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Joan King: Cinderella poses a key question
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Robots, artificial intelligence, the future ... what’s not to like for a sci-fi buff like me?

I love movies, but I don’t go very often these days. Driving after dark at my age isn’t safe, so March 14 I attended a matinee showing of “Chappie,” a Neill Blomkamp movie about a police robot that is stolen by three punks.

The parking lot was full, and children were everywhere — but not for “Chappie.” Disney’s “Cinderella” was showing on another screen. The audience for “Chappie” numbered less than a dozen.

That should have been my first clue. It was awful, and I left after the first 20 minutes.

There wasn’t anything else in the complex that interested me, but I had driven 30 minutes to get there. I didn’t want to waste the afternoon. Maybe there was an empty seat left for “Cinderella.”

There was, and I settled in for what I expected to be the usual children’s fare. Don’t get me wrong. I grew up watching Disney. My parents took me to see “Snow White” when I was 5. I took our three children to see “Mary Poppins” and “101 Dalmatians” in the ’70s, and when our granddaughter came to live with us, we wore out a videotape of “Bambi.” But by now Disney had been relegated to the sweet and sappy category.

I was in for a surprise. The story was sweet, but sappy? Not at all, and compared to “Chappie,” it was a joy. However, under ordinary circumstances I never would have gone to see it, especially by myself and on a Saturday afternoon.

I said I love the movies, but it’s more than that. Cinema is the leading art form of today. It does what art has always done: reflect upon and critique the culture in which it is found.

I’ve seen a lot of movies I didn’t enjoy, “Zero Dark Thirty,” “American Sniper,” but they were worthwhile movies. Even if not completely accurate, they portrayed a kind of cultural truth.

But try as I might — and I did try — I couldn’t find anything redeeming in “Chappie.” The ingredients were there: What it means to be human, the corruption of innocence, good vs evil, and the inevitability of death, but there was nothing in the movie to entertain or inspire.

On the other hand, Disney does know how to entertain. My husband hated Walt Disney. He blamed Disney for selling magical thinking to a gullible public and turning children’s stories into corporate profit. He’d watch almost anything as long as it was on the big screen and came with lots of popcorn, but he would never have sneaked into “Cinderella” in the local movie complex.

The first “Cinderella” film was made in 1899, in French. The story has been told many times in many forms, and the recent Disney movie was not the company’s first attempt, just the first to use live actors.

So what is the takeaway? What will the children in that theater last Saturday remember about their experience?

I can only speak for myself, and I’m over 80. However, one line of dialogue stood out. I believe it was repeated several times during the film’s 113 minutes. Cinderella asks her stepmother and stepsisters. “Why are you so mean?”

I wonder how many of the children in that audience will remember the question. It is something I ask myself every day when I read the morning paper.

Children ask it when they are bullied on the school play yard. Teenagers tend to forget it in the exuberance of youth. Mothers and fathers re-remember as they and their children mature. Old ladies fixate on it in their dotage.

Why do ordinary people do nasty, even wicked things to one another? Churches have focused on the problem. The social sciences are joining them. And the media?

“Cinderella” doesn’t preach to children, but it does pose an important question.

Joan King lives in Sautee.

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