Monday, October 5, 2015

Cinderella: Beautiful Disappointment

This past weekend I watched the live action Disney Cinderella (2015). No one can deny that this is a beautiful film that highlights all of the technological leaps we have made since the animated version released in 1950. The new mice may not speak, but they make facial expressions and move in ways real mice cannot, while looking extremely believable. Unfortunately, other changes one expects in a live action adaptation of a fairy tale were sorely lacking. The characters were flat (perhaps even worse than the original animation), and the themes were ambiguous when not downright confusing.

Flat Characters

Flat characters are not uncommon in fairy tales, but usually when one is presented anew, the writers flesh out characters’ motivations and cares. In Ella Enchanted (2004 or Gail Carson Levine's book by the same title), Ella must obey every command she is given; in Ever After (1998), the prince doesn’t want to be king, and keeps running away from his responsibilities. This is not true of Disney’s new Cinderella. Good characters are good, and bad characters are bad.

A Kind Heroine

The prince is flat--no surprise there. But so is Cinderella. She is beautiful and kind. Her mother, on her death bed, instructs Ella that she must “have courage and be kind.” Ella is kind to everyone, but the definition of kind is unclear. She is naïve, and lets her step-mother manipulate her into becoming a servant, harbors no resentment, and flippantly forgives her step-mother all in the name of “kindness.” So, at first, being kind seems to result in unpleasant consequences, and is thus ill-advised. However, she is also kind to animals, which results in their kindness to her and which gains the attention of the prince. Thus, being kind may also result in delightful consequences.

Simple Themes Deny Truth

The first confusion of theme comes in Ella’s motivation for being kind: she is a kind person. Her mother’s instruction was not a correction of her previous behavior, but an encouragement for her to continue to be kind. Thus the story makes no statement about the virtues of kindness, but proposes a worldview in which good people are kind, bad people are cruel, and there is no common ground between them.

Secondly, Ella’s statement of forgiveness at the end of the film feels just as empty as her kindness. She forgives easily because she never really understood the hurt they tried to inflict upon her. She is still naïve. Obviously, I think forgiveness is important, and having it modeled in film is a good thing. However, her offering denied an important truth: that forgiveness is difficult. We don’t always want to forgive others even though we must. We see characters in films take revenge or mild retribution all the time and find it satisfying. However, Ella is kind, so she forgives. The flatness of her character allows us to conclude that we, being more nuanced individuals, are not required to give forgiveness to those who have hurt us. Her behavior is a result of who she is and not as a result of her belief in justice or righteousness, but we are called to act from such beliefs and thus become people who are kind.

Conclusion

However, these characters and themes may be sufficient in a children’s story. It was certainly beautiful, and many performances were well done. I was only hoping for more complexity, which would make this retelling memorable.


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