Ever After strips back the fantastical features of the classic Cinderella story and presents a version of the fairy tale framed as the truth behind the myth. For February’s romance-themed Third Throwback Thursday review, we’re looking back this 1998 period drama, a modern classic which is, simply put, still quite magical.
I traveled to Florida early this year to act as a bridesmaid in a Disney Fairy Tale Wedding. Mickey and Minnie showed up for the cake cutting, it was everything my friend had always dreamed it would be since childhood, and I’m thrilled she got to have such a special day. I have nothing against Disney — I loved all their movies just as much as any kid and still watch and enjoy them as an adult. So I’m not a killjoy, but the whole magical fairy tale wedding thing just isn’t for me. But in the moments I caught a glimpse of that legendary castle off in the distance, I started thinking about a movie I hadn’t seen in too long: my eternal favorite version of the Cinderella fairy tale, Ever After. And when asked for ideas about a romance to be featured for the Third Thursday Throwback right after Valentines Day, this movie came to mind again as one I really wanted to revisit.
Subjectify Media’s Third Thursday Throwback is a monthly column that gives our writers an opportunity to look back on a property from the past. Third Thursday Throwbacks may include popular older titles or completely obscure properties, and they might be new to us, or a look back at an all time favorite that still holds up. It may be a movie, TV show, book or even an album – but on the third Thursday of each month, you can expect to see an in-depth article here about something that is by no means current, but is still worth talking about.
Starring a young Drew Barrymore in a role by her own admission truly changed the trajectory of her life, Ever After: A Cinderella Story is a variation on the classic folk tale that’s been retold and revisited countless times over hundreds of years about an orphaned, well-born young woman forced into servitude who falls in love with a handsome prince. The version possibly best-known to the world today was published by 1697 by Charles Perrault, but it’s another well-known and rather more gory interpretation of Cinderella that is the subject of Ever After’s opening scenes, when the very fancy Grande Dame (Jeanne Moreau), a French royal descendant of the couple we’re about to watch fall in love, calls the Brothers Grimm to her home so she can calmly and elegantly rake them over the coals for how terribly they bungled the story of her family history in their acclaimed publication. She then proceeds to set the record straight by recounting a tale that is no less magical for its lack of actual magic — at least of the fantasy kind.
What follows is a Cinderella story perfectly in keeping with the Girl Power era of the late 1990s. As an elementary school girl still high on the release of the Spiceworld album, it’s no wonder that Ever After was part of the constant movie rotation in my home. All the women in this movie get their moments to shine. Even the villainous stepmother Baroness Rodmilla de Ghent, the moral flip side of Anjelica Huston’s fierce Morticia Addams, gets some screen time devoted to giving her character more depth than that archetype is usually afforded. Judy Parfitt as Queen Marie has some real zingers, and while Marguerite (Megan Dodds) is the typical wicked stepsister, Melanie Lynskey’s Jacqueline is not. Sure, everyone is losing it over Yellowjackets and The Last of Us now, but have you loved Lynskey since way back when? She stood up to her family, got a love story of her own, and we ate it up. Get in line!
But of course this movie is mostly about our eventual princess, Drew Barrymore’s Danielle De Barbarac. Screenwriter Susannah Grant, who was nominated for an Oscar for her work on Erin Brockovich and who more recently created the Netflix mini-series Unbelievable and the upcoming Apple TV+ original Lessons in Chemistry, put a unique and powerful spin on the fairy tale princess trope in Danielle. She’s kind, but unlike too many other Cinderellas, she fights back against the mistreatment she endures from the Baroness and Marguerite. She throws punches at her stepsister (a great moment) and threatens to stab the sexual predator whom she is sold to as an indentured servant (an even greater moment.) Even her first meeting with Prince Henry (Dougray Scott) comes about when she pelts him in the face with apples and screams at him.
In another change that works beautifully, Danielle is also not completely alone after her father’s death. From her childhood friend Gustave to her father’s household servants Louise and Paulette, Danielle always has people around her who care about her deeply. She doesn’t need a Prince to rescue her from her life in order to be surrounded by love. Ever After doesn’t remove the magic from the Cinderella story, it simply makes the choice to portray magic as that which is found in the ordinary and the everyday.
Even though fairy tales have always held no small share of darkness, folk stories are an enduring part of all cultures in part because humanity has always been helpless to the allure of magic. I don’t know many people who would turn away a sprinkling of pixie dust that could wipe away all their troubles. The specifics of how these stories are told change as society changes, but the attraction to them remains. The enduring appeal of Disney and current pop culture saturation with superhero properties is evidence enough of that.
