Friday, April 10, 2015

A Wish for "Cinderella" (A Review of the Disney-Branagh 2015 Reboot)

It's taken me a while to get my personal review posted, I know. I was glad one of our new review posse stepped up and wrote a wonderful review on the opening weekend for you all. Granted, I didn't see it till much later but it's still taken a good couple of weeks for me to consolidate my pages of notes into something you can read at one sitting.
I believe I've finally done it, so here we go:

The biggest issue surrounding the heart of this movie, that reboots a well known and loved, but also greatly criticized movie is: Does this new Cinderella, reinvent the character and film as we believe they (really) need to be, yet stay true to remain the iconic Disney story people love? Does Cinderella stay 'herself', yet show us what we wish she could and should be?
I was surprised to find most of the answer to this was yes.
I'll get to my objections in a little bit, but first I'd like to point out the good stuff, especially since I've been pretty clear previously, that I thought I was going to be bored watching this movie. I wasn't. I liked the movie much better than I thought I would.
Everybody has talked about how stunningly lavish and beautiful it is, and it is. The visuals send a strong message - with almost every scene - that you are watching "a fairy tale". Once you get used to just how much intense color and detail there is (so much color!), it works, very well. You might even say it's got a very fairy tale++ feel, but, somehow, without the glitter (at least to a certain point). Even the narrator, who is the Fairy Godmother (don't worry - that's not a spoiler), didn't bother me. It felt like the right tone for this presentation.
What they got right:
  • A lot. The fairy tale feel was mostly spot on with the visuals, directing, framing, mixed-up period feel, the touch of fantasy throughout, the comic moments, the exciting transformations, and it was just a very good looking and luxurious film. It was (mostly) very good movie making and exactly what you want when you pick up a fairy tale film (that is, a fairy tale film you expect to be somewhat fantastic/ escapist/ magical, because there are other kinds too). It's (almost) everything it is supposed to be.

  • The Fairy Godmother (played by Helena Bonham Carter), I fully expected to be annoyed by, but her tone was refreshing by the time we got there and hit all the right notes.


  • The transformation magic was great. Lily James was a little odd at times and the lizard footmen bothered me but none of that was enough to ruin those scenes. My favorite magic part were the post-midnight chase and transformation scenes, including the lovely walk home in the rain afterward.

  • The pacing of having a grown girl-woman (I think she's supposed to be 18), transitioning to a place of servitude in her own house was well done. Initially, I couldn't understand how a grown woman (essentially) would put up with having that done to her for the first time, but the way it started slowly, and with layered dialogue that increased in clarity (and harshness) over time, made it clear that it was done little by little.

  • The way the mice were handled, was a nice, not-over-done bit of daily magic. (If you listened closely you could tell they were approximately words when they squeaked.)

  • Cinderella's bare-back, rein-free ride was great, and that horse was gorgeous! I wish we'd seen it again. (The only problem was that it felt like it was supposed to foreshadow something in Cinderella but I couldn't solidly relate it to anything else that happened.)

  • The Prince had a personality (!), his own challenges, grief and ultimately his own agency outside the expected norm, which was very refreshing.

  • They showed how the stepmother's own grief and bad choices (played in a beautifully layered and never-over-the-top manner by Cate Blanchett) were the seeds of why she became so vicious. It didn't excuse her actions at any point, but instead showed how letting bitterness take root, instead of choosing kindness, could result in a monster. My possibly favorite scene in the whole movie, was when the stepmother had been entertaining and the house was full of people. She looked beautiful, happy, and her dress was dark and stunning with a gorgeous flower design. After a win of some kind, she hurries, happily, to share it with her new husband, only to overhear him speaking to Cinderella, about her and her daughters, and not in the most flattering way. You could almost see that late blossoming of joy in this still-recent widow, recoil and begin to wither as she drew back into the shadows to listen and get hurt again. Without turning the movie into a vehicle for sympathizing with the villain, it was made clear how not being courageous and kind can warp you, even when you are beautiful, until you become your worst self.

  • The movie made a very good effort at showing different ways of dealing with grief, which is central to the Grimm's version and is reflected somewhat in Disney's version of Perrault as well. Cinderella, her father, the stepmother and the Prince all had to deal with grief, and all went about it differently.

