Ranking the Disney Canon – 10: Cinderella

Here we are, ladies and gentlemen. The Top 10. THE best of the best. The films that are about to follow are not just a collection of the most iconic Disney films of all time, they are a collection of some of the most iconic films of all time. Seriously, folks, from here on out, all of it is amazing.

Let me make one thing clear before we actually move onto the post: making this Top 10 was HARD. I’m serious when I say that this may have been the toughest decision of my life. You give just this list of 10 films to 10 people, and you’ll see 10 completely different lists. I labored for hours making the decision on the Top 10 alone just for you readers. I know you all want to see what comes out on top! Now, let’s begin!

” No doubt you saw the whole pretty picture in detail. The young prince bowing to the assembly. Suddenly, he stops. He looks up. For lo… there she stands. The girl of his dreams. Who she is or whence she came, he knows not, nor does he care, for his heart tells him that here, here is the maid predestined to be his bride. A pretty plot for fairy tales, Sire. But in real life, oh, no. No, it was foredoomed to failure. ” – The Grand Duke

Cinderella truly tops the list of films that saved the Disney Studio. Even after the decision to created package films in order to counterbalance the loss of materials and men during World War II, the Disney Studio was still in a dire time when Cinderella began production. Everything was riding on this film. If Cinderella had failed, it would have been very hard for Walt Disney to justify keeping his animation studio open. However, as you may guessed by now, Cinderella was a huge hit for the studio when it finally released in 1950, and allowed the Disney Studio to continue to thrive and create wonderful films throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Cinderella was such a huge success, in fact, that the money from its box office gross would eventually be a large part of the funding for Disneyland.

The classic fairy tale tells the story of Cinderella, a beautiful, charming young girl who becomes a servant to her stepmother after her father passes away. Cinderella dreams of a better life, but continues to service her stepmother, Lady Tremaine, her stepsisters, Drizella and Anastasia, and their cat, Lucifer. One day, The King orders every eligible bachelorette in the kingdom to attend a ball, hoping that Prince Charming will finally choose a mother for the King’s grandchildren. Cinderella attempts to go, with the help of her animal friends, but her chances are eventually ruined by her stepsisters. She is still able to go to the ball though, thanks to her Fairy Godmother, and falls in love with Prince Charming. I think you know the rest of the story. Strike of Midnight, Glass Slipper, happily ever after.

STRENGTHS

Cinderella is one of the most heartwarming tales that Disney has ever produced, and much of this is because of how sympathetic the character of Cinderella is. Yes, this is another one of those posts that start off ranting and raving about character, but here, it is justly deserved. Cinderella, as a character, certainly deserves her spot among the best female protagonists in the Disney Canon.

Cinderella’s conflict, to me, is so real and so relatable. We’ve all had those situations where we dream of something better, anything that could be better, and yet we trudge along, accepting life for what it is. Cinderella really captures this, especially in the “A Dream is a Wish your Heart Makes” sequence, where we see Cinderella begin her day. Through all the trouble, it is the dreams that keep her moving, keep her going, and that, to me, is a wonderful and beautiful character detail.

To go on a bit of an aside, a common theme of Disney films is the idea of dreams and wishes. You bet that if I ever teach a class on Disney Animation, that’ll be a huge class period. and during that Class Period, Cinderella will be a main focus. Cinderella is one of the strongest examples of the importance of dreams and wishes in Disney films, since it is the main character motivation for Cinderella. I find myself describing it in my head as sweet and charming, and that’s because it is. I just love watching Cinderella, with that smile on her face, dancing around the room alone, knowing that nothing lies ahead but hardship, only having a dream. I find it truly inspiring.

Like the other Disney Princesses around her, Cinderella is appropriately sweet, and this can be seen in her connection with animals, just like her fellow Walt era princesses Snow White and Aurora. I think what ends up enhancing Cinderella’s character in particular, however, is the fact that she is this sweet even in the context of the situation that surrounds her. Snow White and Aurora, and even Ariel and Rapunzel and the like have their problems, but to be surrounded by an evil stepmother and stepsister, and to have to cater to their every whim? That’s difficult, and yet Cinderella takes it in stride.

