Myths and fairy tales have always constituted something of a magic fishpond for artists, writers and, of course, filmmakers. With the tale of Cinderella, in particular, Hollywood keeps dipping its golden fishhook into the waters: Now and then it comes up with a glittery, golden version of the same story we've heard a hundred times before; other times, it barely succeeds in tarting up the same bewhiskered, ancient carp.
The past few months alone have given us three movies riffing on the Cinderella theme, stories about girls striving to channel their inner princess: Martha Coolidge's "The Prince and Me," starring Julia Stiles as a no-nonsense American college student who falls for the European prince who's attending her school incognito; Mark Rosman's "A Cinderella Story," in which Hilary Duff plays a modern-day San Fernando cinder girl who hopes to go to college but who may be sentenced to working full time in her stepmother's diner; and Garry Marshall's "The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement," in which Anne Hathaway, guided by her queenly granny (Julie Andrews), needs to find a royal mate in order to ascend the throne of the country she was born to rule.
The problem with these movies isn't the recycled theme itself: The story of Cinderella is one with sturdy corset bones, and as plenty of cultural critics and mythology scholars have noted, it embraces a range of human hopes, desires and fears that go beyond romantic notions of finding a nice boy to settle down with. Stripped to its barest framework, the Cinderella template speaks to our basic urge to survive and to our desire for security: One of the story's earliest versions comes from China and involves a mistreated orphan whose only friend is a magic fish that helps her obtain essentials like food and clothing.
Obviously, the princess fantasy as Hollywood has recently packaged it is largely designed to appeal to young girls -- not in itself a bad thing. What girl of any age doesn't occasionally like to fantasize about being put on a pedestal -- or, at the very least, to be appreciated for whatever virtues (beauty, kindness, intelligence) she might possess? The big problem with the current spate of Cinderella movies -- particularly "A Cinderella Story" and "The Princess Diaries 2" -- is not that they encourage unrealistically high romantic expectations in girls, but that they're barely romantic at all. Instead, even beneath their frothy, seemingly fun surfaces, there's something numbingly instructive about them.
It's easy to see where the impulse toward this kind of mainstream instructional entertainment comes from: We want our daughters, the girls and young women of today, to know that they can do anything they want in life and that they don't need a man to take care of them. How could we not want economic autonomy and emotional security for them, particularly in a world where women still earn less than men do for comparable work? In short, we only want the best for our girls and young women -- so why not give them entertainment that also builds that essential and universally unassailable commodity known as self-esteem?
The problem with these new movies is that they seem to exist only to sell a line of goods -- good-for-you goods, maybe, but goods nonetheless. And in some cases, even in the midst of asserting that a young woman can do whatever she wants, they still buy into the notion that a real lady (as opposed to, say, your garden-variety woman) should look and act a certain way. In "The Princess Diaries 2" (the sequel to the hugely successful "Princess Diaries," in which an awkward California teenager learns that she's next in line to rule a small, fictional European country named Genovia), Hathaway's character has graduated from college and is now ready to return to the homeland from which her bloodline stems. The bigwigs in Genovia's parliament (and they do wear those ridiculous curly wigs) have told her that she's not allowed to rule the country unless she has a husband. Andrews, as the long-widowed current queen, argues against this old-fangled law, but there's no budging the bigwigs. And so, dutiful to her country above all else, Hathaway agrees to an arranged marriage.
Naturally, there's another guy Hathaway likes better, although she doesn't know it yet. And anyway, the point of the movie is to show that a woman can do very well without a husband, thank you very much, and the plot rattles along toward that conclusion with an efficient clickety-clack. But along the way "The Princess Diaries 2" (which is rated G and seems targeted toward very young girls rather than teenagers or preteens) reinforces some strangely retrograde values. For one thing, Hathaway's character (who, with her creamy glow, looks as if she's stepped out of a Romney painting, although she's curiously lacking in that typically Romneyan mischievous spirit) wears an array of tasteful tweeds and sling-back pumps. In other words, her new royal wardrobe is all granny clothes (and not the hip kind). When Andrews shows Hathaway the apartment-size walk-in closet she's built and stocked for her, the array of dumb pastel bouclé suits and beige heels hits like a fashion H-bomb. All that closet space for a nice-looking 21-year-old with a great figure, and not a wisp of Dolce & Gabbana, or even Missoni, in sight? If not even a princess can have the spring 2004 Louis Vuitton metallic platforms, then what hope is there for the rest of us schmoes?