  • The mythology of the shoe! This version added a couple of small notes about the glass slipper that helped everything make a lot more sense: a) before she ran away as it was chiming Midnight, one of her shoes slipped off and the Prince put it back on her foot. It showed how easily the shoe could come off in the first place and took the opportunity to provide a moment of particular intimacy between Cinderella and the Prince and b) it was mentioned during the 'right foot' hunt that the shoe was magical and refused to fit 'just anybody', so it was clear that even if the foot was the right size, the shoe still wasn't going to fit - not until it found Cinderella. (And then they added that neat little line with Cinderella saying "I don't know if that glass slipper will fit but..", emphasizing it had to be about more than this superficial aspect.)

  • There were nods to other versions of Cinderella too, which is always a big plus for me and shows the writer and producer understand the tale doesn't exist in a vacuum: the branch Cinderella requested of her father is the most obvious one, nodding at the Grimms version, and the sisters were pretty, just not elegant (at all). It was their hearts that were ugly, again a nod to many other versions. The scene with the swing recalled The Slipper and the Rose for me (though other people are seeing this as a Fragonard, Frozen callback), and the stepmother going though Cinderella's things was reminiscent of Ever After, as was the character in general,


What I have issues with:
  • If you know Disney's Cinderella, you know this song:
A dream is a wish your heart makes
When you're fast asleep
In dreams you will lose your heartache
Whatever you wish for you keep
Have faith in your dreams and some day
Your rainbow will come smiling through
No matter how your heart is grieving
If you keep on believing
The dream that you wish will come true.
 
Ultimately, it feels like this one song, which is escapist and very passive, is the whole premise of the movie. Indeed - this is the very song that starts playing/being sung as the credits begin, as if it were a summary. All that stuff about heartache, and dreaming and grieving and 'believing" - that's what it boils down to, which is a shame, because they tried very hard for it not to be, for much of the film. Had the film not ended on this note (no pun intended) it might have been a little easier to hang on to the power of kindness, courage and endurance. It feels like they undermined themselves on two accounts without even realizing it.
  • The dress transformation scene bothered me a lot. Firstly, Cinderella made such an issue of it being her mother's dress she wanted to wear it seemed odd there was not a hint of the original left in the blue one you see in every promo (I looked on the big screen specifically but if there was I couldn't see it the first time around, apart from approximating the neckline a little). But the FG's delivery in asking if her mother wouldn't mind having her dress spruced up a little sold it enough that I could let that one go - mostly.

  • The one thing that pulled me out of the movie big-time was the dress transformation itself. Oh boy - it went on and on and on... It was so over the top it got ridiculous, and more than one audience member (including myself) started looking around the theater, bored. Not only that, Cinderella began to look like a bit of an idiot doing so much continuous twirling.

  • There was one scene in which Cinderella looked like a doll the waist was so ridiculously small and her head so large in comparison. It pulled me out of the movie for the second time.
  • The pacing was inconsistent at times and dragged at some points but I sort of expected it would. I had just hoped, since they fully expected six-year old girls to go to the theater to see this, that they would have tightened the pacing in the more grow-up world scenes.

  • I had problems with Cinderella-the-character - quite a few. I'll deal with those separately below.
My problems with Cinderella-the-character were:
  • Her kindness seemed more habit than a conscious (read "active") choice, so she seemed less... aware and intelligent than she should have (and showed less agency because of this). I can't help but think a different actress might have paced her responses slightly differently, showing her kindness wasn't just habit, but an active choice. There were a couple of times it was clear that she was choosing kindness but not with regard to her step-family.

  • She was so very... very good and perfect. Really. She was kind, beautiful, she was well read, she could sing, she had household skills, she could speak multiple languages, she was great with animals, she could control a powerful horse, she could dance.. the list goes on. There was nothing wrong with the girl, apart from the fact that she didn't seem quite up to speed with what was really happening at certain times. She was so very sweet, and habitually so, it felt empty-headed at times, and almost flat in character. I didn't like that at all.

  • It wasn't until she accidentally meets "Kit" (seriously - "Kit"?? That has to be a reference to something else I don't get yet), in the woods that she has any sort of goal - at all. She has no dream, no wish, even, right up to that point. It's as if, had her parents not died, she would have been content to never leave home, not even to form her own family. At the very least I would have expected her to show her personal care for the house with the dream that she would restore it to the home she knew one day, to bring life and laughter back, but I didn't see a hint of that. There was a line about not leaving the house because it belonged to her mother (and father) but no action supported that, that I could see.

