Perhaps the most enduring image the Disney Canon has left planted on popular culture is the Disney Princess. A beautiful young woman who is kind to every creature around her. She represents every quality a man from the beginning of the XX century would look for in a wife while she waits for some deux ex machina to come rescue her from the torment inflicted upon her by jealous villains for simply being nice. Many of this characteristics come from the original fairy tales in which the movies are based, but Disney's enormous popularity throughout the years has made sure it's his version of the stories that remains the one people immediately think about when they hear the names Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, or Cinderella. The success of the Disney brand has helped perpetuate a character stereotype that many feminist groups object to. But we're talking about a vicious circle here, because the Disney movies wouldn't have become as huge as they are were it not for the princesses.
As you might remember from the very first entry in this series, Disney's first animated feature was 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs' back in 1937. While practically inventing the animated feature as we know it, the film became a gigantic box-office success, giving good ol' Walt the ambition to pursue future projects. But a World War and a series of financial disappointments later, Disney had restrained himself to making cheaper "package films" composed of animated shorts. It wasn't until 1950 (eight years after 'Bambi') that he ventured into another feature-length production. It was a gamble that wasn't necessarily going to pay off, the studio was hard in debt and invested so much money in the production that Walt himself said if the movie wasn't a hit, it would have been the end of the Disney Studio. Lucky for him, people went crazy for 'Cinderella'. The film became Disney's biggest success since 'Snow White' and secured the future of the studio by bringing in enough cash to finance further productions.
It only seems fitting that 'Cinderella' became as huge a success as it did. After all, the approach clearly seem to have been to go back to what made 'Snow White' such a popular choice with audiences and using the studios experience with later films to create the ultimate hit. Years later, the studio would use the same approach with yet another princess, 'The Little Mermaid', which you might know also became a huge hit and kicked off the successful period known as the Disney renaissance.
But let's go back to 'Cinderella' and take a look at its many similarities with 'Snow White'. Well, for starters, they are both based on popular fairy tales. Then, we have the titular characters. As two beautiful and kind girls who have a group of cute little animals as friends, both fit in the "Disney Princess" stereotype perfectly. They are both tormented by their evil stepmother and are essentially passive characters that recuire an external characters to save them. In Snow White's case they are the prince and the dwarfs; in Cinderella's, the little mice and her fairy godmother. Both films feature a collection of characteristics that could make any 21st century boy or girl find them antiquated. And yet, they endure.
The big two reasons for this endurance are the same two that have made the best Disney films stand the test of time (apart from Disney's monstruos marketing machine) and both come down to making us care about the character.
The first is the villain. 'Cinderella' is a far less scary movie than 'Snow White'. Nothing in it comes close to the horrifying images of Snow White running through the forest. It does, however, just like the earlier film, feature a terrifying villain that happens to be the lead character's stepmother. Lady Tremaine, voiced by Eleanor Audley, is one of the most underrated villains in the Disney catalogue. What has made her so underrated and rather forgotten in most conversations about the best and most evil Disney villains is what also makes her so great: she isn't a queen, an evil witch of a dark sorcerer; she's just a mean lady.
Her biggest crime is that she is so determined to make Cinderella's life so miserable out of sheer envy for her beauty, charms and probably also for being the daughter of her late husband's previous marriage. She only has power over Cinderella because she is the de facto mother figure in her life. The Evil Queen had her hatred towards Snow White founded by her desire to be the most beautiful woman in the kingdom, but up until the moment the prince spontaneously decides to throw a ball, Lady Tremaine's mistreatment of Cinderella doesn't have any bigger purpose besides the advantages of pretty much turning her into a house slave. There is something inherently horrifying about the fact that someone would actively ruin another person's life just because she can. That same aspect speaks very strongly to children who start to realize how much power their parents have over them, and while in most cases parents love their children and treat them lovingly, there is the fear that you might have ended up being the child (adopted or not) of someone who outright hates you. The fact that Lady Tremaine is animated in a much more realistic way compared to the cartoony supporting characters makes her all the scarier.
The second characteristic that makes the film work so well is lifted from what I would argue was Disney's most successful decision when making 'Snow White': the supporting cast of cute animal companions. Lady Tremaine has the power over Cinderella, but our protagonist is not completely powerless. She stands tall as the leader of a group of animals living in the house that includes birds, a dog, a horse and, most importantly, a group of mice. She could very well treat them with the same disdain Lady Tremaine treats her, but Cinderella is a kind spirit and treats the animals as you would treat a friend. This is most evident with the mice, who she could let to be captured and eaten by Lucifer, her stepmother's pet cat. Instead, she feeds them, makes them clothes and practically adopts them as if they were her own children.
This is one of the movie's most important aspects. The contrast in the way Cinderella and Lady Tremaine exercise their power over their subordinates is the film's most important motive. The fact that Cinderella treats the little creatures to kindly is precisely what empowers her. The morning after she manages to go to ball and dance all night with the prince, when the Duke is going around the kingdom looking for the girl the prince fell in love with, Lady Tremaine locks up Cinderella in her room. Were it not for the relationship she has with the animals, they wouldn't be there to lock her out.
Not only that, but it's also through the animals' relationship to Cinderella that we get to sympathize with her. We spend as much time, if not more, with the two lead mice (Jaques and Gus) running from Lucifer as we do with Cinderella herself. Because of their dynamic with Lucifer, Jaques and Gus are far more dynamic characters than Cinderella and thus more easy to identify with. We care about these two mice and because Cinderella takes care of them and loves them so much, we care about her too (Very much like we cared for Dumbo and Bambi's mothers because they cared for their children). It's in the mice that we find the emotional core of the movie. They would be nothing except a cat's meal without Cinderella. That's why it seems to deserved and gratifying when, realizing that Cinderella won't have time to find a dress to go to the ball, they decide to band together and make her a dress themselves.
The fact that the dress symbolizes the love in the relationship between Cinderella and the mice makes the following scene, in which the stepsisters tear the dress apart just before they leave for the ball, all the more tragic and especially frustrating for child viewers.
The other day I mentioned I was writing this article to a friend and she told me how she has watched the movie a million times in the last few months while babysitting her niece. I too remember a time when the movie played daily in my house because of how much my sister liked it. There is something about Cinderella that works so well with children and I think it's fundamentally based in these power-relationships between the characters. Even in an age where parents largely cater to them, children are still pretty much powerless. They can only rely on the love their parents feel for them to keep them from harm. And I think there is something that speaks to them when they watch how these little mice can band together and make it right out of love for their loving Cinderella.
Next Week: Disney ventures into high-brow literary territory by adapting Lewis Carroll's 'Alice in Wonderland'.