Monday, October 17, 2005

Cinderella Mannerisms

The DVD of Disney's "Cinderella" just came out and is apparently selling well. (One of the reasons why Disney feels free to abandon hand-drawn animation is that they know their "classic" hand-drawn films will sell just as well on DVD as, if not better than, new product.) I haven't picked it up yet, myself, and I'm not sure if I'm going to.

The thing about "Cinderella" is that it really is the ancestor of the idea that Disney prettified and cutesified the classic children's stories -- it's the beginning of the kinder, gentler Disney. His "big five" animated features, the ones made between 1937 and 1942, don't fit this stereotype at all. If you compare Disney's "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" to the Grimm original, it's actually a very faithful adaptation, with most of the scary stuff left in and even some new scares added (like the elaborate, terrifying transformation scene of the Queen). There are changes, but they're all changes made primarily for dramatic effect, to make the story work better: killing off the Queen before Snow White is revived, not after, so the film can end with her coming back to life; having Snow White fall for the Queen's disguise only once instead of three times; setting up an earlier meeting between Snow White and the Prince. All good solid dramatically-relevant changes.

With "Cinderella," Disney's first full-fledged animated feature since "Bambi," Disney and his team were working from a far less dark and disturbing source than the Grimms' "Snow White." The Perrault version of "Cinderella," which is the basis for most adaptations including Disney's, is one of the more palatable versions of a children's fairy tale; whereas the Grimms loaded up their tales (including their version of "Cinderella") with death and mutilation, Perrault was more into whimsy and flights of fancy. A straight adaptation of Perrault's "Cinderella" will of necessity be nicer and cuter than an adaptation of the Grimms' "Snow White." But that wasn't enough for Disney: he added all kinds of cute sidekick characters, funny talking animals who perform side routines vaguely influenced by the then-most-acclaimed cartoon characters, Tom and Jerry, and generally a bunch of stuff designed to pad out the story and send it off in irrelevant directions, rather than (as with "Snow White") to tighten the story and make it more dramatically effective.

So "Cinderella" is the origin of all the things we associate with Disney at his worst: taking a children's classic, draining out the interesting stuff, and replacing it with cute filler. His next two animated features, "Alice in Wonderland" and "Peter Pan," did the same.

Now, to be fair, Perrault's "Cinderella" is a very short tale and not a lot happens in it; to bring it up to feature length, something had to be added. Disney probably figured that the thing to add was what worked in "Snow White": funny business with supporting characters, to distract attention from the inevitable blandness of the heroine and the equally inevitable boringness of the Prince. (Rule # 1 of animated movies: nobody wants to animate the Prince.) Still, what he wound up with was something very non-threatening in a way that his best work was not. The mean, nasty Disney of the big five ("Snow White," "Pinocchio," "Fantasia," "Dumbo," "Bambi") was pretty much gone, though he arguably made a secret comeback in live-action with the enjoyably creepy "Darby O'Gill and the Little People."

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