Cinderella (voiced by Ilene Woods) is the beloved daughter of a widowed aristocrat who marries Lady Tremaine (voiced by Eleanor Audley) so that she can have a mother’s care. After the unexpected death of Cinderella’s father, Lady Tremaine’s true colors come forth and reveal the cold and abusive woman that she really is, taking over the estate and reducing Cinderella’s role to a scullery maid.
Yet in spite of her mistreatment, Cinderella remains optimistic, especially when the King (voiced by Luis van Rooten) sends out a royal decree that every eligible maiden is to attend a royal ball for his son, the Prince. With a little help from her Fairy Godmother (voiced by Verna Felton), Cinderella’s “wish that her heart makes” just might come true.
Despite Walt Disney proving all his naysayers wrong with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs becoming a massive hit, all was not well with his production company following that film. During the ’40s, Pinocchio, Dumbo, and Bambi were all financial flops. Of course, they’ve all achieved deserved critical acclaim for being some of the best animated films ever made, but it’s no surprise that releasing those films during the thick of WWII hurt the company. Facing bankruptcy once again, like he did during the production of Snow White, Disney took a chance once more with another fairy tale princess, Cinderella. The result was a huge financial hit (its $85 million box office gross at the time would equate to nearly $1 billion today). Its success helped Disney’s company survive, allowing him to establish his own distribution company, branch out into live-action productions, television shows and begin construction on what would soon become Disneyland.
Yep, I believe the Most Magical Place on Earth owes this scullery made a huge thank you.
Those that have read the original fairy tale from the Brothers Grimm won’t be surprised at all in the liberties Disney had to take in order to make this family friendly (that meant omitting the part where the stepsisters get their eyes plucked out by doves). But, for the most part, this as a straightforward of a retelling as you can get. The romantic subplot may take a backseat to everything else in the film (the reason, which dates back to Snow White, was the animators having difficulty in drawing the princes), but the story doesn’t suffer ’cause of it. In fact, one of the strongest aspects of this film, and further proof of Walt Disney’s genius as a storyteller, is the way the narrative evenly balances out three key conflicts: Cinderella and her wicked stepmother, the mice Jaq and Gus (who, like the seven dwarfs, are the primary heroes of the story during the thrilling race against time to set Cinderella free) against the wicked stepmother’s smug cat (aptly named Lucifer), and the king’s search for his son’s potential bride. In lesser hands, trying to juggle just two could’ve backfired, but they interweave in and out of each of other so well, all connecting to the central character.
From an animation standpoint, Cinderella isn’t as groundbreaking as Snow White and Pinocchio, or as stylized as Sleeping Beauty. That said, there’s still a polished and appealingly colored touch that livens up the story, and particular scenes, such as when Cinderella’s scrubbing is reflected through the bubbles are beautifully animated. Another clever choice provided by Disney is the clear distinction he made between the bright and warm colors that make up Cinderella’s room and the dark and shadowy tones of her wicked stepmother’s (enshrouding her every now and then behind dark greens and purples draws parallels to Sleeping Beauty’s Maleficent, who was also voiced by Eleanor Audley).
Although between the Disney princesses, Snow White stands out more for having the more creative and iconic appearance, the improvement in physical detail that’s given to Cinderella shows how much Disney’s animation has progressed since Snow White. Like her animated predecessor, Cinderella’s character is the pure kind of soul that sees the good in even her foes, but where Adriana Caselotti voiced Snow White with a sheltered innocence, Ilene Woods adds a little bit of wit, humor and determination to Cinderella’s sweetness.
Most of the film’s energy and humor lies in the charismatic supporting players, which is often the case with Disney animated films. Splitting the film’s slapstick with the bumbling king and his grand duke are the mice and bird friends of Cinderella as they go about their ongoing feud with Lucifer. Longtime Disney voice-over veteran Verna Felton (Dumbo, Alice in Wonderland, Lady and the Tramp, Sleeping Beauty and The Jungle Book) brings delightful whimsy as the fairy godmother, and sings easily the most memorable song of them all, “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” as she transforms Cinderella from rags to ballroom head-turner.
No one here, though, left as much of an impression on me as Lady Tremaine did. Perfectly voiced by Eleanor Audley, Cinderella’s wicked stepmother gave me many, many, many… many sleepless nights as a little kid. Audley avoids over-the-top theatrics (a style that serves her bratty daughters Drizella and Anastasia better) with Lady Tremaine, and instead wisely delivers a cold and sinister calm that makes her one hell of a passive-aggressive nightmare. That her manipulation not only extends to Cinderella but even her own daughters (although, of course, mostly Cinderella) shows just how cruel this woman really is.
Simply put, there’s a reason Disney brought Audley back to voice Maleficent; she’s that good here, and her ability to go from such restrained evil to lively animated terror in Sleeping Beauty is evidence of the tremendous range she had as a voice actress, even within the confines of playing just villains.
Just when it seemed like Walt Disney Productions was on the verge of bankruptcy, Cinderella reversed its fortunes and ensured it was a filmmaking force that was here to stay. Thanks to its endearing princess, the wonderful animation, lively songs, whimsical animal sidekicks and one of the most menacing villains ever, Cinderella has rightfully earned its place on the Mount Rushmore of Disney animated classics.