“Have courage and be kind.”
Those words — repeated many times in this newest version of Cinderella — serve as both the title character’s mantra and the film’s unofficial tagline. The message is elegant in its simplicity in a way that mirrors this refreshingly old-fashioned adaptation, which resists the prevailing urge to modernize and/or revise a classic story.
“Once upon a time, there was a girl named Ella…”
It was just about 65 years ago that Cinderella had her coming out party. Of course, versions of the classic fairy tale had been published in previous centuries, but it was Walt Disney’s 1950 animated classic that turned glass slippers, fairy godmothers, and pumpkin carriages into pop culture mainstays. In the ensuing years, we’ve gotten the obligatory teenage update, the even more obligatory straight-to-DVD Disney sequels, the jokey revisionist take, the jokey male version and even Cinderella as historical fiction. (Which also happens to be the best of the bunch.)
You may have noticed the one thing conspicuously missing from that list: a straightforward, live-action treatment of the story for the big screen. It’s an understandable omission since Disney’s cartoon has stood the test of time as the definitive version of Cinderella. So it makes sense that the Mouse House would be the only one capable of going back to this enchanted well.
“Just because it’s what’s done, doesn’t mean it’s what should be done.”
It’s no stretch to say that reboots and re-imaginings of established properties seem to have taken over multiplexes in the last decade or so. Disney is, obviously, no exception. Once Upon a Time — ABC’s indiscriminate mash-up of Disney properties — is about to wrap its fourth season. And last summer, the studio had a bona-fide blockbuster in Maleficent, which completely re-worked and largely discarded the story in Disney’s own animated Sleeping Beauty. I didn’t like Maleficent for a variety of reasons, but its box office success is undeniable. Even though this newer version of Cinderella was likely already in production by the time the Maleficent money started rolling in, you have to wonder if Disney executives were kicking themselves for not greenlighting Lady Tremaine instead. I’d argue Disney actually pulled off a welcome swerve by avoiding the radical re-invention route.
This version opens by showing us Ella as a little girl, and the parents (played by Hayley Atwell and Ben Chaplin) who instilled her gentle nature at a young age. They treated Ella like a princess, and Ella pays it forward with every living creature she meets. Lily James (Downton Abbey) plays Ella as she grows into a gracious young woman. After having lost her mother as a child, Ella’s father dies shortly after marrying a severe, stylish woman named Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett), who had recently arrived at Ella’s home with her two shrill, spectacularly untalented daughters (Sophie McShera and Holliday Grainger). Lady Tremaine assumes control of the household, and Ella gamely endures the humiliation of serving her new family. (It’s the stepsisters who derisively give “Cinderella” her new nickname.)
With this being a fairy tale, there has to be a handsome prince somewhere. Enter Kit (Richard Madden), a prince-in-training whose father (Derek Jacobi) is trying to mold into a future king. Ella and Kit meet cute one day in the forest, and the prince decides to throw an all-inclusive royal ball in hopes of seeing her again. And if you need me to synopsize the story of Cinderella beyond that, then I don’t know what to tell you. Helena Bonham Carter plays Cinderella’s fairy godmother (who also narrates the film), but her flighty performance — Carter plays the fairy godmother as if she’s the only person in this film who has seen Cinderella and knows what’s going on — is one of the very few wonky notes in this adaptation.
Director Kenneth Branagh continues to be surprisingly well-suited to big-budget filmmaking. (Cinderella has a reported budget of $95 million, which is a little more than half of Maleficent’s $180 million budget.) With Thor, Branagh found a way to humanize a potentially silly character and conceit by basically turning the whole thing into Shakespeare. In Cinderella, he skips the greenscreen excess of Maleficent — which mostly seemed excessive because that movie’s best special effect was Angelina Jolie — in favor of eye-catching (and tangible) costumes and real-life locations. (Filming took place in England.) It’s no accident the movie only ever feels phony when it overly relies on effects wizardry, most notably in the crucial moment involving the transformation of Cinderella’s dress. On the other hand, Branagh and credited writer Chris Weitz have some clever fun with the animals that are unwittingly recruited to assist Cinderella on her big night.
The main reason those goofier moments stand out is because Branagh grounds a significant part of the movie in relatable drama. In his hands, Cinderella is basically a shiny period drama about how hard it can be to blend families. Although Blanchett certainly seems to relish playing up Lady Tremaine’s nastiness, we also get glimpses at the character’s insecurity and frustration with occupying the same space as Cinderella’s saintly mom. Lady Tremaine’s concern about her horrible daughters’ social standing is only a more ruthless version of the King’s concerns about Kit marrying a commoner.
Branagh even makes the manner in which Cinderella ends up serving her wicked stepmother and stepsisters — they’re obviously not equipped to do housework that needs to get done — feel somewhat logical. James is a lovely, feisty Cinderella, even if she doesn’t fully command the screen. (It’s fine because Cinderella herself doesn’t exactly demand attention.) She has pleasing chemistry with Madden, who makes the lovestruck, potentially-bland Kit feel like an engaging and worthy match for Cinderella. (Contrast that with the Prince in the cartoon, who didn’t even get to have a name.) Stellan Skarsgard also has a few amusing moments as the scheming Grand Duke.
Of course, this is still Cinderella, and Branagh doesn’t forget to include moments meant to make moviegoers swoon. The director nails the “top of the staircase” grand entrance, which is especially important since Cinderella practically invented that trope. Cinderella’s first dance with Kit is also largely shown as a dizzying, intoxicating long take.
I haven’t even mentioned the fact that Cinderella is preceded by Frozen Fever, which brings back characters from a certain humongous Disney blockbuster. (I imagine more than a few people are buying tickets to this movie just so they can see the short.) The plot involves Elsa battling a cold never bothered her anyway as she tries to throw sister Anna the perfect birthday party. Both hijinks and singing (the catchy “Making Today a Perfect Day”) ensue.
You’re gonna hear the word “Cinderella” a lot this month, as the NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament kicks off and a low-ranked team inevitably makes a charge toward the Final Four. Well, this smart, dazzling, delightful adaptation from Disney gives you an excellent chance to check out the original “Cinderella story.” “I do love a happy ending, don’t you?”