Having had several incarnations of the Cinderella story over the past sixty years, Disney’s live-action remake of their own sugary animated version of Cinderella from 1950 begs for comparison. One of the biggest points of contention in remaking this older version (as opposed to creating something bold and fresh) is whether or not that specific message — that all of your dreams will come true only once you’ve found your “prince” — is still relevant today. Drew Barrymore helped tear down this reliance in Ever After, where her version of Cinderella was strong enough to not only break free of her societal restraints on her own, but is more than capable of rescuing the prince. Ever After was grounded in the real world, where the only magic found is in her tenacity to control her own fate without relying on someone else to save her. At the same time, Disney knows the idea that exists as part of Cinderella’s overall theme is based on a now silly notion as evidenced by Enchanted, where they themselves make fun of the entire concept of getting married to someone after just a single day of knowing them, simply because they had the capacity to “rescue” them in some way. So with this in mind, does Cinderella, as told by Disney so long ago, still pass the test of time?
Director Kenneth Branagh doesn’t stray very far from the narrative of the animated film except to expand the running time by thirty minutes, most of which are spent fleshing out Cinderella’s (Lily James) back story, told in the original through a mere few minutes of narration. As we all know, Cinderella’s mother (Hayley Atwell) dies, prompting her father (Ben Chaplin) to marry a widower (Cate Blanchett) with two spoiled daughters (Holliday Grainger & Sophie McShera) of her own. Shortly after, her father dies while away on a trip, leaving her to be subjected into what amounts to slavery until she’s rescued by her prince.
Extending the run time is a feat in and of itself, as as there isn’t much story there to begin with, especially when you spend much less time on the shenanigans of the mice that Cinderella (or Ella, who is only nicknamed Cinder-Ella after falling asleep by the fire one night) befriends. Where these characters are an extensive part of the original movie, here they seem to have been added simply because they were part of the animated movie and they had to be included. They hold no real purpose here except to eventually get transformed into horses for a short time.
Where Branagh strays is in the relationship between Ella and the prince. Taking a page from Ever After, he introduces us to the prince (Richard Madden) via a meet-cute with Ella during a ride in the woods where neither reveal who they really are. The prince’s only reason for holding the ball is to draw Ella out so he doesn’t have to marry the princess his father so adamantly wishes him to wed. For the Grand Duke, marriage is simply about station and assets; for the prince, it’s about love, as it is for Ella, whose only reason for attending is the hope she might once again see her wayward “prince”, despite his own claims that he is a meager apprentice of some mysterious art. However, this initial meeting doesn’t fully showcase the chemistry the two actors are supposed to have with one another. They are very cute together, but it’s not as powerful as it needed to be to warrant the need to find each other again.
We also lose something with the removal of the songs from the original film. The one that’s missed more than any other is Bippity-Boppity-Boo, which did a terrific job in turning a wonderfully magical sequence into a fun, whimsical moment. Removing the song disrupts the rhythm of the fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) transforming a pumpkin into a coach, lizards into coachmen and Cinderella into the beautiful woman with signature glass slippers. Branagh tries to infuse humor into the proceedings, but based on the film up to this point, it feels horribly out of place. Basically, what should have been utterly magical and breathtaking is left to wallow in disappointment.
With that said, Branagh still manages to produce a well-made film. With a good dose of special effects and some good casting choices, Branagh paints a world that you can believe in, held together brilliantly by Blanchett as Ella’s stepmother. Blanchett plays pompous arrogance with so much ease, you’d think it was her natural demeanor. Better yet, she is such a master at her craft, she is capable of playing perfectly off every character, especially Granger and McShera who play Anastasia and Drusilla, respectively, with just the right amount of spiteful bullishness. But the relationship that holds the film together is that of the stepmother and Ella, and the chemistry between Blanchett and James is magical.
Though I was hoping to see a little more of the cat, Lucifer (who is completely shafted in a remake of a film where he once ruled the roost), I do think Branagh accomplished a way to take the folk tale written by Charles Perrault and add a bit of depth that was missing from the animated version, not only giving the stepmother a much more active role in keeping the prince away from Ella, but adding the idea that selflessness and treating others fairly without judgment are the traits you need to inhabit to find the happiness you desire. By leading Ella down this path with a promise to her dying mother, it opens the door to the belief that it’s not your appearance that elicits true love or love at first sight, it’s who you are on the inside that matters most. I just wish the film supported that idea a little more thoughtfully and creatively, giving us even more reason to believe that happiness and love are found with courage, fairness and a little bit of magic.
My Grade: B+
Next week, new movies include The Divergent Series: Insurgent and The Gunman. If you would like to see a review of one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.