Storyboard:The classic Disney version of the Cinderella story gets deconstructed in this second belated sequel that has a surprisingly unique twist of its own and dares to ask the question of what would happen if Cinders didn’t get her “happily ever after” and had to fight for her Prince Charming the hard way. When the Wicked Stepmother Lady Tremaine grabs the magic wand and undoes all of its magic, can true love prove to be the strongest power of all and the good of heart prevail over the sinister forces of evil? This twist in time will tell…
The Sweatbox Review:Straight off I’m going to urge you to read right to the end of this review rather than take my initial comments at face value…you may be surprised! It’s a shame Disney continues to number their follow ups and spin offs to their classic library, as simply labeling this one “Cinderella: A Twist In Time” would have allowed for those who ultimately pick this up to safely skip the abomination that was Cinderella II: Dreams Come True without feeling they have a “missing number” in their collections. As such, I had massive preconceptions going in to this-third-time-around-the-block effort from Cinders and co, though its clever attempt to shake things up via pulling the original film apart did at least urge me to raise my hand when the review copies were being handed out. Unfortunately, any bias I already had was amplified when I saw the online preview for Cinders III and it seemingly proved to be everything I was expecting (or should that be dreading?) – formulaic ballads of the kind that give musicals a bad name among non-fans, so-so animation, and those garish direct-to-DVD colors that firmly place these knock offs in younger audiences’ camps. And then it turned out that the concept of Cinderella’s happily ever after being undone by the Wicked Stepmother wasn’t such an original idea at all, having been played out under a different setting and production as an entertainment piece exclusively performed on the Disney Cruise ships. Nevertheless, I was still intrigued enough to sit down to watch Cinderella III: A Twist In Time with an open mind, such was the draw of that central idea. The film opens with a first for a DTV movie I think, the new Disney Pictures logo, which looks every bit as flat and bland on DVD as it did when I saw it in a movie theater last summer. Ho hum. Moving into the film, it was cheese from the off, typified by Cinderella’s turn and, no joke, smile to camera as if she was waiting for the main title to identify her; and wait…there it is! Uh-oh…
The story quickly gets underway, and there’s certainly too much packed into these first few minutes, which attempts to play clever and get the plot moving in an opening song, but one that proves all too frantic for so early in proceedings. This has the effect of the villains – Lady Tremaine and the stepsisters Drisella and Anastasia – getting what they want before even five minutes have passed and severely handicaps any attempt at a suspenseful build up to plot motivation, which should have been a 15/20 minute second act change. Also, and this is a nitpick here, shouldn’t the Fairy Godmother remain a fantasy of Cinderella’s psyche, much like the succubus Peter Pan, and unable to be seen by others? Here she’s out and about, walking around as if the sudden appearance of a family relative – and an outwardly magical one at that – wouldn’t spark some shocked discussion between the evil faction? Sure, she seems to have relaxed her rules of appearance as of the second film, but we’re not counting that here, it seems, since Cinderella III apparently takes place before II if one goes on what happened in that collection of stories. Also frustrating is the animation, which is by turns perfectly fluid and often very stiff. Best to come out of it is Lady Tremaine, though things aren’t so spot on with the voices, even if Susanne Blakeslee has a decent stab at replicating Eleanor Audley’s icy tones from the 1950 original. The majority of the cast are reprising their roles from the earlier sequel, among them Christopher Barnes, who seemed very familiar to me until I realised he was basically playing the same role as he did in 1989’s The Little Mermaid, when the Prince that time around was named Eric. Of the other voices, Jennifer Hale does a good enough copycat of Ilene Woods’ original Cinderella, even if the heart isn’t really there (she especially grates with her 21st Century valley girl act: “so then, I’ll just go get those mice”), though the other vocals are that mixture of near misses in terms of matching the originals. The Stepsisters were rubbery cartoon caricatures in the 1950 film and therefore should have been the easiest to transfer here, and they are, though quite how Anastasia has developed a nice little singing voice when she was tone deaf in the first film is a little bit of a stretch!
