Remember The Black Cauldron? That slightly weird, plot-heavy fantasy that made no money for Disney with impressive design but nothing noticeably Disneyish? Well, Disney didn’t apparently, because they were at it again in the 00s with Atlantis: The Lost Empire, a film that shares the adventurous, fantasy DNA and emphasis on plot over character or, well, gaining an audience. It’s not quite as strange and not nearly as dark as Cauldron, but is still Disney’s attempt at worldbuilding and creating a mythology in a way that their more traditional fairy tales don’t. It also goes pretty insane towards the end However, also like the unfairly maligned 80’s obscurity, Atlantis: The Lost Empire is actually pretty decent. It’s no way near a classic, but it’s a good deal more entertaining than something like Dinosaur, as it crammed with events and contains some interesting designs.
The story, for the majority of you that haven’t actually seen it, is set in 1914, where a young museum intern dreams of completing his father’s work and finding the legendary lost city. He leads a group of slightly surly, slightly suspicious experts in various areas, down a sinkhole in the sea to find it. Once he gets there, however, it’s not quite as simple getting out, especially given some ulterior motives of the crew. Milo learns leadership, falls in love and beats the baddies – who they are won’t be a surprise to anyone who has ever seen a film before.
There’s an admirable Jules Vernian sense of adventure to the film, abetted by some inventive, CG augmented steampunk designing. This is old, old school sci-fi, and starts a continued studio interest in the genre – they followed this up with Lilo and Stitch and Treasure Planet, both of which are even more sci-fi based than this (later Chicken Little continued the 00s trend). The design is the strongest element of the film, all pistons, drills and clanking metal. The Atlanteans themselves have built an impressive world of ancient mech that is all powered by a a mysterious blue light. The film as a result often looks incredible. It’s not particularly original, but it is arresting.
In this sense it feels, at times, like Disney’s attempt at a Studio Ghibli film, most particularly Laputa: Castle in the Sky, containing that film’s eye for inventive means of transport, a mythical destination that few believe in, giant robots and underground shenanigans. It’s not as good, but very few films are – either way, it’s a marked change in tone for the studio, focussing more on creating an impressive, well rounded world than they previously have done. What separates a Ghibli from Atlantis, however, are that the design and beauty support the film as opposed to dominate it. Beyond the aesthetic elements of the film, Atlantis struggles.
The group of misfits that Milo travels with to the underwater kingdom are a crudely drawn group of racial stereotypes that don’t extend beyond their initial one line descriptions. Admittedly, the same accusation could be leveled at Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but somehow the group here are even more crudely drawn than Grumpy and Dopey. Perhaps it’s the fact that they aren’t inherently interesting – let’s just say the mechanic would be played by Michelle Rodriguez if this was live action. There’s one scene of obligatory ‘character development’ where they reveal their motivations for being on the journey that has some forced attempts at humour and falls painfully flat. They regularly churn out direlogue that clangs louder than the steampunk engines. The lead double act of Milo and Kida are hardly better – although the latter surely deserves a place in the Princess canon? She’s better than Cinderella at any rate.
The film also isn’t really about anything beyond its plot. It just zips from event to event without really letting the film breathe. There’s barely any text for their to be subtext beneath, so the result is a thematically dissatisfying film that doesn’t hold interest beyond the surface of the narrative – and means you’ll probably forget it after it has finished as well. The more damaging result is that there is no real emotion to the film, it all passes by without engaging the head or heart. So you may be dazzled temporarily by Disney throwing everything into the art and design department, you will be left longing that they had spent a little more time on the script. They clearly didn’t notice as the exact same problems plague Treasure Planet, only two films later.
With Cinderella, the #Disney52 project finally returns to films that UK readers will have actually heard of. For many, in fact, Cinderella will be an adored classic, watched regularly in childhood and with a kind of wistful guilt in adulthood, too. The rags to riches story is arguably the studio’s most iconic, with ugly step-sisters, home before midnight magic and glass slippers entering into the public consciousness in a bigger way than most other Disney images. The titular scullery maid turned belle of the ball is arguably the epitome of a Disney Princess; Snow White established the tropes of communication with animals, pretty dresses and jealous older women, but Cindy takes it to another level. Castles, pretty dresses and cute critters abound, and the songs are about dreams and wishes and magic and all things nice. Everything that gets mocked by the Shrek films or Enchanted can be found in Cinderella. Yet considering its enduring, iconic status, it is an undeniably problematic film.
