Walt Disney’s original animated classic “Cinderella” was visually stunning and masterfully animated. Based on a fairy tale from Charles Perrault, and with beautiful songs and orchestration, it won over theater audiences and helped cement the Disney Studios as the leader in feature animation.
So when news came out that Disney was remaking the movie with a live action cast, the question was why? When I heard that Kenneth Branagh would be directing, I felt a bit better. But it was costume designer Sandy Powell’s costumes that really sealed the deal for me. Even if Cinderella was a 2 hour parade of Powell’s gorgeous costumes, I would have left satisfied.
The good news, is that the rest of the movie works too. It is a refreshing take on the fairy tale that we all know and love with lessons we can all take to heart. Branagh revisited the original Perrault fairy tale and incorporated some more modern motivations to make the film more relevant for today’s audiences. The story actually works better once Cinderella (Lily James) has a little agency.
That agency is delivered to Ella by her parents. First by her mom (played suitably by Hayley Atwell) who tells her to “have courage and be kind,” and by her father who teachs her the strength to endure. She’ll need both of these in spades once her parents die (at least both mom and dad die in this one instead of just mom). Actually dying parents is a fairly strong theme in this movie, something to be aware of if your kids have recently lost any one close to them.
When Cate Blanchett enters the scene as Lady Tremaine, the audience already feels pretty bad for Cinderella and we’re with her as she is subject to the evil machinations of a step mother who only cares for her natural children choosing to abuse the one child who might actually have the ability to save them all with her grace and charm.
One of the changes from the original film is that Cinderella meets her prince (Richard Madden) before he ball. Only neither is aware of other’s background. She plays coy and he pretends to be merely an apprentice. So when they finally meet again at the ball, the deep affection doesn’t seem so sudden.
But before they get to the ball, we have to deal with what is simultaneously one of the best and worst fitting parts of the movie. Branagh’s direction mostly keeps a firm hand on the fantasy elements, but once the Fairy Godmother appears, the movie goes whole hog (er Goose) for magic. It was magically done, but definitely felt set apart from the tone of the rest of the movie.
It’s important to note that this version is not a musical (although two of its stars do record nice songs for the credits) and it really could have used a more memorable soundtrack. I was also pleased that there are some unavoidable similarities with the animated classic, you never really feel like you’re watching a remake. It does pay homage from time to time, and that’s just fine. In the end it not only walks the line between fealty to the original and cutting its own path, it succeeds on its own merits.
A lot has been made of Disney’s stronger princesses that have evolved since Belle stole a little bit of empowerment from Gaston and her Beast. Movies like “Enchanted” and “Maleficent” pushed the limits of that trend. Cinderella pulls it back toward the center with a well crafted take that in the end has Ella owning her nickname in heroic fashion.
Cinderella opens today in the US and Canada. Disney fans will definitely want to head out to see it on the big screen.