Thursday, October 27, 2011

DATE Night: Cinderella

Not trying to avoid Snow
 comparisons, are they?
So we've made it to a new decade! It's 1950 and we are finally out of the Forest of the Package Films that the forties had abandoned us in. We emerge for this week's DATE Night and, lo and behold, there's a big, bright shiny castle ahead! One styled by Mary Blair, no less! Be still my heart! There was plenty that was good about the last 10 years of Disney filmmaking, but on the whole it just didn't quite have the spark, charm, or consistency of quality that the first five films had. With Cinderella, I'm pleased to say, the tide has turned. I told you it'd be worth it to stick around!

The Background:

After a decade of hit-and-miss package films from Disney, Cinderella was the first single narrative animated feature since Bambi in 1942. It was quite a gamble to make, made at a considerable expense when the studio was in debt, but it paid off handsomely. It became a hit and the success of the film, music and merch provided an infusion of cash which later allowed for the establishment of a distribution company, forays into television, and Disneyland. It has been said that if the film had failed, it would have been the end for the studio.

Mary Blair's castle concept art.
Some choose to look at Cinderella as the beginning of the end of Disney animation's golden age. In my eyes, it is the beginning of a second golden age. The first consists of the first five films (Snow White through Bambi), which set the ground rules. This second golden age, lasting from Cinderella to The Jungle Book, uses those rules as a jumping off point, mixes in what was learned by the failed and successful experiments of the forties, and builds upon the Disney legacy to push the artistic boundaries of what was possible for and expected for in an animated film.

The First Impression:

The Disney Project- Part 5: Cinderella. You can see Mary Blair's amazing style all through this film. Cinderella is one sassy lady. She's romantic, optimistic and kind while remaining ballsy and proactive. I should be more like her. Lovely animation. Wonderful storytelling. The "Bibbity Bobbity Boo" scene is untouchable. The transformation from rags to a gown is one of the most perfect 10 second ever in film.
February 2, 2010 at 8:51pm ·

The Art:

Mary Blair. This exact shot is in the film.
8/10. I'm sorry if I sound like a broken record, but Mary Blair, Mary Blair, my heavens, Mary Blair. This blog is by nature pretty biased and she's my fave, so you'll keep hearing about her until she exits the studio after Peter Pan. Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan were the three major Disney features that really showcased her vision. Watching Cinderella for the first time as an adult, I was still a burgeoning fan of her art and saw flashes of it, but this time through I saw how the film is truly dripping with Mary Blair. I know that there were many talented artists who created these films and I will try to point them out as well here and there, but for now, as far as I'm concerned, it's Mary Blair's world and we're just living in it.

Notice the more muted colors in Mary's art.
You see her style beginning with the title cards at the opening of the film and it influences everything from the color palette to design to how shots are framed to emotional resonance. Look at the designs in the wallpaper and carpets, the contrasts of shadows and light, the famous dress ripping scene where the background get more bloody red as the stepsisters get more violently angry, some of the far shots that look like Mary Blair painted landscapes, the chill-inducing wow-moment color change before Cinderella and the Prince's waltz, the headless horseman-inspired figures chasing the pumpkin carriage, the way that the King literally turns red in anger like the characters from "Once Upon a Wintertime" or even Cinderella's iconic castle, which is glistening with Mary's style.

Mary's character design concepts for Cinderella.
Very often we we talk about Mary Blair's brilliant use of color referring to the bright, saturated tones of Alice in Wonderland or "it's a small world", but here she uses greys and silvers, powder and gunmetal blues, magentas and turquoises with just pops of bright colors to reinforce an emotional idea. Her use of color is psychological, informing us of the emotional state of a character wordlessly. It is surface as subtext. This all becomes increasingly apparent when you see her fantastic concept artwork, some of which I got to see in person at the Colors of Mary Blair exhibit at the Disney Gallery in Disneyland. (She even did initial character designs that were rejected when they decided to make the characters more rounded and more in the Disney tradition. The animators weren't ever fully able to bring her vision to the screen fully in an animated feature.) There are shots, like Cinderella and the Prince walking onto the terrace during their waltz that are taken almost directly from Mary.

The art here as a whole is stellar. This was the first time that Disney dipped its toe into the process of rotoscoping (tracing from live action footage). They did it for budgetary reasons and I must say that it is artfully done. I wouldn't have known that any of it was rotoscoped, which isn't surprising since the animators resented the idea so much that they went above and beyond to elevate it beyond simple tracing. Ward Kimball, animating the mice (with mouseholes everywhere! I want a map of where they all go in the house!) and Lucifer, deserves special mention for his humorous and precise work here. Free from the constraints of using live models, he allowed his imagination to go to wonderfully unexpected places. Other great moments include the shadows-as-jail cast as Cinderella walks into the Stepmother's room for the first time, the moon's transformation into a clock face and the gorgeous bubble section of "Sing Sweet Nightingale".