A perfect example of this idea in action is a scene that happens fairly early in the film, where Cinderella is preparing breakfast for both the animals around the house, and the animals she calls her family. During this, her dog Bruno gets in a scuffle with Lucifer, and Cinderella, knowing full well that Bruno is doing nothing wrong, chastises him for wanting to start a fight, while also chastising Lucifer for the same. I just love this. It is the perfect example of why Cinderella is so perfect as a Disney Princess. She is so pure. There is no anger in her. There is no evil. She is pure good.

And it is this pure good that attracts the good in the world to her. This is what attracts Prince Charming to her. Not just her outer beauty, though Cinderella is certainly a beautiful and well designed female character, but her inner beauty. It is her inner beauty that shines even brighter than her outer beauty. Cinderella is such a distinct light amid the darkness of people like Drizella and Anastasia that one cannot helped to be drawn to her.

A personal favorite moment in the film relating to this idea is towards the end, after Drizella and Anastasia both fail to fit the glass slipper on their foot…

(God, writing that sentence reminded me of how terrible of a film Cinderella III: A Twist in Time is. Now I feel like puking. Moving on quickly.)

Anyways, after they fail, and The Grand Duke is about to leave, Cinderella comes rushing down the stairs, having just been let out of her room thanks to her mice friends, asking as polite as she can to try on the slipper. The Grand Duke just hears her voice, and a smile appears on his face. It is such a nice contrast from the violent and selfish outbursts that her two Stepsisters had just demonstrated on the poor Duke. Cinderella’s charm is just so well written, and I smile every time I see her on-screen.

In fact, I’m going to make this argument right now: Cinderella is the best written Disney Princess. Not my personal favorite (as established, that would be Ariel and Rapunzel) nor the best Disney Princess Film (as we still have two more Princess films to go) but I’m going to say that Cinderella’s purity, drive, and journey push her to the top. To be honest, it is a two-horse race with Belle, but to me Cinderella takes the cake because her emotions, her joy and her wonder and even her disappointment, is so enjoyable and brilliantly written.

Before we move on, I do want to say that a HUGE kudos needs to go out to the late, great Ilene Woods, who beat out 300 hundred other auditions unknowingly, as her friends sent in her audition without her knowledge. Cinderella may be the most perfect casting choice of Walt’s era. Ilene brings so much charm to the role of Cinderella, and has a beautiful voice to boot. A wonderful, wonderful performance by Ilene Woods. One of the greatest performances of all time, I would say.

Part of what makes this brilliantly written is the film’s use of contrast. By contrast, I mean how the film contrasts Cinderella as a character to the rest of her so-called “family.” That’s what makes Cinderella so sympathetic. That’s what makes Cinderella such a brilliantly written character. And, of course, it is what makes Lady Tremaine, Drizella, and Anastasia such wonderful, wonderful villains.

And sure, they do have the big and obvious moments of Contrast, the ones where Walt wants you to know that these characters are the polar opposites of each other. That’s a good way to put it. Drizella and Anastasia are the anti-Cinderella. They are everything that Cinderella is not. And this is shown consistently throughout the film. And the obvious moments are obvious. Drizella and Anastasia fail at singing “Sweet, Sweet Nightingale” just as Cinderella knocks it out of the park. The two stepsisters are shown in all their rude glory right before Cinderella shows up at the ball. These are no accident. These, of course, are intentional, but they are effective. Extremely effective, in my opinion.

What really adds to the brilliance of the film, however, is the subtler moments of contrast. The ones that are not as obvious and not as in your face. These are the moments of amazing writing and the moments that really add to the greatness of this script. One example I love is, in a bit of background dialogue, Drizella and Anastasia complain about how they don’t have any gowns like the other girls. It’s not part of a larger scene, it’s not a major moment in the film, it is an offscreen comment that is made in the background of a scene in which Cinderella is working in order to have an attempt at getting to the ball.