  • While I found her reactions for most of the movie to be generally the best they could be (despite the saccharine), and was encouraged when she began to (quietly) stand up for herself (pre-ball), once she got home and her slipper was shattered she seemed to fade away - something which I found bizarre, considering the strength of character she'd shown till then.  It was the one time she became completely passive in the whole movie and resigned herself to her fate, which is especially odd, since, in real life, even those dealing with very bad circumstances at home are likely to rally some courage, should they get a taste of life and freedom like that and take a chance on something - even if it's a very small chance, and a very small something. Cinderella just deflated at that point and remained that way until she was found (thanks to the outside forces of the mice and a determined guard) and taken away from her home. Which brings me to..

  • When Cinderella is rescued at the end (because, unfortunately she is), and has no part in her own rescue, she's taken away from this home that apparently was so important to her and doesn't even give it a backward glance. In fact, we never see it again. At the very least it should have been restored to her in some manner, or become their "country retreat" or something! There is a note that the stepmother and sisters are banished, never to return, but it doesn't mention the house, which, I thought was supposed to be representative of her mother at the least.
The problem with all the above in combination is that despite all the work in showing the importance of endurance, the film unfortunately defaults to the "karmic rescue end". Despite all the courage and kindness she showed, had Cinderella not been beautiful, she wouldn't have been looked for and found in the end. I really disliked the idea that being pretty and kind = karmic rescue. That irks. What about those of us who are kind but not pretty enough? 

The reality is, even being gentle and "pretty enough" does not guarantee a happy ending. You need to use your brain, to be active where you can, which includes quietly active. Cinderella doesn't appear to do much more than endure (though that should never be taken lightly either) but more importantly, there's no real change in her despite all that happens. The prince was a better example of resisting his situation in being kind and doing the right thing without violence. He managed to both work within the system while still breaking his mold. Granted, he didn't have abusive guardians but there was a lot of pressure (and the weight of his country's future) within his own story.
About the "have courage, be kind" message:
So this message is one the audience got over and over through the movie. It was relentless but, knowing they were concerned about confronting the popular idea of what a strong female was, I understood why. 

The message itself, I thought was bold overall and in many ways overdue. I think it's a (timely) reaction to the now-standard girl-power show of force that tends to lack in gentility and, frankly, frowns on femininity in general (unless you are kicking butt while wearing pink glitter nail polish, then that's OK, apparently). One of the reasons I have always loved Snow White was that I, especially as a young girl, saw her (as a seven year old in Little Snow White), doing more than I ever expected I'd have the strength for, and, as a result, a character I admired. Similarly, Cinderella, had to deal with daily abuse, which, no matter what age you are, is a horrible and seemingly impossible situation that's all too real for many people. My understanding was always that Cinderella was younger when this began so it would have been even more difficult for her to break out of, and even more amazing that she managed to stay kind and strong. Thankfully, even with Cinderella as an adult, the way this film presented the transition made it clear that this situation wasn't easy to leave or change either. It made it clear that dealing with abuse - no matter what the form, is a very difficult thing.

I will add what I wrote in reply to another review (by Asleep in the Woods): Endurance is underrated and, agreeing with Kristin at Tales Of Faerie too, needs its importance to be understood so that we can fully realize that even the strongest person can still be abused. (Also  see Kristin's really wonderful and important post on 'Mothers Who Kill Their Children'. It's completely relevant to this discussion.) Abuse is NOT EVER the victim's fault. Until this is understood about Cinderella characters, (ie. no matter whether she is active or passive in any versions of the tale - she is STILL abused) those awful cycles will continue. The hope in Cinderella stories isn't really about escape but about how being able to endure, and move beyond those terrible things, you can still have a life - and most importantly - not continue the cycle. 

I understand the concern of so many critics that worry this will encourage passive dreaming in young girls. Most of the movie doesn't have this message but it is the prominent note on which it ends, and, unfortunately, that's the lasting impression. 

