The reason I love the new Cinderella movie (opens today) may sound like damning with faint praise, but I do love the film because it is mostly unextraordinary. It does not elevate itself far above the original or Disney retelling, nor does it reinvent the heroes & villains by having them swap roles. We do not suddenly root for the evil stepmother or against the prince because of a retconned backstory. No, director Kenneth Branagh & writer Chris Weitz wisely heed the old adage “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
I understand that my opinion may be in the minority but, as I alluded to in my Maleficent review, the ‘Once-Upon-A-Timing’ of classic Disney properties has worn thin with me. With that in mind this new Cinderella was like a breath of fresh air because it was simply freshened up, not gutted, demolished, and rebuilt. The story tracks very closely with the 1950 Disney classic, but expands on certain details. It’s the nuances that are new; not so much the characters or their personalities.
In the lengthened beginning Young Ella lives an idyllic life (somewhere seemingly close to France) with her father (Ben Chaplin), mother (Hayley Atwell), mice & Mr. Goose (The young girl talks to animals but they don’t necessarily talk back…until the Fairy Godmother holds court). Tragedy befalls the mother and she is allowed a final breath to impart these words to her daughter: “Have courage and be kind.” Ella repeats this phrase at key points throughout so you’re sure not to forget it.
Time passes and it’s time for the father to remarry. He chooses the widowed Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett), who brings two bright-in-clothing-choices-only daughters – Anastasia & Drisella – and a cat to the household with her. The new stepsisters are immediately boorish & uncouth but her stepmother is cordial enough until the father suddenly takes ill while away on business. True colors are shown and the now (for all intents & purposes) orphaned Ella (Lily James) becomes the put-upon servant girl we recognize as Cinderella.
From here we know the story well – the King needs to marry off his son, a royal ball is called, the Tremaines sabotage Cinderella’s chances at attending said ball, the Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham-Carter in subdued wacky mode, also on narration duty) arrives just in time to make a pumpkin carriage, Cinderella and the prince (Richard Madden) meet and fall in love at the ball (though she earlier unwittingly met the prince in the nearby woods – each not knowing the position of the other of course), the clock strikes 12, a slipper is left behind, etc, etc… These familiar notes make the film a very comfortable and safe fit, much like the iconic footwear. In fact, without the modern effects & techniques, I’d say this film would not be out of place were it released during the time of Disney’s first Cinderella.
So why make it? (I can hear you asking) This is certainly a valid question but I can only guess it is a way to introduce a new generation to an old tale told in classic Disney style. The film is visually gorgeous and there is some variance in the glass slipper denouement (including a reveal outside of Cinderella’s house that had many in my audience gasping in surprise) to keep things interesting. James is quite stunning as the titular character and ably & believably guides us through the journey she takes. Madden is aptly charming, young, handsome & fair as the prince. Blanchett’s Tremaine is clearly dastardly from the beginning but she is given a chance to explain her reasoning (even if it’s only valid in her own mind) at the climax.
Set design & costuming is exquisite and I imagine ladies young and old will be talking about Cinderella’s ball & wedding gowns for quite some time. CGI is thankfully minimal except when required for a rodent or magical transformation. This movie manages to be spectacular without becoming a spectacle for the wrong reasons. It does what Maleficent could not – update the story visually but leave it thematically intact.
Movies are very personal for me, with Disney ones being especially so, and this one plucked all the right heartstrings at all the right times.
My grade: B+
NOTES: Frozen 2 was announced today and while we probably won’t see that for another 2-3 years, there is a short entitled Frozen Fever that shows before Cinderella. It’s Anna’s birthday and Elsa wants to throw her a surprise party but ends up coming down with a cold. There are some cute & funny gags, but the C-level song & trite premise give this a completely rushed feel that is ultimately forgettable. And kids will eat it up! But if it gets them to drag their parents, grandparents or older siblings to go see Cinderella, then I’m all for it.