Soon every film was attempting the same formula. Soon came Universal unveiling Snow White & The Huntsman, while Disney themselves would release another retelling of one of their classic films with Maleficent, and this cash cow clearly shows no signs of stopping anytime soon.
So, with so many films competing to see who could produce the most “original” and “gritty” revision of a classic fairy tale, it’s nice to see Disney try something refreshingly familiar and light-hearted with Cinderella, directed by Shakespearean thespian Kenneth Branagh. However, to boil Cinderella down as merely a carbon copy of its animated counterpart does it little justice, for it is both a faithful yet divergent adaptation of the classic story.
As if you even need me to summarize it to you, the story of Cinderella follows our title character as she grows up in a loving household. After the tragic death of her mother, her father remarries years later, having wed the cold-hearted and devious Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett). After her father passes away while on one of his journeys, Cinderella (played in her adulthood by the beautiful Lily James) suffers the constant barrage of house chores tossed on her by her stepmother and stepsisters. When she happens to meet a man in the forest one day, who unknowingly to her is the Prince (Richard Madden), she hopes to meet him again at an open invitation royal ball to be held at the palace, though she’ll need some help from her animal friends and an eccentric fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) along the way.
Before seeing the film, you might assume it’d be easy to deride as being nothing but a style over substance retelling of a well-trodden source material, but that’s not the case. Cinderella is notable in how it follows closely to structure points of Disney’s classic animated feature, but also manages to give all of these scenes a refreshing and original twist. One thing I quite enjoyed was seeing it expand on some of the original film’s simplified or one-dimensional elements, or simply cut them out if not necessary to the flow of the film. This is particularly notable in the lengthy prologue, which contributes immeasurably to the lore that the film wants to establish, and giving the prince an infinitely more interesting personality, placing him in a familiar, but believable conflict deciding between marrying for love or stability. Even for those who know the original like the back of their hand, there are always surprises at every turn.
However, that creativity would still be nothing without Branagh’s confident direction. As always, the man is a master of larger than life theatricality, which made him the perfect fit (no pun intended) for this position. He elicits a number of great performances from his ensemble, which includes the rock solid turns from Richard Madden, Stellan Skarsgard, and recurring collaborator Derek Jacobi. The role of Cinderella is only as lovely as the star in her shoes, and Lily James plays the role with the perfect grace, vulnerability, and light-heartedness to make the character excel. However, it’s a deliciously vile Cate Blanchett who earns MVP status, relishing any opportunity she gets to act as irrepressibly wicked as possible, while also humanizing the villain with an underlain insecurity, jealousy and desire for self-preservation.
The movie features many of Branagh’s shamelessly eccentric and bombastic tendencies as a director, although if I have to criticize the film for much, I will say it showcases his tendencies to an occasional fault. His film is often very funny, but that also means we have to endure several groaners to get to the great gags. This also leads us into perhaps my least favorite aspect of the film, Helena Bonham Carter as the godmother. Look, Carter isn’t bad in the role, and she does get a good laugh here and there, but she’s distracting for the simple fact that she’s basically playing a nicer version of the eccentric that she always seems to play. Not only that, but in what I assume was to give her more to do beyond one big scene midway through the film, she even serves as the film’s superfluous narrator, filling us in on tidbits we’d be able to learn just fine on our own without her spoon feeding it to us. I’d have been able to forgive it were it a How to Train Your Dragon style bookend for the film, but hearing it pop up in places where it’s not needed clashes with the “show, don’t tell” rule of cinema.
Regardless, that’s not enough of an issue to ruin the enjoyment of the film. Even if the movie did boil down to style with no substance, the style simply looks too good. The film looks AMAZING! Production designer Dante Feretti recreates the extravagance of the matte-painting sets of the animated feature with eye-popping detail (even without 3D), but its longtime Martin Scorsese collaborator Sandy Powell who steals the show with simply gorgeous costumes of all varieties, from Cinderella’s stunning signature dress to the stylish envy-greens of Lady Tremaine. The overall music, photography, and makeup are all excellent, although if Cinderella and Thor taught me anything, it’s that Branagh is not the best when it comes to heavy CGI. It’s all fine in smaller sequences, but some of the bigger effects can tend to be cartoonish. In fact, some of them look outright unfinished.
All in all, Cinderella is a delightful treat, flaws and all. While I certainly hope Disney will slow down with the live-action updates to their classic animations, something that doesn’t look to be the case given the upcoming retelling of Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella is a charming movie that I thoroughly enjoyed from start to finish, shamelessly wearing its old-fashioned and cheerful spirit like a badge on its shoulder, while having enough respect for the original film to honor its successes, but also remedy much of its lesser qualities. The acting gives the film terrific life, the aesthetics are beautiful, and I’d recommend it wholeheartedly.
It also comes accompanied by an utterly charming short featuring the characters from Frozen, featuring a fantastic original song from the film’s original songwriters, so be prepared to have it stuck in your head for days.
**** / *****