A ravishing, well-acted rendition of the European folk tale made famous by the Brothers Grimm and the Mouse House.
Fairytales are meant to be passed down. With each new generation comes a new opportunity to share the fantastical stories that served to shape the moral make-up of so many before. Disney has made a new, live-action Cinderella movie, and I feel compelled to make this clear: I don’t believe new renderings of classic tales need to be the best version of all to justify their existence. Sometimes revisiting a familiar tale told by new storytellers, with their own, unique artistic philosophy, is good enough, especially for new batches of eager youngsters.
That being said, modern retellings like the 2015 Cinderella (directed by Kenneth Branagh, whose last Disney project, Thor, I liked very much) are still subject to the grand question: Is the damn movie any good or not? The short answer is, yes, it’s very good. It’s an enchanting, well-acted, snark-less rendition of the classic European folk tale with a radiant actress filling the glass slippers (Lily James) and ridiculously ravishing costumes that’ll make girls across the world lose their little minds. Is this the very best version of Cinderella? Unfortunately not: some odd design choices, unbalanced characterizations, and overall dearth of innovation stop it a few notches short of greatness. But those girls losing their little minds? They won’t care about that stuff one bit once they see James descend the stairs at the royal ball in that sparkling, ethereal, bluer-than-blue (seriously, how did they get it so blue?) dress.
But it’s not just Ella’s dress; there are tons of dresses! Cate Blanchett gets to wear a stunning emerald number as the brooding, evil stepmother; Sophie McShera and Holliday Grainger (what a name, huh?) get draped in some of the most hilariously gaudy material you’ve ever seen this side of a Cosby sweater as the dreadful step-sisters; and Helena Bonham Carter, as the Fairy Godmother, is a vision in astral white. Costume designer Sandy Powell really outdid herself with the incredible costume design, which is so detailed and whimsical and magical you may lose your mind even if you aren’t a young girl (guilty). This is a Disney princess movie, after all, and boy did Powell bring the goods.
Children’s movies these days are typically either too cloying or too mean-spirited for my taste. Cinderella, however, strikes a nice balance. The script, by Chris Weitz (About a Boy), isn’t done in by sugariness; when Ella’s stomped on and ripped apart by her wretched step-mother and step-siblings, it’s rightly dismal and infuriating (Blanchett is ruthless; James is resilient). But even more impressively, the film doesn’t resort to sarcasm, irony, or cheap zingers to make it more palatable to millennial pessimists who scoff at the mere sight of bright colors and even brighter smiles on the big screen. Tonally, everything is calibrated just right, making for a smooth, steady ride.
The biggest disappointment is that Branagh’s vision of Cinderella is in narrative lockstep with Disney’s original take, the only non-aesthetic updates being some minor character expansions. Richard Madden (Game of Thrones) plays the strapping prince, whose aging father (Derek Jacobi) may be in his final days. Madden’s prince has a more significant, rounded presence than the cartoon version (who was essentially a walking plot device), readying himself for the burden of the throne as he scours the land for the girl of his dreams. (In a nice twist, Ella doesn’t realize he’s royalty when they first meet in the woods on horseback.) Jacobi maximizes his short time on-screen, making a lasting impression as the kind, sagacious, good-humored king in just a handful of scenes. Blanchett’s step-mother is given a little more emotional depth this time around, flirting with sympathy in a key scene in which she all-but chokes up when Ella tearfully asks why she torments her so. Both Jacobi and Blanchett could have been utilized better, particularly the former, who damn near steals the show.
It’s always astonishing to me, in a cultural landscape so caustic it’s scary, when an actor can embody pure virtue and positivity and make it feel sincere, or even attractive. There’s nothing much to fault about James’ performance; she’s a classic heroine, exuding compassion, strength, and patience in her darkest hours. Some may mistake Ella’s optimism for saccharine, outdated sentimentality, but let’s remember: this is a 19th century English period piece. If you expect all your princesses to be funny and witty and talk like Tina Fey, go watch Frozen instead. Anna and Elsa are great, but Ella’s old-school.
Branagh’s always brought out the best in his actors, and Cinderella is no misstep in that facet of his legacy. The writing isn’t always all that great: As Ella’s mother (Hayley Atwell) says goodbye for the last time on her death bed, she coos, “Where there is kindness, there is goodness. And where there is goodness, there is magic.” It’s a bit of a clunky line, of which there are a handful in the film, but Branagh makes sure his actors sound as genuine as possible.
A live-action Disney movie without flashy CGI bravura shots littered throughout would be a dream come true, but sadly, Cinderella doesn’t break the trend. Bonham Carter’s sole scene in the film (she also narrates), the obligatory pumpkin transformation scene, looks exactly as sterile and weightless as you’d expect from a big-budget Mouse-House production. The worst part, though, is the transformation of a lizard into one of Ella’s coachman. Once fully morphed, the lizard-man is one of the most hideous-looking things I’ve seen in recent memory. He’s a man, but with sickly, grey-green skin, lines of little razor-sharp teeth, and nightmarish reptilian eyes. Good god is he terrifying, and in no way does this abomination belong in a children’s movie. Thankfully, this is an isolated incident. Ella’s best friends, her pack of tiny computer-animated mice, are the most convincing effect in the movie, and are actually pretty cute.
Branagh’s never been a slugger when it comes to visual stylings, and he pretty much plays it safe here as per usual. There are a few exceptions: a thrilling 3-second see-saw-tilted shot of Ella sprinting through a beautifully baroque room in the royal castle; a motif involving Ella and the prince always spinning around each other in a lovers’ spiral, the same visual poetry used so masterfully by Max Ophüls in The Earrings of Madame de…. But otherwise, the camera movement and placement is unimaginative, though far from inadequate.
You’ll find few surprises in Branagh’s rendition of the diamond-in-the-rough classic. But there are dozens of fairytale deconstructions out there, leaving plenty of room for faithful retellings, especially when they’re as polished and openhearted as Cinderella. Adult viewers’ enjoyment of the film depends on the expectations they bring to the table, but young ones will find true joy falling in love with the sooty princess-in-training for the first time.