I’ve been pretty vocal about my disappointment in Disney’s decision to reinvent itself as a nostalgia factory. For those keeping score, we’ve already had remakes of Alice in Wonderland, Maleficent and now Cinderella. With The Jungle Book, Beauty and the Beast and Dumbo all in various stages of pre-production, there may be no end in sight. How long will it be before we get a live-action Frozen remake? From a financial perspective, it certainly makes sense, considering the disasters that were Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, John Carter and The Lone Ranger. But for a studio that was once acclaimed for being an industry trailblazer, I can’t help but think these remakes are doing more to stagnate the studio’s brand then build it.
That being said, I wasn’t looking forward to Kenneth Branagh’s live-action Cinderella. After all, what could this version possibly have that hasn’t been done before? As it turns out… nothing! There’s no female empowerment subtext, there aren’t any cynical or anachronistic jokes, there are no musical numbers, and there isn’t a quirky sidekick either. This is a straight-up, old-fashioned retelling that honors and builds on its source materiel without any of the frills you’d expect from a modern remake. And that’s exactly what makes it such a delight.
There’s not much to reiterate in this tale that’s um… old as time, but for the purpose of this review, a description is necessary. Little Ella (Eloise Webb) is living a blissful existence with her loving father (Ben Chaplin) and jubilant mother (an unrecognizable Hayley Atwell). But happiness is always short-lived in Disney movies, especially when her mother drops dead from a mysterious illness. As Ella grows into a beautiful young woman (now played by Lily James), her father decides to remarry, this time to a widow named Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett). Unfortunately for Ella, Tremaine is a soul-sucking monster who brings misery to any room she steps into. Once they marry, Tremaine moves into the house with her dimwitted daughters Anastasia (Holliday Grainger) and Drizella (Sophie McShera), a.k.a. Tweedledum and Tweedledumdum.
Their presence makes Ella’s life difficult but her father convinces her that everything will be okay… that is, until he too unexpectedly dies. The death is even more impactful because of the warm father-daughter bond that Branagh and screenwriter Chris Weitz establish between Chaplin and James. Suddenly orphaned and stuck in a house with three people who force her to sleep in the attic and take on the duties of a servant, a distraught Ella withholds her anger and sanity by reminding herself to “have courage and be kind”—qualities her mother instilled in her. But when she has a chance (and flirtatious) encounter in the woods with a handsome young man (Richard Madden), her spirits start looking up. What follows should be familiar to anyone who knows the tale but Branagh’s delicate hand ensures that it’s all accomplished with style and charm.
Speaking of style, this is a movie that oozes in it. Sandy Powell’s opulent costumes—from Ella’s soon-to-be-iconic blue gown and Blanchett’s envious greens to Richard Madden’s sterling blue vests—are as pivotal to the story as the characters that adorn them. Meanwhile, Dante Ferretti’s flabbergasting production design would make Charles Perrault beam with pride. When it comes to the crafts, Cinderella is unimpeachable. Branagh, who tripped up big time with the woeful Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit last year, does a lot to pick up the slack this time around. Cinderella is not on par with his Shakespearean adaptations but his earnest approach to the beaten-to-death material is akin to the buoyancy and regality he brought to Thor.
Cinderella may be straight-forward and old-fashioned but the filmmaker, along with screenwriter Chris Weitz, ensures it isn’t archaic either. For example, James’ Ella is written as a witty, independent go-getter who controls her own destiny—qualities that the actress airs with delicacy. Madden’s Prince isn’t a spoiled rich brat but a bold young man determined to cut his own path. Yes, there’s a roguish Errol Flynn-like quality to him but Madden makes him, above all, a good man. Even the shrewish Tremaine is more than your average one-note villain. There’s a method to her cruelty, something that Blanchett, in a scene-stealing turn, masterfully conveys with menace and venom. Nothing about Cinderella will change my mind about its superfluous existence but if every live-action remake on the docket, even Tim Burton’s worrisome adaptation of Dumbo, is crafted with as much tenderness and humanity as this enchanting adaptation, I’ll be more inclined to endorse the studio’s business plan. Here’s hoping it’s a foreword to what’s to come instead of an anomaly.
Frozen Fever Short:
Cinderella is preceded by Frozen Fever, an animated short featuring most of the major characters from Frozen. It centers on Elsa trying to outwit a bad case of the flu as she prepares for Anna’s surprise birthday party. It’s an adorable trifle that’s enhanced by a bouncy new song entitled “Making Today a Perfect Day” that’s very reminiscent of the songs from Disney’s golden era in the 90s. It’ll have the kids in the theater screaming with glee.
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Screenwriter: Chris Weitz
Cast: Lily James, Cate Blanchett, Richard Madden, Helena Bonham Carter, Stellan Skarsgård
Producer: David Barron, Simon Kinberg, Allison Shearmur
Running time: 112 minutes
Companies: Walt Disney Pictures
Rating: PG for mild thematic elements