Cinderella (2015): My Favorite Disney Nostalgia Bait Movie

This isn’t exactly the most controversial choice for the best of Disney’s recent (and seemingly unending) line of remakes and updates of old material. I believe it was one of the better received ones. But it’s not a totally safe movie to praise either. Feminist accusations against it range from that it fetishizes the hourglass figure to that its heroine’s personality just amounts to “nice” to that said heroine’s salvation comes from marrying a man.[1]I don’t get why Jane Austen usually gets a pass from feminists when most of her conflicts are resolved by the heroine getting married. I suppose it’s because at the point of the plot … Continue reading It’s true that Cinderella in this movie is a mostly passive figure. At one point even more so than in the 1950 animated movie. When she was locked in her room at the top of the house in that film’s climax and the mice trying to release her were being hindered by the cat, Cinderella had the idea of getting the dog to help. In 2015, Cinderella (Lily James) isn’t even aware that the glass slipper is waiting downstairs and that she needs to escape right away. How can I recommend such a female lead to impressionable kids?

Being rather passive myself, I’m tempted to snark that passive people are underrepresented by Hollywood and we need more role models. Don’t we deserve it? How many wars have passive people initiated?

Seriously though, I love a good empowerment fantasy, whether it’s for girls or boys, and I hope they don’t go away, but I’d question whether those fantasies are really any more practical than the one that a fairy godmother is going to appear out of nowhere and solve our problems for us. In real life, much of the time we aren’t powerful. Whether we’re men or women, there are going to be problems that we can’t just solve by ourselves. That’s life. There are plenty of modern movies teaching kids to stand up and fight for their beliefs. There aren’t many that teach them not to let themselves become embittered or stoop to the level of their persecutors. Restraining resentment is typically portrayed as a bad thing by modern Disney movies and arguably kids’ movies in general. The power that Cinderella represents may not seem useful or exciting at first glance but it’s one worth having and celebrating. Ideally perhaps, our heroes should be able to both lead a charge and survive a siege, but if Cinderella can’t do the former, a lot of the more feminist-friendly heroines of recent movies couldn’t do the latter. And while it’s not necessarily what I would have done if I were writing the script, I find it poetically appealing how in the 2015 movie’s climax, Cinderella saves herself not by trying to do anything but simply by being the person her beloved parents (Hayley Atwell and Ben Chaplin) raised her to be. It’s hard to say how all this will age when the feminists of my youth who criticized Cinderella for not taking control of her destiny and finding salvation through fancy clothes and shoes are now being criticized by more modern feminists for Blaming the Victim and not wanting Cinderella to enjoy her femininity. But I believe this film has timeless virtues that just might enable it to stand the test of history better than any other piece of recent Disney nostalgia bait. It’s the only one that doesn’t feel like it was specifically made for this day and age.

And, hey, it’s not like the filmmakers were totally oblivious to modern audiences. Cinderella may be passive in the climax, but she gets two scenes where she stands up to the stepmother (Cate Blanchett), one of them quite dramatic.[2]The 1950 movie did have a moment where Cinderella’s stepsisters ordered her to help them get dressed and she ignored them. This was too unconsciously done for it to count as her standing up to … Continue reading While the stepsisters (Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera, both hilarious) have tacky wardrobes and hairdos, they’re explicitly supposed to be “ugly within” and “fair without,” so there’s no good-people-are-beautiful-bad-people-are-ugly dynamic.[3]This is not as revisionist as you’d think. The Charles Perrault version of Cinderella, upon which the Disney movies are largely based, never describes the stepsisters as ugly and the Brothers … Continue reading Cinderella’s motive for wanting to attend the royal ball is also explicitly not to meet the Prince (Richard Madden), so she’s not just a social climber.[4]The 1950 movie also had her fall in love with the Prince before knowing his identity but this was after she arrived at the ball, so presumably bagging him was still her motivation for going there.

