Disney’s live-action adaptation of Cinderella has started a much-needed conversation about fairy tales and how we enjoy them. That’s a necessary topic especially because even more fairy tale adaptations are coming: Beauty and the Beast, Frozen 2, and others.
But Christians and non-Christians alike are tempted to focus the conversation only on our own beliefs or preferred social causes. We might only say that Cinderella is a Christlike character suffering under her step-family’s abuse. Or we might let the film’s critics frame the debate about how Cinderella’s story can be reduced to propaganda piece for anti-feminism or disempowerment of victims, or about how Cinderella’s ballgown waistline is too narrow.
Either response is far too mechanical, and in fact forces this simple yet powerful story into our own narrow expectations. Before we subject fairy tales to our social analyses, let us simply enjoy these well-crafted stories—whenever they appear—for what their makers intended them to be: fantastical reflections of beauties and truths. These stories are not mere tools for “realistic,” grown-up efforts of Making Humans Better. In fact, the very act of rediscovering and delighting in these stories helps us grow into our God-given humanity.
Rediscovering a courageous and kind heroine
Like all great fairy tales, Cinderella as scripted by Chris Weitz and directed by Kenneth Branagh does not try to force the original tale into a postmodern, ironic “reboot.” Instead the film rediscovers the story, combining old colors, ideas, even traditional morality in new ways.
Before we subject fairy tales to our social analyses, let us simply enjoy these well-crafted stories—whenever they appear—for what their makers intended them to be: fantastical reflections of beauties and truths.In this interpretation, Cinderella herself is realistic yet truly noble, trying to live up to the ideals of a fairy-tale heroine. Her creed as shown by her departed parents, and articulated by her dying mother, is “Have courage and be kind.” This tale depicts Cinderella’s brave fight for her faith, encouraging the audience to cheer her on to success. The storytellers seem to have asked: What would it be like if an honest-to-goodness fairy-tale princess-in-waiting must fight for these ideals? It’s that moral balance that pushes Cinderella beyond a stereotype critics might have trouble seeing past.
Rediscovering royal heroes and wicked villains
And what to do with the story’s handsome prince? He seems to cause offense merely by existing and by finally getting the girl—and being gotten by her. But Prince Kit (not Charming) cuts as idealistic-yet-realistic a figure as his famous girlfriend. And like her, he fights for values of old-fashioned chivalry and new-fashioned equality.
The prince and his allies have a studied respect of royal responsibilities and good leadership, mixed with a self-abandoning pursuit of joy and innovation. For example, Kit’s conversation with his dying father could have gone so wrong, with the bland Western “I’m not like my father” bits. But this scene is perhaps the film’s best example of its idealistic-medieval perspective—a view shared by other Branagh films like Much Ado About Nothing, Thor, as well as C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia stories. In fact I’d call Branagh’s Cinderella quite “Narnian,” with a bold color splashed against a cinematic palette that’s filled with the dulled hues of heroes who simplistically rebel against everything “old.”
But some would-be authorities are usurpers who deserve confrontation and even rebellion. Cinderella does not shy from showing the darker tones of evil in all its selfish flippancy, overt corruption, and ultimate self-destruction as shown by the wicked stepmother.
Cate Blanchett vanishes into the stepmother’s role, and the film gives her a back-story without using it as justification for her evils. At one point Cinderella sincerely begs her, “How can you be so cruel?” Her stepmother replies, “Because you are young, and innocent, and good. And I. . .” She almost honestly says, “And I am not,” a reminder that sometimes abusers, quite despite their own tragic histories, really do want to destroy youthful innocence purely out of contempt. Or as C. S. Lewis in Perelandra suggests of “mature” evil:
Deep within, when every veil had been pierced, was there, after all, nothing but a black puerility, an aimless empty spitefulness content to sate itself with the tiniest cruelties, as love does not disdain the smallest kindness?
Some critics of the original fairy tale say Cinderella does not sufficiently confront abuse, and they carry their criticism to this film. I don’t believe they have watched it carefully. But even if they did, they may miss how she models a healthy approach to courageously and kindly reckoning with this evil. She deals with abuse as best she can, seeking to love her enemies and win over them. But when it becomes clear her stepmother wants not only to abuse Cinderella but also to manipulate other people and even threaten the kingdom, Cinderella refuses to enable it. And for that reason she is willing to surrender her dream of happiness.
In response to this humble surrender, this subtle picture of death to self, the story steps in to reward her. Thus Cinderella does not say, “Don’t fight injustice, only be good and keep your place.” It says, “Overcome evil with good.” Then the story itself avenges the wrong.
Even Cinderella’s critics can’t help gushing at the film’s story-world. Lavish costumes and settings need no 3D stunt equipment to leap off the screen. I loved losing myself in the onscreen fairy-tale universe in which people, frills, and art seem grown from an organic diversity of different cultures and even historical eras.
For example, Cinderella’s royal family does not live in the traditional Disney castle shown only in the film’s beginning logo; they live in what looks like a traditional palace built in our world only a few centuries ago. Cinderella’s childhood home feels like the fairy-tale version of someone’s great-grandparents’ house, lined with doors, paintings and antique furniture. And our wicked stepmother behaves and resembles an anachronism, thanks to her 1920s socialite hair and garb. She’s also seen gambling. And I almost want to say she even carries one of those long cigarette holders. She doesn’t, but the suggestion is there, and it’s this kind of restraint that pulls all the disparate colors and elements into an eye-pleasing whole.
By the film’s end I’m left just feeling happy and pleased, feeling that the filmmakers got this adaptation right. Oddly enough, Cinderella’s makers did not try to stun critics or show fans something utterly new, and succeeded in doing just that. What’s old is made new, and we have rediscovered that what we thought was a flat and tired old story has a new dimension and is full of life.
Once that initial thrill has worn off, what can Christian fans or social activists do with Cinderella? Perhaps we can talk about how its romantic love mirrors that of Christ and the church. Maybe we do need to have conversations about how good people should respond to abusive authorities. And maybe we should discuss how lead actress Lily James had a bevy of staff to get her waist looking so thin, and impressionable girls must practice discernment to avoid body-image temptations. But first let’s practice what we preach about image-consciousness, and avoid trying to force the film to be something it wasn’t meant to be. First let’s lose ourselves in the beauties, truths, and even magic of fairyland.