It’s amazing to me how one simple line can do so much, but I absolutely love this moment. Drizella and Anastasia get everything in the world and yet are still angry, still unsatisfied with everything. Cinderella has nothing, and has seemingly no chance of getting anything to go her way, and yet, in a way, is content. She still dreams, and yearns for a better life, but she isn’t angry. She can be frustrated, but never angry. She has her dreams to comfort her.

And in a moment that is in between obvious and subtlety, The Stepsisters throw away some items that they think would be terrible to wear to the ball. The Mice, naturally, use these as materials to help make Cinderella’s dress. When the Stepsisters notice this later on Cinderella, they strip her down and tear her apart in a powerful and heartbreaking sequence. It’s just amazing how angry they get as they tear the dress into a shell of its former self. It’s a stunning sequence that truly shows you the differences between the good Cinderella and the Evil Stepsisters.

Where this contrast really creates amazement, however, is through the relationship between Lady Tremaine and Cinderella. What I love about these scenes is how much actual tension can exist between the two. Eleanor Audley, who voices another Disney villain we’ll get to soon enough, just has evil in her voice, and gives a powerful and intense performance here. She is among the most perfectly evil villains in the entire Disney Canon (and funny enough, the most purely evil Villain in the Disney Canon is also voiced by Audley. She just has evil in her.) She is perfectly manipulative as well. Remember that scene I mentioned where the stepsisters rip apart Cinderella’s dress? It is Lady Tremaine who hints to them that the materials are not Cinderella’s. It’s, again, perfectly animated by Marc Davis, and perfectly voiced by Eleanor Audley.

Two scenes come to mind in terms of expressing the relationship between Lady Tremaine and Cinderella. One is near the beginning, when our Wicked Stepmother calls upon Cinderella in order to punish her for a perceived practical joke which was actually a misunderstanding with Gus, the mouse. The way that Lady Tremaine commands Cinderella, and the way she speaks in general, is somewhat chilling, and it makes for a lovely villain. This same chill comes across in the other scene I think about, in which Lady Tremaine slowly makes her way up the stairwell in order to lock Cinderella in her room. The slowness of this action is just full of tension, mostly because the personalities of the two characters are so different from each other that you know trouble is afoot.

And we haven’t even gotten to the animal characters yet. I’ll start with my personal favorite, Lucifer. Lucifer is brilliantly animated and designed, and is absolutely hilarious. His misadventures in attempting to catch Gus and Jaq, both at the beginning of the film and at the end, and wonderful to watch just for him. I especially love the fact that he comes back as a final obstacle for Cinderella before she can put on the glass slipper. Lucifer brings a ton of humor to the film, and it absolutely fits.

Now, I’ll be frank, could the extended sequences featuring Lucifer and the Mice be a little shorter? Possibly. Could more that time be wonderfully spent with Cinderella, or even building up Prince Charming (as was planned in the early stages)? Sure. But I don’t think it is a weakness. These sequences are still amazing. I just feel that it is something I should point out.

Back to the humor, I also love the sequences between the Grand Duke and The King, especially the hilarious second sequence where The Grand Duke has to tell The King that Cinderella has disappeared. Also, the relationship between Gus and Jaq not only leads to the humor in the Lucifer sequences, but is also a very heartwarming side story. The Mice characters in general work, especially during the “Worksong” number.

Oh! The music! Let’s talk about the soundtrack! Cinderella has an absolutely gorgeous soundtrack. Though none of the songs are particularly long, they all are extremely well written and so beautiful. It also feature more slow songs than the traditional Disney film, but all three of Slower songs are beautiful. The inspiring lyrics of “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes,” the beautiful layered melodies of “Sweet, Sweet Nightingale,” and the lovely nature of “So This is Love” are all heart melting and beautifully sung by Ilene Woods. And the fun doesn’t completely disappear. “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” and “The Work Song” and even the second half, hummed section of “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” are all wonderful.

