In Stephen Sondheim’s Into The Woods, one word rises above all others as a poisonous insult: “nice.” Red Riding Hood ponders it after meeting a wolf who’s only kind so he can lull her suspicions and eat her: “He seemed so nice… Nice is different than good.” The witch spits it as invective at the characters who she sees as wishy-washy, ineffectual, and hapless: “You’re so nice. You’re not bad, you’re not good, you’re just nice.” And in the opening number, Cinderella’s temper starts fraying as she deals with her demanding, abusive stepsisters, while singing about how she ended up as their servant:
Mother said be good, Father said be nice,
That was always their advice.
“So be nice Cinderella, good Cinderella,”
What’s the good of being good
If everyone is blind
And you’re always left behind?
“Never mind, Cinderella, kind Cinderella”—
And then her little moment of reflective frustration ends, as one of her sisters slaps her. Sondheim’s musical is an edged, acidic version of several popular fairy tales, and the repeated snorting over “niceness” is just one of many efforts to dig up and examine some of the archetypes these fables evoke, particularly in the sanitized, repackaged versions Walt Disney Studios has been producing for kids since 1937.
One of the big tropes Sondheim dismisses is the idea that there’s anything positive to be said for politesse if it gets in the way of people making and owning their own decisions, standing up for themselves, and being grownups, whatever the cost. He could have been reacting directly to Disney’s new live-action Cinderella, which holds up niceness as the greatest of all values—especially for girls, especially when it comes with a hearty dose of shut-up, look-cute, and wait-patiently-for-fate-to-bring-your-reward. Supposedly “nice” is in again for women in fiction, but as a core value, it’s rarely seemed as uncompelling, and as discomfiting, as it does in this sticky-sentimental version of the familiar old story about a put-upon orphan who gets a little turnaround to go with her fancy glass shoes.
Into The Woods is in keeping with a decades-old vogue for digging out the roots of centuries-old fables, which even Disney recently dipped a toe into via the sympathy-for-the-devil antihero story Maleficent. But the trend squeals to a rusty-braked stop with the new live-action Cinderella, which Kenneth Branagh brings to the screen with no sense of self-awareness or self-examination. The film plays every aspect of the fable straight, to the point where this version lacks any notable, specific reason to exist. It initially seems to have no point of view. It isn’t about considering what Cinderella-style obedience means, or how it plays in a modern context. It certainly isn’t about questioning the value of niceness as a value. The film just touts, with sparkly but plodding repetition, the outsized, eventual rewards for being a sweet, brave dishrag that causes no trouble and makes no waves.
Certainly the film is getting positive press for being “thrillingly sincere” and “a tribute to old-fashioned virtues.” But as Chris Weitz’s screenplay expresses it, with plenty of treacle and not a smidgen of nuance, being good and kind means being weak and simple. Worse, as the story progresses, it means separation from even the simplest, mildest ambition. The film becomes a paean to passivity, dressed up in a beaming smile and a glittery gown.
There’s nothing wrong with the “old-fashioned virtues” Ella (Lily James) learns from her mother: “Have courage and be kind,” mom says, shortly before dying beautifully. In the process, she hands her daughter a mantra that works as a skeleton key for most bereft girls in fairy tales. Courage and kindness are always survival skills in fables, for both genders: Feeding the beggar by the side of the road, pulling the thorn from the lion’s paw, even just speaking kindly to strangers—these acts always pay off for orphaned kids and third sons. And bravery and gentleness are heavily baked into the Cinderella story, which at heart is a wish-fulfillment fantasy about being rescued from powerless drudgery as a karmic reward for facing that drudgery dutifully and without complaint.
But as NPR’s Linda Holmes points out in her recent overview of Cinderellas through the centuries and across many cultures, plenty of other Cinderella stories have found ways to keep their abused-servant protagonist from becoming a complete doormat, limply waiting to be dusted off by powerful hands. (Holmes gives particular props to Ever After, “a story about a girl who works hard, defends the less fortunate, protects her parents’ memories, reads important literature, can hold her own in unexpected woodland battles with bands of gypsies, and thus gets to marry a prince who is lucky to have her.”) Even within the parameters of a story fundamentally about a girl being saved from the evils of other women by being married off to a stranger, there are still levels and degrees.
And in this case, Cinderella’s degree of separation from agency and reality is weirdly high. As the heavy-handed narration explains in the opening, Ella is fond of seeing the world not as it is, but as she wishes it would be. (This idea never really pays off, though it’s easy to imagine a really subversive version of the story where the whole fairy-godmother-and-prince thing was all a daydream, and afterward, Ella has to get back to her dreary real life, and maybe figure out how to rescue her own damn self.) This particular Ella is a sweet, sheltered dim-bulb; when she meets her prince (Richard Madden), she doesn’t realize he’s royalty, even when his entourage arrives and calls him “Your Highness.” In spite of the “imagine the world as she wished it would be” business, she doesn’t seem to have much imagination, or much attention to detail.
But she has just enough imagination to blot out the reality of her situation, in ways that make her limper, more accepting of her fate, and especially too polite to talk back. Branagh’s Cinderella doesn’t seem to lack recourse, or even willpower. She just focuses all her will on justifying her circumstances to herself, and on staying politely obedient to people who hate her and go out of their way to hurt her. Evicted from her room and banished to an unfinished, dusty, cluttered attic by her evil stepmother (Cate Blanchett), she tells herself it’ll be good to be somewhere peaceful and out of the way. Robbed of her place, her possessions, and her standing in the household, she tells herself it’s all right, because at least she’s still living in, and duly respecting, her ancestral family home. Asked why she stays on in such a horrible household, she explains that she’s doing it to respect her parents’ memory. By intepreting “be kind” as “be passive,” she teaches herself to be happy with physical and emotional abuse, to accept it as the norm, as the price of respecting her dead family. It’s a grotesque message, presented with perverse cheer, through a character who’s more idealized martyr than relatable hero.
