Wishing and Believing: Cinderella

          After the package films of the 40’s and the war years, the Disney studio was in debt. The last film to actually make a profit—and not just recoup costs—was Snow White, released a full 13 years before Cinderella. The entire future of the feature animation studio was riding on this one film. If Cinderella had flopped, we’d have a world without Ariel, Belle, Jasmine—and a world without Simba. What a sad world that would be.
            Thankfully, Walt and Roy O. Disney were two geniuses working together—one a creative genius who demanded the highest quality from his artists, and one a financial whiz. Though Roy wanted to close the feature animation studio without Cinderella,a project Walt had been working on in his mind since his Laugh-O-Gram studio in his pre-Hollywood days, during the 1920’s. But Walt believed in Cinderella, and believed in it enough to use it to save his studio. Walt’s most famous quote, “If you can dream it, you can do it,” rings true to his own life. He believed his studio could be saved by a hit, so he made a hit.
            I wasn’t super excited to watch Cinderella for this project. I love the story and the art, but parts of the movie have always bored me. Granted, I’m much more likely to watch Cinderella than I am Snow White. Yet I own both of them on DVD. I can’t explain it. They’re like comfort objects; when I need them, I need them right then. And after watching Cindy again, I like her even more. I like what she did for the Disney studio in the 50’s, I love the music, and I’m catching more and more little things I never noticed before.
            I’m not sure if I was just in the right mood to watch it this time, but I enjoyed it a lot more. This could be partly due to that Walt biography I recently finished. Walt was listening to Ilene Woods, the voice of Cinderella, sing the “Sweet Nightingale” song in the studio. After she finished, Walt just sat there, silent, for five minutes. When Walt approved of something, whether from his animators or actors, he rewarded them with a “That’ll work.” Ilene was nervous, and rightfully so. Then Walt surprised everyone by saying that he imagined her singing, and then bubbles filled with her image harmonizing. New technology had just been developed, and Walt was determined to use it and perfect it.
            Because I knew precisely when that scene was, I was excited to see it and watch what was first visualized in Walt’s mind take shape. Then there’s the plus side of the hidden Mickey in the same scene. There was also a lot I had forgotten about—the cat and mice chases, the key up the stairs sequence and the ballroom dance scene. The music was also much more enjoyable than I remember. Which is why it’s no surprise that part of what saved the Disney studio was their expansion in the merchandising—specifically music merchandising. By maintaining ownership of the music from the film, selling the sound track and selling the sheet music, the Disney studio created a whole new avenue for profit.
            I spent quite a while watching the special features on these discs, and a lot of quality archival footage is included. Many radio interviews with Ilene Woods provided a lot of background information on her and how she won the role of Cinderella over 309 other actresses—without even knowing she was auditioning! She sang the demo reel for the musicians to show Disney, and he said that was his Cinderella. She has a lovely, iconic voice that I’ll always associate with the grace and charm that is Cinderella.
            Part of what made me love the movie more this time around is that Cinderella, while sweet, kind, generous, loving and charming, she is also spunky. For example, when the proclamation from the King announcing the ball arrives, her voice and facial expression changes when she says she supposes it’s important enough to interrupt the, ah, music lesson. Her slight mocking of the step-sisters’ terrible attempt at music shows some insight into her character. It shows that while she is forced to be a servant in her own home, and she accepts it with grace, she isn’t limited to it. She knows she deserves better and keeps a hope alive in her heart, even in the darkest moments, that one day life will be better.
            The special features on the Cinderella disc were extensive. But I certainly learned a lot. For instance, Walt’s (reported) favorite piece of animation was the transformation scene, when Cinderella changes from rags into a ball gown. There were also a few songs that were cut, and I think rightly so. It could just be they weren’t as developed as the ones in the final cut, but they just weren’t Disney caliber.
            Cinderella is such a Disney icon, I was a little intimidated to write about it. The Disney Golden Age (Snow White, Pinocchio, Bambi, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty) is such a big deal—if even one of those movies had failed, the Disney studio we know and love would be drastically different. In each Disney World theme park, there’s a Walt museum. It looks small sometimes from the outside, but it holds a vast amount of information and clips, scale models of Disney Land and images of Walt and Roy as children. I think Roy gets unjustly overlooked a lot of the time; if it weren’t for his financial smarts, Walt’s dreams would have bankrupted his companies more than once.
