There are enough Cinderella movies out there to choke a mouse-turned-horse. Not all of them are good. Some of them are kind of bad. Some of them kind of rock. Some of them have Selena Gomez in them. But none of them compare to Disney’s made-for-TV movie Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella (1997). Now let me tell you why.
First and foremost, I am probably a little bit partial to this version of Cinderella because it came out when I was a kid. But aside from that, this is still the most fantabulastic of all Cinderella movies ever.
Brandy’s stepmother is Bernadette Peters, who has two daughters of different ethnicities, and all are trying to win Paulo Montalban, who is just too attractive to even fairly exist in real life (and that makes sense because his parents are Whoopie Goldberg and Victor Garber). And Whitney Houston is a 600-year-old fairy. What the casting directors did here is brilliant; they purposefully chose to cast actors who could not possibly be related and have them play family. Which, of course, provides for a colorful and diverse cast. When I was a kid, I loved seeing all of the different types of faces. Even though, as a six-year-old, I think I realized that they couldn’t really be related, the actors pull it off so well. For example — just watch “Stepsisters’ Lament.”
If you didn’t just completely smile watching that, then you need to loosen up. Because not only do the actors pull off their racially impossible relationships, they are also just plain funny. The classic, animated Cinderella takes itself so seriously. I mean, it is so serious. And that cat? I shudder to think what that cat would do if it could get its little two-dimensional claws into one of Brandy’s braids. It would tear the entertainment value straight out of her head.
Brandy. Yes, I even prefer Brandy as Cinderella to Julie Andrews as Cinderella with the same score. I love you, Julie Andrews, but you don’t sound like a servant when you sing. If you take a listen to the original Broadway cast (which you can do on Spotify!), then you will hear a young Julie warbling away about being a slave in Calcutta (whatwhatwhat? Not a thief?? I can see why they changed that line), but she just doesn’t sound convincing. Don’t ask me why; maybe it’s because a good third of the time I hear Julie Andrews singing, I’m busy picturing her in Victor Victoria. I can’t suspend my disbelief to make Julie Andrews a viable Cinderella. Brandy, however — she’s got this.
It’s not even that Brandy’s a spectacular actress; she’s probably middling at best. But there is something effervescent about her in this movie, something that grabs you into her. Maybe it’s her thin eyebrows. I don’t know. But I can believe Brandy as Cinderella.
Now, there’s a lot more to why this particular Cinderella movie is the best (and I’m talking pure Cinderella movie, here. Basic fairytale. No serious extrapolations). Let’s talk about visuals. Apart from the already discussed awesomeness of the casting choices (and can I please find a guy who looks like Paulo Montalban??), the costuming and set design is just a riot. Bright colors explode everywhere, and particularly assaulting colors always bedeck Minerva and Calliope. The ballroom scene is swathed in violets, indigos and lavenders, enhancing the sense of twilight and magic. Even the set pieces are exuberantly colorful; Cinderella’s house has peacocks on it above the doors!
And the cast. First, there’s a reason why Brandy was such a big up-and-coming vocal talent in the late 1990s. She had talent. And putting that young talent on screen with Whitney Houston, Bernadette Peters and Victor Garber creates a powerful ensemble of vocal talent. Add to the mix the comedic prowess of Whoopie Goldberg and Jason Alexander, and you’re prepared for an entertaining and hilarious movie. But don’t forget Paulo Montalban. So good-looking, so good-sounding, so good. What an introduction for him to be on screen with such powerful stars.
And the music. The songs in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella are fun and upbeat, and full of lyrics that proceed trippingly on the tongue. “Stepsisters’ Lament,” which is above, has some real sharp moments. “In My Own Little Corner” is poignant and hilarious at the same time (“I’m a huntress on an African safari/It’s a dangerous kind of sport, and yet it’s fun./In the night I sally forth to seek my quarry/And I find I forgot to bring my gun”). And “A Lovely Night” gets particularly entertaining when the stepfamily joins in. But I have to admit, my favorite song from Cinderella isn’t actually from Cinderella.
First of all, Bernadette Peters. Second, this song is so legit and so sad. I love that the 1997 version adds this Richard Rodgers song in; it totally fits and it’s my favorite scene in the movie. The song originally comes from the show The Boys from Syracuse and has been performed by Frank Sinatra. This isn’t the only song to be added into the show for this movie; “The Sweetest Sounds” comes from No Strings. And I’m glad that these songs found their way into Cinderella. They enhance the show so much. Especially “Falling in Love with Love” — I’ve always loved the way that it gives dimension to the Stepmother (did love fall out with her when Cinderella’s father died? Or was it before?)
Also, did you know that of the three different made-for-TV movie versions of the musical, this is the only one that was shot on film? Kinda funny.
Basically, though, Cinderella (1997) is the most uproarious good time you can possibly have with a Cinderella movie. (Also, Paulo Montalban is really good-looking)