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Disney princess movies revisited: Cinderella


Disney's Frozen 2 arrives in Cineworld this November, and we're counting down the days by revisiting all the classic Disney princess movies in chronological order of release.

In honour of Anna and Elsa's imminent return, we're taking a nostalgic trip back through time. This week: we're headed back to the release of 1950's Cinderella.

What's the story of Cinderella?

In a far away fairy tale land, innocent orphan girl Cinderella is treated cruelly by her stepmother, Lady Tremaine, and stepsisters Drizella and Anastasia. Cinderella's only companions are her mice, and she wishes to meet her Prince Charming so she may live happily ever after.

There then comes an intervention from her Fairy Godmother, who tells Cinders she may go to the lavish ball from which she's been barred. She transforms the girl's rags into a stunning gown and her shoes into glass slippers, fashioning a pumpkin into a coach. Cinderella attends the ball and meets the Prince, with whom she swiftly falls in love – but of course, he's yet to discover her true identity...

How did Cinderella get made?

In 1937, Walt Disney revolutionised animation, Hollywood and pop culture in one fell swoop with the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Widely considered an expensive folly prior to its release, the movie was instead an enormous blockbuster success and pioneered the concept of mass-market, feature-length animation. At the 1938 Oscars ceremony, Disney was presented with a special achievement Oscar and his reputation was sealed.

Come 1950 and the release of Cinderella, however, and the landscape had changed somewhat. World War II had left the planet ravaged and disillusioned, affecting Walt Disney Studios' box office takings, something that was further exacerbated by the release of expensive flops like musical Fantasia. With his studio in debt to the tune of $4 million, Disney needed a hit and quickly – the sort that would forge an emotional connection with a large audience.

He turned his attention to a feature-length adaptation of Charles Perrault's enduring 1697 fairy tale Cinderella, whose archetypal characters and iconography (that of the 'ugly duckling' finding her place in the sun and everlasting happiness) has echoed down through the centuries. Perrault's take on the story is in fact just one variation on a myth that has stretched back since time immemorial – however, the French writer's interpretation is now considered the most famous.

Disney's adaptation of the story helped it to gain further infamy. Cinderella had in fact been on Walt Disney's radar since 1922, when he produced a short cartoon on the subject for studio Laugh-O-Gram. Interest in the project was sustained over the coming decades and it was first proposed as a potential feature film in 1938, having gone through various script treatments that added characters such as the mice and the wicked stepmother.

One version was proposed in 1943 by Song of the South co-writer Maurice Rapf: "My thinking was you can't have somebody who comes in and changes everything for you. You can't be delivered it on a platter. You've got to earn it. So in my version, the Fairy Godmother said, 'It's okay till midnight but from then on it's up to you.'"

Rapf added: "I made her earn it, and what she had to do to achieve it was to rebel against her stepmother and stepsisters, to stop being a slave in her own home. So I had a scene where they're ordering her around and she throws the stuff back at them. She revolts, so they lock her up in the attic. I don't think anyone took [my idea] very seriously."

By the time Cinderella eventually entered production, it was presented as one of three Disney feature-length projects that would help bail the studio out of potential bankruptcy. The others were Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan – however, Disney fast-tracked Cinderella due to the alleged similarities to the blockbusting Snow White, enlisting some of his most talented creatives to urge the project along. 

In fact, Cinderella is acknowledged in some quarters as the first film in which 'Disney's Nine Old Men' worked together for the first time. Individually, the various team members had contributed to the likes of Snow White, Pinocchio and Bambi, and they would later collaborate on the likes of One Hundred and One Dalmatians, Lady and the Tramp and The Jungle Book. The group comprised Les Clark, Marc Davis, Ollie Johnston, Milt Kahl, Ward Kimball, Eric Larson, John Lounsbery, Wolfgang Reitherman and Frank Thomas.

Together, the team split the duties of animating the various characters, from Cinderella to Lady Tremaine, the Duke to the Fairy Godmother. Larson was the first to animate the title character, whom he envisioned as a 16-year-old with braids and a pug nose.

Marc Davis later animated Cinderella, whom Larson had originally envisaged as "more the exotic dame" with a long swanlike neck. Because the final character design was not set, assistant animators were responsible for minimising the differences. The cat and mouse scenes were handed to esteemed children's illustrator Bill Peet whose light touch was sought for these comical interludes.

