Disney's new live-action film of the classic fairy tale "Cinderella" opens this weekend. The film is directed by Kenneth Branagh and stars Lily James (of "Downton Abbey") as Cinderella, Cate Blanchett as the wicked stepmother, and Helena Bonham Carter as the fairy godmother. The storytelling has been described as traditional and safe, alongside lavish costumes and dazzling special effects of Cinderella's rags being transformed into a ball gown and a pumpkin becoming a carriage. Kate Quealy-Gainer, assistant editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, talked with News Bureau arts and humanities editor Jodi Heckel about the appeal of fairy tales and the success Disney has had in telling them.
What is the appeal of the fairy tales that Disney tells, and why are they so popular that people might want to see a remake of the "Cinderella" story?
The appeal is really based in the fairy tales themselves. We see different iterations of stories like "Cinderella," "Beauty and the Beast," etc., appear across time and cultures, and there's a definite reason for that. Fairy tales reflect life in that they offer up a hero or a heroine with a conflict, but they also provide a bit of magic or fantasy in the way those conflicts are overcome and ultimately give a satisfying (although not necessarily "happily ever after") ending. The details and plot points change depending on who is telling the story - Perrault's "Cinderella," for example, differs quite a bit from the Chinese version of Cinderella, "Yeh-Shen" - but the central message often remains the same.
Disney filmmakers are really just one group in a long line of folk and fairy tale revisionists, albeit with a massive marketing machine behind them. The Disney movies certainly offer more sanitized versions of the stories, often leaving out the darker and potentially subversive elements of the tales, but the studio has proved to be wildly successful in tapping into societal shifts and pop-culture norms to fashion its product for the target audience - namely kids and the parents who are going to pay for the movie ticket.
You see this most obviously in the recent "Frozen," which uses Hans Christian Andersen's incredibly dark "The Snow Queen" as a springboard for an upbeat movie that includes a singing snowman and a funny reindeer, and that centers around sisterly love. Disney certainly gained a fair amount of audience trust with "Frozen," so I think this "Cinderella" will likely be successful, but it will be interesting to see how audiences respond to the live-action element, since animation has been so key in Disney's previous successes.
How have well-known fairy tales generally fared when they've been made into movies? Have they changed significantly from print to screen?
Disney's commercial success with translating fairy tales to film is pretty undeniable, from "Frozen" all the way back to "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves." The studio has taken its fair share of criticism from academics and folklore scholars for sanitizing the stories too much or for making them too cute, both arguments that certainly have merit.
The Disney versions are, in part, successful because they are sanitized; if you look at recent attempts to tell darker versions of these stories - "Snow White and the Huntsman," "Jack the Giant Slayer," etc. - the payoffs are significantly smaller, largely because the audience is smaller. There are simply more kids who want a bright and cheery fairy tale than there are adults who want (or are willing to pay for) a darker one.
Has the way movies portray the characters - particularly lead female characters, such as the Disney princesses - changed over time?
The ubiquity of princesses, in both fairy tales in general and the Disney versions, is a really fascinating element of storytelling that is so clearly linked to cultural conceptions of femininity and the performance of gender. On the one hand, princesses are the height of traditional femininity - they are pretty, but not overwhelmingly so; they are royal, but hold no real power (that's often given to the evil queen); and, most important, they do not make things happen, but rather things happen to them. Interestingly, however, this also makes them the perfect vehicles for the subverting of gender roles, and you see this duality play out across folk and fairy tales as well as in the Disney movies.
The Rapunzel in Disney's 2010 "Tangled," who manages to capture a thief, escape her tower and regain her kingdom, for example, is a far different heroine than Princess Aurora in the 1959 "Sleeping Beauty," who essentially sleeps until someone bestows her with a happy ending through a kiss. Disney is not, by any means, on the cutting edge of feminism (Rapunzel is still rescued by a male hero in "Tangled"), but their princesses represent a confluence of contemporary gender expectations, for better or for worse.
Unlike "Maleficent" or "Into the Woods," this adaptation appears to stay true to the original telling of its story. It's been described as "ultracareful." Why do you think the producers chose to not stray from the traditional telling of "Cinderella?"
There's a certain charm to the original animated "Cinderella," in that it really is the quintessential fairy tale of a kind-hearted young girl who goes from rags to riches without having to sacrifice much or even take an active role in her own destiny. As a feminist, I can take issue with Cinderella's passivity and the movie's correlating beauty with goodness, but as a human, I can't say that I haven't had moments of wishing for my own fairy godmother who could step in, wave a wand and give me a pretty dress and a "happily ever after." This is a simple story of wish fulfillment, and its appeal lies in its straightforwardness and unfussiness.
With so many people familiar with the animated Disney "Cinderella," what do you expect reaction to this live-action film to be?
The filmmakers are banking on that familiarity and the nostalgia that accompanies it for many people. Disney's "Cinderella" is what led me to fairy tales, which in turn led me to books, storytelling and the work I do now. I'm sure I'll be seeing it at some point.