Last but not least is the whole of the "Bibbity Bobbity Boo" sequence. Every artistic element comes together to create one of the best scenes in animation and, more specifically, one of the best moments in cinema history period. Everything is spot-on here, from the Fairy Godmother's materialization, heightened by a shift in lighting and a few artfully-placed sparkles to the playful transformations of the pumpkin and animals into a carriage and entourage of sorts. Even later, after the ball, the transformation back is the flip side, as sad and defeated as the bookend is joyous and triumphant with it's trampled pumpkin bleeding glitter. The jewel in the crown of this film, however, is Cinderella's transformation. Animated by Marc Davis, it is done simply and perfectly and is over almost as soon as it starts. Yet it takes your breath away and wedges itself into your memory forever. With a curly-cued trail of fairy dust, he is able to make us experience what it feels like for our deepest dream to come true. It is commonly known as Walt's favorite piece of animation and it is probably mine as well. It is pure magic.

The Story:

Mary Blair's Fairy Godmother.
8/10. What makes the storytelling so powerful in Cinderella is that it is simple and straightforward enough for a child to understand, but it is also layered enough for adults to feel like they have something to explore as well. We open again with the storybook, harkening back to the first golden age, and then get a brief prelude to establish our story. From there we have two distinct worlds that we move back and forth between- that of Cinderella and other people and that of Cinderella and her animal friends. The scenes featuring people provide a potent emotional roller coaster from the lows of scrubbing the floor and having a dress ripped apart to the highs of going to the ball and marrying the Prince. The scenes with the animals use different styles from broad physical comedy to musical production number to Hitchcockian suspense to show us a good time. The way that these two are balanced is the key to its success. It has something for everybody, it never drags, it keeps you on the edge of your seat and you stay engaged from the very beginning to the very end. It is brilliantly constructed. My only quibble is with the end. Where is comeuppance for Lady Tremaine and her awful daughters? It's the one hole in the story that I feel needed to be filled.

The Characters:

8/10. The cast of characters here is not only beautifully designed and animated, but more dimensional than I think they are given credit for being. I think Cinderella herself has a bad reputation for being a bit empty and I think that's bogus. In the original film, she's quite layered. She is a woman who spends her life so emotionally isolated from others that she can only be herself around the animals who wouldn't mistreat her. She grew up without her birth mother, lost her father at a young age and was enslaved by a cruel stepfamily. Yet she emerges as a sassy and hopeful, biting her tongue in order to survive but making vocal air quotes when she refers to the stepsisters' "music lessons".

Shady, shady Lady Tremaine locks Cindy up.
She is so beaten into submission around other human beings that the Fairy Godmother's kindness and her own flowering around the Prince feel like a gust of cool autumn air. You understand why she is the way that she is, yet there is a spark that never lets you doubt that she has the capacity to overcome. How interesting it is that she never actually realizes that the man she has fallen in love with is the Prince himself until the Grand Duke arrives with the slipper. The moment when she drops the tray shows a woman realizing that her entire world is on the verge of changing. She purely fell in love with the man, not the title, and therefore is the one who deserves him. Her voice, by Ilene Woods, is quintessential Disney princes- kind, endearing, and lovely. It's the kind of voice you would want to sing you to sleep every night and be the first thing you hear every morning. Her face is exceptionally exquisite.

This made me giggle. I'll take one!
The supportng cast of humans have a bit of depth as well. See The Gay Scale below for my thoughts on the King and Grand Duke. The Prince is a bit of an empty vessel, but it's not his story. You love him because he loves Cinderella. I do enjoy the moment when all of the women are being presented to him and gives a WTF gesture to the King and the Grand Duke. It shows a flash of sass in him that makes him feel completely compatible with Cinderella. Plus that singing voice is silky smooth and dreamy. And he sure is easy on the eyes. And of course we can't forget Verna Felton's endearing performance as the Fairy Godmother. You may remember her voice as one of the mean elephant ladies in Dumbo. She's the dotty grandmother we all wish that we had. She is sweet, funny, and maternal. It's impossible not to fall in love with her.

