I just saw the Disney film Cinderella with my daughter. I had heard that it respected the tradition and irritated feminists, so, being a lover of the classic fairy tales well told, I didn't want to miss it. I was not disappointed. [Everyone knows the story - and there are no surprises in that regard - but if you don't want to know some of the nice touches Kenneth Branagh added don't read on.]
Cinderella tells the tale straightforwardly, with enough fresh interpretations to keep the well-known story interesting, yet without compromising the integrity of the tradition. For example, the Fairy Godmother is first seen as a poor and somewhat disgusting beggar woman. Cinderella, having just been denied an opportunity to go to the ball by her stepmother, is despondent as the years of oppression she has endured finally overwhelm her. The Fairy Godmother as beggar woman asks her for some milk; Cinderella immediately puts her own problems aside and serves the beggar woman, who sloppily slurps down the milk. Only after allowing Cinderella to reveal herself through this act of charity does the Fairy Godmother reveal herself.
A fair amount of time is spent on backstory, providing details on how Cinderella ends up living with her stepmother and stepsisters and tying up some loose ends. For instance, if the stepmother is so nasty, how did her good father end up married to her? Cate Blanchett is terrific as the stepmother, and in one of her final confrontations with Cinderella, tells the story of what happened to her. She is twice a widow, once before and the second time with Cinderella's father, and the loss of two loves has embittered her and, finally, twisted her into a villain. And in fact we see a degeneration of the stepmother as the film goes on. We first see her as she marries Cinderella's father, and at that point she is hardly an out-and-out villain, although she is clearly no innocent. It is only after Cinderella's father dies that she descends to the point of no return. There is a wonderful contrast here with Cinderella, who has also suffered two losses, first her mother and then her father. But Cinderella refuses to allow tragedy to embitter her.
It is the theme of that refusal that makes this interpretation of Cinderella unique and powerful. Its origin is also told in the backstory when Cinderella's mother, close to dying, reveals the secret to life, which is to "have courage and always be kind". She insists that Cinderella vow to remain true to these ideals, which, naturally, Cinderella tearfully does. The linkage of courage and kindness is profound, for it takes courage to be kind. It also answers the feminist criticism that Cinderella is merely a passive victim awaiting rescue by a prince. This Cinderella is not passive, but she is not active in the manner of worldly overcoming approved by feminists; instead she is active in the manner of the Gospel, answering hate with love and cruelty with kindness. It is not easy for her, and it is only by recalling her mother, her mother's wisdom, and the vow she made to her that she is able to endure. While the stepmother gradually becomes a complete slave to the bitterness and envy that consumes her, Cinderella remains free by the active fidelity to her ideals.
But there is more to it than that. Cinderella's mother also links courage and kindness to magic - that is, a transcendent hope. Here we have the purely Christian element in disguised form. And it is just here that the secular/feminist criticism has some bite. Suppose that no Fairy Godmother arrived when Cinderella was despondent after being denied an opportunity to go to the ball. Then isn't Cinderella just the doormat the feminists say she is? Branagh's manifestation of the Fairy Godmother as a beggar woman helps to answer this. Cinderella still treats her with kindness despite her despair and reveals the depth of her character, a character that will endure even if there is no such thing as fairy godmothers. The stepmother and stepsisters are driven by circumstance, imagining a future with the prince that is even more unrealistic than fairy godmothers. And when those worldly outcomes don't turn out, they are destroyed, as the stepmother destroys herself in her bitterness. Cinderella's character, by contrast, a character developed and formed in terms of her commitment to her ideals, endures despite circumstance. If there are not fairy godmothers Cinderella will remain who she is; melancholy perhaps but consoled by the memories of her mother and father. This is further reinforced after the ball, when Cinderella begins to reconcile herself to the possibility that she will never see the prince again. The memory of the ball, she decides, will be added to the memories of her mother and father and will be enough for her. This is the summit of pagan or non-Christian virtue. In a world without the Gospel, despair is not inevitable, even if the love we ultimately desire is not attainable.
But there are fairy godmothers or, to interpret the allegory, Christ did rise from the dead. The last shall be first and the first last, the meek shall inherit the earth; these are not mere hopes but truths. Cinderella's virtue is good in a world even without fairy godmothers; but in a world with them, it opens her up to a destiny not available to the vicious, and not because the vicious are vicious but because they have no time for fairy godmothers.
Some other nice touches from the film: On alighting from her carriage, Cinderella is momentarily hesitant to climb the steps to the ball. "I am really a common girl, not a princess." Her footman answers - "And I am really a lizard, not a footman. Let us enjoy this time while we can." Nice. The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand - and nature is swept up in the redemption of man.
The film ends with Cinderella forgiving the stepmother - forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.