After a few years now of revisionist and usually bloody takes on fairy tales, from Maleficent to Snow White and the Huntsman, there is almost a need for a right-on-the-money version of one of these archetypal stories. Director Kenneth Branagh (Thor, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) has provided just that with this Disney live-action sort-of remake of its beloved 1950 animated film. While this one lacks the musical numbers (until the end credits) and child-like wonder of the original, the studio, director and screenwriter (Chris Weitz, who’s now writing Star Wars: Rogue One) have wisely decided to keep the story largely intact, good-natured and earnest, aided by a strong cast and some lovely visuals throughout.
We all know the tale, but Weitz and Branagh flesh it out just a bit by opening on the family life of young Ella (Eloise Webb), who shares a wonderful home and enduring love with her father (Ben Chaplin) and mother (Hayley Atwell). After the latter gets sick and passes away (in a surprisingly strong and emotional moment that may be a little heavy for the kiddies), Ella grows up in the form of the radiant Lily James (Downton Abbey) and tends to her lonely father, who eventually seeks her approval to marry again. But boy does he make the wrong choice: his new wife is the Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett), a manipulative, greedy woman that brings her two graceless daughters (Sophie McShera and Holliday Grainger) along. Soon Ella’s father dies while traveling for business, and they make life a living hell for the sweet and endlessly accepting stepdaughter.
The rest follows the familiar narrative in all the major ways, but this version of Ella is a much more pro-active woman who’s not pining away for Prince Charming to come rescue her. Indeed, when she first meets the Prince (Game of Thrones star Richard Madden, much less wooden than these characters usually end up being), it’s long before the grand ball — they’re in the forest, and he’s as smitten with her as she is of him, and neither are in their full third act regalia — that in itself is an important and decidedly modern lesson that Branagh and Weitz slip into the story without altering any of the larger substance. More is also made of the relationship between the Prince and the ailing King (Derek Jacobi), making it a melancholy parallel to that of Ella herself. These are two thinking, intelligent, decent young people trying to make sense of the darker world around them.
James brings real spunk, sensitivity and charisma to the role. Even if you weren’t a smitten prince, her Ella seems like the kind of person you’d still like to have around as a friend. Blanchett, decked out in stunningly over-the-top costumes by Sandy Powell, plays the wicked stepmother with just the right balance of scene-stealing malice and restraint. The hidden loneliness and insecurity at the core of this outwardly narcissistic monster makes her one of the more fully-realized screen villainesses we’ve seen in some time. The most cartoonish performance is by Helena Bonham Carter as the Fairy Godmother. She does hold back at the right moments, but Carter’s trademark eccentricity shines through in her short but memorable scenes.
Branagh, just like with his Shakespeare adaptations and even his Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, has an innate sense of what a fairy tale should look like, and it’s all opulence, texture, bold colors, and breathtaking vistas. With nary a Dutch angle (his trademark) in sight, Branagh and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukus gorge themselves on Dante Ferretti’s confectionary production design, frankly providing a complete antithesis to the cramped, set-bound style of last December’s Into the Woods. They also rely less on visual effects than a lot of other recent films in this genre — aside from the friendly mice in the house and the two big transformation scenes before and after the ball (the latter integrated into a genuinely exciting chase), the effects and creatures are not piled on to pad out the story’s simple yet solid structure.
There are a few points where the movie falters: the middle section at the ball seems to go on longer than it should, and a late-breaking subplot involving the Grand Duke (Stellan Skarsgard) and Lady Tremaine does seem like it was added to put a few more minutes into the running time. Carter also provides a constant narration that could have been used more judiciously. Still, Cinderella gets more things right than it does wrong, and, most importantly, that sense of sincerity goes a long way towards making the movie almost unique among major studio productions at the moment — most of which trade in snark, irony and cynicism. I’m not saying I don’t care for those films, but a spoonful of sugar every once in a while sure does help the medicine go down (yes, I know, wrong Disney movie). Cinderella provides that sweetness, and its title character’s mantra — “have courage and be kind” — feels poignantly relevant after all.
Cinderella is in theaters now.