When asked about his favorite moment in animation history, Walt Disney replied: “I think it would be when Cinderella got her ball gown.” Disney’s animated retelling of the fairy tale, released in 1950, was an instant classic. The film was a Cinderella story for the studio, too, rescuing it from ruin after a string of box-office disappointments like Pinocchio and Fantasia and the loss of the lucrative European market during World War II. Had it flopped, Walt Disney would likely have gone out of business; instead, it was a huge hit, and, in 1955, he opened Disneyland.
Everyone loves a rags-to-riches tale, and Cinderella is the ultimate makeover movie; Disney didn’t hand his heroine a ball gown so much as magically refashion her onscreen from head to toe. So it’s no surprise that the movie itself is getting a makeover, in the form of a lavish, live-action version opening March 13. But the new film’s happy ending is less of a big reveal than a teachable moment: In a story that’s all about the power of appearances, viewers are asked to believe that appearances don’t really matter at all.
In 1950, Cinderella symbolized not just a cosmetic transformation, but a cultural one. Snow White—Disney’s sole previous animated fairy-tale heroine—had the rosy cheeks and cropped hair of an all-American girl of the 1930s. And she was very much a girl: a flat-chested Kewpie doll who was cute rather than beautiful. While the standard adult body is eight heads high, she was only five heads high—childishly top-heavy even by cartoon standards. Her appearance was inspired by 19th-century storybook illustrations, and she wore the same Renaissance-style gown for most of the film.