Disney has created a mini industry over the last 5 years in adapting fantasy into live action films: Alice in Wonderland, Oz The Great and Powerful, Maleficent. They have all achieved remarkable box office success. You wouldn’t think that adapting a fantasy would be difficult. After all, these stories have stood the test of time. While each version has had their moments, they’ve always fallen victim to traps of our current age that keep them from feeling like a timeless work of art….until now. The funny thing is, Cinderella should have been the most difficult to adapt. No Disney princess has been more harshly condemned than Cinderella. The criticisms by now legendary: “She’s one-dimensional.“ “She’s bland – too passive.” “She’s reactionary – waiting around for her prince instead of actively doing something to improve her situation.”. And yet the character endures. With Cinderella, the studio has for the first time, created a work that not only respects the classic fable, but still manages to enchant a contemporary audience.
Kenneth Branagh has accomplished something that is revolutionary in 2015. He doesn’t re-invent the fairy tale. He doesn’t modernize it. He doesn’t try to inject winking irony into the proceedings. Those maneuvers, while in vogue, have always negated the original text by descending into camp. Along with screenwriter Chris Weitz, Branagh has done a most inconceivable thing. He somehow cherishes the heart of the 1950 Disney animated movie while elevating the character into someone to admire. That one’s noble heart and unyielding virtue can itself bring reward. If after watching Cinderella, you still think its moral is that lonely girls who wait, will one day be rescued by a handsome prince, then you haven’t been paying attention.
With Cinderella free to just be what it is, the production can concentrate on making the story seem magical again. This is, after all, a fairy tale. It takes what the audience is familiar with and utilizes our modern age to make it better. One of the high points is the magical appearance of her fairy godmother played by Helena Bonham Carter. It’s nice to see the actress look beautiful in a fantasy again. Her pre-ball interaction with Cinderella is a pure delight. Watching the pumpkin become a coach, mice become horses and lizards become footmen is a marvel of CGI that feels like just the right amount to dazzle the eyes, but not so much that it descends into a garish technological spectacle. The magic continues as Cinderella makes it to the reception at the castle. As Cinderella, Downton Abbey’s Lily James suggests a young Jessica Lange, particularly in her gorgeously made up face. The set piece at the ball is a sumptuous parade of choreographed dancers who spin and turn in unison. The party scene a dazzling display of color and merriment that is every bit as wondrous a moment as you can imagine.
Cinderella is comprised of a cast that perfectly interprets the individuals in the fairy tale. The script preserves the basis of these people while expounding upon them to give motivation for their behavior. The King (Derek Jacobi), The Grand Duke (Stellan Skarsgård), the Captain (Nonso Anozie), the wicked stepsisters (Holliday Grainger & Sophie McShera) all have a depth to them. And what would any great drama be without an entertaining villain? Cate Blanchett makes an iconic Stepmother. She does an admirable job of portraying the exaggerated portrait of a hissable villain – yet believably rooted in the attitudes of a jealous adult who would put her own selfish desires before that of a child.
Cinderella has done the unthinkable – preserved the spirit of the original tale, while promoting an empowering message. Actress Lily James is a fetching heroine – a creature of integrity. The ”love at first sight” relationship between the Prince and Cinderella is kept simple, but clarified in a way to make it more commendable. You understand why Cinderella and the Prince are drawn to each other initially when they meet in the forest under more modest circumstances and then again at the ball. It is her selfless personality that is emphasized. When the Prince (Richard Madden) talks of the mysterious girl he met in the forest, his desire is motivated by Cinderella’s words. There is more to their relationship than mere beauty. The poor girl that has been treated like a maid in her own home, has finally felt what it’s like to be a princess. At the beginning of the story, Cinderella’s mother imparts these words of wisdom on her deathbed: “Have courage and be kind. Where there is kindness, there is goodness and where there is goodness, there is magic.” By holding fast to the notion that Cinderella is first and foremost the epitome of virtue, they have fashioned a heroine of female empowerment that is laudable simply because she is a compassionate human being. The concept is revolutionary.