The new Cinderella has created quite an impression on box offices, critics, and audiences alike—dare I try to write a convoluted metaphor about Cinderella dazzling the film world as its heroine dazzled at the ball? Nah.
Lily James’ Cindy has been heralded lately as the “feminist” Cinderella, and many blogs, reviews, and critics have expressed gratitude for a more feisty, realistic Cinderella to replace Disney’s previous iconic animated heroine. In fact, a review of the film in Time magazine, written by a Mr. Richard Corliss, calls the film “less a remake of the 1950 movie than a correction,” and is even subtitled “Disney delivers a maid with moxie, undoing the animated error of 1950.” This particular review bothered me for more than just the fact that it spent much of its time trashing the animated Cinderella.
Now, I liked Lily James, and I liked Richard Madden, and I generally liked the film. But I found the general story, the actual fairy tale, far more compelling than any of the characters—and this is why the sudden fascination with this particular Cinderella confuses me. She’s almost exactly the same as most other Cinderellas we’ve seen.
And that’s not exactly bad—if you’ve read my article "Why Cinderella Is Actually a Bad-Ass," you know that I love Cinderella, the fairy tale and the character, that I think she’s significantly stronger than anyone gives her credit for, and that if she really needs to be a role model, I think her quiet dignity and her iron hope make her a great one. So I didn’t have a huge problem with Lily James’ Cinderella; I thought she was (mostly) just as strong and resilient and charming as I would expect Cinderella to be. But to call her “a maid with moxie,” a “correction,” the new “feminist Cinderella,” seems misguided.
There are almost no major plot variations between this film and the Disney film, or any other versions of Cinderella, for that matter. Cinderella’s parents die, she’s subjugated into servitude (and props to this film for showing how incremental and psychological that abuse was), and then she meets the Prince and her life gets better. Throughout the whole film Cinderella herself takes everything in stride and is rewarded for such bravery and diligence by her fairy godmother, and then she gets to live happily ever after. Which is great: the kindness, patience, bravery, and optimism exhibited by Cinderella are great qualities to have in a heroine. But they’re the qualities every Cinderella ever has ever exhibited also.
So why is this Cinderella in particular being lauded for being so progressive? If we're judging by the usual criticism, that we want a Cinderella who isn't a "doormat" and who doesn't become a "damsel in distress," then I think this 2015 Cinderella is actually a step back from the 1950 film. Lily James’ Cinderella doesn’t “take destiny into her own hands” any more than other Cinderellas. In fact, after her stepmother breaks her souvenir glass slipper, this Cinderella resigns herself to living for the rest of her life off of the happy memories from that one magical night--which would be fine if it seemed like she was actually resigning herself to it instead of being completely content. At least Disney’s animated Cinderella had the desperation and the feeling to break down in tears, bang on the door, and call furtively for help.
This Cinderella film did legitimately do some great things—I’m not trying to trash the movie. As I said before, I loved the depiction of how Cinderella was slowly reduced to servant in her own household, and I did find the first meeting of Cinderella and Kit “the apprentice” in the woods pretty cute. Kit doing that thing…
…where he was secretly disguised in the retinue searching for Cinderella the whole time was awesome.
But despite some tiny changes and tweaks that you’d expect from any remake or adaptation, the story is still generally the same. Cinderella is mostly the same girl, but, apparently, better.
This contradiction is how I feel about the film—that it updated some little things in an effort to seem proactive and modern, but didn’t really update the fairy tale at all. Kit and Cindy meeting in the woods was cool, but it struck me as more an attempt to make the two falling in love seem more “realistic,” when in fact it is still very much love-at-first-sight. Cinderella’s mantra, “Have courage and be kind,” seems to operate as a justification for Cinderella acting the way she does—judging by the frequency the characters repeat it and repeat it and repeat it. But saying it’s important to “have courage and be kind” at every available opportunity doesn’t make those qualities more relevant or important for this Cinderella than they were for others. It is still largely the mice who were responsible for saving her (since they were the ones with the idea to open the window so all the people could hear Cindy), and at the end it is still Cinderella’s marriage to the Prince that makes it a happy ending—which is fine, because it’s a fairy tale. But the 1950 animated film, and happy fairy tale endings in general, get so much shade that I don't know why that ending is good only for this Cinderella.
On the one hand this tricky modernizing-but-not-really-modernizing doesn’t bother me because hey, it's a classic fairy tale. On the other hand it seems like we were promised something the film never delivered, and I am bothered by the overwhelming positive response to this Cinderella on the grounds that she is somehow better than the previous heroine. Disney had the chance to make a Cinderella who was legitimately different: one who fought back somehow, maybe tried to get away, who maybe bested her step-family even before she married the Prince. It would have been cool to see a really drastically different Cindy, and then I could understand the positive femme response. But as it is, we seem more likely to shower accolades on a live-action princess than an animated one, even if she's not deserving of it.