FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, sociological*
CINDERELLA’s never been one of my favorites. It may be the United States’ best feature-length cinematic adaptation of the French folktale, but for me it feels too much like a repeat of tropes made familiar from Disney’s 1938 SNOW WHITE.
I can see the reasons why the Disney scripters chose to ring in a seemingly endless number of adorable little animals, predominantly mice. The storyline isolates Cinderella from anyone but her cruel stepmother and nasty stepsisters, which would have been a lot of tragedy to endure without some comic relief. I might have even liked the mice if I’d found them funny, but their efforts on behalf of “Cinderelly” have always seemed like nothing but Disney recycling routines from their cartoon shorts—not least during their “Tom-and-Jerry” battles with the stepmother’s evil cat Lucifer.
The strongest mythicity of CINDERELLA can be found in its revisiting of the theme of 1938’s SNOW WHITE: the heroine, by accepting her duty to perform meaningless drudgery, displays a “grace under pressure” that indicates her fitness to become a princess. Cinderella also becomes a surrogate mother to the mice and birds attracted to her kindness, though I can’t help remarking that in real-world households the mice, not the cat, would be the enemies of good housekeeping.
This Cinderella—who is given that name by her widowed father, rather than as a comment on her being dirty with fireplace-cinders-- is a little more fully realized than Disney’s Snow White. She doesn’t defy her stepmother directly, but she does have a minor moment of temper, threatening to use a broom to thrash the cat for continuing to chase mice. At the climax, when she’s confined to a closet by the evil stepmother, Cinderella even takes a degree of action in telling the birds to bring the hound Bruno to chase off Lucifer. This order ends up being a little more deadly than she might anticipate, since Bruno’s advent causes the cat to fall to his probable death in one of the film’s gutsier moments.
Were there no fairy godmother in the film—and Drew Barrymore’s EVER AFTER shows how the same story could be told without the element of magic—the only fantasy-elements would be those of the anthropomorphic animals. This lesser emphasis upon magic—at least in comparison with SNOW WHITE— seems to evolve from the original tale more than any decision by Disney. Indeed, in his essay “On Fairy-Stories” J.R.R. Tolkien commented on a want of “faerie” in fairytales of French ancestry. That’s certainly true of “Cinderella,” where the stepmother-villain is an entirely ordinary domestic tyrant and the fabled “glass slipper” may have been a mistranslation of a more mundane “fur slipper.” Curiously, for the sake of a last minute peril, the slipper brought by the prince’s emissary shatters, just like it was already real glass (making one wonder how the girl ever danced in them). But Cinderella has happily kept the other slipper, thus proving her identity—which seems like an odd rewriting of the original tale.
On the plus side, it does keep consistent its theme of believing in dreams despite all evidence to the contrary; significantly, when the fairy godmother shows up, she tells Cinderella—in a blue funk from having her dress torn up—that the godmother couldn’t have shown up if Cinderella had really lost all faith. It would have been interesting had the script expanded on this point a little. At worst, such expansion might have taken away one of the mice-scenes.