This is how it begins, the fairy-tale-ization of little girls’ lives. Make sure to get ’em while they’re young, and tell ’em: You don’t need any discernible personality or interest in the world to be successful as a lady. Just “be kind,” even to the point of being a doormat; for god’s sake, don’t make waves or complain, just endure whatever abuse the world throws at you even if you could easily walk away from it. As a reward, eventually, luck and magic will combine to make your life just peachy-keen perfect. You don’t even need to do anything! Prince Charming will find you and see you for what you are, even if you’re covered in grime and working a menial job. You might have to wear some impractical shoes along the way, but isn’t that a small price to pay?
I had been clinging to a hope — one that I now see was foolish — that director Kenneth Branagh (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Thor) would find something new to say in the oft-told tale of Cinderella. (I figure screenwriter Chris Weitz was chosen for this project because he adapted The Golden Compass for the big screen, and that was about a girl, right?) Silly me. This is a product of the Disney princess machine. It is Disney princess porn. There is no room for deviation or subversion. (I guess Frozen was an anomaly. As the short that accompanies the theatrical presentation of Cinderella proves: “Frozen Fever” is a cheap, charmless cash-in that shows little of the spirit of the original film.)
Cinderella is a competently made movie. The bit with the golden coach and beautiful white horses turning back into a pumpkin and a bunch of mice at the stroke of midnight is pretty cool. Cate Blanchett looks like a Golden Age of Hollywood goddess and vamps it up amusingly as the evil stepmother. If you’re desperate for a straight-up, unironic live-action remake of a 65-year-old cartoon — though I’m not sure who is — here ya go. It might possibly keep kids quiet for a couple of hours. But the highest ambition this movie has is to move a new line of toys (which will negate the keeping-kids-quiet thing when they start screaming for a Cinderella Wedding Dress Barbie). There’s no other reason for it to exist. Unless it also aims to evoke despair in those few of us who have had enough of regressive portrayals of women.
Would it have been a glass-slippered step too far to let Ella (Lily James: Fast Girls, Wrath of the Titans) display the teeniest bit of backbone in the face of endless torment from her evil stepmother (Blanchett: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, How to Train Your Dragon 2) and nasty stepsisters (Sophie McShera and Holliday Grainger: The Riot Club, Great Expectations)? It was all I could do to refrain from yelling at the screen: “Get out of there, girl! Life cannot possibly get any worse — you’re already sleeping on the floor and sharing your meals with mice. Go see a lawyer, and get back that house of your dead dad’s that you ‘cherish’ so much.” That Ella — redubbed by the cruel stepsisters as Cinderella because of the fireplace ash she is constantly covered in from trying to keep warm — “cherishes” the house that once belonged to her father (Ben Chaplin: Me and Orson Welles, The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep) is, I suppose, a sop of a motivation that keeps her from running away, but why o why must she be so cheerful in the face of the vicious meanness she is treated with? Just because the only advice her long-dead mother (Hayley Atwell: Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Sweeney) ever gave her was to “have courage and be kind”? I think there’s some wiggle room there. (Courage can be proactive, for one, not just reactive.)
Would it have rendered Cinderella too crafty to make it unequivocal that she knows that the handsome and intriguing “apprentice” she meets in the woods, where he is hunting, is actually the Prince (Richard Madden: A Promise, Game of Thrones)? Because if she does know, then at least it gives her a bit of an impetus to do something, anything, a reason to exert the tiniest bit of control over her own life. Actually, she doesn’t even have to know who he is: she could just want to meet him again, whoever he is, and try to make that happen. (Not that she does try that, like by hanging around in the woods on the off chance he’ll show up again.) But if she knows he’s the Prince, it gives her a motive to want to go to the ball at the palace the whole town has been invited to, even after her stepmother says she can’t. What we see, though, is a young woman with no motivation for anything she does, one who is so self-denying, so lacking in any agency whatsoever, that when her fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter: The Lone Ranger, Les Misérables) shows up to magick her to the ball, and Cinderella insists on wearing the pink gown that was her mother’s (so that her mother can attend the ball with her in spirit), the fairy godmother waves her wand and changes everything about the gown, including the color, and Cinderella doesn’t say boo. She’s so incapable of asserting herself that she can’t do it even when it’s for an utterly selfless reason!
Perhaps the most insidious thing about the fairy-tale-ization of girls’ and women’s lives is that when we complain about the unrealistic expectations these sorts of stories set up, we’re accused of not seeing the magic or the romance as if that’s a bad thing. But it’s true: I don’t see magic or romance here. I see a weak girl with no hopes or ambitions for her life. I see that women who want anything — the stepmother and stepsisters — are greedy and mean. I see that an “ideal” relationship happens when a woman is self-abnegating and a man is rich and powerful. Yes, this Cinderella is an adequate retelling of a traditional story. But why are we still telling this story?