What is that phrase you use? Oh yes. Once upon a time…
Twenty years ago Tuesday, Drew Barrymore continued her golden reign as Hollywood’s true princess of the ‘90s when Ever After, Andy Tennant’s girl-powered, historicized retelling of Cinderella hit theaters. Barrymore stars as Danielle de Barbarac, the idealistic servant girl who falls in love, loses her shoe, and lives happily ever after.
In honor of the 1998 flick having reached its two-decade anniversary, here is a list enumerating 17 things the film does differently that make Ever After, as far as Cinderella movies go, a true princess among cinder-girls.
1. The framing device
In the early 1800s, a French grande dame — played by none other than Jules et Jim’s Jeanne Moreau — summons Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm to her castle, where she politely informs them that they have utterly botched her family history, thank you very much, and then sets the record straight with the grand romance of her ancestor, Drew Barrymore.
No magic to be found here — except for the real-life magic of Leonardo da Vinci’s genius and true love!!!
3. Leonardo da Vinci
If it kind of bums you out to remove the supernatural element from Cinderella, worry not: Patrick Godfrey’s sprightly da Vinci is full of funny little bits of wisdom and is so forward-thinking compared to the people around him he might as well have magical powers.
4. Those costumes!
Speaking of da Vinci, he makes Danielle wings to wear with her mother’s magnificent dress for the masked ball, and the world stops. (All the other costumes are pretty, too.)
5. “Breathe. Just breathe.”
6. The score
George Fenton’s lovely, sweeping score is so swoonily romantic, it’s enough to make you want to strip to your undergarments and go swimming before a storm.
7. The king and queen
Timothy West and Judy Parfitt have a wonderfully authentic rapport as a (royal) old married couple who have been together — if not happily — for a very long time. Henry’s parents’ marital discord is never explored but frequently referenced, which makes their son’s desire to marry for love that much more significant; it also makes it that much sweeter when they both start laughing together at the King of Spain’s tantrum. Also: “I will simply deny you the crown and live… forever!”
8. A sweet stepsister
Melanie Lynskey’s presence has never once failed to improve a movie, and Ever After is no exception. In making Lynskey’s stepsister character Jacqueline sweet and sympathetic to Danielle but obedient to her mother — until the unforgivable “only going for the food” line — Tennant complicates the entire family dynamic.
9. A beautiful stepsister
Even better than having a nice stepsister, Ever After also makes one of them especially pretty — perhaps even more conventionally beautiful than Cinderella herself. Megan Dodds’ Marguerite is scarier than any ugly stepsisters that came before her, especially as it appears, briefly, that she has a legitimate shot at winning the prince.
10. Utopian philosophy
The reason Danielle is covered in cinders is because she falls asleep next to the fireplace so she can read Thomas More into the wee hours of the morning, and then philosophize about social injustice to anyone who will listen. Because this is an empowering, historically grounded Cinderella movie, in case you weren’t aware.
From the apple-throwing meet-cute to the return of the crucial slipper, Henry and Danielle are a happily-ever-after we can get behind.
12. High stakes
No sooner has Danielle averted disaster by saving Maurice from being shipped off to the Americas than she realizes that her stepmother has squandered their fortune on brooches and bribes and they’re going to lose the manor. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Danielle has been sold to the creepy guy with the mustache! Conveniently, she’s an accomplished swordfighter.
13. Anjelica Huston
Various elements of Anjelica Huston’s performance as Danielle’s stepmother could easily have comprised every single item on this list and that would be a compelling enough argument. Her Baroness Rodmilla de Ghent is cruel and calculating, yes, but also intelligent, funny, and strangely appealing. The actress more than makes the most of the one scene that humanizes her, in which she observes to Danielle, “You have so much of your father in you,” then admits regretfully, “I barely knew him.”
14. Anjelica Huston’s eyebrows
It was 1998, okay? Everyone overplucked. But Huston can do with one skinny little ‘90s eyebrow what most actresses couldn’t with Cara Delevingne’s.
15. It’s decidedly French, sort of
Ever After doesn’t take place in a made-up or unnamed land; it is made clear from the beginning that this is France. While of course all of the actors speak in that flavorless English accent that is used in all American movies that take place in any European country, the casting of Moreau nods at the Frenchness of this Cinderella (that is, Cendrillon), as do some of the (female) character names and the frequent reminders that Henry is “the crown prince of France!” It may be pretty superficial, but it helps historicize the tale.
16. It’s decidedly ‘90s, definitely
Ever After’s historical setting is very much the 16th century via the 1990s, kind of like how Dirty Dancing supposedly takes place in the 1960s (we know this because there’s one JFK reference, in voiceover) but all the clothes and half the music are straight out of 1987. The decade during which Ever After was made clearly trumped the one in which it takes place when it comes to the makeup design, Danielle’s overlong Alanis Morissette hair, and the movie’s particular you-go-girl brand of female empowerment (not to mention the casting of Barrymore in the first place).
17. It’s decidedly ‘Cinderella,’ above all
Fairy tales speak to us on a fundamental human level, but the ways we reinterpret and repackage them reflect the contemporary values of our culture — even the uglier ones — back at us. The greatest joy of Ever After is that it is hopeful, sincere, empowering, and even “realistic,” without ever not being faithful to the Cinderella story. There’s nothing wrong with fairy tales if only they’re told correctly — as the Grande Dame makes sure to do at the beginning of the movie. “While Cinderella and her prince did live happily ever after,” she concedes, accepting this small piece of the Grimms’ fantastical world, “the point, gentlemen, is that they lived.”