While pundits fuss over how the new Cinderella’s controversially corseted (and allegedly airbrushed) itty-bitty waist will warp young girls’ minds, the most revolutionary thing about Disney’s live-action Cinderella might be how emphatically unrevolutionary it is in the age of gritty reboots and quasi-feminist “Let It Go” girl power.
“We’re probably not as cutting-edge feminist as Frozen,” admits scribe Chris Weitz, who just a few movies ago was battling to give Bella Swan a backbone in the second Twilight film, which he directed. “I think that Cinderella is a hero of resilience… and that’s an interesting challenge to try to put out in 2015 without being ironic or snarky or revisionist about it.”
Played by Lily James as a gentle merchant’s daughter enslaved by her social climbing Real Housewife of a stepmother and image-obsessed stepsisters, Weitz and director Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella is a saintly little thing brought up to endure life’s horrors with the mantra, “Have courage, and be kind.”
Here, Cinderella’s No. 1 nemesis is her “wicked” stepmother, the thoroughly modern Lady Tremaine—Cate Blanchett, purring through every scene like Joan Crawford in impeccable 1940s-inspired costumes by Oscar-winner Sandy Powell—whose gleeful abuse of the youthful, hopeful Cinderella belies the pain of an aging, wounded survivor trapped in an oppressively traditional man’s world.
“I think like all of these tropes, the trope of the wicked stepmother exists because so many people died in childbirth, so many children had to deal with stepmothers. Cate Blanchett was really keen to have her character exemplify what happens when a female household is competitive and women don’t help each other,” said Weitz.
Needless to say, Cinderella’s no Katniss Everdeen. This soot-faced pushover Disney princess wins by toughing out humiliation, desperation, and neglect. “It’s not necessarily a very contemporary idea of a hero,” says Weitz. “She’s not aggressive and she doesn’t really fight back, and that’s what we want from our heroines nowadays, to kind of bootstrap them. But she has tremendous inner resources.”
It’s a classic Disney move to form young heroes from great loss with one simple concept: dead parents. In this version, it even bonds Prince Charming and Cinderella in mutual grief. And unlike most iterations of the fairy tale in which every eligible woman in the land preens desperately for the Prince’s attention, this one, played by Game of Thrones’ Richard Madden, has to really work to slip that glass slipper on and put a ring on it.
“There’s no question [in the original versions] of whether she would want to marry the prince or not, because he’s the prince—everybody would. And in the 1951 animated version he really doesn’t have much to say for himself; he has like seven lines of dialogue,” explains Weitz. “It’s important that he’s worthy of her, and not the other way around.”
If this Cinderella exemplifies a different sort of feminine strength, what message does that tiny-waist controversy send to the children ogling the posters? Branagh, James, and Madden publicly vouched that Cinderella’s slim frame was achieved the old-fashioned way, with a 19th-century visual effect: A corset. Weitz, who wrangled big VFX on his famously frustrating studio adaptation The Golden Compass, weighed in.
“It seems like the pictorial marketing is guilty of [shrinking James’s waist], but it’s very hard to do that with VFX on a moving figure, so I would be surprised if they’d done it,” he said. “It is a problem in our culture, isn’t it? I don’t think they did it within the movie, but I definitely did notice that in the marketing and I think that’s not a good thing. She’s gorgeous enough as it is.”
How much more punk rock might Cinderella have been if original helmer Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo, Never Let Me Go) stayed on board with his much darker vision for the fairy-tale heroine?
“Mark’s version would have felt a lot more like the Grimm’s fairy tale. You could call that dark, but that seems to be painting it with the same brush as Batman Returns—and I don’t think that’s quite what we were aiming for,” Weitz said, laughing.
Despite having directed a half-dozen features of his own, Weitz is enjoying a phase of just writing, which allows him to stay home in Los Angeles. “Directing as a profession can be really damaging to families if you’re not very careful,” said Weitz, who has two young boys and a daughter on the way.
But hey, writing’s not such a bad gig for now: Post-Twilight he published The Young World, his first in a trilogy of dystopian YA novels about Warriors-esque gangs of youths battling for turf in the post-apocalypse, which he’ll adapt for the big screen. And after coming in to write Cinderella from Aline Brosh McKenna’s original script, Weitz was tapped by Disney and Lucasfilm to rewrite their Star Wars stand-alone film for Godzilla helmer Gareth Edwards.
“I’m a huge Star Wars nerd. I saw the first movie 19 times in theaters before it was ever out on VHS, when you had to bother to be able to see a movie 19 times,” he said, politely skirting any NDA-violating reveal of characters or plot.
“What I’d like the audience to feel is that feeling I had as a 7-year-old watching Star Wars for the first time—anything could have happened, but what happened was astonishing to me. To me, the genius of the movies is that they’re about people. The droids are people. Chewbacca is a person. That’s really what it’s about, and what I’m hoping to bring to it.”