Directed by: Kenneth Branagh.
Written by: Chris Weitz.
Starring: Lily James (Cinderella), Cate Blanchett (Stepmother), Richard Madden (Prince), Helena Bonham Carter (Fairy Godmother), Nonso Anozie (Captain), Stellan Skarsgård (Grand Duke), Sophie McShera (Drisella), Holliday Grainger (Anastasia), Derek Jacobi (King), Ben Chaplin (Ella's Father), Hayley Atwell (Ella's Mother), Rob Brydon (Master Phineus).
Last year’s Maleficent envisioned the “villain” of the Disney classic animated film, Sleeping Beauty, as a victim out for righteous vengeance on the man who used and abused her. And that was just the latest in a string of films made by Disney that looked to update their beloved animated classics for a more modern age – the animated mega-hit Frozen, gave us two Princesses who didn’t need a man (although one got one anyway), Tangled was a more complicated look at parental abuse than you would think Disney capable of, and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland made its heroine into an ass kicking warrior – for good and bad. All of these, and more (like Sofia the First, and charming animated series I’m stuck watching approximately 1,000 time a week because of an adorable three and half year old who cannot get enough of it), seem to be Disney acknowledging the criticisms of their past, and trying to issue a corrective in the present (while still, of course, making lots and lots of money). So the latest Cinderella – directed by Kenneth Branagh – is somewhat strange in that regard, and it doesn’t seem to try and update the story at all. It gives the title character a little (very little) more moxie and spunk then the doormat of a character in the 1950 animated film, and give a little (again very little) shading to her evil Stepmother to make her somewhat more human, but for the most part this Cinderella is a straight ahead, live action remake of the 1950 animated original. Sure, it adds a few more (completely unnecessary) plot complications, but for the most part, this is the same film as we all grew up – just with real people, instead of animation. That can make watching the film kind of dull at times to be quite honest – but then again, I have to acknowledge I’m not exactly the target audience here. That three and half year old who makes me watch Sofia the First all the time? She loved it (except for those mean people who weren’t “very nice” to Cinderella).
The movie adds slightly more details to Cinderella’s childhood year. Her mother (Haley Atwell) and father (Ben Chaplin) adore her beyond all reason, and they basically spend their days in complete bliss. Then, mother gets sick (presumably with the same disease that has effected women in the movies at least as far back as Ali McGraw in Love Story, where you still die, you just look beautiful doing it) and gives Cinderella advice that she will repeat (over and over again) throughout the movie “Have courage, and be kind”. Her father continues to dote on her through her teenage years, which she also spends in complete bliss (despite their being no evidence that she ever leaves her house, or has friends beyond the servants – oh, and some mice) – but then marries the Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchatt), and brings her, and her two daughters (Sophie McShera and Holliday Grainger) to live with them. They are a nightmare from the start – but Ella “has courage” and is “kind” to them – even after her father dies, and they treat her as the maid. One day, she gets so upset, she goes racing off through the woods, and ends up meeting “Kit” (Richard Madden), who tells her he is an apprentice, but in reality he is the Prince (of course). They two immediately like each other. He’s nice and charming, she has spunk, and that’s all the really need. This is an added scene – probably there because in the original film, the Prince basically falls in love with Cinderella because she’s pretty, and she falls in love with him, because he’s a prince. At least in this version, there is a little more shading there.
We know what happens next. There is a ball – Cinderella isn’t allowed to go, but her fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) shows up and helps her. Cinderella and the Prince meet (in this case, again), a glass slipper in left behind, etc, etc, etc. The movie throws in some more complications with the Prince as well. The Grand Duke (played by Stellan Skarsgaard, so of course, he is, as my daughter would say “not nice”) has other plans for who the Prince should marry. The ailing King (Derek Jacobi) is far more sympathetic – and eventually sees eye-to-eye with his son (in a way that makes him one of the best fathers in a Disney movie ever, which is kind of sad really). But we know how things will end, right?
The film was directed by Kenneth Branagh, presumably since we no longer live in a movie era where anyone will give him money to make Shakespeare movies (and considering his 1996 Hamlet is perhaps my favorite “straight” adaption of Shakespeare ever, we are all the poorer for that). Branagh is a strange choice for the film – but perhaps the right one, as he gets on board with the straight forward screenplay by Chris Weitz, and plays the movie right down the middle. The film seems to be designed to appeal directed to girls under the age of 11 or so, and basically gets it right – lots of frilly dresses and glitter, and the castle and forest, and Cinderella’s home, and all the rest look like they are right out of a fairy tale – which of course is exactly what they were going for.
The performances are about as good as could be expected. Lily James gives Cinderella as much personality as is possible to do under the circumstances – and I guess you could say the same for Madden as the Prince. I still want to see Helena Bonham Carter play a normal person again at some point – but there’s no denying she is ideally cast as the loopy Fairy Godmother (and narrator) of the film. And it’s always a pleasure whenever Blanchatt comes on screen – for two reasons. The first is because she does so much with so little – she has a way looking at Cinderella with utter, withering contempt, and a slight sneer which is quite scary, but she’s still able, in a late scene to make us feel some sympathy for her – and for woman like her, who at the time, had little in the way of options other than to marry, and hope their husbands could care for them. The second reason, of course is because you cannot wait to see what amazing costume she is going to come out wearing next – especially the hats. No one wears a hat like Blanchatt anymore.
Ultimately, I didn’t much like this version of Cinderella. Personally, I prefer the movie that add a new twist on an old classic – really, if you’re not going to do that, then what the heck is the point of remaking a film like this in the first place? But then I watched my daughter watch the film – and saw how much she loved it. I take her to the movies as often as I can, and more often than not, she’s stuck seeing a movie about little boys who become heroes – with women as secondary characters (if they’re there at all). She likes those movies to – but I was glad to have a movie aimed directly at her this time. Sure, the gender politics in the movie are less than ideal. But I think I can wait until she’s a little older than three and half to address that, don’t you? For now, it’s enough to just let her be enchanted by a movie. And this version of Cinderella did that.