half-wit daughters and the death of her husband. Her debt was insurmountable and she needed to re-marry again to save her family. In some ways, she has much courage. She risked her happiness to marry another man to keep the family afloat. Cinderella's presence was an all too shocking reminder of her earlier life and her inability to return to happiness. While we may still dislike her, we understand her actions and therefore understand Cinderella's easy pardon at the end. We are left to question, if this was Cinderella and her mother, would the mother not have done the same for Cinderella? Fought for her to win the heart of the prince to give CInderella a better life?
4. This film is full of fun and fewer surprises. The humour is a nice break from the cheesy romance tale and keeps us grounded in this mystical land. Helena-Bonam Carter plays an imperfect fairy godmother who seems to be a bit out of practice but lucks out anyways. This scene was entirely a wonderful surprise. The costuming and set design for the golden coach and lizard and duck drivers was very humorous. The one serious moment that actually was another delightful surprise was when Cinderella and the Prince meet for the first time in the woods. This was a greatly added piece of narrative that shapes the rest of the story. The Prince playfully declares she has interrupted his hunt, and she declares back, "What has that stag ever done to you." The Prince asks, "Are you friends with the stag?" She replies, "No, just an acquaintance. We met momentarily before. He looked me in my eyes and I saw him." The Prince ponders this with a smile, "It is the royal hunt, we always hunt a stag." Cinderella closes the conversation with a helpful tidbit of advice that pushes the Prince's narrative forward, "Just because you have always done so, does not mean you should be doing it at all." In this way, it is as if the once very limited caricatures in Disney have finally broken free and become full bodied characters. Disney is attempting to remodel its mode of communications to younger audiences by providing role models with depth and feeling and who embody non-gendered emotions.
5. A transformative experience? Don't make me giggle. Of course Cinderella transforms herself visually to attend the ball. But she does not change WHO she is inside. Her clothing and hair are mere accessory. We see this theme applied to the two step sisters, who look rather dashing, but remain immature little girls without any thought or wit. Therefore it is not the appearance of success that marks a person, but their actions and words. This is an important lesson for younger audiences growing up in a world riddled with consumerist fantasies. Unfortunately Cinderella still reaffirms that marriage is the only way OUT for Ella, which we know today is not the case. But we can take that with a grain of salt (okay maybe 100 grains of salt). In some ways we can think of this story at its baseline to be very modern: A country wench without name or fortune is destined to do housework her whole life. She is the embodied stay-at-home mother or even the butler. The Prince allows her to escape her toils. We cannot assume Ella forgets herself and becomes lazy being with the Prince. Her good habits and kind character transcend wealth and class. Her good behaviour landed her a prize, an escape from a life is horrible and meaningless to one with meaning and love. I feel like this plotline is riddled with cyclical issues that are trying to justify themselves through Cinderella's good character. BUT in many ways, Disney is trying to break free of its usual notions and to that I give it much credit.
Never mind what they call her, she asks us to love her for who she is. To be the best version of ourselves at all times. This is a great message for a rather cheesy romantic film. Bibbidy bobbidy BOO!