by Jennifer Stripe
Over the last five years, Walt Disney Studios have dedicated a considerable amount of time and money to recreate their animated classics as live-action feature films. Capitalizing on their enduring appeal and decades of well-honed mass marketing of the Disney Princess empire, each of these movies successfully performed at the box office, but was critically regarded as one dimensional, lacking in creativity. The critical difference between Cinderella and prior “golden-age” remakes is its perfect synergy of classic cinematic elements: well cast talent, seasoned guidance and rich visuals. Consequently, in its straightforward telling of a familiar tale, the intrigue isn’t the story, but how well this fairy tale is imaginatively told.
Critically acclaimed and Oscar-nominated director, Kenneth Branagh, shepherds a screenplay that most closely follows the version authored by Charles Perrault in 1697. Best known for his big screen reincarnations of “Hamlet” and “Henry V,” Branagh has earned a reputation for infusing Shakespearean period pieces with modern realism and relevance. This talent, unique among current directors, made him an unexpected, but smart choice for the underrated Thor and an even better selection for a movie that could have easily been reduced to a pricey marketing ploy from Disney’s consumer products division. Branagh’s natural feel for the emotions that underlie the heart of such a whimsical storyline pair well with his classic, if not timeless directorial style, yielding cinematic gold even in the absence of a swashbuckling princess or anti-hero protagonist.
Despite general adherence to the original plot, Branagh and screenwriter Chris Weitz take some intriguing departures from the storyline, adding nuanced details that provide weight and color to otherwise vaguely defined principle characters. Beginning with an expanded backstory in the opening sequence, great efforts are made to highlight the loving relationship between a young Ella and her mother (a nearly unrecognizable Hayley Atwell). Combined with a love for animals and the family’s country home, Ella’s mother instills in her a remarkable kindness that later grows to blindly support her pure heart. After her untimely death, Ella and her father (Ben Chaplin) become even closer.
Having raised a daughter almost single-handedly, Ella’s father approaches his now grown daughter (Lily James), asking for permission to remarry. He then weds recently widowed socialite Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett), a manipulative and calculating woman, accompanied her two spiteful, nitwit daughters, Anastasia and Drizella (Holiday Granger and Sophie McShera). Showcasing the depth of her well honed acting chops, Blanchett offers a classic interpretation of the wicked stepmother with a wonderful (and beautifully dressed) Joan Crawford inspired façade. However, in a very intentional, yet arguably bold move, the penultimate antagonist is portrayed from a more sympathetic angle than one might expect. In an early, deliberately staged scene, Lady Tremaine is positioned just within earshot of a conversation between Ella and her father, where in fondly reminiscing the past, his lack of affection for his new wife is inadvertently revealed. His words, while not intended to be slighting, are just enough to plant a seed of resentment between Ella and her new stepmother that soon evolves into uncontrollable jealousy.
Following the death of her father, the Tremaine clan quickly diverge from exhibiting cold condescension to unabashed cruelty, as they appeal to Ella’s people pleasing nature, using peer pressure to turn her into an attic-dwelling servant. What’s made clear in this sequence is that Lady Tremaine’s harsh behavior is an emotionally multifaceted response. Beyond obvious interpersonal drama, Lady Tremaine seems to be more acutely affected by the financial instability and frustration of finding herself once again a widow. Admittedly, the filmmakers could have expanded on this interesting notion, but thankfully chose to retain the film’s fantastical atmosphere and not muddle its intentions.
Lily James does her best to convey some level of dissatisfaction and disappointment in her portrayal of the lowly cinder-girl, conjuring longing, tearful, puppy dog eyes in a couple notable close ups. The limiting factor here is arguably the screenplay. As written, Ella’s strength comes from her inherent optimism and belief in kindness, so much so that she seems resigned to grin and bear the abuse inflicted by her stepmother and stepsisters. It could also be argued that her actions stem from some misguided sense of obligation to her deceased parents, but whatever the reason, the overall effect is that Cinderella ultimately becomes someone who suffers beautifully, a character struggling to find a meaningful story arc until she serendipitously and unknowingly meets Prince Charming (Richard Madden). After a few quick, playfully flirtatious exchanges, they part, with Cinderella believing she had a chance encounter with young apprentice and the prince immediately and expectedly smitten. It’s nearly impossible for any actor or director to believably pull off love at first sight, but fortunately for everyone involved, James and the sweetly charismatic Madden have just enough genuine on-screen chemistry to entice you to believe that it’s at least plausible.
Much of the movie proceeds predictably, but no less magically. With his father, the King (Derek Jacobi), in declining health, the Prince agrees to host a ball where he can entertain all potential marital prospects, both royal and common, hoping to meet the enchanting girl from the woods. Seeing her daughters and this current opportunity as her best chance to escape looming misfortune, Lady Tremaine works to present her girls in the most favorable light possible, one that certainly doesn’t include a dowdy stepdaughter. Forbidden from attending the ball, Cinderella is left in despair until her fairy godmother suddenly appears, right on schedule, waving her magic wand, creating the iconic pumpkin coach and glass slippers literally out of thin air.
The resulting interplay of computer-generated special effects is completely anticipated, yet equally mesmerizing and truly magical. Much of what works and “feels right” about this Cinderella, is that it doesn’t rely on any flashy trickery to compensate for fundamental weaknesses and with its opulent costume and production design there’s enough textbook eye candy that it doesn’t need to. The wondrous details brought to life at the Prince’s ornate ball, the sense of majesty and scope displayed in the elaborate dance sequence where the Prince and Cinderella meet, it all gives realistic roots to this surreal experience. True, it’s pretty cool when a lizard is seamlessly transformed into a footman and the most breathtaking of ball gowns spun into existence by a kaleidoscope of butterflies, but these transformations believably work because they present a special contrast to the depicted reality, not just added visual gimmicks.
Still, despite its brilliant execution, there are certainly moments that question if this is the right kind of Cinderella, a passive heroine that little girls should admire? Other recent addition to Disney’s repertoire, including Brave and Frozen, offer wonderfully contemporary takes on otherwise classic princess tales that empower their heroines with aspirations beyond life as a princess. It’s slightly disconcerting, maybe even a discussion point for some parents, but sitting in the theatre, it’s hard to resist the film’s intrinsic charm and not get swept up in some old-fashioned cinematic magic.
All things considered, Cinderellafeels real enough, both in visual presentation and character development, to be sincerely touching while at the same time offering enough visual inventiveness and imagination to convey that captivating, otherworldly quality that can only be described as magical. It’s a story we’ve all seen and read about, but told this effectively, the familiar tale of Cinderella seems brand new.
Highly recommended family feature: 5/5 stars