Considering the movie grossed over half a billion dollars, I may be the last person on earth to have seen this film, but I just watched it, and all I could think of was “Wow, I can’t believe what I just witnessed.” Cinderella was an astonishingly pleasant movie from start to finish and it held incredibly tightly to what I consider to be traditional Christianity. No less impressive is the fact that it came out of a company normally known for their friendliness to social justice warriors and hostility to traditional morality.
If you’ve grown up on the fairy tale (and who hasn’t?) then you’ll know why it’s such a beloved story. But as impressive as the base story is, the twists and clean up job Disney did on it is even more impressive. It’s one thing to paint your wicked mom as worse than a Nazi in a three hundred word bedtime tale, it’s another to make it into a successful live action movie. For the second you do, everybody watching immediately thinks, “how could any human being, even an evil one, be so relentlessly cruel to such a charming and disarming ray of sunshine as Ella?” And, “Demonic hatred is impossible to hide, so why would a semi-intelligent man who didn’t need the money like Ella’s father marry such a hateful woman?” And, “Why would a prince who is accustomed to doing his duty skip out on marrying a beautiful princess in favor of a semi-pretty servant girl and potentially cost himself the throne?” And you have to address this.
The answer to all of these problems was to construct a society that is ruthless and opportunistic to the core. The people who live in this place at this time have little (or no) regard for the feelings or well-being of others; instead, they always do what’s to their advantage, no matter what. Thus if a woman can get ahead socially or financially by reducing her step-daughter to servitude, she will. If a prince can get a better army for the Kingdom with an advantageous marriage, he will. From top to bottom people do what benefits them most. In fact this kind of exchange where people are always potential tools or useful objects tends to kill a consideration for people as people, and make them more like sociopaths.
You can easily imagine this kind of popular idea taking hold of a society and playing itself out over the course of a generation. Crime and Punishment deals with this very era in recent human history in fact—that there’s a class of men who are above such things as morals, who are “supermen” who are unencumbered with things like consciences, and can therefore move the world. That was a very popular notion not even a hundred years ago, which makes it a very reasonable premise to build an imaginary world on.
But in Cinderella’s universe, like our own, the idea falls apart after a generation. The prince, who was raised to be ruthless, also had a natural affection for his father, and was taught to be prudent and considerate as a part of statesmanship and international politics. So while he knows it would be in his interest to kill his father and assume the throne, he also knows that other kingdoms will view him as untrustworthy and treacherous if he were to do that. Consequently, he’s torn, and he resolves this tension by pulling away from the idea of cruelty for cruelty’s sake. Yes, this means he is in rebellion against his father, but whereas every other movie teaches us to rebel against our parents for the sake of rebellion, this one subverts the trope by teaches us to rebel against evil, in proper measure, in a just way, while still honoring your parents.
So the prince has a vague notion that things could be better, although he doesn’t know how exactly, and he doesn’t know anything else. Cue Cinderella, the bedrock whom this perverse society couldn’t crush or convert. As the Prince is struggling with this vague sense of unease he happens to meet the one woman who rejects their values, and who chooses to build her life on the virtues of courage and kindness. In so doing she becomes the catalyst for a whole new paradigm in his mind, and suddenly he realizes that a kingdom thrives not when everyone seeks to get ahead at the expense of someone else, as if life is a zero-sum game, but when the people do what is right and good. Trust is the foundation of a thriving society, not power expressed as suffering.
The prince chooses Cinderella because he wants the beauty she brings to his life, that piece he felt he’s missed all this time. And in another blow for traditional morality, he’s a man, a take charge, alpha, get what he wants man. But a good man. As Alan Jackson sung, he’s a small town southern man. He’s after Cinderella as a partner (as opposed to a slave) because he’s a dynamic, humble character who genuinely loves and appreciates the joy she brings to his world. Her rise to Queen hits a lot harder for this.
Speaking of “rise to queen”: part of the story dwells on the Disney princess element to pander to every girl’s fantasy of wearing a pretty dress to the admiration and being the envy of many beautiful women. Part of this story also involves CG magic pumpkins. Disney does all of this well enough, and I won’t knock it because it’s part of the warp and woof of this adventure. I’m going to skip all that in this review however because what I really enjoy about a movie is the art of it and the message it tells, not the escapism it offers.
Meanwhile the old king is dying, and knows that despite his best efforts he has failed to pass on his ruthlessness to his son. His son has instead rebelled against him, and not just him, but the very thing that holds them all together as a people. The Prince and his cohort are not simply bad at it, they refuse to play the game at all. The old king knows that without that win-at-any-cost mentality the kingdom will be doomed, but what can he do? It’s too late.
Yet in the climactic scene of the movie the old king realizes what Cinderella has done to his son and forgives. He realizes the prince does have a vision for the kingdom, and that the new prince can make it better, and that his fears are now assuaged. The next generation may not be cruel, but they will be just, and they will be good, and that will work. And in seeing this the audience realizes the heroine has not only broken through to the prince who was receptive to her, but to the King who wasn’t. In her own story arc Cinderella confronts her step-mother who has no answer as to why she must always be cruel except to shrug and appeal to the way they’ve always done things, which she roundly rejects. In the end her serenity wins and she and the prince ride off to a happily ever after. The viewer is assured that everyone in the new society will be pierced by the message moving forward, and that Cinderella will remain beautiful and uncorrupted through all that remains to come.
Wow. The movie was clever, traditional, and surprisingly deep. The actors and actresses had enough to pull it all off, but the really impressive thing was the core values of this movie. Our family will be buying this one.