Every Tuesday in The Kiddy Pool, Erin Newcomb confronts one of many issues that parents must deal with related to popular culture.
My elder daughter and I met up with friends for the opening night of the new short, “Frozen Fever” and the live-action Cinderella starring Lily James. It’s no surprise to me that the films premiered just a day after Disney announced an upcoming full-length Frozen sequel. As I discussed a few weeks ago, Disney is playing it safe, and in the case of “Frozen Fever” and this new edition of Cinderella, with success at the box office to the tune of 70 million. The movie’s mantra comes from Cinderella’s dying mother, who advises her daughter to “Have courage and be kind,” and while neither of these films feels particularly courageous, they are both teeming with kindness.
In “Frozen Fever,” Anna and Elsa return to the big screen determined to outdo one another in doing good. Elsa longs to make up for lost time with her little sister by planning an elaborate day of birthday festivities, but the Queen of Arendelle succumbs to sickness that leaves Anna tending to her. Set against the comic relief of a herd of snowball creatures produced by Elsa’s sneezes, the sisters simply want to be together and take care of each other. It’s not the bold maneuver of sisterly love that concludes the feature film still holding us all in its sway; it’s the everyday carework of loving someone, even if their sneezes aren’t quite as cute as Elsa’s.
The ugliness shows up in Cinderella’s familial relationships; though the stepmother (played by Cate Blanchett) tries toward the end of the film to justify her cruelty towards Cinderella, the proof seems to be in the fruit she bears—two daughters (played by Sophie McShera and Holliday Grainger) characterized by their petty, grasping frivolity. Audiences see more of Cinderella’s pre-orphan home-life here than in the classic 1950 version, but the main images and plot elements remain unchanged. Perhaps the most persistent addition to this edition comes in the form of Cinderella’s mother’s dying words—“Have courage and be kind”—that Cinderella repeats to herself throughout the film as a kind of invocation of maternal magic.
Indeed, the moment she loses faith in her mother’s belief that kindness is its own magic, Cinderella discovers her fairy godmother. She sets aside her own sorrow to offer a wizened old woman a bowl of milk. It’s a fairy tale trope that those who help the helpless are helped in return, and it’s a Christian principle that we serve Christ when we serve the least among us. The movie seems to draw on both concepts here, and Cinderella witnesses the transformation of the crone into the fairy godmother and the various garden elements into her equipage for the ball. Cinderella even asks for minimal change to her dress—inherited from her mother—reinforcing that this is not a movie about something new so much as it is about remembering our core values.
Even the glass slippers, adorned with butterflies, illustrate completeness. In all the Cinderella stories, it’s never been Cinderella who needs to change, but this film emphasizes how much her coming-of-age is influenced by her mother’s final advice. By so often showing Cinderella alongside a goose (who even appears at her wedding, after serving as her coachman), the movie also references the fairy tale “The Goose Girl,” another story of transformation, deceptive appearances, and eventually reaping the rewards of kindness. The lush garden imagery that surrounds Cinderella in her home and even on her wedding dress (created by Sandy Powell) could tell us that the bride’s fate is natural. Or the flowers and butterflies that accompany and adorn her throughout the film could tell us that the garden of Cinderella’s soul is well-tended, watered and pruned in wisdom and patience.
I cried through the final scene with Cinderella’s mother, even though I understand the narrative function of killing off parents. The mother asked forgiveness for leaving so early, and I wondered what I will be leaving behind, someday, sooner or later, for my own daughters. I thought about the Scriptures that we memorize together, and the ways that I’m trying to inscribe God’s word upon their hearts to sustain them now and later. I imagine that Cinderella’s understanding of “Have courage and be kind” changed throughout her maturation, and I hope that my girls will hold onto my wisdom (such as it is) and God’s word to cultivate their own spirits. They, like Cinderella, cannot know just how much life may challenge their courageousness or their kindness, but we parents can still plant the seeds for a life well-lived and a spiritual strength that endures longer than we can.