To borrow a phrase from President Obama, let me be clear: I'm absolutely opposed to this glut of live-action fairy tale movies we're getting these days. The movie largely responsible for this current trend – Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland – is an insufferable train wreck; a soulless whimsy-fest that seemingly has no understanding of what makes Lewis Carroll's book (or the loose Disney animated adaptation of it) so appealing. I object to the way a diverse collection of stories are being shoved into the same generic action/fantasy mold, and to the way that cheap nostalgia is being permitted to serve as a substitute for smart storytelling. As I write this, there are numerous Disney animated movies being retooled as live-action features, and pretty much all of them sound completely unnecessary (especially Mr. Burton's Dumbo). All of that being said: I flat-out love Kenneth Branagh's new live-action adaptation of Disney's Cinderella.
Branagh and screenwriter Chris Weitz have given us a film that feels resolutely (almost defiantly) old-fashioned. It's a straightforward, sentimental retelling of the tale that remains faithful to Disney's iconic film but deepens the story in a number of smart, thoughtful ways. The film is earnest to a fault, wearing its heart on its sleeve and resisting the temptation to filter the movie through ironic, post-modern sensibilities. It's a triumphant return to form for Branagh, whose passionate classical instincts are put to tremendous use here. His directorial voice hasn't felt this strong since his flawed-but-magnificent 1996 adaptation of Hamlet.
This story has been told often enough that a synopsis isn't really necessary, so let me merely say that the animated version is used to form the foundation of the plot: wicked stepmother, handsome prince, royal ball, fairy godmother, glass slippers, etc. However, there are significant additions added to the mix: an extended prologue gives us a look at young Ella's happy, comfortable early years, when her father (Ben Chaplin, The Thin Red Line) and mother (Hayley Atwell, Captain America: The First Avenger) were still alive. The relationship between Ella (Lily James, Downton Abbey) and the Prince (Richard Madden, Game of Thrones) is transformed into... well, an actual relationship. The actions taken by Ella's wicked Stepmother (Cate Blanchett, Notes on a Scandal) are given a good deal more motivation here, and the relationship between the Prince and his ailing father (Derek Jacobi, Dead Again) is granted a measure of bittersweet depth.
The most immediately striking thing about Cinderella is what a ridiculously gorgeous-looking movie it is. I kid you not when I say that the vivid colors, warm 35mm cinematography, sumptuous production design and immediately striking costumes often make the film look like the spitting image of a Powell and Pressburger production. All of these elements reach a high point during the royal ball sequence: as Ella and the Prince share a joyous first dance (to the strains of a swoon-inducing waltz by composer Patrick Doyle), the camera spins around and around, soaking up every lovely detail (Ella's magnificent ballgown, the palace's lavish interior, the Prince's hand on Ella's back, the glass slippers gliding across the dance floor, the love-drunk smiles) in wildly cinematic fashion. It's easy to imagine Max Ophuls applauding from the balcony.
Thankfully, there's a lot to appreciate beyond the film's technical virtues. There are many people who have dubbed Cinderella a “retrograde” heroine; a young woman who does nothing more than wait for a happy ending to fall in her lap. Despite her popularity, she's quite possibly the least interesting Disney princess, so it was essential that the filmmakers find a way to make her more compelling. Alice in Wonderland and Snow White and the Huntsman both updated their supposedly “retrograde” heroines in the same dull, one-dimensional way: by stripping the characters of their old identities and giving them swords. “Look, they're strong women now!” the movies seemed to say, shrugging off the fact that they had merely turned their characters into more socially acceptable stereotypes.
Branagh and Weitz make Ella genuinely strong by accepting her for who she is and finding ways to deepen that. Her strength is not in her ability to mow down scores of soldiers in battle, but in her patience, kindness and resilience. She quietly endures one indignity after another from her stepmother and step-sisters, not because she has to – it's made clear that she could choose to leave at any point – but because she wishes to honor a promise she made to her late father. Her oft-repeated mantra (perhaps too oft-repeated, honestly) is, “be kind, and have courage.” She falls for the prince not because he's a handsome dude (though he certainly fits that description), but because he demonstrates the sort of tenderhearted kindness she values. Ella's final words to her stepmother are a beautiful, surprisingly moving summary of who she is.
Lily James is charismatic and appealing in the title role, but the finest performance in the film comes from Cate Blanchett. If you're familiar with the animated movie, you'll be astonished by Blanchett's uncanny ability to recreate the character's menacing smile and oh-so-poised body language while simultaneously making the part her own. Blanchett is granted a stylish, Old Hollywood look that allows us to imagine what it might have been like to see Joan Crawford playing this role, and she nails every scene she appears in. Better still, the complexity brought to the character doesn't prevent the stepmother from being a full-blown villain: Blanchett delivers pure, black-hearted wickedness from start to finish... she just so happens to be recognizably human, too.
Let my temper all of this praise with the admission that the film occasionally struggles with some of the goofier elements it borrows from the animated film. The CGI mice never really worked for me, in part because the movie seems indecisive on whether it wants to present them as real mice or adorable anthropomorphized mice. This applies doubly to Lucifer the Cat, who was so much more memorable (and menacing) in the animated movie. The CG effects tend to look a bit wobbly in general, perhaps because so much money was spent on the the terrific practical effects. Additionally, Branagh's occasional attempts to inject a bit of humor into the mix are hit-and miss. Helena Bonham Carter's brief appearance as the Fairy Godmother is sort of amusing on its own terms (she seems to be playing the Fairy Godmother as Johnny Depp playing the Fairy Godmother), but feels a little out of sync with the rest of the movie.
Those quibbles aside, Cinderella is one of 2015's most pleasant surprises. It's a fine demonstration of both what these live-action fairy tale adaptations ought to be and of the sort of thing Kenneth Branagh needs to be doing more often. Branagh's terrific early work is largely comprised of bold, romantic, melodramatic literary adaptations, but his old-fashioned brand of storytelling has fallen out of fashion in the 21st century. He's adapted his style to meet the requirements of modern filmmaking with mixed results (I love his minimalist Sleuth, like his inconsistent but entertaining Thor and dislike his generic Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit), but with Cinderella he finds the perfect outlet for his distinctive voice. Here's hoping it marks the beginning of Branagh's creative resurgence, and the beginning of a new direction for Disney's live-action fairy tales.
Note: The film is preceded by the animated short Frozen Fever, which spotlights the characters from Disney's beloved Frozen planning a birthday party. It's a pleasant but instantly forgettable bit of fan service, highlighted by a couple of chuckle-inducing sight gags. The bulk of the short is built around a new song called "Making Today a Perfect Day," which is catchy but a little generic. Clearly, the folks who made the short are saving their better ideas for Frozen 2.
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 112 minutes
Release Year: 2015