Disney purists, your time has come. It must have been hard these last few years watching Hollywood contort your favorite fairy tale princesses into dark, twisted shapes in “Snow White and the Huntsman,” “Mirror Mirror,” “Maleficent,” and “Into the Woods”;
By Noah Gittell
Disney purists, your time has come. It must have been hard these last few years watching Hollywood contort your favorite fairy tale princesses into dark, twisted shapes in “Snow White and the Huntsman,” “Mirror Mirror,” “Maleficent,” and “Into the Woods”; these films found varying degrees of success at the box office, but for those fans who prefer their princesses sunny rather than sullen, it has been a difficult millennium at the movies. Now the good news: The artistic and commercial successes of the shiny, new “Cinderella” will almost surely jumpstart a shift back towards fancy dresses, handsome princess, and all of Disney’s earnest, sugary goodness.
Director Kenneth Branagh’s version of “Cinderella” is not an ironic, modernist take on the old fairy tale. Instead, he handles it more or less like he has his many Shakespearean adaptations, with reverence for the story without being beholden to it. Fans of the 1950 Disney musical will be at home here, but they will find a richer, more complete story. With solid performances (especially by Cate Blanchett as the evil step-mother), sumptuous costumes, and a close attention to character, “Cinderella” is a perfect fairy tale for our time – without being completely of our time.
Despite the classical feel, “Cinderella” is not simply a rehash of what has come before. Branagh updates the old story in ways that deepen – and never cheapen – the iconic source material. For starters, we spend far more time with poor Ella (Lily James of “Downton Abbey”) – she is not burdened with her famous nickname until about halfway through – before her wicked stepfamily comes into the picture.
The opening scenes show Ella as a carefree girl in a joyous family. Her mother (Hayley Atwell) and father (Ben Chaplin) make an indelible impression on her, but neither is long for this world. After the former dies of illness and the latter never returns from a business trip abroad, Ella gets stuck with her wicked new step-mother (Cate Blanchett, chewing the scenery with aplomb) and her dim-witted, ill-tempered twin daughters.
Getting to know Ella’s family life before her dual tragedies is time well spent. After having known her as happy child, we understand why Ella accepts her stepmother’s cruelty instead of simply leaving; she sees the house as the last remnant of her young happiness and feels compelled to stay and look after it.
Lily James makes the most of the new characterization, pulling off a very difficult role. On the page, Cinderella is sickeningly sweet, but James never lets you forget who Ella is — the orphan daughter of two loving parents. Her goodness in the face of sadness becomes a fascinating thing to watch.
Her romance with the Prince (Richard Madden) also gets a slightly more substantial twist. Here, Ella and the Prince meet before the ball on their own terms. She interrupts a royal hunt and saves an elk from certain death; he is moved by her compassion, but despite their obvious attraction, neither of them identifies themselves accurately. Thus, when they meet again at the ball, and the Prince falls for her, at least we know he’s not just bowled over by the dress.
Even the wicked stepmother gets a bit of a backstory when she reveals that her first husband’s death left her with an awful debt, and that she has some regret over marrying Ella’s late father not for love but for money. It hardly is meant to excuse her vicious behavior towards our heroine, but it makes a character whom, too often, has been depicted as purely evil into something a bit more understandable.
Despite these updates, Branagh brings the story’s most iconic moment to life in satisfying and familiar ways. Helena Bonham Carter only gets one scene as the Fairy Godmother, but it is one of the film’s best. A keen sense of fun and some expertly deployed computer-generated imagery bring Cinderella’s makeover to life. The subsequent scene at the royal palace is a feast of visual delights. From the magnificent costumes to the exceedingly good-looking cast of royalty, it is a master class in cinematic wish fulfillment. But that’s not to say our interest is merely superficial.
When Ella enters that ballroom in her new dress and tiara, it is a well-earned moment of happiness following years of sadness. It is indicative of the film’s broader successes in finding genuinely new notes in a story nearly as old as film itself.
My Rating: See it in the Theater