A final note: The Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo sequence is a classic of animation, especially the sequence where Cinderella’s dress goes from tattered to fully beautiful. That is said to be one of Walt Disney’s personal favorite pieces of animation. The Fairy Godmother is appropriately magical, and sings the song with a wonderful magical tone and wonderful magical lyrics. It truly is a classic sequence.

(A final, small note: I love that all the names of the women that are announced at the ball are Extremely French names. It is wonderful touch.)

BEST MOMENT AND SONG

My favorite Song in the Film is “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes.” I think the song is truly inspiring, and is just beautiful all around.

My favorite scene is the entire glass slipper sequence at the end of the film. I think it perfectly showcases the humor, heart, and drama of the film.

CLOSING COMMENTS

Wow, Cinderella is really 10 on my list? I told you this was an extremely hard decision! Cinderella is a beautiful, well written, and all around amazing film and truly captures what Disney Animation is, and it only comes in at 10. What do we have in store next? Wow. I’m excited. Aren’t you?

Ranking the Disney Canon – 11: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

“Magic Mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?” – The Wicked Queen 

And here we are. Finally, we have arrived at the film that started it all. Without Snow White, there is Disney, No Disneyland or Disney World, No Renaissance, No Package Films, No Golden Age or Silver Age or Dark Age, and certainly no Ranking the Disney Canon! Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was a story that captured Walt from a early age, and when the time came for him to create his first Feature Length Film, there was no other story he could think of other than Snow White. Of course, everyone else thought he was crazy, and other’s called the film “Disney’s Folly” during production. As we know, the film was a huge success and the rest is history. In fact, when adjusted for inflation, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs remains 10th on the All Time Box Office Gross List, right above another classic Disney film, 101 Dalmatians.

The story of Snow White begins with The Wicked Queen asking her Magic Mirror “Who is the fairest of them all?” Of course, the answer is not the Queen, but Snow White, as perfect as person as a person can be. So, The Wicked Queen tells the Huntsman to kill Snow White, but The Huntsman cannot go through with it, warning Snow White about the Queen. Snow White runs through the Dark Forrest, where she seems to come across a dirty cottage housed by children. With the help of her animal friends, Snow White cleans up the cottage, which is actually the home of the Seven Dwarfs. As Snow White and the Dwarfs connect, wash their faces, and dance, The Wicked Queen finds out that Snow White is still alive, and decides to disguise herself as an old woman in order to finish the job. The Queen succeeds at poisoning Snow White, but is killed after being chased by the Dwarfs onto a cliff. All ends Happily Ever After, however, when Prince Charming comes and awakens Snow White with Love’s True Kiss.

STRENGTHS

One of the reasons that Snow White works as well as it does, and one of the reasons I would assume Walt Disney chose it as his first feature, is that it is beautiful in it’s simplcity. It really is. It certainly isn’t the most complex Disney feature of Walt’s time, but the simple story makes for a brilliant film. The plot is just classic. It’s as simple as that.

I think what I love about this plot so much is I love the way the story flows. Many of Walt’s films had this mixture of episodic pieces wrapped up in the structure of Three Acts, and Snow White is probably the simplest example of that. Though it may not have the darkness of Pinocchio or the weirdness of Alice in Wonderland, or the style of Sleeping Beauty, Snow White flows like the grandest river imaginable, and it is still special in its own right.

The story of Snow White running away from the Queen and then meeting The Seven Dwarfs is just great. Disney and his crew interpreted the story in such a way that it is so completely timeless and so completely fun. Every scene just flows into the next one perfectly, and, once again, there is a beautiful simplicity to it all. Again, it may not get as fancy as some other stories in the Disney Canon, but that doesn’t mean it still isn’t wonderful. Because it is wonderful.

