23 March 2012

Disney Daze: Week 12: Cinderella

In 2012, this intrepid reporter plans to watch, in chronological order, all of Walt Disney Studios' 52 theatrically-released animated features, one per week.

Walt Disney hated repeating himself. Despite the rabid success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, he outright refused any attempt at shallowly replicating the film's touchstones, most obviously its fairy tale origins. He longed to tell different types of stories with newer techniques and innovative processes. Why do something over again, especially when it was perfect the first time? One would just be setting themselves up for disappointment. His stubborness won out for nearly a decade and a half before the economic hardships at the studio, brought on in part by the failure of these different types of films, forced his hand. To reclaim his and the studio's good standing in the eyes of both the public and investors, Walt returned to the well that brought about the studio's first feature-length triumph.

Walt Disney himself actually had very little to do with the day-to-day production of Cinderella. He remained in his capacity as expert storyteller, coming in with great last-minute suggestions to tighten up or strengthen sequences, and he continued to have final say on almost all aspects of production, but his contributions for the film were rather few and far between. On an earlier film such as Snow White, Walt was onboard every step of the way, working tirelessly day in and day out alongside his animators, composers and writers to shape every piece of the film. In contrast, he could go several weeks without visiting certain departments on Cinderella. Animators who in the past had found consistent inspiration in Walt's enthusiasm would not see the boss for nearly a month. At this point in his life and by extension that of the studio, Walt's attentions were being diverted in a number of conflicting directions. By the end of the 1940s, the studio's pioneering nature documentaries, dubbed True Life Adventures, had begun playing to rapturous crowds. Work had also begun on the studio's first ever live-action feature, Treasure Island, and Walt was voyaging over to the production in England often. 

Beginning with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs Walt would often use footage of live action actors to block and set a scene. While the animators would occasionally trace over these actors to give the sequences more realistic movement, more often than not these shots would be used solely as guides and for educational purposes. However by the time of Cinderella, this method - known as rotoscoping - would become increasingly prevalent in the actual production of a film. Almost every shot of Cinderella in the film is composed of rotoscoping, as are shots of the step-mother, sisters and the prince. And it shows. There is a stilted presentation to these scenes. The characters feel confined and restrained in their movements. The more cartoonish designs, saved for secondary creations like the blustery King and his Grand Duke, are entirely more satisfying. The best piece of animation in the whole film occurs in the third act when the King attempts to decapitate the Grand Duke for letting Cinderella leave the ball. The two characters parry and eventually end up bouncing on the King's bed, the King randomly swinging his sword while the Duke ducks and weaves, their elastic frames bouncing with energetic delight. It is impossible to imagine such a staid design as that of Cinderella moving with as much fluidity and ease.

Besides rotoscoping, another way of trimming production costs on Cinderella included spending less time and attention on backgrounds. Gone were the deep planes of scenery integral to Bambi or the intricately painted nooks and crannies of the dwarfs' cottage in Snow White. Cinderella leaves a lot of the background sparse with often just one hue to fill the space in close-ups. Despite the limitations there are some effectively evocative moments of design and animation in the film. A few times early in the picture, Cinderella is framed with bars over her, including her first encounter with her step-mother when a window frame's long shadow plays out across the room; and when she meets a new mouse friend who has been trapped in a cage. The view of Cinderella is from inside the cage out but it definitely feels the other way around.

The film could easily be called Cat and Mouse with no fear of leading the viewer astray. Roughly half of the film's screen time is reserved for the antagonistic antics of Cinderella's menagerie of mice and their sinister rival, Lucifer, feline companion of the evil step-mother. Lucifer resembles a proto-Cheshire Cat, with bulbous belly and the occasional hint of a sly grin. These sequences, while bereft of any real emotional anxiety (we always know the mice will triumph) are most definitely the more engaging parts of the film. Here the animators get to actually animate and the results are more fluid and cinematic than the uncanny stiffness present in the rotoscoped human scenes. The best of these sequences is the first, when the mice led by Jaq outwit Lucifer in an attempt to get some breakfast. The tables quickly turn when the newest mouse Gus is seen and must hide under a teacup that ever more precariously comes closer to Lucifer's clutches. Cinderella brings the teacup on a tray to her sister and Gus is almost ensnared before Cinderella loses a slipper on the stairwell (nice foreshadowing) and the cups get turned around.

Cinderella was the first Disney feature to look to the music factory of Tin Pan Alley for its songs. The studio commissioned Mack David, Jerry Livingston and Al Hoffman to come up with tunes for the film and while the trio were no Frank Churchill or lyricist Larry Morey, they did manage to write a couple of memorable numbers, most notably "Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo", which was nominated for a Best Song Oscar, while the complete soundtrack got a Best Original Score nod. Some of the film's other tunes are less successful, with both "So This is Love" and "Sing, Sweet Nightingale" leaving very little impression. Even the iconic "A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes" could not hold a candle to "Some Day My Prince Will Come".

With Cinderella Walt Disney finally gave the public what it had been clamoring for. A return to the charming fairytale world of princesses pining away for love. Unfortunately he did not give them anything more. Not that it mattered. Cinderella was a smashing success both critically and commercially, grossing four times its budget at the box office, and bringing the company back to a solid state of solvency. The film's receipts would go on to fund much of the nascent decade's slate of features, including the long-gestating Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland. Cinderella is the textbook example of a Walt Disney animated feature, it just didn't write any new chapters. The film plays it safe at almost every turn and while the studio may have needed something tried and true at that particular moment, Cinderella feels more than a bit like a wasted opportunity.


  1. That's about how I remember it. I got the first five features on Blu-Ray as soon as they came out, but I'm having trouble getting the energy to buy any of the later ones, save Alice and Sleeping Beauty. Andrew Stanton made a good case for The Lady and the Tramp on filmspotting a few weeks ago, but I'm skeptical.

  2. I was surprised by how inferior Cinderella was in comparison to the Fab 5. History tries to tell us that there was a brief hiccup by the package films and then the ship was righted and perfection reigned supreme once again. It definitely colors my expectations going forward.

    I don't remember The Lady and the Tramp much at all. I'm most familiar with Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan and Sleeping Beauty. What I hope is as Walt's interest continues to wane the animators can get away with more. I know that Walt absolutely hated the sketchy animation style of 101 Dalmatians so maybe there will be some life in that and the other films of the 1960s. If memory serves, at least we have some good soundtracks coming up, The Jungle Book topping that list.

  3. The soundtrack for that one is pretty great, but I can't get over the lazy animation doubling with The Jungle Book and Robin Hood.

    My feeling is that the first five plus Alice and Sleeping Beauty are great films, and the rest are good kids' movies.

  4. Well it's not The Jungle Book's fault that Robin Hood ripped it off. You can't blame the source.

  5. Well, George Sanders counts for a lot.