Sorry, Beauty and the Beast: ABC’s 1997 televised remake of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella is thebest live-action remake of a princess film.
Yeah, I said it.
In the face of the highly anticipated Beauty and the Beast film coming out this weekend this may be a bold statement to make, but the layers within the ’90s TV version (technically based on Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1957 televised musical, not the beloved Disney animated version) make it easy to argue that the Emmy-winning production deserves just as much praise now as it did then.
In a haze of glorious costumes and musical numbers from the industry’s brightest stars lies serious magic within a remarkably diverse casting that no Disney remake since has quite lived up to.
Brandy, fresh off of filming Moesha, was a relatively new face on television despite her popularity as a chart-topping singer. Her portrayal as the doe-eyed Cinderella encompassed every aspect of the classic character and worked effortlessly with Whitney Houston’s flawless fairy godmother. Ella’s evil stepmother, played by Bernadette Peters, oozes with subtle maliciousness that is sharp and fresh and her performance alongside the stepsisters is a mischievous delight to watch even as an adult. The original score even includes a bit of Whoopi Goldberg singing…and who doesn’t need more of that in their life?
All of these elements make watching or re-watching the film incredible, but a deeper look reveals a main reason why it was enchanting to begin with: The whole film is refreshingly diverse.
The two most important female roles are black and that’s remarkable in itself but, even beyond that, despite taking place in the past, there is a black queen and and a white husband ruling a kingdom who happen to have a Filipino son. There is no question or emphasis on the multi-racial families. There’s no subtle pointing out of the interracial relationship between Cinderella and the Prince or her multi-racial step-family. The world created by Rodgers & Hammerstein invites you to accept these as just the way they are for a little over an hour and it’s a beautiful phenomenon that I didn’t appreciate fully until much later.
“This may be a first. It makes perfect sense because of who we are. Before, it was either all-Black or all-White. But, never a normal mix of people. This integrated cast is how the real world is,” Whoopi Goldberg, who plays the Prince’s mother, explained to Jet magazine in 1997. “This is more normal than being part of a cast that doesnt have any color in it. This is perfectly fine. This is how I live.”
Representation of minorities in films is a huge problem. The negative impact on repeatedly seeing characters that look nothing like you as a child takes a certain toll, so to see Whitney, Brandy and Whoopirocking their curls, braids and locsand a whole world within the television that accurately reflected the diversity of communities tuned in felt revolutionary.
As a young girl who consumed your average amount of movies, seeing Brandy as Cinderella on screen was groundbreaking. I had grown up in a time where future Disney characters like Tiana did not exist and the reason why didn’t cross my minduntil this Cinderella. Seeing a princess with box braids like mine and a fairy godmother like Whitney, who could have been my own mother or any one of my aunties, gave me and girls who looked like me a glimpse at an early age of why it is necessary to demand representation of all types of people playing all times of roles in films.
Sure, it may not have had the most outstanding dialogue or special effects but regardless, there were high standards set with Cinderella. With a hefty lineup of live-action remakes coming soon, perhaps it’s wise to pay close attention to the magic that still lingers from this 1997 masterpiece.
Update: An earlier version of this post referred to the 1997 ABC television movie as a Disney production. While Disney owns ABC, technically this piece was based on the 1957 broadcast of Cinderella, not the animated Disney flick.