Completely disregarding the events (though not all of the characters) of Cinderella II: Dreams Come True - and this is an unmistakably good decision to have made - A Twist in Time opens on the first wedding anniversary of scullery maid-turned-princess Cinderella (Jennifer Hale) and her deeply uninteresting Prince Charming (Christopher Daniel Barnes), with Cinderella narrating about how excellent her life has been. To us, apparently, though it quickly becomes clear that her narration is diegetic, and at no point does anyone break the fourth wall in the whole movie. So perhaps she just walks around the castle all day every day prattling to nobody about how totally amazing her life is. God knows she's full of herself enough for that, based on the first 30 seconds of the movie in which she describes her life - in song! - as "perfectly perfect", and flashes the smuggest little grin you could imagine right at the camera, just to rub it in that she is that much better than we are.
Beauty and the Beast. And it doesn't end there: the opening song, "Perfectly Perfect" (written, like all of the film's originals, by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner) is an overt attempt to copy the "build a world through song" Broadway number that, in Disney, is exemplified by "Belle". And so it is that we learn just how nauseatingly happy Cinderella is, and so are her little mice friends Jaq (Rob Paulsen) and Gus (Corey Burton), and so is her fairy godmother (Russi Taylor). Not remotely happy are her step-sisters, Anastasia (Tress MacNeille) and Drizella (Taylor again), who can't stand having to do their own housework now, though it's not clear to me why they can't just hire a maid; it's not like having Cinderella serve in the household was a cost-saving measure, it was all about humiliation. Least happy of all is Cinderella's wicked stepmother, Lady Tremaine (Susanne Blakeslee), whose fury at knowing that the girl she hates more than all other beings put together - and since she is made out of pure hate, that's quite a lot - is in the palace has sat ill with her this past year.
All of it in song! A big ol' production number that hopes that by using music to blitz through the plot set-up, we'll be too wrapped up in the self-conscious artifice of the singing to stop and wonder just how apocalyptically stupid the fairy godmother must be, in order to drop her goddamn magic wand right in front of Anastasia, who has crept into the woods to watch Cinderella and the prince have their magical anniversary party. This doesn't work, mostly because the tune is grating and trite, and the lyrics are banal, with the tone of the whole song - the tone of the whole movie, really - set by the opening lines:
"What a perfectly perfect lifeYou know, just in case you somehow haven't noticed the lessons that Disney wants to impress upon our daughters.
It's a fairy tale come true
I'm a princess and a wife"
Having witnessed the secret of Cinderella's abrupt transformation from miserable, abused servant girl to prettiest girl at the ball, Anastasia does as a slovenly handmaiden to a domineering mother must, and hands the wand to Lady Tremaine. And here is where the movie becomes awesome. Apparently realising that the only thing keeping her from the very tip-top of the Disney Villain Leaderboards is that Maleficent, Ursula, and the Wicked Witch are all magic users, Tremaine steps into her birthright as Disney Villainess, and so does Frank Thomas's extraordinary triumph of animating a totally human character whose wickedness is of an entirely, horrifyingly relatable sort, turn into a ridiculous, over-the-top parody.
Case in point: Tremaine's plot is the most overworked, complicated thing it could possibly be. Instead of just, for example, turning Cinderella into stone and making the Prince fall in love with one of her daughters (and we know that it can do that; the fairy godmother herself is accidentally made a statue), she decides to go back a year and a couple of weeks, to the day that the Grand Duke (Paulsen again, not hiding his voice all that well) went door to door, trying the famous glass slipper on various women's feet. Instead of Cinderella arriving after her stepsisters have bombed out with her own spare slipper, Tremaine enlarges the first show to easily slide over Anastasia's grotesquely oversized feet.
So it is that the more tender-hearted of the stepsisters - a complete retcon from the original, but one consistent with the now-discarded Dreams Come True - ends up engaged to the prince, who is put under a bit of a spell anyway, once he realises that, faulty memory or not, she's certainly not the girl he danced with the night before. Only the three Tremaines have kept their memory from the original timeline, but Cinderella and the mice know that something has gone wildly wrong, and start to assemble the pieces.
Back to the Future spin-off was already quite enough to put us in one of the most peculiar Disney sequels this side of "all-dog country band", but A Twist in Time certainly does not rest on its laurels. It remains a strange, frequently inexplicable romp through concepts that have absolutely no place in the Cinderella universe, the most syrupy, pink ribbons 'n tea cakes-besotted of all the Disney Princess sub-franchises. Thank God for it, too: it represents what I would consider a positive step in the direction of self-awareness that the company would willingly apply one of its most valuable brand names to a film that includes images such as this one:
All of this is not quite the same as calling it "good", because it isn't necessarily. It has a lot of problems: the joylessly anodyne songs, for starters. The look of the thing is also really difficult to get one's head around, far worse than Dreams Come True. Basically, A Twist in Time finds Disney's '50s aesthetic mashed up with its '90s aesthetic, and no middle ground is ever struck between the two points. Some characters (Anastasia, Drizella, the mice) are left largely unchanged from their original character models, but given the sort of emotional expression uncharacteristic of such comic figures in a Silver Age Disney movie; others (Cinderella especially, Lady Tremaine less so) are more or less redesigned completely to take advantage of the different priorities of latter-day Disney animation. There's a lot of Ariel and, surprisingly, Esmeralda from Hunchback in our new Cinderella, and it makes her look ineffably weird, to anyone who has the original incarnation of the character memorised.
The Little Mermaid only emphasises the connection. All of this collides in a monstrous failure of design and animation that looks like a nightmare of a walking, talking Ken doll.