We live in an interesting time for fairy tale adaptations. In the wake of Frozen, Once Upon a Time, Shrek and what have you, traditional storytelling has now become the exception, not the rule. It’s because of this that the conservative live-action remake of Disney’s Cinderella feels as remarkable as it is.
You could be forgiven for wondering what the point of Disney’s latest live-action revamp is, since we already have a perfectly functional (and easily available) Disney adaptation of Cinderella, thanks to the 1950 animated film. Digging beyond the surface similarities however, director, Kenneth Branagh has actually struck a wonderful balance between Disney convention, and adding just enough modern depth and pop to make a well-worn fairy tale story feel fresh and relevant again.
Cinderella may be extremely idealistic and almost child-like, proudly marketing itself to young girls most of all, but after so much undressing of fairy tales, even recently with Disney’s own Into the Woods from this past Christmas (which ironically featured its own Cinderella in Anna Kendrick), it’s nice to see that we haven’t entirely forsaken simple love stories in the so-called march of cinematic progression. There’s no bones about the ‘Happily Ever After’ here. That’s what makes Cinderella so inviting and loveable.
The cynics in the crowd will no doubt just see a candy-coated, superfluous re-telling of a fable that has felt especially dated in the modern wave of fairy tale adaptations, but Cinderella’s simplicity will nonetheless be its greatest strength for those with an open mind. It sees the world as it should be, not necessarily how it is, but that’s precisely what makes it such a beautiful movie.
Our new Cinderella, or Ella, is Lily James, portraying a girl whose mother gives her two simple rules for life: “Have courage, and be kind!” Even when Ella’s mother is inevitably taken by the Disney-approved disease of plot convenience, leaving her father to re-marry the cruel Lady Tremaine before he himself buys the farm early on, Ella holds her mother’s words dear to her heart.
We know how this story goes however. Ella’s cruel stepmother, along with her vapid, obnoxious daughters, Drisella and Anastasia (this time portrayed as bumbling dolts rather than ugly harpies), oppress Ella and exploit her kind nature to have her do all of the housework, for no appreciation. On one particularly cruel day, the girls re-christen Ella as, “Cinderella”, referencing her getting dirty while tending to the fire place, something that Lady Tremaine laughs along with. Second verse, same as the first.
As much as Drisella and Anastasia are played almost purely as comic relief however, cruelty and all, it’s Cate Blanchett that exceptionally brings everything together as Lady Tremaine, being delightfully diabolical, and peeling away more ugly layers as the movie proceeds on. Despite this however, the live-action Cinderella adds a few more dimensions to the character, which Blanchett delivers in an especially tense dialogue scene with aplomb later on. Tremaine is no longer just a nasty crone. This new Tremaine in fact functions as more of a scorned cynic, almost a loose satire of the naysaying audiences that would tell you that movies like Cinderella are childish. It’s a very clever new take on Cinderella’s wicked stepmother.
Likewise, while the prince, played by Richard Madden (Kit, as he is apparently called in this new version), is still just the simple apple of Cinderella’s eye for the most part, he also has been fleshed out a bit more. Forced to debate a marriage convenient for his kingdom even as his heart pines for the girl he met in the forest one day (a new scene that precedes the all-important ball sequence), Kit feels like a sophisticated, modern fantasy prince, albeit one that is still sincere at heart. Sure, like Cinderella, no man in the world is as pure and simple as Kit, but that’s perhaps why these two unreal lovers are perfect for one another.
Kit has a ‘stepmother’ of his own in the scheming Grand Duke, played by Stellan Skarsgard, who is determined to see the prince’s wedding plans through for the good of the kingdom. The Grand Duke is a new character that wasn’t in the 1950 movie at all, at least not in this capacity, and while Skarsgard has a sharp rapport with Blanchett, the plot here feels like it doesn’t really go anywhere. We already know that Cinderella and her prince will have their happy ending, after all.
The remaining major character in Cinderella is the Fairy Godmother, played of all people by Helena Bonham Carter. It’s certainly an interesting casting choice, but it works better than you may think. No longer the elegant guardian angel of the 1950 movie, this new fairy godmother is eccentric, silly and mildly incompetent. Helena Bonham Carter is her reliably quirky self in the role, chewing scenery and making a ridiculous spectacle of herself, but despite her limited screentime, she’s a good amount of fun. She certainly isn’t your grandma’s Fairy Godmother, but at least she’s entertaining.
The cast of Cinderella feels sophisticated and timely, but the fact that they aren’t afraid to embrace a classic Disney love story, for all of its simplicity and innocence, actually works great in this case. Like I said, it’s a wonderfully calculated marriage of old and new between both the character writing and performances.
The story of Cinderella is one that most any Disney fan especially is no doubt already familiar with. The live-action remake adds a few new elements, given that its runtime is noticeably longer in contrast to the original 1950 animated Cinderella movie, but it still treads pretty close to the original story. No curveballs. No surprises. Just additions. Heck, many of the key personalities, such as the Fairy Godmother, Grand Duke and Cinderella’s parents, still aren’t even given names! The story remains that simple!
So, you’ll already know how everything is going to turn out going in. Even your children may already be aware of the fact that Cinderella will get exactly what she desires, and all will be well in the end, at least for the good guys. Still, the story of Cinderella in this case may be worn and predictable, but it never feels cloying or saccharine. It’s a well-produced, polished-up re-telling of an old Disney favourite, made undeniably better by its modern production values and small added story nuggets.
