Who ordered a ‘fairy tale straight up’? We all did.
First of all, did anyone else know that the new live action version of Cinderella was directed by Kenneth Branagh (Hamlet, Thor)? The man is an acclaimed thespian and director, and no wonder the cast of the new Cinderella is so perfect, and the direction so sure-handed. And of course, where there’s Shakespearean drama, like the death of a parent or the pining of a tortured soul, Mr. Branagh is sort-of becoming the go to master of capturing these moments quite touchingly and cinematically while still serving a popcorn flick. But the best part of Cinderella isn’t the acting or the direction or the vast array of vibrant colors. It’s the story. After torturing audiences for years with reinterpretations and re-imaginings of classic Disney properties like Alice in Wonderland and Maleficent, how wonderful it is to have Cinderella, which relies on the strengths of its original story. No crazy additions. Only a slight bit of silly CGI. The magic and romance of the classic Cinderella story is ever present, and so very welcome.
The story, based primarily on the 1950 Disney animated version but featuring story beats from the Brothers Grimm version (1812) and Perrault’s french version (1697), begins with a young Ella, precious and kind to all things. She befriends the animals, is adored by her loving parents, and believes in magic and in the goodness of all creatures. Unfortunate circumstances leave Ella in the care of her evil stepmother and two stepsisters, who push her into domestic servitude and take every opportunity to belittle and chastise her. A random, or fated?, encounter with the Prince sparks a romance that dares to cross economic lines and, of course, the rule of her stepmother, who seeks to provide riches and status for her and her stubborn and juvenile daughters. Magic comes into play, Cinderella receives aid from her Fairy Godmother, and the whole glass slipper thing runs its course.
Filled with bright pinks and blues and whites and seemingly ever other color of the rainbow, Cinderella boasts enchanting production design and costumes. The dresses at the ball pop off the screen. Cinderella’s family home is aged and lived in, comforting and embracing until the stepmother makes it impersonal and rigid. The set production falls somewhere between a Disney TV movie and Anna Karenina, that is to say — it’s befitting the Cinderella kingdom without being distracting, overwhelming or obviously a sound stage. It was also a wise choice by Branagh and the production team to keep the mice, Cinderella’s friends and the characters responsible for the classic catchy Disney tune ‘Cinderelly’, using CGI to keep them joyful and fun…although lacking in musical numbers. Darn. The rest of the CGI is primarily reserved for the transformation sequence, and it’s beautiful and silly, and overall a wonderful spectacle sure to be enjoyed by children and (most) adults.
Cinderella also represents the launch of two illustrious film careers for Lily James (Downton Abbey), who plays Cinderella, and Richard Madden (Game of Thrones), who plays the Prince. Their chemistry is wonderful, and their smiles are infectious. They both prove here that they can carry a film, but they do receive help from some solid supporting performances. Cate Blanchett can basically do no wrong, and she adds depth to the tormented soul that is the evil stepmother. The idea of Helena Bonham Carter as the Fairy Godmother is too good to be true. And maybe that was the problem. She’s too often playing roles as quirky and bizarre, and an oversized set of shiny white teeth is overkill. The Fairy Godmother scene could’ve been more memorable with a toned down sense of casualness. It’s fun, nonetheless.
Now that Cinderella is receiving positive reviews (including this one, of course) and is sure to make a splash at the box office, Disney has already green lit live action remakes of Beauty and the Beast and now Dumbo (worryingly directed by Tim Burton). And so one must wonder if the upcoming titles will stick to the familiar story à la Cinderella or venture off course like Maleficent and Alice and Wonderland. I’m really hoping for the former.
Cinderella opens in theaters today, March 13th.