The third time is the charm for Disney and its insufferable obligation to take its hand-drawn animated classics and make them live action. Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella doesn’t try to reinvent what made the 1950’s iteration so memorable. This isn’t a reworking of the story like last year’s Maleficent. Nor is it a blustering or ostentatious mess like Tim Burton’s take on Alice in Wonderland. No, Branagh’s version leads by example, with heart and charm and a splendid production design. All it took was a little bibbidi-bobbidi-boo magic to give the classic story a refreshing spin.
A billowy blue gown. Glass slippers. A not-quite-nice stepmom. These are hallmarks that admirers of the famed Disney princess can recall without hesitation. All are present and accounted for. As is a hairy dogmother, uh, forgive me, fairy godmother, and the chesse-nibbling house mouse Gus.
Lily James stars as the titular heroine and she is a fine choice. It is the first of many great choices of the production. Looking like a young Jessica Lange she imbues her character with the positive characteristics of courage and kindness. Both help her through the dark times when losing her parents, or dealing with her insufferable stepmother and siblings.
Cate Blanchett as the icy Lady Tremaine is very much an impatient wench who can’t stand Ella or her optimism. She and her daughters, Anastasia (Holiday Grainger) and Drizella (Sophie McShera), take advantage of the idealistic lass when the opportunity presents itself, and Ella does her best to not get emotional in their presence.
When Ella has a chance meeting with Kit (Richard Madden) she has no idea that he is the royal prince of the land. She is taken by his kindness and being someone who refers to himself as a “royal apprentice.” Kit is bemused by Ella’s earnestness, mistaking her for a woman of nobility. Their encounter is short-lived but an opportunity presents itself where their paths can cross again. Kit’s ill father (Derek Jacobi) arranges a ball to help his prince son find a princess. Kit offers the addendum that all the maidens in the land be able to attend. Having refashioned one of her mother’s old dresses, Ella is anxious to go to the dance, but Lady Tremaine and her ugly-in-heart daughters undermine her confidence with spitefulness. With hope diminished Ella’s Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) appears and transforms the dress into a flowing blue gown, a pumpkin into a carriage and the mice into horses to get her to lavish party.
Oh, and the shoes. If there’s anything Ella’s Godmother knows, it is shoes. And the pair she makes for her is added insurance that she’ll be the belle of the ball.
The pleasure zone of Cinderella doesn’t reach full tilt until you include Sandy Powell’s costumes and Dante Ferretti’s production design. This is like the ultimate power couple of fashion and accouterments. Having dressed Ewan McGregor and Christian Bale as glamrockers (Velvet Goldmine) and Julianne Moore’s 1950s Connecticut housewife (Far From Heaven), Powell scours decades, sometimes centuries, for visual inspirations. Lady Tremaine’s dress attire puts Hilary Clinton’s pantsuits to shame, as does her proclivity for fashionable hats. Ferretti has been a longstanding collaborator of filmmaker Martin Scorsese, having dressed the sets of 19th century high society New York (The Age of Innocence) and 1930s Paris (Hugo). It is because of Scorsese that Powell’s and Ferretti’s paths have crossed on projects like Gangs of New York, The Aviator, and Shutter Island. You can bring umbrage to those films for any number of reasons but low on that list is the meticulousness of the costumes and production.
Cinderella is playful and fun, and gorgeous to look at, but it is also hopeful in spirit. As an animated film all Cinderella had to be was be beautiful and sweet. However, here she’s more than Ms. Goody Two Shoes. (Actually, make that Ms. Goody One Glass Slipper Missing.) The simple fact that Ella’s mother (Hayley Atwell), on her deathbed, tells her to be courageous and kind above all else is powerful advice. Especially considering the original Disney movies presented situations where little girls were led to believe that they could nab a prince on appearance alone. It was like preconditioning girls before going to college to find a qualified suitor.
Kenneth Branagh’s traditional approach to the classic story could have backtracked by simply presenting beauty as good and ugly as evil in terms of appearance. Lady Tremaine and Ella’s stepsisters may be look like they put on makeup with paint sprayers, but their ugliness resides within. Ella’s beauty is her fearless spirit and kind heart.
The meet-cute moment between Ella and Kit in the woods is conventional and would be a flat romance if it weren’t for each other’s backstory, which shares doomed parents making them both sensitive souls. With their second encounter at the ball the two learn more about each other and through this want to spend more time together. A few days pass between first encounter and engagement is perfunctory, yes, but the romance is genuine if only to make that glass slipper moment a joy to behold with a theater crowd.
Cate Blanchett may have a few moments of scenery chewing but it is Lily James who is worthy to being first-billed. Her goodness could have become boring, yet James makes Cinderella’s trials an adventure in adversity. Another memorable character, but whose time is short on screen, is Derek Jacobi. In no less than three scenes he makes his screen time count with wit and wisdom.
Cinderella may be traditional in its presentation, but it is a story that need not be tampered with making an ugly stepmother the heroine. A beautiful fairy tale that is hopeful and with good advice, Kenneth Branagh has fashioned the best Disney princess make-over thus far.
One last note. Preceding the film is the animated short, Frozen Fever. For those who can’t get enough of Elsa and Anna, this short about a birthday party should do the trick until the next full-length Frozen movie comes around.
Director: Kenneth Branagh Writer: Chris Weitz Notable Cast: Lily James, Cate Blanchett, Richard Madden, Helena Bonham Carter, Stellan Skarsgard, Holliday Grainger, Sophie McShera, Derek Jacobi, Ben Chaplin, Haley Atwell
Travis Leamons is one of the Inside Pulse Originals and currently holds the position of Managing Editor at Inside Pulse Movies. He's told that the position is his until he's dead or if "The Boss" can find somebody better. I expect the best and I give the best. Here's the beer. Here's the entertainment. Now have fun. That's an order!