Cinderella: Fantasy Stripped of its Humanism

Adam Sandler’s The Cobbler is more compassionate than Disney’s latest blockbuster.

Abandon romance, all ye who enter Disney’s new Cinderella. It’s a live-action version of that studio’s 1950 animated classic, made in the new Disney style that injects politically correct dogma and secularism into childhood fantasy. “Who looks after us?” young Ella asks her dying mother, who responds, “Fairy godmothers,” and then passes along the life lesson, “Have courage and be kind.”

This re-telling of Cinderella works only on those rare occasions when the filmmakers take fantasy on showbiz faith and accept its whimsy — as when Cinderella’s fairy godmother turns pet mice into white stallions, lizards into coachmen, a pumpkin into a golden carriage, and a duck into the carriage driver. The moment has humor and charm, a rare, judicious use of CGI to depict imaginative transformations. The image of Cinderella (Lily James) swirling in stardust as her pink rags turn into a flowing blue ball gown surpasses Meryl Streep’s morphing and gyrating in Into the Woods; it also outclasses that film’s typical Sondheim cynicism.

Disney’s own recent remakes of other classics (Alice in Wonderland, 101 Dalmatians, and the Maleficent reboot of Sleeping Beauty) take the revisionist attitude sanctioned in Sondheim’s musical (and the dispiriting Shrek films) as justification for creating a realistic, nonbeliever’s tone. Cinderella slouches through a long opening exposition detailing the wearying misery of Cinderella’s parents’ deaths. None of it has the emotional punch of Bambi or Dumbo (Disney has just announced plans to have Tim Burton ruin Dumbo, perhaps its most perfect animated feature). In Cinderella, even the dreaded facts of life are made “realistically” drab. And sorrowful. The film’s narrator never says, “Once upon a time”; instead, she informs us, “Time passed, and pain turned to memory.”

It’s unfortunate that director Kenneth Branagh’s memory of film fantasy style is so murky. Whenever Branagh stops the endlessly swooping camera (reminiscent of his film version of The Magic Flute), the imagery takes on a strange shadowy mood. Even the ballroom scene has an unaccountable dimness. It needs the glow The Boxtrolls had. When the Prince (Richard Madden) escorts Cinderella away from the dance floor for a private tour of the royal family’s portrait gallery, it looks as if Branagh thought he was doing Visconti’s The Leopard – but without that film’s sumptuous radiance and natural light. Branagh’s Shakespeare films never looked this somber — or maybe he and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos sought to emulate Michael Powell’s stylized fantasies but mistimed the lab processing that created Powell’s luminous color and mysterious darkness in The Red Shoes, A Canterbury Tale, and The Tales of Hoffmann.

No matter how closely Branagh follows the Cinderella plot, this film lacks romantic impulse in every way. The ballroom dancing is jumpy and graceless, thus asexual. The nice moment when Cinderella and the prince first meet in the forest contains the first glimmer of human connection — but couldn’t Disney have repurposed its Sleeping Beauty song “Once upon a Dream”? The young lovers — and the movie — need a lift.

Cate Blanchett’s turn as the wicked stepmother drags the film down to irreparable banality. She seems to be doing a deranged imitation of Eleanor Parker’s desperate, vulnerable baroness in The Sound of Music. Blanchett’s miscasting recalls Glenn Close overacting Cruella De Vil in the live-action 101 Dalmatians; the two send a mixed message about villainy by likening it to campy, drag-queen hauteur.   

Given the vogue for non-traditional, color-blind casting apparent in the film’s bit parts (numerous blacks can be spotted in the medieval European setting, including Nonso Anozie as the forthright captain of the guard, the prince’s best friend), couldn’t Disney have imaginatively cast an actress of color as stepmother and made a sincere, credible point about history’s cultural crossover?

Better that than trivialize the spiritual basis of the Cinderella fantasy and its important faith in providence. Cinderella’s glass slipper is not just a prop, it’s a cathexis of spiritual aspiration, proof of spiritual transformation that might even symbolize the possibility of social equality — that is, if the story’s splendor is believed as something greater than the simplistic “Have courage and be kind.”

The moral of this Cinderella, with its overpitched closing image depicting the kingdom’s legions of wedding guests like the ludicrous, innumerable CGI hordes in The Lord of the Rings, is that contemporary filmmakers have lost the scale for fantasy, romance, faith.

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At this fractious point before the 2016 election, Americans may have forgotten how to dream. Thank God for Rialto’s releasing a restored version of Michael Powell’s 1951 film, The Tales of Hoffmann. Powell’s visualization of the Offenbach opera about the early-19th-century fantasist restores powerful imagination to the human desire for love and fulfillment, issues that 21st-century filmmakers have abandoned.

Since Disney’s new Cinderella sacrifices the imaginary for specious “realism,” it is a revelation to see Powell go into full-fledged fantasy that also idealizes the theatricality of opera and ballet. Hoffmann extends the dreamlike beauty of Powell’s best-known effort, The Red Shoes (1948), and concentrates on pure aestheticism (Moira Shearer’s Olympia may be the most expressive dance performance in film history). Hoffman is more specialized, and audiences at New York’s Film Forum are fortunate to get the first look at its new restoration. E. T. A. Hoffmann’s artistic passion transforms into Powell’s genius. The film is profoundly moral and sensual — an extraordinary combination that makes The Tales of Hoffmann the most delirious film of all time. Vote for it with your attention.

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If Adam Sandler’s The Cobbler were from Central Europe like the dreary Oscar-winning Ida, it would be acclaimed a masterpiece. Instead, we must settle for it as a classic urban folktale. Sandler portrays Max, a shoe repairman on New York’s Lower East Side. Bitter about his fatherless upbringing, he holds onto his Jewish heritage and finds its surprising, almost magical benefits.

Max discovers empathy with the Lower East Side’s motley denizens. He inherits the profession and the humanity professed when his father (in a warmly evocative prologue) tells a complaining cabal, “You can’t judge a man until you walk in his shoes.”

That opening scene evokes the Coen brothers’ remarkable ethnic paean, A Serious Man. Yet The Cobbler is even more irreverent. Director Tom McCarthy celebrates modern America’s ethnic plenitude in the way Max empathizes with others, as he attempts to set right both underworld crime and ruthless contemporary gentrification. Sandler’s multicultural empathy fulfills the brotherhood Harry Belafonte attempted in The Angel Levine (1973) before socialist sentimentality confused his thinking.

The Coens’ name is a version of the Hebrew word for priest. Sandler, underappreciated for his ethnic-focused ministry, uses the cobbler figure to stand in for Every-working-man. It’s a moving and amusing proposition (which the Coens might envy) when Max takes on a different personality each time he wears his customers’ shoes — a perfect illustration of Cinderella’s “Have courage and be kind” theme but in terms that suit the millennium. Whether or not film geeks are willing to acknowledge their own human need, Sandler dares to do so — which has made him a target for hipster cynics. Yet he’s ably supported by compassionate performances from Method Man, Steve Buscemi, Melonie Diaz, and Dustin Hoffman. The Cobbler is Cinderella for politically romantic, socially conscious adults.

— Armond White, a film critic who writes about movies for National Review Online, received the American Book Awards’ Anti-Censorship Award. He is the author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about the Movies.



Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.


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