The main problem can be found in the eponymous heroine herself, as she represents the image of the Disney Princess at its worst. She’s docile, dainty and plays no active role in her journey from slave to royal. The mice that follow her around seem to have greater agency than she does (and probably take up more of the screen time, too). Admittedly Snow White opts into domestic servitude where Cinderella is forced into it, and she gets to dance and wear dresses when Sleeping Beauty‘s Aurora stays asleep for most of the film, there’s still something utterly nauseating about the way Cindy sings joyfully throughout, or her friendship with the obnoxious mice that have probably given her diseases. Her two main qualities seem to be the sheer optimism with which she responds to everything, and her good looks that separate her from the ‘ugly’ step-sisters.
Yet the Princess formula has given the studio mileage for many years, and is also responsible for their most lucrative merchandising range. The ten members of the Princess canon are Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora, Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas, Mulan, Tiana and Rapunzel, and will soon be joined by Merida from Brave – a character with far too much gumption to be a part of that line up. If you look at these ten, they do improve with time: Belle reads books; Jasmine marries a street rat; Mulan – the most badass princess – takes down an entire evil empire. Yet the image of the princess is one that inevitably involves getting married to an often bland male lead, and wearing nice dresses in a castle. Ending up married is, of course, no bad thing for a story – as Jane Austen fans will attest to – but the problem with the first three of these princesses is that the characters are so bland it makes the formulaic portrayal of women even more grating.
Herein lies the biggest issue with Cinderella. Snow White, at the very least, has strong supporting characters, terror and humour in equal measures and stunning animation to make it a masterpiece, whilst Sleeping Beauty has one of Disney’s best villains to make it memorable. Cinderella can’t really boast any of those things, and the supporting characters are positively irritating. There doesn’t seem to be, at first glance, anything going on under the surface of pumpkin carriages and sparkly dances. Yet for some reason people still love this film, in spite of all these very evident problems. Perhaps it is its very simplicity that gives Cinderella its enduring appeal.
When the Duke is talking to the King, he talks about the unrealistic nature of a Prince falling for a woman just by glancing at her from across the room, right as these very events are happening. The Duke dismisses such fantasy by calling it “a pretty plot for fairy tales…” That’s Cinderella in a nutshell: it’s a pretty plot unashamedly existing within the world of the fairy tale. Everything in the film sparkles with magic, making for escapism in its purest form, and it all happens with a sincerity that is disarming to modern, cynical audiences. To us, the story would end at midnight and stay that way, but this is a tale with a happily ever after that tells us the magic can last forever. The fairy godmother encourages Cinderella not to lose faith in good things happening and that people are looking out for her. That cheeriness might be difficult to swallow, but it’s that simplicity of message that makes the film so sweet, and it’s the reason it’s still loved to this day.
The animation, not quite as detailed or as beautifully lit as the Golden Age films, is as resolutely fantastical as the story. The world of Cinderella is full of elegant curves and classical European architecture reminiscent of Neuschwanstein castle in Germany (the very castle that the Disney logo is based on). Everything is bathed in an ethereal, magical light and the look of the film has undoubtedly influenced the modern understanding of the fairy tale aesthetic. It’s not subtle, but then neither is the film as a whole. It’s magical in a thoroughly old-school kind of way, and it seems churlish to be cynical when faced with such pure visual escapism.
Finally it is worth considering whether Cinderella really is as anti-feminist as the story might suggest. Firstly, the men in the film are more impotent or inadequate than any of the female characters – the relationship between the duke and the king is a battle of buffoons, both proving to be quite inept as leaders. Secondly, the heroine does eventually rise above her station, and achieve her dream, however lame modern audiences might consider the dream to be. In the process she slyly undermines her step-family, and ultimately their ugliness is not how they look, but their personalities. Her grace and humility – two very worthy characteristics – are what separate her from her step-sisters, and her continued goodness is at least one thing that young viewers of any gender can aspire to.
Whilst Cinderella feels undoubtedly dated, that’s what makes it such an appealing film. The story is simple, the lead character more so, but it’s a wonderfully sincere film that asks us to believe in happy endings, and is that such a bad thing after all?