The fairy tale at the heart of it all is still the same glossy, optimistic re-telling that Disney originally presented in 1950, sure, but the live-action remake is just as easy to enjoy, for its heart, if not a sense of novelty.
Kenneth Branagh’s background in Shakespeare feels well-suited to the fairy tale-themed, almost play-like stylings of Cinderella. The movie unfolds with a huge sense of heart, relying on dramatic spectacle to substitute for the complete lack of action in the story. Spectacular moments are saved for when they’ll have the most emotional impact, with the rest of the movie helmed to be bright and vibrant, but not obnoxiously so.
Branagh’s sense of style is also well-captured in just how awesome the movie looks as well! Scenes like Cinderella’s transformation by the Fairy Godmother are downright magical to behold, and the movie in general feels like it’s directed with this very retro Disney innocence. It’s naive and a little silly, but Branagh’s direction is nonetheless packed with charm and whimsy. Even at its worst moments, Cinderella is never directed so as not to feel like a happy story. It’s a happy story, it’s a simple story, and Branagh is fully aware of both counts.
The proud embracing of Disney’s classic legacy is perfectly suited to Branagh, who realizes the movie as if it were being acted out in front of us from a storybook. Sure, it’s definitely Disney’s version, not any of the previous 15th Century tellings, and especially not the darker Brothers Grimm version, but it actually makes Disney’s version seem like the preferable telling of the story on pretty much every count, thanks to Branagh directing the movie to be so consistently and effectively loveable, for kids and adults alike!
Regular Kenneth Branagh collaborator, Patrick Doyle composes the soundtrack of Cinderella, which is far more passive here than it is in most other Disney movies. It’s a bright, chipper fantasy soundtrack, and about what you would expect in a movie like this, particularly one with the Disney stamp. If you’re a fan of Disney Princess-esque tunes though, it works well, and contributes nicely to the general sense of girlish enchantment throughout the production.
The rest of the movie’s audio feels pretty quiet and reverent, with only key moments like the glass slipper falling behind Cinderella carrying more punch. While there are some slight nods to the original songs from the 1950 movie, this live-action remake is not a musical either. The audio is clearly as reverent of classic Disney convention as the writing and direction though, having the same light, carefree touch as Cinderella herself.
That reliable Disney polish is all over Cinderella, which just barely manages to squeak under a $100 million budget, no doubt due to the story not having any action, nor a need for any effects beyond the work of the Fairy Godmother. Fortunately, this means that the best and most gorgeous effects are saved for Helena Bonham Carter’s big turn, with her goofy magic being as humourous as it is enchanting.
The highlight of the visuals however is definitely the costume design, which is outstanding! The live-action realization of the Disney-made glass slippers, substituted for the gold slippers from the original story, looks especially breathtaking. It’s unreal how genuinely magical those glass slippers look, even without the cover of animation! The wardrobe department perhaps does an even better job than the effects department, who actually managed to do the impossible, and make Helena Bonham Carter into a credible Fairy Godmother, albeit a weird one!
Cinderella is available in an IMAX cut as well, and my screening was indeed in IMAX. The IMAX cut of the movie is decent, boosting the atmosphere a bit, and making the Fairy Godmother sequence in particular really pop out of the screen, despite the lack of 3D. It’s hardly essential for those who don’t have the option of an IMAX screening, or those who simply wish to stick with a standard digital screening, but it adds at least a bit of added immersion to the movie, and makes solid use of the IMAX screen.
In any case however, Cinderella is incredibly well-produced, and looks absolutely amazing in live-action! All of the charm and whimsy from the original animated movie is present and accounted for in the live-action remake, which is a true joy to watch, so long as you’re alright with the well-established Cinderella story.
Cinderella is a welcome switch from Disney re-writing their legacy in modern years, proving that the studio hasn’t completely abandoned its more unquestionably wholesome direction from decades past. Cinderella is far more conservative than the live-action revamps of classic Disney movies that were delivered with Alice in Wonderland and Maleficent, and even in contrast to their modern fairy tale adaptations such as Tangled and Frozen.
Still, Cinderella effectively subverts the new inadvertent cliche of Disney having to create some sort of twist in the outcome of each of their new live-action fables. It goes back to the style of yore, which now feels fresher and more provocative than trying to force yet another twist to the story, and that also helps the movie carry lots of charm. It’s just a lively, enchanting feel-good movie, like the kind that Disney made their fortune on many decades ago.
Cinderella is ultimately a pretty simple proposition then. It relies on you having an established love on some level for its fairy tale inspiration, or at least the 1950 Disney adaptation to come before, and it relies on you striving for a whole lot of unapologetically happy sweetness. Whether for children or adults though, anyone that satisfies those two conditions will find a beautiful, thoroughly satisfying love story that takes a rather old Disney production, and updates it just enough for a modern live-action revamp, embracing its original vision, and only adding to it, never taking anything away from it.
Sure, a cynic could write off even this new Cinderella movie as being idealistic drivel, but this isn’t a movie for cynics. This is a movie for people of any age who still believe in love and magic and wishing upon stars. With an experience like this, more power to them!
- Story is classic, feel-good Disney magic
- Cate Blanchett is a highlight as Lady Tremaine
- Production value is stunning
- Cynics may find the movie childish