For at least three generations of Americans Walt Disney’s Cinderella (1950) has successfully eclipsed its source material by Charles Perrault as the definitive adaptation of that classic fairytale. In hindsight, it’s easy to see why. Cinderella marked a return to the fairytale format largely abandoned by Disney in the mid-forties in order to produce shorts for the war effort. There’s no getting around the obvious; that Cinderella treads lightly on familiar ground first established by the animators in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. But Cinderella approaches the time-honored precepts of the fairytale with an ambitiously fresh pair of eyes. The resulting film has a sheen of ultra-glamor, a majesty and a charm all its own; its songs of that rarified Tin Pan Alley ilk that seem more sentimentally appropriate with each passing year.
Arguably better animation is seen elsewhere in the Disney canon. But the visual style of Cinderella represents a perfect marriage in elegance and refinement. Hence, Cinderella has what Walt affectionately referred to as ‘heart’ – its narrative, the poignant triumph of an underdog embodied in the slender, dream-like figure of a scullery girl turned princess. Adherence to this basic wish fulfillment has never been quite so intoxicating. But in the spring of 1948, when Disney’s artisans began their preliminary work on the project, spirits and morale at the studio were anything but riding high.
The 1940s had encompassed a decade’s worth of ambitious films (Pinocchio, Fantasia, and Bambi) that had met with indifference at the box office. Worse, the U.S. government’s temporary annexation of the studio facilities to make training films – and Walt’s own episodic contributions to Roosevelt’s Latin American ‘good neighbor’ policy had resulted in a very dry spell where profits were concerned. In fact, by 1948, the Disney Studios were $4,000,000.00 in debt. Hence, the very preservation of the company rested squarely on Cinderella’s success.
In re-crafting Perrault’s story for the movies the Disney artists remained relatively faithful to the central narrative, while managing to infuse their own subplot into the proceedings. Cinderella (voiced by Ilene Wood) is a child when her father dies. Her stepmother, Lady Tremaine (Eleanor Audley) is a manipulative wicked woman who pampers her own offspring, Drizzella (Rhoda Williams) and Anastasia (Lucille Bliss) at Cinderella’s expense. However, when a royal invitation decrees that every eligible maiden shall attend a ball in honor of the Prince (Mike Douglas – singing/William Phipps - dialogue) Cinderella makes ready her own plans to attend, sewing together a gown from bits of her stepsister’s discarded dresses.
Cinderella is ably aided in her work by Jacques and Gus (both voiced by James MacDonald) and other mice she saved from the trap and the claws of the Tremaine’s maniacal house cat, Lucifer (June Foray). On the eve of the ball Cinderella appears before her stepmother and siblings in her refurbished gown, only to have it torn to pieces in a fit of jealous rage. Distraught and humiliated Cinderella is attended by her kindly Fairy Godmother (Verna Felton) who bequeaths one magnificent night of good wishes that transform Cinderella into the very embodiment of a fairytale princess.
Cinderella attends the ball and dances with the prince who becomes instantly smitten. But her moment of triumph is cut short when the clock strikes midnight. Hurrying away, much to the prince’s confusion, Cinderella inadvertently leaves behind one of her glass slippers. The prince ambitiously decrees that he will not rest until he finds the girl he danced with and orders the Grand Duke (Luis Van Rooten) to go house to house with the slipper. Realizing that Cinderella is the prince’s ideal, Lady Tremaine locks her in the attic just as the Duke’s carriage arrives.
But Gus and Jacques save the day, stealing the key and averting Lucifer to rescue Cinderella from her prison. In a last ditch effort to deprive Cinderella of her happiness, Lady Tremaine trips the Duke’s footman who drops the glass slipper on the tile floor where it shatters. The Duke is beside himself with grief until Cinderella reveals to all that she is in possession of the other glass slipper. Cinderella and the Prince are married and drive off together, presumably to live their lives happily ever after.
From start to finish Cinderella is a sparkling champagne cocktail of effervescent delights. Few movies - animated or otherwise - are as perfectly pitched to appeal to our sentiment without being overly sentimental. What makes Perrault’s original story so right for the Disney touch is that it provides a very bare bones ‘good vs. evil’ scenario that, while central to the narrative structure of the film, nevertheless allows room for experimentation and creativity – both in ample abundance at the Disney studios circa 1948.
To ensure the film’s marketability Walt auditioned Tin Pan Alley songwriters Al Hoffman, Mack David and Jerry Livingston – men who were keenly attuned to writing ‘pop’ hits. Asked to produce one song on spec for consideration, the trio collaborated on ‘A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes’ – an lyrical ballad that prompted Walt to immediately put them under contract. To augment their work, Walt also assigned resident studio composers Oliver Wallace, Paul Smith and Joe Dubin for the orchestral portions of the score. In the end, the gamble paid off. Cinderella was Oscar-nominated in both Best Original Song and Score categories.
Viewed today, Cinderella has lost none of its magic. In fact, it remains as fresh and appealing as the day it was made. The songs do more than reflect the period in which they were written; they capture the timelessness of its fairytale setting – as appealing to adults as they continue to provide memorable delights for the toddler set. There is empathetic warmth in Ilene Wood’s vocal styling, ever so slightly peppered with a hint of larceny and playful condemnation for her disreputable half siblings. The same can be said of Verna Felton’s lovably obtuse Fairy Godmother, who can bibbity-bobbity-boo with the best of them, but is not above momentarily becoming flustered by her own minor ineptitude.
Arguably, the glue that holds every Disney film together is the strength of its villain, and Cinderella has one of the most commanding in Eleanor Audley’s Lady Tremaine. To listen to Audley’s clipped annunciation as she orders her charge about the house is to instantly be taken back to a scolding from our collective childhoods; to have the dander on the back of our necks raised and feel the faint shudder of adult authority frighten us into submission.
Disney’s artisans are clearly at the top of their game. Cinderella’s world is visually resplendent, even in its impoverished settings. But its heroine is something more; a genuine soul whose simple yearning for contentment, and her unerring belief that she will someday find it, continues to inform and endear herself to us despite changing times and tastes. As such Cinderella is likely to remain that ageless flower of animated perfection, especially for little girls, and for many good years yet to come.
Given Disney’s perennial commitment to hi-def, it really comes as no surprise that Cinderella on Blu-ray exhibits a beautifully restored 1080p transfer. Colors are rich and brilliant. Digital restoration has yielded a sumptuously detailed image, allowing the hand drawn elements to shine as never before. This is a reference quality disc that will afford many hours of renewed pleasure. The DTS 7.1 audio exhibits stunning clarity and phenomenal spatial separation.
Diane Disney Miller gives a very brief new intro to the film that is optional and can be accessed from the main menu. Extras new to this Blu-ray include a brief bio on Mary Alice O’Connor, a ten minute piece on the glass slipper and a shameless promotion for Walt Disney World’s newly expanded Fantasyland. There’s also a short ‘Tangled Ever After’ that focuses on Rapunzel. I’m still trying to figure out why this is included on Cinderella!
The rest of the extras are all imports from Disney’s 2 disc DVD and include tributes to concept artist Mary Blair and Disney’s original ‘9 old men’, plus the comprehensive ‘making of’ documentary, trivia, fun and games suitable for the children, original concept art, cells and stills and press promotion junkets. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)