I'm glad to see a return to it being OK to be a gentle female who loves beautiful things, and how a female who doesn't eg. know kung fu (or get taught it during the story), can still be strong, that there are feminine strengths that are very underrated yet can do much - like enduring unbelievable suffering and still remaining kind when it's easier to become bitter. That's something most men, for all their toughness, can't manage either.

Sadly it feels like the emphasis on the beauty in every frame of the film (and the insane marketing of clothes, fashion and beauty everywhere you go, currently), works against this idea. The dresses, the magic, the sweet scenes - it's all so very ideal but the sad, dreamy Cinderella near the end is fading, looking like she's given up and is primarily living in dreamland, until she's rescued and her dream is made real by someone else. In the end, what people generally walk away with is "beautiful dresses, pretty, pretty, good girl Cindy got rescued from that horrible situation."

My wish for Cinderella is this: 
I hope that 'karmic rescue for nice (and pretty) people' is not the lasting impression, but that the rest of the movie's message about endurance in hardship, actively choosing kindness, having courage, and believing there is a better future, ultimately resonates more. But not just that - that it is empowering too.
Notes on symbols and metaphors in the film:
  • The color blue - blue is Cinderella's color in the film and shows her femininity. It's interesting to note that blue was considered 'the' female color for a long time as it was gentle, quiet and delicate, whereas as pink, being a version of red, was a male color and more aggressive and passionate. In the film (and in current merchandising) blue is once again representative of 'feminine'. Cinderella's mother also sings her the song "Lavender's Blue", alerting the audience to the importance that the color blue is signifying. (I thought bringing that back into the public consciousness was a classic and classy choice.)

  • Butterflies - this is a fairly obvious one. Cinderella's glass slippers are adorned with them (if I remember correctly you see real butterflies alight on the shoes and they become part of the design), and Cinderella's ball dress also has butterfly accents. The Fairy Godmother's bodice has teeny blue butterflies all over it too. The metaphors are fairly clear: transformation is one (which this Cinderella story has in spades) and the other is freedom.

  • Flowers - this is my favorite symbol in the film, especially because it isn't restricted to Cinderella herself. Apart from the song reference (Lavender Blue), whenever the costumes have flowers on them, it's telling you something about that character. I'd have to see it more than once to be thorough but here's what I picked up with a single viewing: 
    • When Cindy is small she and her mother are surrounded by flowers and their clothes show many variations of florals. When Cinderella's mother begins to succumb to 'movie disease' those flower designs fade and Cinderella's larger, childish floral designs are no longer as prominent either. 

    • Cinderella's mother wears almost the exact same costume as her daughter does for much of the film, except the mother's dress has flowers whereas Cinderella's is plain blue. It shows, how Cinderella is her mother's daughter, in the best sense, but not blossoming (yet).
             
    • The process of the blue ball gown transformation, seemed to echo the same way the pumpkin vines 'grew' into the carriage details until her dress 'bloomed' into one gigantic flower. As over the top as it was, the whole girl was transformed into that 'Lavender Blue' flower, set to become Queen.

    • When we first see the stepmother she has black flowers showing through the gold of her dress and her hat is a weaving of black flowers - a subtle way of showing how she's mourning her previous love and life.

    • When we first meet the stepsisters their dresses have very childish flower designs, like they are spoilt little girls, which, of course, they are.
    • My close-to-favorite scene with the stepmother looking genuinely happy and hopeful at the party, has her in a stunning dark, and partly sheer dress with very beautiful flowers worked into the design. It's like the dress is telling you she's beginning to blossom from a dark place, she's at her most vulnerable and at a place where she could begin again, and as a result her beauty is magnified too. Unfortunately, after she overhears Cinderella and her father talking we never see her dressed in flowers again (as far as I can remember). 

    • The stepsisters have quite the riot of color - their designs are bombastic, the flowers are large and childish and almost clash in many ways but, apart from the 'spoiled brat' clues in the flowers of their dresses when we first meet them, their ball gowns are the most obvious reflections of these young women. However ill-refined they are, they are trying to blossom in their own way and find their place. While I would have liked more of a transition in the characters from their horrible taunts and ill-treatment of Cinderella to their (seemingly genuine) apologies at the end, the flower metaphor in most of their costumes suggests that they have a lot of growing up to do and still have potential. We never see it of course, but they're not 100% set to become like their mother - yet.

