There was a moment when I sat down to watch Cinderella when I knew that I would be in for a treat, even though I had seen the film many times before. That moment was when I saw the credits roll before the film, and saw the names of the people involved. First, there was the list of background or color artists: Mary Blair, Don DaGradi, Claude Coats – titans of the industry. Then, the directing animators came up, and it was literally a list of the Nine Old Men: Ward Kimball, Marc Davis, Woolie Reitherman, Eric Larson, Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, John Lounsbery, Milt Kahl and Les Clark, with Norm Ferguson thrown in for good measure. This is an unrivaled collection of talent.
It makes a huge difference, because the story of Cinderella is nothing original, at least not for Disney. A young girl becomes a scullery maid in her wicked stepmother’s castle, only to discover true love with the aid of some small friends and become a princess. Sound like Snow White? It should. This film follows many of the same roads that Walt Disney’s first animated feature did, right down to the conversations with the animals who help her perform household tasks.
I had never watched the two films closely before to see how similar they are, but that is a good thing in this instance, as years after Snow White, Cinderella advances the medium in numerous ways. The story is somewhat together here, the animation is much more fluid, the characters are deeper and richer and the colors are vibrant and beautiful. Everything about the film leaps off the screen, making it extremely engaging.
Typically, I don’t care for large diversions from the main story, and in Cinderella there are quite a few of them, mainly centered on Jaq and Gus, the two mice, dealing with Lucifer the cat. In this film, they are done so well that although they do detract from the main story, they don’t bring the proceedings to a stand still as many other Disney films have done. Plus, Jaq, Gus and Lucifer play key roles in the climax of the film, so taking time to know how they interact is important.
The key to the entire film, though, is Cinderella herself. Voiced by Ilene Woods, the character becomes real as you watch the film. Her troubles mount by the moment, yet she never lets them overwhelm her until just the precise moment the narrative calls for it. It’s an endearing trait, and one that stands in stark contrast to the cynicism we see in so many non-Disney animated films today. Cinderella is a story of hope against all odds, which is so much a part of the Disney legacy.
If there’s any criticism of the film, it’s that it moves slowly, but so do most movies of this era. Before the emphasis on plot and story became so pronounced in
Hollywood, films had time
to breathe and explore the world they had created, so the Disney filmmakers do
so in Cinderella. The main conflict in
the film isn’t really introduced until 20 minutes in, when the King pops on
screen. In today’s world, that would be
unacceptable, but in the 1950s, it worked, and continues to hold up today.
Cinderella, when she finally becomes the princess, is merely fulfilling the promise that the audience saw in her from the moment she appears on screen. It’s the little moments with her and the mice and birds that show her character, leading to her transformation by the Fairy Godmother. In the end, it makes for a satisfying conclusion to the film. This may be an old story, and this may be an old film at this point, but everything about it feels fresh and invigorating, like a blast from the past that is well needed in this cynical age of animation.