But make no mistake. This is a very traditional feeling Cinderella, which brings us to the more fundamental criticism of it that everyone already knows the story and that it brings nothing new to the table. But I’d challenge those who scoff at the idea of yet another Cinderella to cite how many Cinderella movies were made recently and how many of them played the material straight. Just about every one of them was “not your grandmother’s Cinderella.” This actually is kind of your grandmother’s Cinderella-and that’s what I love about it. It’s refreshing to see a story that meant something to me as a kid treated as great in its own right and not just something that needs to be updated. It may sound trite to say that the movie’s twist is that there is no twist, but for me it works. This was the first Disney nostalgia bait movie to be an outright remake and I’m not sure if it gets enough credit for how many risks it took. Like Cinderella herself, the movie is both the obvious belle of the ball and an underdog. On the one hand, it has a very recognizable title/brand name, a huge budget and Disney’s omnipresent marketing to back it up. On the other hand, it’s slow paced, with a lot of emphasis on character development, no conventional message of female empowerment (though it does have an unconventional one), hardly any action scenes and not even that many fantasy elements, though when there is some action or some magic, well, let’s just say the movie makes the most of it. It’s honestly kind of breathtaking the way the filmmakers refuse to pander to viewers or apologize for the old-fashioned nature of their material. I’d call the movie defiantly oldfashioned, but it’s too relaxed and confident to be described as defiant.

Bother to scratch the movie’s surface and it’s a more original take on the story than first meets the eye.[5]The final third actually adds several new wrinkles while staying within the broad confines of the 1950 Cinderella‘s climax. And since the movie has conditioned us not to expect twists, unlike … Continue reading But more on that later.

In a film with a lot of valuable players, Lily James gets my vote for MVP. Beautiful actresses are a dime a dozen. Those that make their characters interesting are truly special. Just watch her face during the early scene where her father starts to explain that he’s going to remarry. You get that she knows where he’s going with this, she doesn’t like the idea but that she believes it’s the right thing to do and she’s going to be supportive no matter what it costs her. Clearly, it’s not easy being Cinderella. James elevates the script, bringing depth beyond what is written and an unprecedented dignity to her role. She might just be the only Cinderella whom I believe in as both the overlooked household drudge and the belle of the ball.

And it’s not as if the screenplay by Chris Weitz needed that much elevating. Parts of it are admittedly corny. (Count how often the mantra of “have courage and be kind” is repeated. Though I admire how non-feel good that message is. I’d have expected something more along the lines of “be true to yourself” or “follow your heart” from this kind of movie.) But it can also be quite witty and clever when it wants to be. The character of Master Phineus (Rob Brydon) the acerbic royal portrait painter is a real One Scene Wonder. The Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter, the only member of the cast winking at the audience, not that I’m complaining; she’s great fun in the role) is also a fountain of great quotes. The bit about transforming the pumpkin is particularly entertaining.

One of the things that made Kenneth Branagh the perfect director for a movie like this is that he’s a rare director who can make love at first sight not just acceptable but delightful. (Disney animated movies at their best tend to make it acceptable.) In his 1993 Much Ado About Nothing, he made the notoriously hard to sell romance between Claudio and Hero a tearjerker (in a good way) and in his 2006 As You Like It, he sold one of the most arbitrary examples of Pair the Spares in Shakespeare.[6]For a counterexample, see the 2021 West Side Story, which in most ways is a dramatic improvement on the original stage play and the 1961 movie but comes across as embarrassed by the intense … Continue reading I love how in the scene, original to this version, where Cinderella and the Prince meet before the ball, when she objects to the royal stag hunt on the grounds that “just because it’s what done doesn’t mean it’s what should be done,” his reaction is less that his world has been rocked by an entirely foreign philosophy than that he’s thrilled to have finally found someone who shares his convictions. This makes it much more believable that they would be a good couple than if interacting with her inspired him to change his whole worldview within a few days.[7]Am I picking on Ever After: A Cinderella Story (1998)? No. Well, maybe. There are plenty of good reasons that movie is popular but the central romance probably isn’t one of them. It’s almost shocking how polite these lovers are to each other. Contrast it with the distinctly boorish male love interests of such modern fairy tales as Shrek and Frozen. There’s a value in that, sending the message that the one you love doesn’t necessarily have to be some perfect ideal. But maybe if there were more idealistic movies like Cinderella, we wouldn’t be living in the age of Twitter wars.