Cinderella has always been about injustice suffered, then rectified. But in this version, Ella doesn’t rail against that injustice, even in private. She doesn’t let the audience feel the burden of her fall. She occasionally cries, but mostly, she works as hard as she can to pretend it isn’t happening, and that if it is happening, that’s okay. Which even defangs her own beliefs: She never tries to extend her fervent belief in kindness outside of herself, for instance by suggesting that maybe other people, like her stepmother and stepsisters, could possibly be kind as well. That would be too forward. It would require acknowledging their cruelty, and judging it, and maybe even making them feel bad about it. It just wouldn’t be nice. It would be brave—the other, much less emphasized half of Ella’s mom-mantra—but independence and self-respect aren’t forms of courage this Cinderella wants to evoke.
At least… not in the female protagonist. Because curiously, the male protagonist gets the same message from his dying father that Ella got from her dying mother. In the subplot that brings in most of the additions to the fairy tale’s familiar frame, the king (Derek Jacobi) wants his son to marry a princess from a larger, more powerful kingdom—any larger, more powerful kingdom—to boost their kingdom’s martial power. The king wants his son to be obedient, quiet, and respectful, to put his father’s judgment and his kingdom’s needs above his own. And for much of the film, the prince is dutiful to his father’s wishes, even though he’s met and fallen for Ella. But where Cinderella lowers her head and gets on with it, or distracts herself by talking to her mice, the prince grouses. He schemes. He organizes a kingdom-wide ball to get around his father’s wishes. And finally, he tells King Dad in no uncertain terms that he’s going to marry the woman he loves. And the king admits his respect for the choice, and says the prince is finally a worthy ruler—because he’s taking action instead of politely obeying. (Or even disobeying, but sheltering his father with a nice, kind lie.)
All of this could be read simply as a particularly tone-deaf interpretation of a familiar story, falling back on things that need to happen for the story to work: Cinderella needs some reason to stay home and eat the abuse, the prince needs some reason to go find her. But the parallels between their plotlines, and the divergence between them, are highlighted because Weitz so firmly refuses to examine them. They’re presented as the way things should be: Cinderella should do as she’s told, or she won’t get her reward. The prince should stand up for himself, ditto.
And Cinderella 2015 goes from retrograde to downright inexplicable at the end, when the prince shows up to save Ella—and she’s too passive to meet him halfway, or even, say, a tenth of the way. Locked in her attic as the kingdom-wide shoe try-outs finally make it to her family estate, Ella is saved when her mouse friends push a window open, so her prince can hear her singing her wistful little version of the folksong “Lavender’s Blue.” Meanwhile, though, that pernicious narration informs the audience that Ella doesn’t really care whether she ever gets back to her prince, because she’s happy just living inside the memories of her fun time at the ball, just as she’s happy living inside the memories from when her parents were alive. Because hey, why should people care about tomorrow when they can just daydream about yesterday? Certainly nothing defines heroes in other movies like their willingness to submissively live in whatever past successes they might be able to muster.
Ever since the Disney Renassiance, Disney has come under pressure to give its female characters—especially its princesses—some agency, to make them more than the docile dolls of the Snow White and Sleeping Beauty era. And starting with Beauty And The Beast, the company did exactly that, building princess characters who read books, own businesses, win wars, beat their suitors at their own betrothing contests, coldcock their own villains, and above all, own their own dreams and desires, which increasingly extend beyond marriage to a prince. And yet all that work comes back down to this: a princess so nice, so kind, so utterly flattened, that she can’t even muster the agency to stretch out a hand and push open a window by herself. A girl so sweet and simple that she’d rather daydream about yesterday than make any effort for tomorrow.
But the film is overtly okay with these choices. Everything works out fine for Ella without her having to lift a finger or open a window: In the end, her enemies all abruptly, inexplicably leave forever, with no more notice than a “Poochie died on his way back to his home planet”-style line of narration. Ella earns that magical fix just as she earns her prince: by giving in to her stepmother’s viciousness and her stepsisters’ malice without complaint, without standing up and demanding anything for herself. The mice will save her. Her fairy godmother will save her. The prince will save her. Circumstances will save her. It’s just important, for some strange reason, that she doesn’t make any attempt to save herself. Nice girls don’t do these things: They just huddle obediently in the attic and wait for karma to come around and fix their problems. The people complaining about the reification of emotional abuse and subjugation in Fifty Shades Of Grey should take note.
In that NPR essay, Holmes notes that every iteration of Cinderella takes some tack of its own: “The reed-thin story is why usually, things are added—all the things that tell you what kind of Cinderella this is and who it’s made for. Cinderella becomes a kind of cultural tofu that takes on the flavor of whatever you’re mixing with it.” In this case, what’s been mixed in is a heavy reinforcement of old gender stereotypes, and a backlash against the backlash over niceness. In an era that’s just gotten around to questioning the messages fed to young girls—shut up and let the boys talk, being beautiful is the most important thing in the world (unless you’re obviously trying), but beauty distracts men so cover up, and so forth—this new Cinderella feels like a throwback, a sermon about why women, specifically women, shouldn’t question commands or bother other people with their feelings. It turns out that the movie does have a point of view, and that point of view is hopelessly creepy. Nice is different than good, as Sondheim said. This interpretation of the old familiar tale isn’t either one.