The first version of Cinderella seems to be Rhodopis, a Greek courtesan who is married by the king of Egypt after he becomes enthralled with her tiny feet in first century B.C. We next see a much more familiar rendition from ninth century China that adds an abusive step family and a fairy godmother — or in this case, a magical fish. The story was expanded on several times in Renaissance Europe, with the popular 1950 cartoon based on Charles Perreault’s Cendrillon. This story has been around for a while now.
Everyone under the age of 65 grew up with the Disney classic, but with the rise of fan fiction it appears this type of vapid wish-fulfillment may be even more elemental than that. As a character, Cinderella reads like a lazy Mary Sue. While most forms of this character are given continuity-breaking power with which to dispatch villains like so many flies, Cinderella doesn’t do even this much, but gets the good-by-fundamental-nature, fairy-tale-romance treatment anyway just for being the special and unique snowflake that she is, even though she doesn’t really demonstrate that uniqueness or snowflakiness. Everything bad anyone ever said about Bella Swan or Ana Steele applies just as much to this character.
This story is something almost everyone aspired to at some point, and that’s kind of a problem. What is that aspiration, really? “One day when I grow up, someone rich and powerful will fall helplessly in love with me for no real reason, and we’ll live happily ever after?” This isn’t something healthy people aspire to for either their professional or romantic lives, but the story is dug deep into the public consciousness. Self-determination is the measure of a man, but Cinderella has none. When her step-family turns her into a slave through essentially peer pressure, she bends over and lets them. When faced with adversity, she cries a bit and makes up her mind to just put up with the problems she allows to fester.
This is a bad story. It is a story that rewards complacency and passiveness. It is a story in desperate need of subversion and deconstruction, to be remade for a world that wants to inspire children to do things for themselves instead of waiting patiently for their prince, a world that wants resilient, aggressive role models for its daughters.
So how in fuck does this movie exist?
The 2015 Cinderella is so slavishly similar to the cartoon it’s barely worth description. Ella (Lily James, Eloise Webb in child scenes) is raised by her parents into her late teenage years before coming under the care of her father’s second wife, Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchette), who only married the father to assuage her crushing debts. Tremaine and her daughters are big old meanies to Ella, driving her to the point of going out for a horse ride in the woods. While out, she meets Prince Rape (Richard Madden), who is so smitten and so rapey he throws a ball just to lure her back into his line of sight.
It wasn’t made to revise the story in the ways it needs to be revised. Movies already do nothing to distinguish beauty from self-worth or love from attraction. This is the story that bound these just-accurate-enough-to-be-dangerous pairings, and the new film vigorously reinforces these themes. Mark Romanek, director of the criminally under appreciated Never Let Me Go who was attached to direct, was cut early in the process because he wanted to make it too dark for Disney. Instead, they brought in Kenneth Branagh, who still doesn’t recognize the difference between Shakespeare and not Shakespeare.
It wasn’t made to tantalize the audience with suspense. Cinderella is the latest in a line of remade Disney classics that started with the surprising success of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland in 2010, but it has one major, defining thing different about it. The Burton film, as well as Maleficent and Oz the Great and Powerful, told completely new stories. Snow White and the Huntsman and Jack the Giant Slayer do them one better, telling old stories in a new way. Cinderella tells the exact same story. Nothing new about it. No changing point of view, no revisionism whatsoever. Seen the cartoon? You’ve seen this. Haven’t seen the cartoon? That’s OK, the trailer is a scene-by-scene spoiler.
It wasn’t made to dazzle the audience with visual effects. In a world where movies sometimes seem like they can do anything visually, Cinderella is a throwback to when they couldn’t but tried to anyway. The film flails about with weak, cartoonish visuals. They’re reminiscent of the extended edition Star Wars scenes, where the CGI elements look like they were plastered on from a completely different movie. Older movies simply asked the audience to suspend disbelief for an obviously unrealistic representation of a story element and fill the rest in with its collective imagination, and the good ones didn’t linger on the set pieces longer than necessary. In this, the sudden dominance of CGI is featured as a highlight.
It wasn’t even made to be a particularly good rendition of the story. Out of context, this thing is full of holes. After being raised into maturity by her loving parents, Ella should totally have the self-worth to not let her step-family gaffle her like she does. There are several points at which a bit of guile would have solved all her problems, but she insists on being completely honest with these people she knows are out to get her.
This movie does exactly one thing well, and that is to feed pervasive, unfair sexual dynamics in storytelling. This movie should be a relic. It should be a fossil. Instead it’s opening to more than $70 million in 2015. This should be a disquieting part of our culture, but the box office says people love it.
Leopold Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist and journalism student at the University of North Texas. Here’s to two more years of entropy. I’ve had a change of heart about reader input. It is now welcomed and encouraged. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter when I can be bothered to make one, and shoot questions to reelentropy@.