We're your Never mind.
On the villainess side of things, you have Lady Tremaine and her awful daughters. Eleanor Audley provided the Lady's voice, as she later would do for Sleeping Beauty's Maleficent and Madame Leota in "The Haunted Mansion". It is pitch-perfect, showcasing the terrifying power of using restraint. That stillness is carried over into the animation, where just the shift of her eyes is enough to chill your blood. The animators also like to play with her movement into and out of shadows, signaling a literal and figurative shadiness about her. Her design, with that horrid sneer, riffs on Audley's appearance, exaggerating everything possible to make her unattractive and severe. Drizella and Anastasia also push the boundaries of purposefully ugly character design, but leans more toward the comic. They are voiced well, making you laugh at them and despise them at the same time.

The animals are wonderful and distinctive. Lucifer (also see The Gay Scale) is fabulously drawn- able to slink up stairs and turn himself into a super-weird sleeve worm for a chuckle. His humor is firmly rooted in the world of animated shorts. Malleable bodies doing ridiculous things that are possibly only through the willing suspension of disbelief. The mice add an indelible playfulness. Jaq and especially GusGus (I love him so much! I want one!) are so adorable and hilarious it is a joy to watch their hijinks. It's impossible not to go say "Awww" when you see Bruno and he is literally an underdog that you root for and gets to play the hero when he takes care of awful Lucifer. All of the various animals are depicted in a style somewhere between broad cartoonishness and realism that works beautifully.

The Music:

8/10. Walt went to Tin Pan Alley to find songwriters Mack David, Al Hoffman and Jerry Livingston. He knew the importance of the music being successful and he wanted songwriters who could give him songs that would both work within the context of the story and also be hits. Cinderella marked the first movie for which Disney held the publishing rights to the music, so profits would help bring the studio back from the brink. The movie's songs were immensely popular, ingraining themselves firmly into the nation's collective unconsciousness even up through today, providing another revenue stream for Disney, and working beautifully in context.

Hallucinogens are a way to pass time scrubbing.
The first song is in the intro, a fine if not terribly special little title ditty praising the title character's loveliness. From there, we get a hit parade of unforgettable numbers. "A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes" is Cinderella's defining statement of her core belief in the power of dreams coming true. "Sing Sweet Nightingale" functions as a comic song to showcase the ridiculousness of the stepsisters which morphs into a means to starkly contrast them with Cinderella. It's also one of the very first uses of the new technology of overdubbing in order to create the chorus of Cinderellas. Again, Disney always stayed on the tipping point of technological advances. "The Work Song" shows us not only how devoted Cinderella's animal friends are, but the lyrics give us a glimpse at the hell she is living through. Since it is coming from the mice and not Cinderella, it wisely avoids making our heroine seem whiny by giving us an outsider's perspective instead of her own. "Bibbity Bobbity Boo" is a wonderfully inventive and catchy magic incantation for the Fairy Godmother which is rivaled only by the Sherman Brothers in its ability to spin gold from nonsense words. It doesn't hurt that they are able to roll right off the tongue of little ones, who take a particular joy in making the sounds. There is nothing cuter than a kid saying the phrase. Last but not least is "So This is Love", which may be my favorite song in the film. It is romantic and simple and by the end of it we feel through sheer potency of emotion that we have seen a full and believable courtship, though we have, in reality, only seen moments.

The score is also brilliantly done, by Paul Smith and Oliver wallace. It punctuates the action so wonderfully, making the the hijinks with Lucifer and the mice even funnier and the moments with Lady Tremaine even creepier. They even manage to weave in moments of musical foreshadowing, such as the strains of "So This is Love" underneath Cinderella planning for the ball. In the same way that the art and colors were tailored to find the psychological truth in the story, the score does a wonderful job in supporting the emotional truth, whether playful, romantic or terrifying.

The Gay Scale:

7/10. Shockingly enough, I missed a lot of the gay undertones the first time around. Some are somewhat obvious. The princess movie will always be dear to a gay's heart. We project our own trials onto those of a plucky heroine who triumphs despite hardships and others who try to hold her back. Cinderella is made to feel less than and alone in the world, yet manages to transform into her best self and find the man of her dreams. Underdog narrative plus princess story equals gay dream come true. The gays also love a great villainess, and Lady Tremaine is cold, grand, reserved and creepy enough to strike fear in the heart of Miranda Priestly.

