A few days ago I re-watched one of the Disney classics. Cinderella’s not one of my favorite Disney films…I liked it as a kid and its one of those movies that grew on me over the years. It‘s an important film for the Disney company for sure, because it was made just after the war, and Walt went almost 7 or 8 years without doing a solo feature. Most of the features released were package features, like Ichabod and Mr. Toad, or Make Mine Music. But he was in need of a hit. So he went back to what made him successful in features in the first place: A classic princess fairy tale.
Cinderella marks a turning point in the future of feature animation for Walt Disney. It’s a good movie for sure. But the tone is much different than his other features. The animation is starting to get much more refined and a little more sophisticated. However, compared to Snow White, Pinocchio, Dumbo, Fantasia, and Bambi, one thing that is noticable is that the emotional undercurrent of films during and after Cinderella isn’t as strong. There is a much more light-hearted feel to those later films. I feel this a lot with all of Disney’s features after 1950. There are a few good moments of emotional drama, but none of the films for the rest of Walts career had the stirring powerful impact that his first five films did. In these later features, we get some classic moments for sure. But Cinderella definitely marks a change in the studios output for features.
In revisiting Cinderella, one of the first things I’ve noticed about the film is that it’s humor isn’t terribly funny. There are a few good moments, and thanks to Ward Kimball we get a great funny villain out of Lucifer, and great classic takes like this one:
Lucifer steals the film for me, and is one of the best things about the film. What’s a little ironic though is that Lucifer’s big funny take here went right by me as a kid, and was something I never found funny until I saw the movie again much later as an adult. As far as the humor goes in this film, it‘s not to say that the mice aren’t cute or that they don‘t have their charm. But you can feel throughout this movie that there is something just kinda…toned down about the gags themselves.
While Walt‘s direction into light heartedness may have changed the tone of his films, the one thing thankfully that keeps the film grounded is its drama, which to me is the most memorable aspect of Disney’s films. “Cinderella” has a good solid story structure, which is something Walt excelled at. We’re not introduced to the villain for a good 20 minutes into the film, but Walt based the structure of the film around the situations of the characters. What’s good in the beginning is that a simple scene of the mice trying to get passed Lucifer so they can get breakfast, the sequence builds up to the introduction of the Stepmother. Sequences such as the mice getting the beads and sash, and all the hard work built up to getting Cinderella’s dress made, only to have it destroyed later by the Stepsisters, Walt was able to have the moment change from something comical to something emotional and devastating. I can see this is is what Walt learned from his idol Charlie Chaplin, who could build a funny situation, and turn it on a dime to something serious.
Modern animated features are much more dialogue heavy than these earlier films. “Cinderella” has dialogue where its needed, but relies more on putting characters into situations that are based around visual gags. Which is what I think animation is meant for to begin with. There shouldn’t be a lot of dialogue unless its absolutely necessary to the story. There are some times in animation where I think we forget its supposed to be a visual medium, and its more than just coming up with clever camera angles to keep it from looking like a “talking heads” scene.
Walt as well as the animators who worked on his films during that time were majorly influenced by silent films, and the works of Chaplin and Keaton. Even Laurel and Hardy made some terrific silent shorts together before sound came in. We know their films for their witty banter and dialogue, but the strength of those films are based around visual gags. Cinderella is not the best of the Disney crop. But it’s got a solid story structure that holds it together, based around the situations of the characters. It still holds up today as a great, entertaining film.