    • Then there's Cinderella's stunning wedding dress. Along with a Grace Kelly vibe, her gown isn't pure white (she's not completely naive at this point) and is adorned with very tasteful, elegantly embroidered flowers that suggest a graceful growing and flourishing, where she is (literally) blooming and coming into her own as an adult and Queen.
 
Noticing this 'language of flowers' subtext throughout the film was one of my favorite things about it. It showed a lot of insight into the various characters and told me there was more to these people under the surface than how they appeared. The clothes and flowers told a different sort of story all on their own.
What? Too long? You want a shorter summary still?

OK, here:

Go see it. It's good.
Just be aware it might send some mixed messages.
You can help by focusing on the good stuff, of which there's a ton. 
The End. 
I feel the need to add this little footnote (forgive the pun!): 
So Cindy and her FG go into the green house, find a giant pumpkin, which the FG makes magically large until the greenhouse explodes and the vegetable is changed into a coach. Honestly, my first thought on seeing this (and Cindy's and the Fairy Godmother's faces being squished against the glass) was: OMG the stepmother is going to have a FIT when she gets home! We're going to see Cindy picking glass shards out of the garden beds like lentils out of the ashes, but with more pain involved, and there's going to be a whole things about vegetables and Cindy ending up living in a hollowed out pumpkin as even more of a punishment! Thankfully, that didn't happen but... what happened to all that glass? Was that the raw material for the slippers? And did the FG clean up the rest? I have more Fairy Godmother questions in general (eg. Why is the night of the ball the first time we ever see this woman? Why is she narrating? What is the implication in Cinderella's understanding of the world that she has an FG? Why do we only see her one?) but that one about the exploding green house is one that has been bothering me ever since Cinderella walked home in the rain IN BARE FEET. ;)

5 comments:

  1. Very interesting review. I particularly agree that I would have liked to have seen more change/s in Ella’s character over the course of the film.
    In relation to that, I’ll mention one aspect which I would have liked to have seen done a bit differently: over a brief scene in which we see Ella crying, the fairy godmother narrator tells us that Ella has internalised her stepfamily’s view of her as being worthless; this idea could have been interesting to explore in more depth. Having an unrecognised area of vulnerability to her stepfamily’s relentless negativity could have made Ella seem a bit more like a real person, and would help explain why dressing up as somebody else (as she would see it) for a night meant so much to her. But Ella never shows anything beyond mild consternation that she might be ‘outed’ to the prince as a servant. Even when Kit makes her promise “No more lies” almost in the same breath as mistaking her for a princess, we don’t even get a quick “Uh oh” reaction shot from her. At the end of the film Ella calmly tells Kit that she’s at peace with not being the princess he expected, but we don’t see her go on any journey to get to that conclusion. And again, just before that speech the narrator tells us that (we’re meant to think) Ella is taking a big risk in revealing her true self, but I didn’t see that borne out in elsewhere in the direction or acting.

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  2. Great post :D You pretty much blew my mind with the flower symbolism, I didn't notice that at all! But now you've explained it, I can see it and it makes a lot of sense. I want to watch it again too now to spot all of the references! The symbolism of the blue dress is interesting, too. In medieval times, blue was a traditional colour for wedding dresses because it was seen as the colour of purity, as opposed to the white favour nowadays. Cinderella's gowns seem to hark back to this, which for me enhances the old-fashioned, fairy tale feel of the film.

    I agree with you about Cinderella being too perfect - that irritated me, too. It made her feel unrealistic, and therefore difficult to identify with. Almost like the message was that in order to have a happy ending, you have to be perfect too and good at all these things. I wouldn't say she lacked emotion or wasn't fleshed out enough, but a few flaws wouldn't have gone amiss. Regarding the wish thing, I think you're right in that she has no goals. But I don't think that's because of her situation, it's just how she is. She's content to keep doing what she's always done. The house thing was weird though, I was expecting her to keep it as well, or go back there at the end! It's set up as such an important aspect of her life, then it just disappears. That house was her whole reason for not running away from her stepmother, and then she just runs off with the prince and forgets it? Seems a bit unlikely she would do that, after enduring so much abuse to stay there.