But one of the beaconlike lessons emanating from "The Princess Diaries 2," as Julie Andrews reminds us in a song (accompanied by a scampering lot of 12-year-old mini-princesses), is that it's what's in your heart that really counts. Thus it follows that clothes and jewels and nice things don't really matter as much as what's inside.
That leaves all us old-school hardcore Cinderella purists stomping our little glass-slippered feet in protest: Half the fun of the Cinderella template is the extravagant loot -- the fabulous gown, the coach made out of a pumpkin, the mice who turn into footmen to cater to our every whim, and so forth. Obviously, if "The Princess Diaries 2" fixated on such shallow concerns, it would be reinforcing materialistic values, which would be a no-no, particularly for the as-yet-uncorrupted tots at which this trifle is aimed. But that just leaves you to wonder: Hathaway's character has, smartly, studied diplomacy and political science in college. But the subtext is that if she wants to succeed in her job, she must never wear anything but dull, unobtrusive, fit-in-at-any-cost clothes. She doesn't dare to ever look or act sexy. (In one scene, she even wears a decidedly un-erotic floppy sunhat that looks like a reject from the original "Stepford Wives.") Her grandmother schools her in the proper way to flutter a fan -- a necessity, I suppose, for any proper princess. And that she should keep her legs together at all times is a directive that needn't even be uttered.
"The Princess Diaries 2" is light and essentially harmless -- I don't really think that bringing your child to it will turn her into a robot matron of tomorrow. Even so, you can't watch the picture and not be at least vaguely aware of the unpleasant grinding sound it makes as it doles out its important lessons about values.
Cheerfully dreary as "The Princess Diaries 2" is, "A Cinderella Story" may be even worse: The chipmunky Hilary Duff plays a smart cookie who desperately wants to go to college, thwarted at every turn by her jealous, Botox-numbed airhead of a stepmother (played by Jennifer Coolidge in a badly written role that abuses her formidable comic gifts).
You can't turn a plot corner in "A Cinderella Story" without hitting a predigested self-affirmation along the lines of "You're special!" or "Go for it!" At one point, a character even says, "Fairy tales aren't just about finding handsome princes; they're about fulfilling your dreams."
There's that important new tune being thrummed again: You don't need a man to be happy. Yet "A Cinderella Story" wants to have it both ways. Duff's father, before he goes off to that great, Cinderella-dad beyond, tells his young daughter that to meet her handsome prince she should go to a place where handsome princes are likely to hang out.
The answer? "Princeton!"
On the one hand, it's an admirable notion: Go to school, get an education, be open to love as you find it. On the other hand, in the '50s, many women were encouraged to go to college not chiefly to educate themselves, but to find a husband. In some ways, isn't this dad saying essentially the same thing? Worse yet, Duff shows up at the ball (a school dance) in a speechlessly bad strapless white dress, her blond hair pinned up in a tousle of stiff curls, her lips slicked with bubble-gum-pink gloss: She looks like the Jenna Jameson of the Disney Channel. If "A Cinderella Story" is looking to sell a brainier brand of sexiness, couldn't they have come up with a better look for Princess Duff? One that's actually sexy, or at least a little less obvious than this backroom-magazine blend of undefiled youth and come-get-me-big-boy audacity?