The plot also does a wonderful job at enhancing the characters through its sequence of events. Sure, that may seem like a general suggestion for all good movies, but Snow White works because the plot allows us to see Snow White be Snow White, and it allows us to see the Dwarfs grow from simple miners into the heroes of the day, and it allows us to see the continued downward spiral of the Queen into a wicked Old Hag. Walt uses the story of Snow White to the fullest effect, turning the simple story into a simple story driven by character. It really is a great opportunity to look at the genius of Walt Disney as a storyteller. He saw this from an early age, and he was able to bring it to life in his first feature film. What a brilliant filmmaker.

Well, since I just talked about the characters in the relation to the plot, I might as well finally get into the characters of the story. Man, I thought I could hold up the characters for just a little bit longer! But, as with all of the Disney films around this, the characters are just wonderfully written. And there is probably no greater example of this than the title character, Snow White. Well, the Seven Dwarfs are also extremely awesome, but we’ll get to them later.

From the opening moments of the film, Snow White is written absolutely amazingly. I think the best way you can see this is the way she interacts with the world around her as she sings the opening song, “I’m Wishing.” That opening sequence alone does so many wonderful things for Snow White’s character, I don’t know if I can get them all down here without going overboard, but I shall try, because I am here to give you the full story.

That opening sequences really builds Snow White as the fairest of them all, without really being upfront about it. It’s all about subtlety here. Let’s start with her interaction with the animals around here. Showing Snow White with the ability to connect with the nature around here truly shows how her fairness is on the inside. Snow White is completely sweet and innocent, and she is almost always the brightest ray of sunshine, no matter who or what is around her. And the sequence really shows that just by the way she treats animals. I want to describe it more, but it is one of those thing that is just brilliant. And it is.

This sequence also establishes her relationship with The Prince, who tries to court while, but ends up scaring Snow White away. Now, it is known that originally The Prince had a bigger role in the story, with him being captured by the Wicked Queen and escaping her castle in order to save Snow White. However, Walt felt that trying to animate a human female and a human male in a believable fashion would be way too much work for his animators, and thus he decided to focus mainly on Snow White.

I bring this up because I feel that The Prince is in this film for the exact right amount of time. This is Snow White’s story, and her interactions with him bring out her character more than it could possibly bring out hers. The fact that Snow White and The Prince only interact at the beginning and the end of the film, to me, is perfect, and the classic romance aspect of their relationship is still able to be built up through Snow White’s dreams of love (which we will get to in a bit.)

(For the record, many of the concepts for The Prince that weren’t in this film ended up being used for Prince Phillip in Sleeping Beauty. We’ll get to that film soon, but suffice to say, I think it works much better for that film than it would have for this one.)

What the first encounter with The Prince does for Snow White’s character is reminding the audience of the youthful side of her innocence. This is another key aspect of what makes Snow White the fairest: her youth. She is a shy, young woman, and the continually reminds us of this. Another fantastic sequence that this is presented in is the classic Dark Forest segment where Snow White becomes scared as she runs through all of the scary and spooky looking trees. This emphasis on youthful innocence also makes it completely believable that she would fall for The Wicked Queen’s trap later in the film.

I think what is wonderful about Snow White is despite her youthfulness, she seems like she would make the greatest mother possible. The way she treats the Dwarfs throughout her time in their cottage is absolutely wonderful and is probably the most perfect way to show Snow White’s character. Even when she is strict with them about washing their hands, she is the sweetest person in the world. The way she just cares for the complete strangers surrounding her as if she had known them all of her life is simply amazing. It’s no wonder she is the fairest of them all.

And of course, that is the key distinction: Snow White has to be the fairest of them all. The film needs to present that difference between Snow White and The Wicked Queen, and it does that beautifully. Again, let’s look at the opening scene. The film truly begins with The Wicked Queen asks the magic mirror that famous question, and after Snow White runs from The Prince, we see that The Wicked Queen is watching over her. Even if we just remove the dialogue from these scenes, the visuals and the animation paint a clear distinction by themselves. Whereas the Wicked Queen is cold, menacing, and adult in the strict and villainous way, Snow White is Warm, Open, and Motherly in the best way possible. The Character Design of these two characters just emphasize this to the fullest as well. The distinction is absolutely practically perfect in every way, as Mary Poppins might put it. (RANDOM DISNEY REFERENCE.)

