“Nothing”: The KeyWord in Disney’s Live-Action Cinderella

Thomas left for Dallas this afternoon. He will return this Friday or Saturday, so I am facing five or six nights without him, and very much with babies. Whenever I have a long evening alone at home, I prefer to listen to books on tape, podcasts, or put on a movie, so I have noise in the background as I do housework or paperwork. Once 9:00 hits, however, I can’t risk waking up the Bears with a podcast or an audiobook that I carry around with me. So, movies have been my go-to. I set up my laptop in the dining room with a good movie, and get to work. It keeps the house from becoming too quiet, and gives me something to think about as I move about the house.

So, this post will be more academic than update. Feel free to skip if you wish.


 

The story of Cinderella stretches across cultures, times, and languages. China, France, England, Native Americans, Africans, almost any culture that has a tradition of legend tells at least one story of a young person fallen on hard times with no family or friends to turn to, to be saved (often because of persistent virtue through their difficulties) and live happily ever after. In the West, Disney’s animated classic is probably the source for the most universal images of the story, from the blue ball-gown, to the magical carriage, and the glass slipper.

Disney’s more recent adaptation added so much depth to the characters, while harkening back to the older versions of the tale.

These details, though fascinating, are insignificant compared to a single word: “nothing”.

Each character must come to grips with their understanding of “nothing”. Ella’s father, who dies towards the beginning of the movie, has very few scenes of happiness. After Ella’s mother dies, the narrator describes grief differently for Ella and her father. For Ella, her grief “turns to memory” and happy memories at that. Her father, however, is described as “much changed”. He seeks a second marriage as a desperate attempt at one more chance for happiness. He cannot face a life without his beloved wife. He cannot face the “nothing” of grief. In that second marriage, he maintains an abundance of kindness, but cannot muster up the courage to be a good father and a loving husband.

Towards the end of the movie, Lady Tremaine admits that she treats Ella cruelly because Ella is “young” and “innocent”. The viewer is left to understand that Lady Tremaine considers herself and her own story to be worthless. Afterall, she married once for love, and once for advantage, and neither succeeded in the end. Lady Tremaine speaks of her daughters as useless housewares, wishing simply to accomplish “advantageous marriages” for them, since they are beautiful but stupid. She is left better, jaded, and flees the kingdom. She has possessed courage to ambitiously seek her desires, but does not have the courage to be kind.

The Grand Duke sees love, honesty, kindness, and integrity as “nothing” in comparison to the advantages other kingdoms can offer. When the Prince asks why he must marry a prince rather than a “good honest country girl”, the Grand Duke responds with a biting, almost sarcastic question in return: “How many divisions will this good honest country girl bring? How will she make our kingdom stronger? We are a small kingdom among great nations.” His focus is ever on the advantage. He plays life as a giant chessboard, and he is a master of the game, if only the pawns would actually follow his wishes. When the prince insists on searching for the mystery princess of the ball, the Captain of the Guard encourages the young monarch to “take heart”. The Grand Duke responds quickly, “on the contrary, lose heart and gain wisdom!”. When the Prince demands a search still be made, the Grand Duke insists that the Prince must marry the Grand Duke’s choice of princess if the mystery girl cannot be found. Like Lady Tremaine, the Grand Duke has great courage to pursue his goals, but no kindness. In fact, kindness, goodness, virtue, are “nothing” if they can only be found in country girls.

But not every character faces “nothing” with desperation or ambition. Ella’s mother, when facing death, tells her beloved daughter that there is magic in “courage” and “kindness”. She does not falter to admit that death is coming, that Ella will forever have a hole in her life from an absent mother. But she does not tell Ella to “live her dreams”, or some abstract goal. Instead, Ella’s mother gives the child the keys to a life of love and service for others.

The King also understands the importance of kindness and courage in the face of death. After the ball, the king encourages his son to “find the girl they’re all talking about: the one who loses her shoes”. He also commands his son to not marry for advantage, but to “be his own man”.


 

Finally, Ella. This, I’m afraid will require a second post, as this one has already become very long. So, I will say goodnight for now.

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