One of the problems of modernizing the Cinderella story is that the importance of the prince has to be downplayed. And while even without a prince the Cinderella myth would still be steeped in issues of class and self-actualization, the presence of a prince is essential to the story. Face it: He represents the promise of sex. Coolidge's "The Prince and Me" -- the most entertaining and most thoughtful of the recent "Princess" movies -- at least has the candor and smarts not to lose sight of that. The movie works largely because of its star. Stiles is one of the most redoubtable actresses working today, of any age: No prince, no matter how powerful or seductive, is going to slow her down.
So in "The Prince and Me," Stiles, instead of yearning to find the perfect man, has to be wooed by him. And in an unusual twist, he waits for her: He'd like her to be his queen someday, but he recognizes that going to, and finishing, medical school is her first priority. "The Prince and Me" allows its viewers the pleasure of seeing romantic dreams fulfilled without compromising more practical ones.
What's frustrating about the other recent princess pictures is that they operate on the assumption that girls are insecure to begin with. Naturally, everyone is insecure, and men and women have different insecurities as well as many shared ones. But these princess movies have an anxious, helpy-helperton quality that's off-putting: They're busy alerting us that there's something within us that needs to be "fixed" even, possibly, before anything has gone wrong.
And although they desperately strive to be modern, these new Cinderella stories do so little to improve on the old ones: Many people now in their 30s and 40s grew up watching Charles S. Dubin's "Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella," starring the quiveringly fragile Lesley Ann Warren, on television -- its yearly broadcast was, at one time, something of a special event. Somehow I doubt that that 1965 "Cinderella," retrograde and old-fashioned as it seems now, fostered damagingly unrealistic dreams in young children. And the charming, smartly cast 1997 made-for-TV version of the same material, with the serene and appealing Brandy in the title role, suggested that you don't have to stretch the Cinderella myth too far to turn it into a story about empowerment. This "Cinderella" features the horrific Whitney Houston in the role of Fairy Godmother (her abuse of melisma is a disease for which their seems to be no cure), but she does give the cinder girl one solid bit of advice: When Cinderella tells her that she's been waiting for someone to rescue her from her dismal life, Fairy Godmother tells her sternly that she must save herself. Admittedly, FG does provide the carriage, the slippers and dress. But it's Cinderella's innate kindness, intelligence and strength of character that ultimately get her out of her cinder ghetto.
The best and most subversively progressive recent retelling of "Cinderella" is Andy Tennant's 1998 "Ever After," starring Drew Barrymore and Dougray Scott. Barrymore's character is an autodidact: Her father's last gift to her before he died was a copy of Thomas More's "Utopia," which she cherishes. At one point, her nasty stepmother (played with near-glacial coolness by Anjelica Huston) snaps at her, "Reading is for people who can't think for themselves" -- a put-down that's effective because in some ways, it flirts dangerously with being true.
But it's not true for Barrymore's character, nor for her prince, played by Scott: They meet by chance -- he assumes she's of noble birth -- and commence to have lively conversations about things they've read, about ideas they've thought long and hard about. This "Cinderella" (her name is actually Danielle) is, as the prince discovers, "his match in every way," which suggests not so much that he fits her notion of a dream man, as that they suit each other in a way that defines the ultimate in spiritual and intellectual companionship.
In that respect, "Ever After" is possibly the most romantic retelling of the Cinderella myth ever, because the specific kind of happiness it speaks of is so hard to find in real life. There's love at first sight in "Ever After," but it's the prickly kind that you find in romantic comedies, as opposed to the dreamy sort so prevalent in fairy tales. "Ever After" is a story about feminine strength as it's found in women and men. And it preserves what's fun and elementally thrilling -- not to mention powerful -- about fairy tales, instead of flattening them into leaden, virtuous crepes. The new breed of princess movies may pretend to be enlightening, but they're filled with empty entertainment calories: The assumption behind them is that a spoonful of medicine will help the sugar go down. But "Ever After," like the most meaningful myths, speaks in gestures, not slogans. It's the kind of movie that builds character when we're not looking -- which is perhaps the only way.