BY RYAN C. SHOWERS
Walt Disney Studios has recently been transforming some of its classic animated movies into live-action blockbusters. In 2010, Alice in Wonderland was a box office smash, earning $334 million domestically. However, Snow White and the Huntsman–though it feels slightly strange to include it with these other, lighter, family-friendly films—did not even make back its budget domestically during its 2012 release. Disney had better luck last year with Angelina Jolie starring as the formidable Sleeping Beauty villain in Maleficent. Considering the popularity of the character and accessible story, a Cinderella movie was inevitable to be on the list of upcoming adaptations. But in order minimize its financial risk, Disney paired Cinderella with a follow-up short film to the mega-hit Frozen called Frozen Fever.
From time to time, Disney partners one of its short films with a big release, for example the Oscar-winning animated short Feast opened Big Hero 6 and Get a Horse! played before Frozen. As an advertising move, it was brilliant way to bank on the attachment many audience members—young and old—have with “Frozen,” and yet still pursue their live-action adaptations. In coupling Frozen Fever to an already financially promising Cinderella film, there is no way this weekend should be a failure for Disney.
But how successful is the product that Disney delivered? Frozen Fever itself is a joyful, lovely seven-minute tribute to the original film and characters. It reminded me of the reasons I loved the full-length movie so much: musical bliss, a visual splash, and strong familial bonds. The majority of the short film is told through a musical number “Making Today a Perfect Day” guided by Idina Menzel’s musical talents, which is sure to curl a smile on your face. Frozen Fever will probably be safe for an Animated Short Oscar nomination, and it could maybe even win based on popularity alone.
But Frozen Fever was just the opening act to Cinderella’s main event.
As a remake of 1950s Walt Disney crafted Cinderella, it is more than sufficient. The term “old-fashioned” is being used to describe “Cinderella” by critics and fittingly so; the organic nature of the striking production values reveals the sincere, fresh and invigorating nature of the project. The biggest problem with Cinderella, for me, is the slightly miscast lead actress. Lily James does not glaringly detract from the project, but she does not add to the movie or enhance the role any more than the screenplay does. The natural affinity I had for the animated character is weakened with James’ version of the innocent persecuted heroine. And though a tad more character development is given to Cinderella and the prince in this version, the loss of the warm songs and Cinderella’s relationship with the talking mice does harden the project a bit.
More than it is an ingenious spin on the classic narrative, Cinderella is interesting in the way it was made, the way the script develops the prologue and the way a few key supporting actors attack their characters.
As just about any thinking person could have guessed prior to seeing the film, Cate Blanchett is the most valuable aspect of Cinderella as Lady Tremaine. We all know Blanchett is one of the top actresses working today, but understanding the quality of her work here will still surprise you as you are witnessing it. She’s wickedly fabulous, and outwardly portrays the stereotyped “evil stepmother” with zeal. But more importantly, the script allows Blanchett to dig a few inches below the surface of the villain mask this character has always been forced to wear, and Blanchett finds enough humanity for us to understand Lady Tremaine as a three-dimensional character. If all the top actors in Hollywood were asked to portray live-action versions of Disney villains, just think of all the fun they would have performing and we would have watching them? (Helena Bonham Carter is also delightful in her scene as the fairy godmother.)
As for Oscar prospects, Cinderella should definitely be in the running for Art Direction, Costume Design and Make-Up/Hairstyling. The radiant costumes should be an easy sell to the Academy; they nominated Maleficent, Snow White and the Huntsman, and gave Alice in Wonderland the win. The sets are probably the most crushingly impressive aspect of Cinderella. Hopefully the voters will remember the glorious splendor in ten months when filling out ballots. The Academy passed up both Maleficent and Snow White for art direction, but Alice in Wonderland also won that category, so there is hope based on some precedent. Make-Up/Hairstyling is always an unpredictable category, but it is possible Cinderella could be shortlisted. (If Disney sends stills of Cate Blanchett as Lady Tremaine to all three of these branches of the Academy as FYC ads, Cinderella could get all three nominations. As fancy as the ball sequence is, Lady Tremaine’s scenes are the most aesthetically intimidating.)
In a similar way to last year’s Maleficent, Cinderella begins much earlier in the story’s timeline than the animated film does, playing out introductory information as crucial exposition. Unlike Maleficent though, Cinderella does not reach far to translate its story from the 1950s ideology to the modern age we live in. It simply wants to revisit what we already know about Cinderella’s plight, and relay it to younger viewers. This movie supports all of the “Cinderella myths” that are at the root of most mainstream cinematic stories about women. Though most of the “new” plot points provide some clarity, they are rather predictable, unlike the reimagined backstory in Maleficent.
Like I suggest above, Cinderella lacks the feminist bite of Maleficent and the female empowerment that most creditable female stories at least vaguely contain today. We are at a point where we are able to unabashedly call out misogyny in film, and women, though not usually in Hollywood studio films, are able to lead movies as strong, intelligent, and independent individuals. It is wonderful to see a studio funded film where the majority of the central cast is female, but at the same time, without a reinventing the story at all, Cinderella still carries the same ideas that progressive art critics and feminists have criticized the original Cinderella for supporting and premating through the modern media.
It’s a unique double bind that Disney creates this weekend, promoting two stories together when the convictions of each of film contradict one another. Right before Cinderella starts, we see a reminder of what messages modern movies like Frozen are capable of sending to younger kids about the world we live in. But there’s an odd feeling when Frozen, a movie where the princess could be interpreted as symbolizing the LGBTQ community and where neither main female character is shown needing to be married off in the end, is combined with Cinderella, a film that reinforces the belief that women should clean and cook in misery until a man saves them because they are attractive. The new movie tries to stress Cinderella’s “kindness and courage” as her defining attributes, but then actions speak louder than words when Lily James puts on Cinderella’s blue ball gown, flaunting an objectified and unnaturally small waistline.