I have friends who have worked hard to assure me that Cinderella, unlike Maleficent, doesn’t take a dump all over the Disney animation on which it’s based in the same way that all these pointless live action remakes usually do. I’ve been told time and time again that this remake actually follows the original story almost flawlessly, which, in a number of ways, almost made me regard its existence as even more bafflingly pointless.
So it seemed at first, anyway. Kenneth Branagh‘s live action rehash of Disney’s fairy tale-classic Cinderella, starring Lily James as the eponymous maid turned princess, seemed to me like it was gonna simply redo the original movie scene-by-scene and add nothing new to the table outside of pretty visuals. Although the film turned out to actually be worse than that when I saw it, there were some things the movie did unexpectedly well that almost made me excuse it. Note the “almost”.
Early in the film, we see Cinderella as a young child, here known by her true name Ella, as she loses her parents and is forced to live the rest of her life with the recently widowed Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett), a harsh and cruel woman with two equally unpleasant daughters (Sophie McShera and Holliday Grainger) plus a nasty cat. Ella grows up and becomes Lily James, spending most of her days doing chores in the Tremaine household and getting viciously abused along the way, her only friends being the mice that infest the building. One day, however, her slavish life takes a drastic turn as she goes into the woods and meets a handsome hunter who, unbeknownst to her, is the son of the land’s dying king played by Derek Jacobi (the only actor in the film that does a genuinely great job) This prince, named Kit, is played by Richard Madden, making me hope that his and Ella’s wedding is of the Red variety.
The two become immediately infatuated with each other, prompting Kit to convince his father that even those as poor as Ella are to be invited to the upcoming castle ball, which is intended to provide the young prince with a bride; a bride that he now wants to be Ella. Upon the announcement of the ball, Lady Tremaine only cares to help her biological daughters get ready for the night and you all know how the rest goes. Cinderella tries to make a dress on her own, it gets ripped to shreds by her step-sisters, and she cries a magical tear that summons her watchful protector The Fairy Godmother, played here by Helena Bonham Carter. Carter, I love you and I want your babies and all that, but for this role, I always imagined someone like Ellen DeGeneres. No hard feelings.So The Fairy Godmother waves her wand and gives Cinderella the most fancy party gear she can imagine, but this spell will only last until midnight (for some reason), so after going to the ball, hanging out with her sweet prince for a while, and hearing the bell toll midnight, she storms off and leaves only a glass slipper behind. Oh and Stellan Skarsgård appears for a bit as The Grand Duke, who has secretly arranged that Kit marries another kingdom’s princess, a scheme which the existence of Cinderella interferes with. So there’s that.
This is definitely much better than most of the other re-imaginings of animated classics we’ve been given over the past couple of years. Among the things that this movie does so much better than the likes of Alice in Wonderland and the aforementioned Maleficent is that it doesn’t try to be darker and edgier in its visual style, whatever the point of that trend is. Cinderella is colorful and pretty to look at, and it certainly uses its colors in a more aesthetically pleasing manner than films like The Cat in The Hat. Ugh, but let’s not even speak of that movie!
The point is that this is most likely about as good as one of these remakes can feasibly get. The music is still nice and the switch to live action allows us to appreciate some really gorgeous costumes and equally pretty sets, and despite the digital effects often falling into gimmick territory, they too look wonderful when they’re actually used to recreate imagery from the original fairy tale in an updated manner. But then you have things like Lily James’ performance (somehow giving us an even more character-deprived Cinderella than in the 1950 movie), the insufferably overblown sugar-sweetness/whimsy of particularly the early scenes, and characters that feel more cartoon-y than the cartoons they were based on in the first place – I’m looking at you, Lady Blanchett and the stepsisters. Also, the mice don’t talk in this one. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether that is an improvement.
Cinderella is not nearly as good as critics seemingly believe it to be, but it is refreshing indeed that we finally have a live action remake of a Disney classic that (usually) gets it relatively right in terms of faithfulness, both when it comes to spirit and when it comes to the storyline. It’s not a great film, but I do get more hopeful for films such as the upcoming Beauty and the Beast re-imagining with Emma Watson in the main part, even if I still think it’s a safe bet that those who recently greenlit live action remakes for The Secret of Nimh and frickin’ Dumbo aren’t quite as trustworthy or smart. I guess we’ll see, huh?
Also, there’s a Frozen short played before each screening of Cinderella in which ice queen Elsa has a cold whilst preparing for her sister Anna’s birthday party. It is exactly as exciting as it sounds.