Extend the pinky looking annoyed & unimpressed, Lucifer!
Spending this DATE Night with my awesome husband Tom, my rad roommate Katie and our friends Stacy and Justin, gay tendencies in characters that had totally evaded me before were pointed out left and right. This is why I like to surround myself with witty, brilliant people to steal ideas from! They pointed out that Lucifer extends his pinkies, throws shade, turns his nose up at the poor beleaguered Bruno and sneakily swishes about. He is a plump, nasty queen who takes pleasure in manipulating those he feels are beneath his station. He is the first in a line of distinctive gay-reading Disney villains.

Uh. Pardon me, sire...
The relationship between the King and the Grand Duke was also brought to my attention. There is the conspicuous lack of a (capital Q) Queen and the two royals act like an emotionally volatile set of parents raising a son together. It had never really crossed my mind until Stacy pointed it out a bit into their first scene and all of a sudden I watched their banter in an entirely new light. The way that they interacted made so much more sense. Plus, the Grand Duke is decked out in some dandy duds. The sea foam green. The monocle. The stirrup pants. It all starts to make sense that with him in the motherly role and the King in paternal mode there is a complete family unit, albeit dysfunctional, as they tend to be. 

The Bottom Line:

8/10. Cinderella marks a return to form for the studio. It is the first time that all of the elements that make a Disney animated classic a classic have been in place together since Bambi. The fact that they came out of the gate with a single narrative feature that is this well-done is nothing short than a miracle right when they needed it. The took the Snow White template and delved deeper, adding elements of psychology and artistic and stylistic experimentation. They respected a formula that they had created successfully enough to make it work for them again and yet weren't afraid to diddle with it enough to make it fresh, exciting, and a bit daring. There is very little that I don't love about this movie. There is a reason that it has resonated so deeply for generations and has (arguably) become the definitive telling of the story. Full of wishes and dreams that come true, it helps us believe that no matter who we are and where we come from, we have the potential to be anything or anyone. It's a powerful message and is rendered beautifully in a medium that even allows it to look like our dreams. Watching Cinderella is like living a dream- complete with happily ever after.

The Miscellanea:

Totes worth tracking down!
A few years back, Disney released a (too) short series of picture books featuring classic concept art for their films accompanied by retellings of the stories by great contemporary children's authors. Out of the four that they made, one had art by Gustaf Tenggren (Snow White) and three showcased the art of Mary Blair (Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan). They are all beautifully done with fine reproductions of the art and solidly edited interpretations of the stories. Each one is a perfect bedtime story length. They all seem to still be in print and available at a reasonable price except, of course, for Cinderella, which now fetches over thirty bucks on Amazon. They are all worth having if you are a fan of classic Disney art, especially Mary Blair, or would like to have really well done Disney versions of the classic tales. Working very often in the children's department at my former job, I can't count the number of times someone would want "the Disney version" of whatever story. It was so lovely to be able to put these beautifully done editions in their hands. I highly recommend them.

Lest we forget all about it, Disney produced the 1997 TV remake of another classic version of Cinderella- the one originally starring another Disney stalwart, Julie Andrews, by Rodgers and Hammerstein. They cast it as if they were shooting a Benetton ad and filled it with a mix of celebrities (Whitney Houston, Whoopie Goldberg), hot young things (Brandy, Paolo Montalban), and theater folk (Bernadette Peters, Veanne Cox, Victor Garber, Jason Alexander). Here is a trailer from said television event.

Though I must say I enjoy the camp value of infinite melisma during "Impossible", I will always be terribly partial to the Lesley Ann Warren version from 1965 that I wore out on VHS as a kid and finally found on an out-of-print DVD recently. Whoa. I just blew my own mind! With this realization, a husband who's obsessed with the sixties (to the point of still watching Christina Ricci's forehead...uh...I mean Pan Am. Yes. He's the one.), and my newfound fascination with the 1964-1965 New York World's Fair, I am full-on having a mid-sixties moment!

This next video is from the D23 Convention that happened a few months back in California. D23 is the official Disney fan club (of which I am finally now a member, thanks to my thoughtful hubby) and they do a big ole bi-annual event in California. Tom and I will be there in 2013 with bells on, but until then, we had to be satisfied with blogs and pictures and videos from people who were lucky enough to make it. Here we have a princess explosion! Buckle your seatbelts gays and pre-pubescent girls! It's the voices of Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Mulan and Tiana all singing "A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes" together. All four of these ladies were (deservedly) inducted as Disney Legends during this ceremony. Though y'all know that Tiana is probably my favorite princess thanks to Anika Noni Rose's amazing performance, I'm impressed that Lea Salonga's voice hasn't aged a day, Jodi Benson still sounds so strong, and Paige O'Hara has embraced her newfound status as everyone's favorite crazy cougar aunt.

