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After revolutionizing animation, the movies and entertainment in general with his 1937 mega-hit Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs Walt Disney discovered that producing marvelous, intricate, uncompromised works of animation art was so expensive, it's not easy to make them profitable. Walt stuck to his high art principles through Fantasia, and couldn't earn back his costs. And even when he made the less expensive Dumbo, the war kept him from distributing it almost anywhere outside the U.S. except for South America. The second whammy of the 1940s was the unionization of his animators, who didn't like working at the prices he set. Disney eventually caved in but drove away some of his most talented collaborators. By the late '40s he was experimenting with part-animated films and strings of short subjects grouped into musical-themed features. According to the experts, what saved the budding Disney empire and set it on the road to cultural domination was the unqualified, highly profitable 1950 hit Cinderella. Disney's corps of writers and gagmen hit upon a great idea to freshen the universally known fairy tale plotline: the standard narrative is embellished with the comic antics of Cinderella's animal friends: mice. And a few birds. And the family dog and horse.
Disney's Cinderella plays the basic storyline straight. The more modern animation style abandons the full-dimensional figures of Snow White and Pinocchio but not the delicacy of Disney's master character animators; The Prince may be a little stiff and unexpressive, but Cinderella, her imperious stepmother & bratty sisters, and the fairy godmother are wonderfully rendered. All of those loveable mice are equally expressive, especially Gus, the chubby new rodent in the house. Taking top animal honors is Lucifer the cat, a fussy, spiteful and fully contented rotten villain, always one claw swipe away from nailing one of the mice. The various mouse-cat confrontations owe little to the Guignol mayhem of Tom & Jerry cartoons. Frankly, without the charming mouse scenes Cinderella might be a bore.
The animation background art is in the modern mode, with skewed perspectives and limited detail, yet they lend scope and texture to the various episodes. Special effects animation adds mists, stardust and sparkly magic as required. When Cinderella's sisters destroy her ball gown, she runs to cry beneath a weeping willow tree that looks like it belongs on the banks of the Isle of the Dead. The Prince's castle is not merely enormous, it's gigantic beyond all reason.
Bringing the story even more fully to life -- and frankly making the movie a desirable repeat experience for adults -- is of course the marvelous music score. Some of Disney's '90s animated hits emulated Broadway shows, with musical numbers every few minutes. None of them can touch the freshness and magic of the music that Disney put into his work when he was alive. The orchestrations and character touches for "Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo" and "The Work Song/Cinderelly Cinderelly" are fascinating -- one can still hear those mouse voices harmonizing.
In the story Cinderella's step-relatives are cruel and heartless without further explanation. Disney isn't interested in psychological complexity in his villainous Stepmother Lady Tremaine, so she doesn't show up in the roster of later "fabulous" bad beauties, like Maleficent and Cruella De Vil. She's just a rotten b____ through and through, keeping Cindy in her place through bullying, false promises and whatever other haughty humiliations she can think of. Come to think of it, what's Lady Tremaine's big problem? Did she murder the late Mr. Tremaine's first wife, and therefore hates Cinderella because she looks like her ma? It seems to me that if Cinderella should be so lucky as to become a princess or a queen or whatever, Lady Tremaine should just play along, ride her stepdaughter's bridal train into the palace, and enjoy life. What a maroon.
Feminist (humanist?) critics of the story and Disney's movie see Cinderella presented as a victim pure and simple, forgetting that Cinderella's plight aligns with untold millions of women that have no choice but to accept the lives that cruel fate deals them. She's no dummy to get her hopes up, as Lady Tremaine has promised her that she can go to the Ball. She has every reason to despair because nobody (human) seems to be on her side. The Fairy Godmother-ex-machina is more than welcome. We know that Cinderella is working when we feel for our heroine, and fall in with the suspenseful business on the stairs when she's been locked in her room, and her mouse friends are trying to save the day. Cinderella is great light entertainment, perhaps not Disney's artistic high point, but a movie well deserving of its exalted status. 1
Disney's Blu-ray of Cinderella is a completely restored and digitally buffed HD presentation that shows no sign of imperfection. The word Flawless is insufficient. The animation and color textures do not look affected, and I see no interference with animation detail even though things look very clean, almost too clean. Since the show started with flat artwork, it's probably best to consider this final product as doing its best to skip the film generation in its presentation, and reference that original artwork directly. After all, the usual clues telling us that we're watching film are things like heavy contrast, excessive grain, image unsteadiness, surface dirt and scratches. If I've seen Cinderella in 35mm IB Tech I was too young to remember it; the last time I saw it was with my daughter at a matinee in the early 1980s. That was film and it didn't look nearly as good as this. If Disney refrains from revising scenes, re-dubbing voices or radically alter colors (as happened with one DVD release of Peter Pan) I can't see any reason to complain.
The extra most touted on the BD is a short subject extension of the new Disney hit Tangled, Tangled Ever After. It's busy, cute and clever. Also offered is an alternate opening sequence for Cinderella, billed as unseen before now. 2 Another involved extra is a Personalized Digital storybook with the title "Bibbidi-Bobbidi-You", which claims to offer an interactive experience. Older games, docus, featurettes and galleries are included as well. My favorite is a piece on Verna Felton, the revered voice artist who dubbed The Fairy Godmother.
The second DVD disc contains the feature, the Tangled short subject, and the Disney Princess featurette.
Also worth mentioning are the full original Spanish and French tracks, also in 5.1. These brilliantly produced foreign versions have full alternate language lyrics for the songs; part of Disney's astounding popularity overseas surely stems from the fact that his foreign language versions were so well produced. My wife can quote entire songs as she heard them as a child in Latin American theaters. "Todo se logra con sólo decir / Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo!"
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Cinderella Blu-ray rates:
1. Recently seeing Nicholas Ray's Born to Be Bad makes me imagine an alternate Cinderella taking place in the Kingdom next door. What if the situation weren't so extreme? What if the contrast in beauty and virtue wasn't so great between Cinderella and her stepsisters? What if she were acting as a servant for logical reasons and was well treated out of charity? What if Cinderella finagled her way into the Ball and presented herself as a deserving victim as a ploy to steal The Prince away from one of her stepsisters?
2. No luck, I guess. I was hoping they'd find that famous deleted scene, the one where Cinderella's stepsister Anastasia chops off parts of her foot in an attempt to squeeze it into the glass slipper. I understand it was a laugh riot, especially with all the blood splattering this way and that. And with Cinderella whisked away to a life of luxury in the palace, Drizella has to mop it all up!
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Also, don't forget the 2011 Savant Wish List.
T'was Ever Thus.