There are limitations to that kind of storytelling, however. Stories have always acted as a balm, but even as we read and watch the ones like Cinderella, we know the truth. Nobody is coming. No powerful figure is going to swoop in and solve all our problems, because they’re usually the ones causing them. In the real world, our billionaires aren’t Tony Stark or Bruce Wayne, too busy fighting villains to buy Twitter as an ego boost. So there’s a different kind of comfort in a story that celebrates the idea that we don’t need the wave of a wand to get our happy ending; that if we stay true to ourselves and depend on the people we care about and who care about us, that’s all we need in life.
Granted, one of the greatest artists and thinkers in the history of humanity playing an intimate and vital role in your life isn’t much more realistic than a Fairy Godmother. Something that I didn’t fully appreciate as a child is what a wonderfully weird choice it was to have Leonardo Da Vinci (Patrick Godfrey) take on the Fairy Godmother role. It may not be strictly magical, but it’s a delightful stroke of whimsy, and it works particularly well as a metaphor given just how ahead of his time Da Vinci’s conceptual inventing was. Give us more fairy tales that intersect with the lives of famous historical figures. Make a version of Sleeping Beauty with Marie Curie, give Jacques Cousteau a cameo in The Little Mermaid! It doesn’t have to make total sense, it just has to be a neat idea.
But while Da Vinci is a brilliant man, he’s still just a man, one who comes to Danielle’s aid on the night of the ball only because her other friends rally to make it so. Ever After strips away the more fantastical elements of the Cinderella story and, in their absence, inserts a more nuanced kind of enchantment found in friendship, fighting for what’s right, and love. There’s no spell that will protect Danielle from being recognized by her family at the ball, or from the pain that will follow as soon as she is, and although that makes the road to happily ever after a bit more bumpy, everything still works out as it should in the end.
In another stray from the usual fairy tale checklist, true love at first sight is replaced with a relationship that sees Danielle and Henry already completely in love by the night of the ball, and a lot of their time together is spent alone. It’s not a huge amount of time — this is still the 16th century, we can’t be too scandalous — but it’s much more than the single fateful meeting that cements many fairy tale couples as an instant perfect match. They talk together, going back and forth about books, life, their vision for what France can be, and how to help the common people. (Too bad about that eventual Revolution.)
Henry finds Danielle fascinating and sometimes frustrating, and she gives him a hard time right back even as she finds herself quickly won over by him. By the time they’re ready to live happily ever after, they’ve already shared several kisses, Danielle has carried Henry to safety, they’ve fought and made up, and the big romantic climax, complete with the return of the glass slipper, takes place in a drab, dirty field. This is a couple we know is destined for happiness because we’ve watched them come together, not simply because the story tells us so.
And just because there’s no magic doesn’t mean that Ever After skimps on wonder. Henry, with his luxurious hair and swoon-worthy sword fighting skills, is a perfect fantasy prince despite the lack of dragons to slay. And Director Andy Tennant may ground Ever After in the mundane — life as a French country servant is, as it should be, quite dirty — and but he also creates one of modern cinema’s most ethereal moments, when Danielle makes her beautiful entrance at at the ball complete with glass slippers, glitter, and fairy wings.
The movie has its fun with history, mostly with the inclusion of Leonardo Da Vinci — the first heroic act we see from Prince Henry is his rescue of the Mona Lisa from a group of thieves — and the implication that his painting “Head of a Young Woman” was inspired by Danielle. There are also so many genuinely funny moments and jokes that I was able to appreciate for the first time on this rewatch. I’m not one to usually get caught up in nostalgia, but even though I’m now far removed from the nine year old I was when Ever After was released, I was pulled right back in by everything that made me love it as a child at the same time that I was appreciating so many new things about it as an adult. It won’t be another decade before I watch this movie again.
More fairy tales should get the Ever After treatment — a fresh take on a beloved story that strips it down to its most basic elements and shows us a potential “truth” behind the myth. An adaptation that acknowledges the charm of the natural and uses it in place of the supernatural because there’s beauty in that simplicity. As the Grande Dame perfectly sums up that sentiment at the end of the film, “And, while Cinderella and her prince did live happily ever after, the point, gentlemen, is that they lived.”
Ever After is approaching its 25th anniversary later this year. If you, like me, haven’t watched in far too long and need to rectify that, it’s currently streaming on Hulu in the United States and Disney Plus worldwide.
This article was written by Subjectify contributor Jamie Whitebread. Find her on Twitter at @jamiewhitebread.