Disney’s new live-action “Cinderella,” debuting in theaters this weekend, opens with a scenario that has become vanishingly rare in Hollywood fairy tales and other family entertainment these days: a happy, intact family.
It doesn’t last, of course. Poor Cinderella is bereaved of her mother while still a child, and of her father as a young lady, and goes on to suffer a great deal at the hands of her cruel stepmother and stepsisters.
Still, the fact that the filmmakers bothered to establish a baseline of an idyllic family — a family essentially free of internal conflict, if not tragic external circumstances and unfortunate decisions — along with Prince Charming’s healthy relationship with his own father, makes for a more pro-family picture than the vast majority of recent Hollywood fairy tales and family films.
“Cinderella” comes by its orphaned heroine and cruel stepmother themes honestly, from traditional source material reflecting patterns common in fairy-tale literature. Dark and disturbing elements have always been a part of the European fairy-tale tradition, and, despite the 19th-century tendency toward sanitizing fairy tales for children, generations of children have absorbed from fairy tales a picture of the world that is both tragic and heroic.
On the other hand, the fairy-tale tradition also includes examples of happier parent–child relationships, for example in the tale of Sleeping Beauty as told by Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm and honored in the 1959 animated Disney version, with Aurora’s loving, doting father.
In the current strain of dark, revisionist Hollywood fairy tales, positive parental stereotypes are virtually unheard of. In particular, the father-daughter relationship has been seen solely through a dark lens, while mothers have been almost universally absent, either actually or functionally.
For example, Aurora’s loving father was transformed in last year’s “Maleficent” into a monstrous villain who brutally mutilates innocent Maleficent, hacking off her wings in what amounts to a metaphorical rape.
In the 2011 film “Red Riding Hood,” the heroine’s father is a literal monster, a bloodthirsty werewolf whom the heroine herself must ultimately slay. (“Red Riding Hood” is also notable for its repellent depiction of Catholicism, with its odious monster-hunting cleric and obsequious parish priest.)
The 2012 Snow White movie “Mirror Mirror” offered a more redemptive twist on the same theme: Snow’s father is transformed into a menacing dragon who nearly kills her, but Snow, using her father’s own dagger, cuts a magical chain around its neck, freeing him to love her again.
The corresponding character in that same year’s “Snow White and the Huntsman” isn’t so lucky: He’s stabbed to death before his daughter’s eyes by the evil Queen on their wedding night. The heroine of Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” (2010) likewise loses her sympathetic, playful father in the first act (her mother is less sympathetic). At least these fathers are only dead, not villains or monsters.
The situation is also bleak in the animation world. Almost the only notable example of a major Hollywood animated film in the past decade centrally about a happy, intact family with sympathetic, present parents is the Pixar fairy tale “Brave” (2012).
Just as remarkably, “Brave” focuses on the mother–daughter relationship — and while it’s a conflicted relationship, and the mother is transformed into an increasingly feral bear, it’s ultimately sympathetic to both characters’ points of view. (Not coincidentally, “Brave” was the brainchild of a female filmmaker, Brenda Chapman.)
Both of the last two Disney fairy tales, “Tangled” (2010) and “Frozen” (2012), depict heroines whose parents vanish from their lives in the first act. Rapunzel in “Tangled” never knows her parents, having been kidnapped as a baby. That’s true to the fairy tale, and at least the parents, though they never speak and remain blank archetypes even after being reunited with their daughter at the climax, are sympathetic figures.
“Frozen,” on the other hand, offers a more mixed picture. Elsa and Anna’s parents, who die while the girls are young, are loving and well-meaning, but their misguided parenting strategy regarding Elsa’s powers ruins both daughters’ lives. Misunderstanding the guidance of a magical advisor, they teach Elsa to fear and suppress who she is — “conceal, don’t feel” — effectively closeting her differentness from a world of fear and hate.
The burden of unreasonable parental expectations on misunderstood offspring is a far more notable theme in other cartoons, such as DreamWorks’ popular “How to Train Your Dragon” (2010). Hiccup’s father, Stoick the Vast, embodies one of the most familiar negative paternal archetypes: the overbearing, authoritarian father who unfairly expects his offspring to conform to arbitrary or misguided norms, though by the end he has been humbled and repents of his oppressive attitude.
This is a familiar stereotype going back to Ariel’s father King Triton in “The Little Mermaid” (1989) and Mr. Darling in “Peter Pan” (1953). On the other hand, in the past such negative paternal types were offset by positive examples, such as heroic Pongo in “101 Dalmatians” (1961) and Aurora’s father in “Sleeping Beauty.” Positive father figures in recent animated films have become vanishingly rare.
Another paternal stereotype common in animated films is the ridiculous father who is pathetic, bumbling and unable to care for his offspring, if not needing to be cared for himself. Older examples include the fathers of Belle in “Beauty and the Beast” (1991), Jasmine in “Aladdin” (1992) and Jane in “Tarzan” (1999).
Recent examples include the buffoonish father voiced by Nicolas Cage in DreamWorks’ “The Croods” (2013) and the truly odious, cretinous father of Winnie in Laika’s “The Boxtrolls” (2014) — one of the very few animated fathers who isn’t offered even a fig leaf of redemption in the last act. “The Boxtrolls” also includes two more sympathetic father figures: one insane and tragic, the other caring but timid and weak.
As bad as most of these family-film fathers are, in a sense the mothers fare worse. Whether the fathers are good, bad, indifferent or absent, they matter as characters far more than the mothers, who are overwhelmingly absent, either actually or functionally. In the world of contemporary Hollywood family films, Father knows worst, yet it’s still largely a man’s world.
Winnie in “The Boxtrolls” has a mother who’s just as useless as her father, but the mother’s uselessness is dramatically and emotionally irrelevant. There’s a lot of hand-wringing about “what a father is supposed to be,” but none about what a mother is supposed to be.
Literally or functionally absent mothers are also found in “Maleficent,” “How to Train Your Dragon,” “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” (2009), “Kung Fu Panda” (2008) and many others. (Hiccup’s mother returns in last year’s “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” but her reasons for missing the first two decades of her son’s life are not exactly a tribute to maternal love.)
Individually, none of these portraits of parental failure is particularly troubling. Cumulatively, in the absence of compelling positive parental figures, they add up to a disturbing composite picture.
There are good reasons for introducing parent-child conflict, depriving child protagonists of a parental safety net, depicting single-parent households, etc. There’s no good reason why positive depictions of healthy, intact families should be an endangered species in family films.