As if that wasn't enough to set your gay heart aflame, here is Cher's version of the song! It's actually quite a lovely, understated take on the song, from a For Our Children charity album to benefit pediatric AIDS causes. I love this particular video because it's a fan-made travelogue video that documents a rad blonde lady's trip to see Cher in Vegas and you can tell it was done with a lot of love. I think it's just precious. When I went to Vegas, Cher had left, Bette was on hiatus and Celine was gone. Not a happy gay was I.

You know I love me some fabulous Disney covers. I dug into YouTube for y'all and found some interesting ones. "Bibbity Bobbity Boo" has had some great classic covers. This first one is a real swinger from Jo Stafford and Gordon McRae.

This next one is by Italian bass Salvatore Baccaloni. It's funny to hear an opera singer let themselves be so silly, and I love it! My favorite part is when he sings "the thingamabob-a that does the job". It makes me giggle, as does the picture they chose to put on the video. Teeheehee.

This last cover of the sing is by Perry Como and the Fontane Sisters. It has a very forties sound to it. You can clearly tell that this was made to help lure the kiddie's parents into the cinema. I adore it. There's also a charming little special feature on the Platinum Edition DVD with Perry Como singing songs from Cinderella on his TV show with the Fontane Sisters dressed up as mice (one of them does quite a good GusGus voice) and guest Ilene Woods. Perry is smooth, the Sisters are adorbs and Ilene sounds like a dream when she's not caught laughing at herself for tripping up on national television. It's a charming little lark.

I was actually saddened by the lack of great covers of "So This Is Love". I thought there would be tons since it seems to me the easiest to pull out of context and interpret for a more adult audience. Instead we get two ends of the spectrum. First is the teenybopper Disney Channel treatment from the Cheetah Girls. Um. No. They have sapped the melody right out of it. It feels lazy instead of lovestruck and substitutes vocal machinations for emotion. I suggest picking a spot in the middle and watching for about five seconds. That's all you need to get it and it's most likely all you'll be able to take. It's almost as bad as the "Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes" video included on the Cinderella Platinum Edition DVD featuring a bunch of Disney Channel "stars" who are all pretty rancid, save Raven Symone, whom I adore, and the girl who grew up to be awesome as my wife Emma Stone's friend in Easy A.

At the complete opposite end it this interpretation by legendary The Dave Brubeck Quartet. I'm not a fan of this type of jazz. I feel like they often pretentiously torture the melody so much that it is unrecognizable. I am a fan of great melody, myself. That's usually what draws me into a song. To diddle with it so much that it's barely there feels almost disrespectful. Now this is purely a personal aesthetic judgement. Brubeck is very talented and well-respected. It just doesn't tickle my pickle at all, though I must say that this version of "So This Is Love" isn't as far gone as some other jazz interpretations I've heard. Brubeck himself did an entire album called Dave Digs Disney with his quartet. If this is your bag, by all means seek it out. You'll love the whole album.

This is probably my favorite thing that I uncovered on this Cinderexcavation. I have never seen this in the park and I want to so bad! It's Lady Tremaine, Drizella and Anastasia! And they perform "Sing Sweet Nightingale"! I want to go to there! Awesomesauce!

Ah! So much better right? You can relax now, because it's gonna be a lovely ride for about the next twenty years. So for next week's DATE night, I'm taking you to Wonderland, baby! And not that deconstructed, dour Tim Burton Underland. We're talking full-out, Mary Blair-y, vibrant, clever, brilliant, Golden Age Disney Alice in Wonderland! Prepare to be amazed!


  1. I have about 400 million things to say about this post. First, I love it. Second, hearing Perry Como sing Cinderalla is pretty much a dream come true for me. (I have listened to his Christmas album entirely too much.) Third, you are adorable and I love all of your insights. I never knew about the Mary Blair connection and I think I am going to have to go back and watch it again. Now that you mention Mary, I totally get it.

    I also thorougly love the Leslie Ann Warren version of Cinderella. Did you ever watch it on Disney Channel when you were younger? They had something called "Triple Play" (something like that) and they would play three versions of Cinderella. (One of them was with Jennifer Grey and Rob Low... If the Shoe Fits).

    Anyway, I read the Julie Andrews memoir (it's a must read if you haven't) and she mentioned she was also in a TV version of Cinderella BEFORE the Leslie version. Which is also like heaven to me. I still have it, totally unopened. I'm sensing a movie date.

    Thanks for bringing joy (and Perry, who I named by Christmas tree after last year) to my lunch hour.

    - Stelle

  2. I forgot to say: I also love love love Raven. - S