On a budget of $2.9 million, the production shot live-action elements as a reference for the eventual animation. Actors were filmed on a sound stage mouthing to a playback of the dialogue, similar to the approach used on Snow White. American actress Helene Stanley was used as the reference for Cinderella herself, and would later perform the same duty for Disney on Sleeping Beauty and One Hundred and One Dalmatians, standing in for Aurora and Anita respectively.

ABC radio host Ilene Woods, who had provided several demo recordings of songs for Cinderella, was selected as the voice of the character. However, creative disagreements continue as to the visual realisation of many characters. Originally, Disney intended for the Fairy Godmother to be a tall, regal character as he viewed fairies as tall, motherly figures (as seen in the Blue Fairy in Pinocchio), but Milt Kahl disagreed with this characterisation. Following the casting of Verna Felton, Kahl managed to convince Disney on his undignified concept of the Fairy Godmother.


What songs are on the Cinderella soundtrack?

The music for Cinderella is among the most recognisable and popular of all Disney's films. Songs like 'Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo', performed by the Fairy Godmother, and Cinders' central lament 'A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes' helped cement the movie in the hearts of audiences.

The eventual RCA Records release hit the number one spot on the American Billboard pop charts, propelled by the popularity of both the songs and composer Oliver Wallace's score. In 1946, lyricist Larry Morey and Walt Disney Studios music director Charles Walcott decided that Cinderella would get three songs to herself, plus there was an opportunity to recycle an unused Snow White sequence for song 'Dancing on a Cloud'. However, none of their songs were used.

Later, in 1948, a group of songwriters from Tin Pan Alley were solicited to write the musical numbers. (Tin Pan Alley was used to describe the hotbed of New York music publishers and songwriters who dominated the scene up until the mid-20th century.) The three men were Mack David, Al Hoffman, and Jerry Livingston, responsible for kitsch 1947 song 'Chi-Baba, Chi-Baba', which was the piece that convinced Walt Disney they could do the Fairy Godmother justice.

The Cinderella soundtrack marked several firsts. It saw the launch of the Walt Disney Music Company; advances in technology allowed voice artist Ilene Woods to multi-track her singing, enabling her to lay to down second and third tracks to better harmonise; and composer Wallace was able to score the movie in a manner closer to live-action, as opposed to the 'Mickey Mouse' synchronisation of earlier films.

How successful was Cinderella?

If Disney was banking on Cinderella being a success, then the gamble paid off. The movie was a substantial box office hit, becoming the sixth-highest-grossing movie of its year in America and providing enough lucre to allow Disney to keep making feature films for the next decade. Adjusted for inflation (and bearing in mind re-releases), the movie has grossed $532 million worldwide to date.

Such was the success of the movie, in fact, that Disney was able to expand his empire as a global merchandising force. The profits from the film's release, with the additional profits from record sales, music publishing, publications and other merchandise, gave Disney the cash flow to finance a slate of productions (animated and live action), establish his own distribution company, enter television production, and begin building Disneyland during the decade, as well as developing the Florida Project, later known as Walt Disney World.

The film generated three Academy Award nominations and critical acclaim. Casablanca director Michael Curtiz told Disney the film was the "masterpiece of all pictures you have done". Further plaudits came from producer Hal Wallis: "If this is not your best, it is very close to the top."

That said, there was criticism over the allegedly winsome characterisation of Cinderella herself. Variety claimed the film found "more success in projecting the lower animals than in its central character, Cinderella, who is on the colourless, doll-faced side, as is the Prince Charming."

Nevertheless, the film's popularity weathered to the extent that Kenneth Branagh delivered a live-action remake in 2015. Acknowledging the desire for more urgency and drive in the character, Branagh envisaged Cinderella (played by Downton Abbey's Lily James) as someone with a great deal more inner spark and drive than her original animated counterpart.

The combination of familiarity with the property and just enough contemporary cosmetic tweaks helped propel the movie to grosses of more than $700 million worldwide – a reflection of the enduring popularity of the Cinderella myth and, more specifically, Disney's crowd-pleasing take on the material.

What is the next Disney princess movie?

Sleeping Beauty, released in 1959, is the next movie in our Disney princess retrospective. Keep your eyes peeled on the blog for a full breakdown.

When is Frozen 2 released in the UK?

Frozen 2 is released on 22nd November, so check out the trailer and tweet us your favourite Disney princess movies @Cineworld.