I’ll admit I wasn’t a big fan of Cate Blanchett’s stepmother at first. I liked how the animated stepmother of the 1950 movie was the only character besides Cinderella and the Prince to be totally realistic and not a caricature. It made her stand out. And it was interesting that she never had a monologue or anything about how much she hated Cinderella. Most of her dialogue would have sounded completely innocent taken out of context. More was unsaid than said with her character. Blanchett seemed much more gleeful and (ironically) cartoony in her villainy and, not to spoil anything, but eventually she does get a speech about why she hates Cinderella. But this stepmother grew on me. I admire the decision to have her be a tragic villain rather than the baddie you love to hate as the character is normally portrayed. And she’s just so good at being gleefully villainous! The characters of the stepsisters are played much more for laughs, but they also get a moment where the viewer is invited to pity them.

It’s typical for Cinderella movies, such as the original Disney animated one, to give the Prince an uneasy relationship with his royal parents, usually with them pressuring him to get married against his wishes. This one however has the Prince be very close with his loving father(Derek Jacobi.) Whether he will follow his inclinations and pursue Cinderella or make the politically advantageous marriage the king would prefer is a real question. This Cinderella never goes for the easy conflict while telling a story that is ordinarily all about easy conflicts.[8]Though the movie does add another antagonist who is given less sympathy than the stepmother or stepsisters. This makes him less interesting but he’s fine for what he is.

Most recent Disney nostalgia bait movies are trying on some level to be more mature, adult versions of their source material. Cinderella (2015) is one of the few that I think really succeeds at this.[9]Aladdin is my pick for the other but that’s controversial. I think it appeals more to adults since it focuses on the psychology of the characters and their relationships and makes them more interesting than they were in the 1950 animated movie which focused more on what would interest children, the comedic antics of Cinderella’s mice and her stepmother’s cat.[10]The flipside of that is that the brief and forgettable scenes between the mice and the cat in Cinderella (2015) are nowhere near as inventive and entertaining as those in the 1950 film. And I should … Continue reading That’s not to say to say that kids can’t enjoy the newer movie though or that adults can’t enjoy the older one. I have several times. And there’s no reason people have to choose between them. Disney is happy to sell both.

Some Final Thoughts on Disney Nostalgia Bait

Before I end this series, I’d like to address the opinion that if Disney absolutely has to make all these nostalgia bait movies, it’s better for them to be Type A ones, which at least try to put a fresh spin on the material. I disagree with this not because I have anything against fresh spins but because Disney’s attempts at fresh spins have usually been…not that fresh. Take Christopher Robin (2018), a generally well written, if heavy handed, and well-made movie about which I’ll have good things to say if I ever blog about it in more detail. But all the best parts of it are recreating classic Winnie-the-Pooh moments. (Pooh doing his “stoutness exercises” in front of the looking glass, Eeyore floating under the Pooh Sticks bridge, Tigger mistaking his reflection for another person, etc.) The “original” stuff consists of standard, if enjoyable, fish-out-of-water comedy and a generic family drama about a father who needs to focus on work less and spend more time with his family. It’s well done for what it is, but I doubt if I’d have gone out of my way to see it if not for the gimmick of using Pooh characters. Watching it, I kind of wish the filmmakers had just done a remake of The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. As a fan of the books by A. A. Milne, I can think of a few improvements they could have made to it.[11]Mainly, I’d like to reinstate Pooh actually coming up with how to save his friend, Piglet, from the flood. In the Many Adventures, Christopher Robin just mistakenly believes he has. And I’ve already blogged at some length about how Maleficent does a lot of posturing about how it’s not the story you remember when anyone familiar with these kinds of fractured fairy tales can see every twist it gives to Sleeping Beauty coming from a mile away.[12]I’m tempted to go into a rant about how the 2010 Alice in Wonderland preaches nonconformity while replacing the unconventional narrative of the original books with a generic story about a … Continue reading In my initial defense of Disney nostalgia bait movies, I dismissed The Lion King (2019) as the dullest and least creative of Type B remakes and I’ll stand by that assessment. Yet in a weird way I respect The Lion King in that, unlike Maleficent, it doesn’t pretend to be original when it really isn’t.

