Everyone remembers Disney’s 1950 animated Cinderella as a movie about a woman rising above her unfortunate circumstances, eventually living happily ever after with the prince of her dreams. Even promos for the studio’s upcoming live-action Cinderella remake spotlight the title character’s lopsided relationship with her wicked stepmother and her budding one with the handsome prince. Take a look beyond the original film’s reputation to the movie itself, though, and you’ll see this story really isn’t about romance: It’s about friendship. Specifically, mouse/human friendship.
This tends to go unacknowledged when we remember the 1950 Cinderella. That’s strange, given how much screen time Cinderella’s rodent pals get—especially compared to the film’s near-mute prince. The mice are empathetic; they understand Cinderella’s struggles, and want to help her. Their fondness for her is mirrored by Cinderella’s own kindness toward them: The future princess gives the mice food, love, and most importantly, cute little outfits. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship—something that can’t be said for any of the others portrayed in the film.
Cinderella’s relationship with Prince Charming is especially underdeveloped in the original movie: He’s drawn to her, they dance, and that’s about it. Sure, this kind of rapid-fire attraction isn’t anything new in older Disney films—but their whirlwind romance is painfully bland, both in and out of its context. Girl meets boy, boy loses girl, boy’s people semi-stalk girl to track her down, girl and boy end up riding off together. The end. There’s no real struggle, no real indication that there’s any actual connection between the two. It just… happens.
Compare that to Cinderella’s relationship with the mice, which is much more fleshed-out. They all live together on a giant estate; they all see sticking together as the best way to get through each day. One of the sweetest scenes in the film comes when the mice gather together to create an outfit for Cinderella—who’s busy cleaning—to wear to the ball. They sew and sing until they have a beautiful baby pink gown for Cinderella, who accepts it graciously. (Her stepsisters later rip it to shreds, but that’s beside the point.) Cinderella cleans the house because she has to; the mice help Cinderella get ready for the ball because they love her.
Even threats of danger don’t stop the little guys from helping out their dear Cinderelly: Later in the film, Gus (or, more accurately, Gus Gus) and Jaq attempt to nab the stepmother’s key to the room in which Cinderella’s been locked. They get squished, pelted with hot tea, and slammed with the heavy key in the process. You don’t see Prince Charming making this much effort to help his supposed true love—you only see him waiting around for someone else to track down his future beau.
When Disney’s Frozen came out in 2013, many celebrated how it overwhelmingly focused on sisterhood rather than the type of heteronormative romance Disney’s known for. It often goes unnoticed, however, that Cinderella did something similar 63 years earlier. Despite its romance-heavy ending and ongoing legacy as a film about true love, it’s really a movie about how friendship can make even the worst of circumstances bearable—a message more significant, and in many ways, more sentimental than any baseless courtship.