So, let’s clear the air here, Disney sanitized most of the fairy tales for which they’re famous. Cinderella is no different, but with some golden slippers here and a wishing tree there, it’s still drawn from the persecuted heroine archetype. It’s not so much the liberties Disney is prone to take with their adaptations; it’s the Disney-fication of heavy subject matter. Cinderella is littered with dead parents and awful, emotionally wounded people, but there is a soft focus, sunny patina to the entire affair. Will it drive you crazy? It could, but maybe try not to be so jaded all the time…
To that end, you know every single beat of this story. There are no surprises, there are no wrinkles, and there are no radical interpretations. The picture does appear to be set in the late 19th century, and the costumes are crazy on point, but other than a nudge in the era, it’s boilerplate. And I couldn’t be happier. The talent does give the vibe you might be watching the sappiest episode of Game of Thrones ever (Robb Stark, Richard Madden, plays the Prince) or…well, any episode of Downton Abbey (Lily James plays Cinderella and Sophie McShera plays evil step-sister Drisella). There are also some other notables on the bill, the unfortunately under-utilized Stellan Skarsgard and the electric Cate Blanchett who utterly owns her long reveal as our Stepmother in question.
If you really want to examine Cinderella critically, it is admittedly more surface than substance. There’s no profound resonance. Even in the moment where they try and reach behind Evil Stepmother’s China doll face to unspool the darkness lingering therein, it’s superficial. Your characters are good or bad, and there are no shades between. The drama is slight, the growth is limited, and the conflicts are little more than stumbling blocks on our upward climb to happily ever after. But it is a fairy tale, broad moral lessons housed in perfunctory narrative packages to plant little seedlings of perceived socially acceptable values.
So what is our broad moral lesson? You need a Prince to save you? Actually, no. In perhaps the only slight tweak, Cinderella’s relief does not happen through a man, but her salvation comes from within. This is emphasized to the point of a bludgeoning, but I like that. Cinderella didn’t need her Prince, but she wanted him, and last I checked that’s still okay.
The grand lesson here is courage and kindness. Repeated ad nauseam, both mantra and moral framework, it’s Cinderella’s reason. I’m not naïve enough to ignore where these lessons fall short, and Alice is the paragon of belief, a pinnacle those of us living in a more cynical world may never reach. All the same, I like the idea finding purchase in a young mind. It’s a good maxim, and if a handful of future optimists adopt these concepts as a guide rope, this iteration of Cinderella has served its purpose. But the echo of courage and kindness is not the greatest achievement of Cinderella; instead it is in rendering the movie with overwhelming earnestness. In this case, the courage is in the film’s kindness, and it’s a welcome relief.