And you know what movie I respect a lot more? Cinderella (2015)

References

References
1 I don’t get why Jane Austen usually gets a pass from feminists when most of her conflicts are resolved by the heroine getting married. I suppose it’s because at the point of the plot where it looks like the heroine isn’t going to get the guy she wants, she’s always portrayed as making the best of it and moving on with her life rather than acting like the world has come to an end. For whatever it’s worth, according to the book, A Wish Your Heart Makes: From the Grimm Brothers’ Aschenputtel to Disney’s Cinderella, this was also the intention of the 2015 Cinderella’s filmmakers, however they might have failed at conveying it.
2 The 1950 movie did have a moment where Cinderella’s stepsisters ordered her to help them get dressed and she ignored them. This was too unconsciously done for it to count as her standing up to them but it was satisfying in its own way.
3 This is not as revisionist as you’d think. The Charles Perrault version of Cinderella, upon which the Disney movies are largely based, never describes the stepsisters as ugly and the Brothers Grimm version describes them as having “beautiful and fair features but nasty and wicked hearts.”
4 The 1950 movie also had her fall in love with the Prince before knowing his identity but this was after she arrived at the ball, so presumably bagging him was still her motivation for going there.
5 The final third actually adds several new wrinkles while staying within the broad confines of the 1950 Cinderella‘s climax. And since the movie has conditioned us not to expect twists, unlike Maleficent, these actually are surprising.
6 For a counterexample, see the 2021 West Side Story, which in most ways is a dramatic improvement on the original stage play and the 1961 movie but comes across as embarrassed by the intense love-at-first-sight romance at its center and suffers as a result.
7 Am I picking on Ever After: A Cinderella Story (1998)? No. Well, maybe. There are plenty of good reasons that movie is popular but the central romance probably isn’t one of them.
8 Though the movie does add another antagonist who is given less sympathy than the stepmother or stepsisters. This makes him less interesting but he’s fine for what he is.
9 Aladdin is my pick for the other but that’s controversial.
10 The flipside of that is that the brief and forgettable scenes between the mice and the cat in Cinderella (2015) are nowhere near as inventive and entertaining as those in the 1950 film. And I should stress that I do consider the animated Cinderella to be a well written and well-developed heroine. I just find the 2015 live action one more interesting.
11 Mainly, I’d like to reinstate Pooh actually coming up with how to save his friend, Piglet, from the flood. In the Many Adventures, Christopher Robin just mistakenly believes he has.
12 I’m tempted to go into a rant about how the 2010 Alice in Wonderland preaches nonconformity while replacing the unconventional narrative of the original books with a generic story about a prophesied hero slaying a monster, dethroning a tyrant and restoring a rightful monarch, but I already declared that that one wasn’t technically a Disney nostalgia bait movie. If I were to go on that rant though, I would have to acknowledge that the 2016 sequel, Alice Through the Looking Glass, is a surprisingly big improvement on it with a more interesting, if imperfect, plot, much more quotable dialogue and a welcome bit of the spirit of Lewis Carroll. All in all, a fun popcorn flick.
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