The recreations of several scenes, or at least shots, from the original are glimpsed at and without direct comparison, one would assume were faithful if but for some color changes which otherwise go unexplained. Likewise, the direction here could have been more imaginative: one of the best things about Back To The Future Part II is how we see scenes we know from the first film from altered perspectives, and it would be neat to play the same trick here rather than just recreate what we’ve already seen. In these instances, the modern way of drawing and compositing the images as opposed to the old cel method is all too transparent too, with the drawings coming off as more clinical than containing the warmth of the 1950 film. The backgrounds, in the scenes we are familiar with from the first film, are as faithful as they can be to Mary Blair’s designs, though when we venture into new locations, the layout crew seem to rely more on generic vistas rather than bring anything new to the ball, which again only shows up the more simplistic nature of this effort. The costumes, especially, are boring, and well in the league of the DTVs where costs are kept low by reusing the characters’ wardrobe from earlier outings. When Fairy Godmother turns up and changes Cinderella and the Prince into their ballroom outfits, the effect is cheapening rather than having the desired effect. Cinderella is drawn faithfully to the original design, as are most of the characters, though she displays the same look of consternation throughout the whole thing as if this is a substitute for real acting or supposed to provide some dramatic gravitas to her role. There are also odd character choices; when faced with the fact that the Stepmother seems to have won, and Cinders is at her lowest ebb, she bursts into a happy song of the kind that epitomizes these kind of productions, with sappy, all too formulaic music and workaday lyrics, which does little to give any depth to what is basically a lightweight endeavor.
For all its twists and turns, the story all falls down once again to replaying the original’s mice-and-key action as Cinderella’s pals Jaq and Gus race to recover the key to the lock that holds the wand secure. And, apart from “borrowing” just from its inspiration, the film is also happy to play off other similar outings and evoke previous Disney Princess memories: Cinders has her Belle moment atop a hill, and the transformation of the Prince’s eyes as he falls under a spell are pure Little Mermaid, but without any of the intelligence that powered those films. Worse still is around the half way mark, when Jaq and Gus, having already explained the Wicked Stepmother’s plan to Cinderella, go through the motions again to fill in the Prince, essentially resorting to repeating a fair chunk of plot exposition. This is just plain bad storytelling, especially ill advised as a mis-guided song sequence that gets its own, self-congratulatory reprise.
And then, just past this scene, when I checked the clock to see how much more of this I had to sit through, something really magical happened. Cinderella III finally became its own movie. The second half (almost) makes up for the first, and once the story breaks free of having to remain somewhat tied to what we know, director Frank Nissen seems to really throw off the reigns and have fun. There’s a really neat twist – for real – that I admit I didn’t see coming, and a truly thrilling action chase climax that could be the best such sequence yet seen in a direct-to-DVD title, even if Cinders herself does become more of a no-nonsense Buffy than true to her roots.
Helping this all along, and indeed the backbone of even the earlier less successful scenes, is long-serving composer Joel McNeely, a guy who certainly doesn’t get the big budget gigs he should do and seems stuck in this DTV rut. He once again brings an enormous sound to the film, with an exceedingly rich score that builds on the established themes of the 1950 original and introduces some lovely flourishes of its own. McNeely’s work has impressed me for a long time, and he was very much responsible, perhaps solely, for preserving the feel of earlier sequel efforts such as Return To Never-Land and Jungle Book 2. He does it again here, bringing to mind The Adventures Of Robin Hood in the Prince’s daring horseback rescue scene, and some delicious orchestrations that do nothing short of elevating an otherwise so-so crack at a sequel to something much more enjoyable.
Stick around during the credits, too, for a sprinkling of extra fun, and for a note to the animators of DisneyToon Studios Australia, thanking them for their years of hard work “creating beautiful hand drawn animation”. Nice, but how about thanking them instead by keeping their division open and putting them to work on a new feature, and something original at that? These guys and gals have certainly shown they have the chops for it, given half the chance. When it works, as in most of the second half, Cinderella III can be immensely entertaining, and I will admit to going back and viewing these final sequences for a second time right away. As with most of these follow ups, it’s a title that no-one was particularly requesting, nor certainly one that was needed, but the fact is that these things generate cash for the company and that the artists involved do the very best they can to be as faithful as possible given their budget and directive restrictions. What they’ve fashioned here, in the first half at least, is a typical classical wannabe feature, trying its best to validate itself while almost digging a deeper hole. But when it introduces its own little twist, and breaks free of the comparisons, Cinders III transforms and becomes something entirely different. There’s no real tonal change, and those easy to please won’t be in the slightest aware of a lot of what I’ve mentioned above, but a slight shift there is to a much better film – if only the whole thing could have had this feel.
