Cinderella: The Courage of Willful Naiveté

This is Part 3 of The Netflix Project, where Netflix itself is in the driver’s seat of what to watch next.

Before we get into the movie, let’s take a second to speculate on why Netflix chose Cinderella as the next movie for me to watch. I think it’s safe to say that we’re in a rabbit hole now. Considering all of the movies that it has recommended so far, I suspect Netflix believes me to be a child between the ages of 8 and 10. Cinderella was also recently added to Netflix, as we looked at a few weeks ago, and it is becoming increasingly clear that new additions and new releases regularly jump the line.

Perhaps there’s hope for a grown-up movie next week (psst… there is) but until then, let’s look at Cinderella.

 


 

I’ve got next to no relationship with the 1950 Disney animated classic Cinderella. We had very clear boundaries in my family regarding whose VHS tapes were whose and Cinderella was my sister’s (but God help her if she touched my Great Mouse Detective). Even still, the iconic images of the original film are still firmly embedded in my memory.

CinderellaTransformation

So what do you do with a remake of such a classic film without seeming like you’re just creating a highly-polished cash grab?

You could do a gritty reimagining or you could just Tim Burton the whole thing (looking at you, Alice in Wonderland). Cinderella opts for a cleaner, more faithful adaptation. It’s not a reboot as much as an update, filling in some opportunities to flesh out the motivations of the characters, specifically Ella (Lily James) and Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett).

Compared to the original movie, 2015’s Cinderella spends more time invested in exploring Ella’s personality, specifically her tenacious kindness. It’s Ella’s mother’s dying wish that her daughter remember to “have courage and be kind.” As her life falls into chaos, Ella maintains this mantra, continuing to put on a brave smiling face when her father remarries, when she meets her terrible stepsisters, and when her father ultimately passes away on a business trip. It speaks to Lily James’ performance how human Ella is when we see her grief and desperation fight to push through her outward expression of gentleness.

“Have courage and be kind” is a positive, if incomplete, take on life. With this phrase at the base of her identity, Ella often slips into a mode of “grin and bear it.” Kindness is meant to be a shining light to inspire those around her but it doesn’t teach her what to do when she is left alone in a house with three women who treat her with varying degrees of disdain and abuse. No matter how bright her kindness, she isn’t inspiring them; they are breaking her.

This is where the Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) comes in. This Fairy ex Machina rewards Ella for her efforts and shows that the beacon of light can shine through the bleakest circumstances and reach the outside world. It’s still problematic because it doesn’t empower Ella to change her circumstances but it does make for a positive alternative to cynicism.

The Fairy Godmother can perform magic but she can only work with the raw materials she is given. To make a carriage, she needs a pumpkin. To make carriagemen, she needs living creatures to transform. To make a girl’s beautiful dreams come true, she needs to start with virtuous raw materials. There’s a reason Lady Tremaine and her spoiled daughters don’t have a Fairy Godmothers of their own.

Lady Tremaine herself acts as something of a mutated reflection of Ella. Both women are unquestionably beautiful, although the Lady’s appearance is more meticulously maintained. Both are tenacious – Ella in her dedication to her home and to her core identity, the stepmother in her dogged and unrepentant drive to provide a life of luxury and comfort for her daughters. Both are generous: one with acts of kindness and support, the other with decadent, grand parties. They’re made from a similar mould, so how have they ended up such different women?

Toward the end of the film, Lady Tremaine is given a chance to tell a bit of her story. When she speaks about the passing of her first husband, it’s clear that this is the point at which the light has gone out of her life. Where Ella made the choice after her parents’ deaths to continue to dedicate herself to kindness, Lady Tremaine’s grief insulated her affections to only include her immediate family. The world was horrible, so she would protect her daughters from it. When Ella demands the Lady Tremaine explain why she is so cruel to her stepdaughter, the Lady replies “Because you are young and innocent and good and I…” before storming off. As is often the case when we take a disliking to someone else, Lady Tremaine is not actually upset with Ella for her virtues. She despises her stepdaughter because she reminds her of the decency she abandoned decades ago. Ella’s bright light of kindness casts Lady Tremaine’s cynicism into even darker shadows.

So, no, the lesson of “Have courage and be kind” may not be a catch-all motto that will avoid every problem the world has to offer. It may, actually, in some cases, make things a lot worse. But there are points in our lives where the choices we make can be boiled down to choosing between putting faith in human kindness or bracing ourselves for the worst. The world is full of plenty of reasons to choose the latter but the former often does take courage. Kindness is easily forgotten, so maybe it’s not such a bad thing to let Disney light this otherwise silly beacon to light the way.

 

 


 

Willful naiveté aside, I do need to put something into the Netflix profile to see what pops out next. Despite a troublesome but positive message, I still have to say that I…

1 – Hated it
2 – Didn’t like it
3 – Liked it
4 – Really liked it
5 – Loved it

It’s a big, colourful, beautiful movie that rarely engaged me. Without nostalgia for the original or personal association with Ella and her original fairy tale, I assume that it didn’t appeal to me because it wasn’t made for me.

Let’s throw that 2-star rating in and see what kinds of recommendations pop out. My “Top Picks,” as assigned by Netflix, are…

5 – Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas
4 – Astérix: The Mansions of the Gods
3 – Paw Patrol
2 – Walt Disney Animation Studios Short Films Collection

and finally, the movie I’ll be tackling next time:

1 – Kingsman: The Secret Service… the perfect movie for children 8-10.

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