CINDERELLA was a watershed film in Walt Disney history. After 1942's BAMBI, Disney hadn't made a full-fledged animated feature, due to economic woes stemming from the world being at war and several of Disney's classic features of the early '40s losing heavily at the box office. Disney put all his effort into making CINDERELLA his comeback film. Had it failed, the fate of the Disney animation department would have been in doubt. Luckily, CINDERELLA not only succeeded at the box office, it succeeded as a superior film, proving that, for Disney, making a classic animated feature was like falling off, well, a pumpkin.
The actual Cinderella story, at least as codified by writer Charles Perrault in 1697, runs only about 2500 words long, leaving Disney the problem of how to stretch it out into a feature. The solution, as it so often would be, was to invent hordes of secondary characters and give them plenty of business to do. So after we are introduced to Cinderella herself, we are treated to long stretches featuring the mice Jaq and Gus and their battles with Lucifer the Cat. Jaq (the thin, smart one) and Gus (the fat, dumb one) speak in a kind of nonsense dialect and are completely devoted to their "Cinderelly". Lucifer doesn't speak at all, and is a masterful silent creation in the tradition of Dopey and Dumbo, characters who says everything they needs to say with their body movements and facial expressions. The story of Cinderella takes a long time to get going, but the slapstick adventures of Jaq, Gus and Lucifer are so entertaining, it doesn't matter.
Cinderella herself is obviously rotoscoped, her movements drawn over live action footage previously shot. In fact, it has been estimated that up to 90 percent of CINDERELLA was filmed in live action first to save money. However, with the exception of Cinderella and a handful of other characters such as evil stepmother Lady Tremaine and the Prince himself, you wouldn't suspect rotoscoping at all. There is a manic cartooniness to most of the characters and action that hearken back to the days of DUMBO. There is also a casually diffident attitude toward any idea that there might be stylistic problems when realistically drawn characters mingle with cartoonier ones. If all the characters have well established personalities, stylistic clashes don't seem to matter at all, as CINDERELLA proves in scene after scene. Still, although Cinderella herself is beautifully drawn and wonderfully played by Ilene Woods, I much prefer the less realistic approach used to create, for example, Ariel from THE LITTLE MERMAID, whom the animators manage to make as lovely as Cinderella while still keeping some of the caricaturish style of an animated cartoon. Ariel flows, Cinderella is stiff. Stiffness is good in the case of a crusty character like but a princess wanna-be should have a little more bounce in her step than Cinderella does.
The music is pleasant, though only the novelty songs stick in the brain. The best is the bouncy "Bippity-Bobbity-Boo", sung by Verna Felton as the Fairy Godmother. There is also the much too short "The Work Song" (which should be called Cinderelly, Cinderelly") sung by the mice. "A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes", although a pretty song overall, is generic Disney, borrowing much of the melody of "Someday My Prince Will Come" and the wish-fulfillment lyrics of "When You Wish Upon a Star". However, this was the first film in which Disney owned the all the publishing rights to his music, and the money he made from these songs, as well as from the box-office receipts, helped refill the studio coffers and then some.
CINDERELLA was the hit Disney needed, and it started off a new decade of features worthy of the name Disney. CINDERELLA, PETER PAN and LADY AND THE TRAMP were hits with the public, and even ALICE IN WONDERLAND and SLEEPING BEAUTY, although critically and commercially unsuccessful, are still widely admired today for the style and quality of the animation. But, with the possible exception of LADY AND THE TRAMP, CINDERELLA just may be the best Disney film of the fifties. It is certainly one of the best Disney films of any decade. ½ - JB
Cinderella II: Dreams Come
True (2002 - Direct to DVD)
Cinderella III: A Twist in Time (2007 - Direct to DVD)