    I also didn't pick up on the emphasis on beauty. Perhaps because Prince Kit talks to his father about Cinderella's kindness and courage, and says that's what he likes about her. That makes it seem that his motives for finding her are not based on beauty alone. I saw the 'karmic rescue' thing as literally that: karma. Her endurance and kindness were rewarded. Like the Wiccan belief about energy - what you put out into the universe will return to you threefold. Cinderella gives out nothing but kindness, and so the magical energy of the universe eventually gives her kindness in return. The same for the stepmother - she gives out abuse, and in return gets banished. It's the story's way of restoring balance to the world.

    Finally, OH MY GOODNESS I had the same thought about the greenhouse!! I was literally cringing whilst watching it, anticipating a scene with the stepmother returning home and being angry about the state of the garden followed by one of Cinderella tidying it haha! IT really does raise a lot of questions!

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  3. I, too liked it a lot more than I expected, although it'll never top Ever After for me.

    I believe "Kit" is a common nickname for Christopher, and the prince only said that his father calls him that when he's in a good mood. It made sense to me, though I would have preferred the herald to give his reign name at the ball or during one of the proclamations, to really bring it together. (The addition of the King and his subplot was one of my favorite changes-- although dang, they certainly doubled down on dead parents!)

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  4. What a fantastic review! I loved all the stuff you loved. Did you also catch that the Fairy Godmother said Cinderella would have “something new for a change” for her shoes? That’s why they didn’t change back into anything at midnight! And yes, I wonder if with the narration of “the magical slipper” “refusing” to fit anyone’s foot was literal or not. As for the swing, you say it came from The Slipper and the Rose, but actually that scene in The Slipper and the Rose was taken from Fragonard in the first place, the director said in his commentary. The film also didn’t end on “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” but the song “Strong” which is, of course, more about rescuing yourself. Plus, I don’t think “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes” is a bad song. You can have a movie where a girl is strong and takes charge of her life but she still sings about how believing in her dreams will make them come true. The way Cinderella saves herself in this film in the first place is, after all, by the magic of courage and kindness, and basically befriending the mice and riding off after her family demeans her and meeting the prince in the forest. Those are the same way Cinderella gets her happy ending by not being pretty. As for the dress transformation, yes, Cinderella’s pink dress should have looked something much more like the blue one, but as for the transformation itself, I don’t think it was a bad choice at all to have it go on for a while and be such a big deal. It’s just so darn beautiful and amazingly creative and well-crafted. The magic fairy dust butterflies make Cinderella start to turn as she watches them swirl around her, and then her dress transforms and expands (blooming like a flower, like you said, which you have to admit was so gorgeous and, as you said, symbolic!), it’s amazing. As for Cinderella’s kindness, she did do it out of habit, but that was the point. Her mother said there was more kindness in her little finger than some people had in their whole bodies. Cinderella just has to keep using kindness. I never thought Cinderella was ever empty-headed. I don’t know how anyone could think so. As for Cinderella having a goal or dream, she was content living in her house. I suppose she did get the goal to not stay a victim right after she became one, which is why she runs away on her horse for a little bit. Then when she meets Kit she has a new dream, to be with him. As for Cinderella not being strong in the very end, well she got locked up and left to die. There were few ideas on how to escape from her situation, so she just tried to stay happy with her remembering and her playing in the attic until she did find a way out, by herself or with another person helping her, or, I guess, till she died. I love your pointing out of the color blue metaphorically and your idea that the butterflies symbolized freedom in the film. I knew they represented transformation and that fits Cinderella perfectly, but I guess they have wings too to fly away to freedom, huh? But it wasn’t real butterflies that landed on the glass slippers, it was the magic butterflies from the Fairy Godmother’s wand. Also the Fairy Godmother did not have butterflies on her, but stars, to represent she is magical, of course. I loved your reading of flowers in the film, it’s truly fantastic, but it’s not completely right. Cinderella does have flowers on her blue everyday dress. They are just very pale pink roses. And the stepmother does indeed wear flowers in her dresses even after her first two dresses. I think they were in her skirts. And finally, as for the pumpkin coach and the exploding glass green house, pieces of the glass go onto the pumpkin, not Cinderella’s slippers, which you can see if you watch the pumpkin-to-coach transformation carefully and also you can see the coach is made of both gold and glass. After midnight, it can be presumed the glass went back to form the green house just as it was before.

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