            Walt had one studio before he came to Hollywood: Laugh-O-Gram Pictures. While there, he began work on the short films that helped him establish the Disney Brothers Studio when he arrived in Hollywood—the Alice films. He combined live action and animation in a way no one had ever seen before.
            Perhaps less well known than the Alice films are Walt’s fully animated shorts from that same time period. He first began his 30 year affair with Cinderella at the Laugh-O-Gram studio. He made an animated short of Cinderella, and she and the Prince even do the Charleston! As someone who can only dance if it’s to swing music, I definitely appreciated that.
            As if two discs of Special Features weren’t enough, I went on IMDb to do a little more research on the voice of Cinderella and discovered a fun fact: the American Film Institute has a Top 10 Animation Films list. Huh, who knew?! Of course I then had to find the list. And here it is, in its entirety:
1.      Snow White
2.      Pinocchio
3.      Bambi
4.      The Lion King
5.      Fantasia
6.      Toy Story
7.      Beauty and the Beast
8.      Shrek
9.      Cinderella
10.  Finding Nemo
            In case you missed it, there are 7 Disney movies, 2 Pixar and 1 DreamWorks. The studio that produced the film is a very important factor for me—it basically determines if I see it in theatres opening weekend (All Pixar and most Disney), in theatres at all (most Disney), or wait until it comes out on Netflix (DreamWorks, if I bother at all). Now, I don’t have anything against DreamWorks except that they were Disney artists and I don’t believe the split was a happy one. Heck, John Lassetter has gone back and forth from Pixar and Disney for years, yet he’s still one of my favorite directors and executive producers. And, generally speaking, a DreamWorks film may be enjoyable, but it lacks that emotional tug that is synonymous with Disney and Pixar.
Granted, that list was created in 2008, before UP, Toy Story 3, or Tangled. And I have to disagree with a few, and not just Shrek. Don’t freak out, I enjoy Shrek. It’s funny. But for me, it lacks greatness. In UP, Carl and Ellie’s love story makes you cry within 8 minutes of the film starting—with ZERO dialogue. So while Shrek’s antics may make me laugh, and the pop culture wit is extraordinary, I can’t say I think it deserves to be on the Top 10 Animated Films list, either. But I also don’t think Pinocchio earned his place there, either. I do, of course, greatly agree that Simba should be on that list, only a little higher. 😉
            Another interesting note is that the voiced narration that begins the film may sound oddly familiar, if out of place. That is because it is the much less scary version of the actress who also voiced Cruella de Vil in 101 Dalmations.
            Another interesting tidbit: Cinderella is the first film that all of Disney’s Nine Old Men worked on together. They were shuffled around a bit, with the animator of the seven dwarves being the lead animator for the Step-Mother. But that’s how Walt worked—he saw opportunity for growth, and he saw who best fit where. It was an invaluable quality that made his films so excellent. Walt himself was not a great animator—which is why he employed so many great animators. It’s also why he caused so many techniques to be invented—he didn’t know what wasn’t possible. His creativity wasn’t confined by what was possible, because he simply didn’t know when something he asked of his animators was impossible.
            The scene with Jacques and Gus-Gus taking the key up the stairs is memorable. I was completely surprised when Lucifer (that’s the cat’s name; he’s modeled on animator Ward Kimball’s actual cat!) captured Gus—and the key—in the bowl. It was a suspenseful moment when the cat-and-mouse chase (literally) all throughout the movie could finally end—with the cat winning. The mice rebel and start attacking (like villagers with pitchforks and fire, except they are mice after all—so they have forks and candles on sewing thread spools!). It’s a genius scene, full of suspense, as Cinderella has very limited time in which to save her future. It’s truly animated genius.
            I can’t recall why I didn’t like this movie growing up or even delight in it a few years ago. But I can—ungrudgingly—say that I now love this film. The music is stuck in my head (particularly “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes”), I keep recalling funny images and plot points. It’s clever and wonderful and I just love it (now).

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