Cinderella is a story that has been adapted so many times in so many mediums, and it’s not hard to see why. Its message is so unabashedly optimistic that it appeals to an incredibly wide audience. This is why I’m surprised it’s taken this long for Disney to make a live-action version of their 1950 animated classic. Cinderella marks as their third live-action film based on a previously popular animated property. Unfortunately, both of the previous adaptations, Maleficent and Alice in Wonderland, have been atrocious. With Cinderella, Disney brought in seasoned director Kenneth Branagh to helm the film with a screenplay by Chris Weitz.
For the two people out there who have not seen any version of Cinderella, the story follows Ella (Lily James), who finds herself, through some unfortunate circumstances, at the mercy of a cruel stepmother, Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett), and her two stepsisters, Drizella (Sophie McShera) and Anastasia (Holliday Grainger). However, after bumping into a man named Kit (Richard Madden) in the woods, she finds herself on a path to changing her life for the better.
Just to be clear, I’m reviewing the film with the mindset that you know what happens in the story, so consider this a spoiler-y review. Skip the next paragraph to avoid possible spoilers. Anyway, one of the things that made me skeptical was that it was a straightforward retelling of the same story we’ve seen many times before. However, the surprising thing is that element is what one of the things that I ended up liking the most. I found Cinderella to be a surprisingly well done film that was able to take all the things we know so much about and present it in a way that feels refreshing, even if it’s not necessarily innovating anything.
They story is basically the same as the 1950 animated film with minor details either changed or expanded. We get a longer look at Cinderella’s mother and father in the beginning (played by Hayley Atwell and Ben Chaplin, respectively), which is where the themes of the film are all set up. Obviously the recurring message of always being courageous and kind is a big one that the film repeats a lot, but there are also undercurrents of loss, resilience and passive resistance that are also present. We also get more of Prince Charming (who finally gets a name, a nickname, technically, but whatever). We see more of him and his life in the palace and there’s even a surprisingly emotional arc with his father, the king, played by Derek Jacobi. The mice even appear, but don’t play as big a role as they did in the animated film; the same goes to Lady Tremaine’s cat, Lucifer. One thing that is different is that the Grand Duke, played by Stellan Skarsgård is more of an antagonistic role compared to the original. Everything with the Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) is about the same, though personality wise, they are a bit different. Even Lady Tremaine is given a few moments that add a lot to her character, which gives us an understanding of her mindset.
So, while I think its minor additions and nuances are enough to warrant a retelling, it’s ultimately the technical aspects of the film that really pushes the film to greatness. I am a huge fan of Kenneth Branagh, especially his excellent Shakespeare adaptations. His level of showmanship as a filmmaker is something very few can match, and I’m a sucker for his many eccentricities and indulgences. His work with cinematographer, Haris Zambarloukos, is wonderful. Matching Kenneth Branagh’s theatricalities is the amazing work of the legendary production designer, Dante Ferretti, and equally talented costume designer, Sandy Powell. The costumes and sets, boasting elegant and vibrant designs and colors, are an absolute joy to behold. Sometimes, I found myself looking past the actors and examining their costumes or certain set decorations because they are just that beautifully realized. The incredible mix of practical sets, makeup and seamless CG work also helps with immersing you into the fantastical world. Though the one bad effect in the film is a noticeably CG face that is superimposed on the Fairy Godmother before her big reveal. Perhaps it was on purpose as a clue that it is a fake face that is meant to disguise the Fairy Godmother, but I still found it distracting. Thankfully, it wasn’t present for too long. Otherwise, the film is incredible eye-candy and an easy frontrunner for some of the designing awards at next year’s Oscars. Of course, Kenneth Branagh’s regular composer, Patrick Doyle (who has done all, but three films – Peter’s Friends, A Midwinter’s Tale and The Magic Flute – in Branagh’s filmography) does stellar work as usual. Another strong aspect of the film is the performances. Lily James is a great lead that has a certain charisma and screen presence that makes her effortlessly watchable. Richard Madden has good chemistry with James, and is able to make his character work on his own really well. Cate Blanchett is a pure scene stealer, but doesn’t let that stop her from adding very human elements to her character. It’s a performance that does justice to the original voice-work of Eleanor Audley in the animated film. Good use of character actors like Derek Jacobi and Stellan Skarsgård also adds a lot to the atmosphere and delightfulness of the film.
Any flaws that the film might have are flaws that the original film suffers from as well, such as Cinderella being passive to an almost irritating degree, the message being well-intentioned, but realistically flawed, and various other things. Cinderella has always been a wish-fulfillment fantasy, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. The idea that Cinderella is somehow messing with the minds of little girls is, to me, ridiculous, especially considering how often society tends to give equally problematic boy’s oriented stories a pass. Either way, it doesn’t take away how well done Cinderella is, especially considering it had every reason to be a lazily put together cash grab (though, I do think it’s safe to still consider the film a cash grab). The fact that the film manages to take it’s time, put forth genuine effort with astounding craftsmanship and sincerely believe in its message, the film trumps any preconceived notions I may have had due to previous dismal attempts of Disney’s live-action fairy tales. As a Disney-geek, I found the film incredibly satisfying. At the end of the day, a well told story is a well told story, regardless of whether it has been done before. While it doesn’t surpass the original, it definitely stands on its own glass slippers as a great companion piece.
Side Note: Obviously one of the biggest attractions of Cinderella is Frozen Fever, the short film that plays before every Cinderella showing. I loved Frozen, so I was just happy to see the characters again on the big screen, even if the short itself is simply cute and insubstantial. It also came to no one’s surprise that Frozen 2 has officially been announced. I’m honestly kind of worried because I simply don’t see many possibilities for other stories, aside from maybe finding Elsa a love interest, which would ruin one of the things that I liked about Frozen so much. Unless that love interest happens to be a woman, bringing some of the subtext from Frozen to the surface, but hell will probably freeze over before Disney lets that happen. In other interesting news, Cinderella screenwriter, Chris Weitz, has been brought on to write the very first Star Wars spin-off for director Gareth Edwards called Rogue One. It will star Felicity Jones and is planned to release next year. For those unaware, Rogue One is the title given to the leader of Rogue Squadron, an elite team of starfighers for the Rebel Alliance. Consider me intrigued.