Growing up, I saw nearly all of the Disney classics, willingly or not, hundreds of times by proxy. My sister was a huge fan, like most young girls. Perhaps unlike most others though, my sister would watch movies she loved in phases, not just Disney movies per se. She would watch the same movie, every day, for weeks and weeks and then switch to a new one and do the same. It happened so much that I grew to resent a handful of movies that I later came to love, like The Princess Bride. She had a rotation of six Disney movies that consisted of more modern popular titles The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King, and two classics in Bambi and Cinderella. With the release of the latest live-action Disney update of their animated classics, 2015’s Cinderella got me thinking of the classic and how they would update it, if they needed to, and if would be anything new or fresh.
Most people know the story of Cinderella, mainly from the 1950 Disney animated classic, so I’ll refrain from giving a basic summary of the plot. Needless to say, all of the familiar elements are there: a wicked stepmother, ugly stepsisters, a ball, a fairy godmother, glass slippers, a prince, and happily ever after. Ella (Downton Abbey’s Lily James) is the eponymous Cinderella, a name of derision given to her by her stepsisters, Anastasia (Holliday Grainger) and Drisella (Sophie McShera, also of Downton Abbey fame) and their mother, Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett). Richard Madden (Game of Thrones’ Robb Stark, “King in the North!”) portrays Kip, the young prince who falls for Ella, with Derek Jacobi as his father the king, and Stellan Skarsgard as the Grand Duke. Helena Bonham Carter gets a memorable scene as Ella’s fairy godmother and Hayley Atwell and Ben Chaplin have roles at the beginning of the film as Ella’s parents.
Here the story stays mostly true to form, but there is more back story and a few slight tweaks that add some nice shading in and make for a more well-rounded story. When Ella is a young girl, her mother falls ill and her parting words to her are to “have courage and be kind.” It is a theme that runs throughout the film. There is a hint of reason behind the cruelty of Cate Blanchett’s Lady Tremaine toward Ella, something that does not exist in the animated movie. One thing I always found problematic with the animated classic is that the prince is largely absent in the search for Cinderella after the ball. Screenwriter Chris Weitz and director Kenneth Branagh rectify this and make him more proactive in the search. There is even a reason given for why Ella tolerates the abuse at the hands of her tormenters. The film also plays a bit with the third act and changes the story enough to make it so that Ella is not just a damsel in distress in need of a validation through a man who saves her, even though some critics have made that charge.
I cannot recall how long it has been since I have seen the animated film, which was refreshing as I was able to approach the film with somewhat fresh eyes that were not entirely colored by the previous film. I was surprised how much the film grew on me and slowly won me over with a sense of childlike wonder for the storytelling. It also opened up themes in the story I did not notice or pay attention to when I was a kid and it was being viewed on endless loops by my sister.
A big reason the film works is because of the cast. Lily James does a wonderful job as Ella, embodying the charge of her mother to “have courage and be kind.” Some critics of the film have said that she does not show courage, and it is all just excessive kindness. However, it takes a great deal of courage to be kind in the face of cruelty. I also laud her, Branagh, and Weitz for not feeling the need to engage in too much revisionism as to fundamentally change the character. While the strong female protagonists of Brave and Frozen and other films in recent years are positive changes in the “Disney princess” stereotype, this portrayal of Cinderella shows that there are different ways to embody a strong female lead in a fairy tale world. One of the ways Ella displays courage is that she puts up with the abuse and cruelty because of her love for her parents. The house is her connection to them and she puts up with it all because she cherishes that connection to them.
Another who is a delight is Cate Blanchett, who perfectly embodies the wicked stepmother role. Her wicked stepmother has a practiced air of authority that shows cracks in her armor from time to time. There is a hint of a tragic back story for her, a story that causes her to become hardened and cynical because of the loss she has experienced and the need to provide for her two vapid daughters, whom she readily admits are disappointments. It doesn’t justify her actions and it doesn’t make her sympathetic like Maleficent in last year’s revision of Sleeping Beauty, but it does explain and does that necessary shading in of a character.
Another aspect of considerable praise is the costume design of the movie. No doubt an Oscar nomination is in the forecast for this film. The time and place of the setting for the film is some nondescript kingdom, with fashion ranging from that of mid-18th to early-20th century, and pulled together to fit nicely. I could easily imagine Cate Blanchett’s wardrobe being worn in a classic 1930s contemporary film. The colors are vibrant but also not outlandish. And the nail the dress for Ella at the ball, even if the transformation of the rags to the dress is a bit overdone.
What stuck with me more than any of the performances or the costume design were the major themes of the story; something I never paid attention to in the animated film as a child. Even if some of it is a bit on the nose at times, especially the ending moment between Cinderella and Lady Tremaine, it still works, especially when you keep in mind the target audience. There are strong themes of kindness, grace, and forgiveness permeating the story. Cinderella, not just in a way that makes her a paragon of virtue but because she loves her deceased parents and wants to honor them, actively practices turning the other cheek. She returns hate with love and grace and kindness. In this sense, it reminds me of Selma, and the power of Martin Luther King Jr.’s message of love and peace over hate and violence; the packaging and the form of the message may be drastically different, but the content is similar.
Not all of it works. Some of Cinderella’s interactions with the animals is awkward in a live-action setting. The secret garden scene with Cinderella on a swing felt awkward initially. Some of the light-hearted humor is a bit on the cheesy side. And the ending looked like it was an attempt to capitalize on the success of Frozen. But these did not do more than momentarily distract from the overall quality of the film.
Thinking back on the original animated film, the mice (don’t worry, they’re in here too), Cinderella’s interaction with them, and some memorable songs seem to be the things that stick in my mind the most. There is little that engages there for me much beyond the surface level. In fact, Cinderella sometimes feels like a background character in her own story with more attention put on the mice and the Grand Duke at times. Here, the story and themes feel much more fully fleshed out and the characters more fully formed and brought to life. Of all of the recent live adaptations of classic Disney animated films, this one is the most resonant, which is refreshing because it also happens to be the one that hews closest to the source material.
Rating 3 1/2 out of 5 stars