I think the most important distinction, however, is one of philosophy. The Wicked Queen is more concerned with the harsh reality of the present. She was to be the fairest of them all right now, and will do anything to achieve that goal as quickly as possible. Snow White, on the other hand, dreams of the future. She wishes for the one she loves, and she believes that someday, her prince will come. Again, it’s not something that is ever explicitly stated, but the fact it is there is just great, and a great read into what makes these character special.

(Another note. The Queen spends all her time in front of a mirror and concerned with her outwardly appearance, in more ways than one, while Snow White is in tune with nature and spends time caring for the Dwarfs. Just an observation.)

Even though we have spent quite a bit of time on The Wicked Queen, I do want to mention that she is certainly is in contention to be on that list of greatest Disney villains ever. She is just perfectly wicked, and written and acted to the point where she is evil, but not over the top. Her design is flawless, and she is a fantastic villain to root against. The transformation sequence with her is a particular standout, both visually and writing wise.

Wow, we’ve come this far and we have not even talked about the Seven Dwarfs yet! The Dwarfs are so much fun, and nearly always steal the show from Snow White and the rest of the plot. It’s just so much fun to watch the physical comedy of the Dwarfs throughout the entire film. A wonderful example of this is the scene where the Dwarfs are attempting to investigate who is sleeping in their house, and Sneezy lets out a huge sneeze that blows the other Dwarfs across the room. It is so funny and so brilliantly executed.

Another things to love about the Dwarfs are how strong their personalities are. I mean, their personalities are in their names. They’ve got to be strong. Luckily, Happy, Sneezy, Sleepy, Bashful, Doc, Grumpy, and Dopey are all distinct and great in design and execution. What’s also amazing is the fact that all of these personalities play off of each other so easily. These Seven Dwarfs feel like family. They feel like they belong together. It just seems natural. That is fantastic writing.

They all stand out in their own way, but to me, the two that stand out most are Grumpy and Dopey. Grumpy has an absolutely wonderful arc of going from Grumpy to Caring, and it builds up well throughout the middle of the film and comes full circle when Grumpy leads the charge to save Snow White. And Dopey, of course, stands out because he is another fantastic testament to how well silent characters work in animation. He so much fun to watch not talk.

I think the most important element of the Dwarfs is how their relationship to Snow White changes both her and them. The Dwarfs have a great and interesting arc of going from children to becoming caring adults that have the capacity to truly take care of themselves. Meanwhile, Snow White, from her time with the Dwarfs, learns to embrace her dreams. Whereas “I’m Wishing” is purposely vague, “Someday My Prince Will Come” specifically mentions The Prince. Snow White becomes more sure of herself through her opportunity to care for the Dwarfs.

Now would be a wonderful time to mention the Soundtrack. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs has a wonderful, and at times extremely underrated, soundtrack. Yes, the famous songs like “Heigh-Ho” and “Someday My Prince Will Come” are extremely amazing, the soundtrack is full of extremely strong gems. “I’m Wishing,”  “The Dwarfs Washing Song,” and “The Dwarfs Yodeling Song” that get lost. Really, this whole soundtrack is amazing, and perfectly balances itself between the silly, fun Disney Songs, and the broadway style, powerful love songs. It perfectly sets up a great history of Disney Music.

BEST MOMENT AND SONG

My favorite song in the piece has to be Heigh-H0. It is just so lyrically brilliant and so catchy, and the visuals are hilarious too.

My favorite moment is certainly the sequence in which The Dwarfs come home and try to figure out who is in their house. I laugh every time. It’s perfect.

CLOSING COMMENTS

It is amazing to me how well Snow White can hold up, considering it was one of the first major Animated Features to be made. Thanks to a strong soundtrack, strong characters, and a simple story, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs set the stage for the rest of the Disney Empire to rise. And to think that I find an amazing film like this just outside of the Top 10. Amazing.