Is This Thing Loaded?
As a DTV title, Cinderella III stood the chance of receiving an adequate package or a lean selection of features, and unhappily ever after here we get the slim bunch of pickings here. Bypassing the FastPlay babysitter option, the main menu presents the usual choice of Sneak Peeks, so let’s get those over with. Among the line up are forthcoming titles The Little Mermaid III (which shows nothing new), Mickey’s Great Clubhouse Hunt, Peter Pan Platinum Edition, the Tinker Bell preview from before the film was pulled for reworking, the teaser for Pixar’s Ratatouille, the generic Disney Blu-Ray promo, and a spot for the Princess’ Enchanted Tales which proves that, while the look may be emulated, Sleeping Beauty’s animation is untouchable. Moving into the Bonus Features proper, and the I Still Believe music video is up first. Performed by Hayden Panettiere, another of the Mouse House’s seemingly inexhaustible supply of teenage songstresses, this 3:30 minute version of the movie’s end credit song, a pretty decent pop anthem, is your standard promo clip, with a dash of Pleasantville about it as Hayden spreads color throughout the land as she sings. Presented in 4x3 and cut in with scenes from Cinders III this is as well produced and catchy as it needs to be.
The Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Choose game, again in 4x3, is in comparison a pretty painful affair. Searching the palace for a secret room that will reveal Cinderella’s “heart’s desire” takes about as long as it might in real life. Don’t worry if you can’t make it through without tearing your hair out, since Cinders’ heart’s desire isn’t such a big secret for anyone familiar with the story! While these games are routinely well designed, they take an age to play and don’t hold much interest for us older folk. In this case, I would extend that to the target audience too, and I really can’t imagine anyone getting excited about this long, long trek. It’s especially agonizing, without much movement or anything to engage, and having to make multiple selections no less than three times on each page before being allowed to progress drags things out interminably. And just when you think you’ve reached the end, we’re presented with a final trivia round in order to enter the “secret room”. Honestly I only kept going to see what the “heart’s desire” could be (it couldn’t be that obvious, right?) and nearly threw the remote at my screen when the terrifyingly bland truth was finally revealed! The game makes mention of the Cinderella’s Ballroom DVD-ROM option, which presents the Ballroom Scene Designer, your typical throwback to a better-than-usual CD-ROM styled activity that reminded me of the similar feature on the recent Anastasia SE. With this one, the “player” is invited to set up their own ballroom scene (imagine that!) with various props and characters, which is printable (and color intensive!) later. There’s more in the Printable Party area, where invites, tiaras and recipes can be printed, but be warned: there’s no “home” button for easy escape and I had to re-launch the InterActual player to get back to the main menu. No luck finding the Princess Jukebox listed on the back cover though. Rounding things out, Backstage Disney is – almost – nothing of the sort. There’s nothing on Cinders III itself and the section here is really just an opportunity to promote other brand extensions. The Enchanted Tales: A Kingdom Of Kindness Preview shows off a couple of minutes of its Sleeping Beauty episode, as well as unfortunately more of the stiff and decidedly off-model, television level, character animation that confirms that getting the right look means nothing if the acting isn’t there. Here it’s clear that is missing in spades, accompanied by yet another joyful but soullessly empty song that really emphasizes how these second-tier soundtracks truly do blend into one another after a while and are ultimately redundantly interchangeable.
The Making Of Twice Charmed brings us back to Cinderella land, and an alternate take on the Twist In Time concept. Created for, and only experienced on, the Disney Cruise line, Twice Charmed is a stage show production that shows what happened after the original film ended. Though apparently totally unconnected to the direct-to-DVD sequels, the show does have several thematic plot points in common and both Twice Charmed and A Twist In Time share the song composing team of Michael Weiner and Alan Zachary. The five-minute piece – half promo, half behind-the-scenes – offers a brief look at a show that looks like a pretty fun spin on an old story and could do for Cinderella what Broadway’s Wicked did for The Wizard Of Oz.
