“Have courage and be kind.”
With that mantra, Disney’s live-action remake of Cinderella goes from a mere retelling of a fairy tale about a young woman who goes from lowly commoner to queen by marrying a prince, to being a story about having a good character and not letting adversity serve as an excuse for evil.
It is still a saccharine sweet story about virtue rewarded – Cinderella gets her prince, after all. But we see her struggle under the abuse of her stepmother and stepsisters. She is not always sweet and smiling. And although not all of us can marry a prince, the story isn’t trying to convey that we can. It is not about Cinderella getting married, but about her rising above her stepmother’s pettiness and the world trying to crush her spirit.
In this version, Cinderella’s backstory is elaborated. We get to see her mother (almost always only mentioned in passing, if at all, in most retellings) and her father. We get to see her happy home life that gave her such a cheery and steadfast character. We get to see where she got her strong faith – from her mother, who was a strong believer in magic and fairies. Since this story takes place in an alternate universe of sorts, “magic” serves as a religious allegory. Thus this version has strong parallels with the Slavic Vasilisa the Beautiful (sometimes called Vasilisa the Brave), whose heroine also has strong faith inherited from her mother, usually represented by a magical doll. In both stories, it is faith that saves the heroine and earns her a better life.
We also get to see that happy home life disintegrate – not with the death of Cinderella’s mother, but with her father’s eventual remarriage to the Lady Tremaine. Her father is hopeful and kind in his desire to marry again, but his new wife is the opposite of his first. Lady Tremaine has no faith in anyone but herself. She is bitter about how life turned out for herself and wants better for her daughters, who are petty, incapable, and reflecting of her bitterness. They compete for her attention and affection, but she is bitter even about them. Therefore, it is inevitable that Cinderella would become a mere servant at the loss of her father. Her stepmother wants to “teach her how the world works” and cannot comprehend how strong, kind, and not bitter her stepdaughter is.
Also, the character of the Prince is elaborated upon – he gets a name, a depiction of his relationship with his father, and eventually a crown. He is every bit about finding a woman who can be his partner in his lonely role at the top. It is obvious that Cinderella fits that role not for her beauty, but for her faith, love, and patience.
Neither the Prince nor Cinderella are particularly smart, at least not in their depictions. They are not constantly matching wits, nor are they vapid. If anything, Lady Tremaine is far more intelligent than her stepdaughter (especially moreso than her daughters!), but she has failed to use this gift for any good. She has not passed it on to Anastasia and Drusilla, she has underestimated Cinderella, and she has spent through a fortune on frippery instead of investing wisely. This is not to say that it is wrong to be intelligent, but that it needs to be matched – if not exceeded – by courage and kindness, or, in less Disney terms, faith and love.
There is nothing of the crazy animal antics that appeared in the original Disney animated classic, but that is to be expected in live-action. Instead of wild mouse chases, we get actual backstory and character development! Lucifer the cat is depicted as a normal cat, albeit one that is bitter like his owner, while the mice and other creatures are depicted as unusually intelligent but ordinary animals. They are kind (in their own way) because Cinderella shows them kindness. She is the one who anthropomorphizes them by setting them little tea tables. It is almost as though the mice are humouring her! It seems that the same family of mice has lived in the house as long as Cinderella’s family, so they have been conditioned throughout the years to accept her. [As an aside, I don’t think that they are long-lived so much as they have a family resemblance and Cinderella just names them the same based on their shared characteristics. The father-mouse is always Gus-Gus, the mother-mouse is always Jacqueline, etc. But I digress – they could be magical mice, after all.]
There are still crazy antics, but much more within the realms of reality. These do not distract from the important message of the film: have courage and be kind. Have faith and be loving. You may not marry a prince, but you, and those around you, will have rewarding lives – eventually. Do not embrace cruelty with bitterness. Fight it with lovingkindness instead.