It also brings up the questions of why the filmmakers didn’t make a more straight forward screen translation of this version of the story – and why it doesn’t transfer to Broadway, where it would be sure to have that Wicked effect. There is some tenuous linking between Twice Charmed and A Twist In Time, but despite the hyperbole it’s a decent enough peek at a Beauty And The Beast-styled show, and we hear from a ton of execs who are obviously happy to be associated with it. Best name, however, goes to “Disney Creative Entertainment” VP Anne Hamburger. No kidding.
Case Study:As is tradition with the direct-to-DVD releases, Cinders III is graced with an embossed slipcover that replicates the sleeve art underneath. It’s been a while since Disney used a white keepcase, but that’s what we get here, adding a little “magic” to the package. Inside we get a chapter index card (with a listing of the bonus features on the back) that includes an image of the upcoming Tinker Bell movie and stated as “coming soon”, though not that soon if the word that new Disney animation chief John Lasseter has put the brakes on the project is anything to go by. There’s also a standard Disney Movie Club invitation, and a promo booklet that offers only one deal but much pushing of other “must have” merchandise in the Cinderella and Princess lines including a hideous looking manga-styled comic about “an ordinary girl who loves all the Disney Princesses” and an image of a bizarre “baby Cinderella” version of the character. Most promising is the announcement of a new 2-disc edition for The AristoCats, perhaps my most favorite of the “middle period” features between Walt’s passing and the arrival of Eisner and co in the 1980s. Quite what could fill a 2-disc is open to debate, though I bet the option of widescreen verses pan-and-scan crops up!
Ink And Paint:As expected, Cinderella III looks perfectly ordinary. They really push the colors on these DTVs, and its to their detriment – some better grading work would really help the animation shine. It looks spotless, of course, though as usual I muted the colors a little and upped the contrast on my display in order to get more of a deeper film look.
The clinical transfer looked better blown up to projection size too, where the image takes on a non-interlaced appearance. No one will complain, but it’s probably too clean, as most of these digital transfers usually are.
Scratch Tracks:Joel McNeely’s great score pounds out of all speakers in the big moments, and it’s really his contribution that keeps even the weaker scenes just this side of magical. The Dolby 5.1 track is good enough, and does the job admirably for a film that doesn’t have too many showy sound effects moments and prefers to rest on its score. But the DTS is much more enveloping for a change, rather than just amping up what was good about the Dolby. Here the effects and music really get to work, while keeping dialogue focused center stage. Very nice, with French and Spanish dubs thrown in, and English subtitles for the hard of hearing.
Final Cut:Though not designated as part of the brand, Cinderella III: A Twist In Time is ultimately little more than an extension of the Disney Princess line, and its probably to younger girls that this will charm the most (all those heart-shaped designs can get a little heavy). A rental is recommended for those curious enough, and I would definitely urge a look-see at some point if only for the exciting climax, during which Lucifer gets a particularly sinister transformation that plays well. It’s an interesting question, asking if fate and destiny is pre-programmed and whatever disruptions may try and break the flow of things, love will conquer all, and by its end, Cinderella III just about gets away with answering it.
While The Lion King ½ was intent on screwing around with the linear narrative of the original, it’s to this film’s credit that director Nissen is actually for the serious deconstruction and examining of the classic fairytale, keeping true to the tone, if a little too closely. I’m not sure I agree with the “alternate wedding” scenario presented at the film’s closing (what is it with some of these films that they seem intent on erasing the originals’ intent?), and the film is being marketed as “what would happen if the slipper didn’t fit” when it’s really about what happens when Lady Tremaine wields the power of the wand instead of the Fairy Godmother. Missing characters (Jaq and Gus are the only represented mice) and slightly off voices aside, Cinderella III is the kind of DTV that proves that, if they have to be made at all, they don’t all have to be disasters. With better than average, though still direct-to-DVD level, animation and a second half that truly rescues this from the dumping pile, you may find that the title becomes a purchase after an initial viewing, and dusts the catastrophe that was Dreams Come True under the rug. Though often generic, and made for modern eyes (the wand’s fairy dust is more pure 1980s video effect than truly magical), Cinderella III: A Twist In Time offers up a neat little twist of its own.
Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?