You know the Cinderella story. Everyone does. Across centuries and cultures, it has existed in hundreds of versions, perhaps none more famous than Disney’s 1950 animated musical. That iteration, of the magic words “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” and the helpful talking mice, is lodged in the public imagination as something of the definitive squeaky-clean, paper-thin telling of the orphaned girl mistreated by her stepmother and stepsisters, prepped for a ball by her fairy godmother, and eventually married happily ever after to a prince. It’s familiar. But now Disney’s made a lush live-action adaptation of the story. They’ve resisted the temptations to either exactly duplicate their iconic earlier work or load it up with postmodern winks. In the process, they’ve created a movie of strong and simple sincerity, earnest in its conviction that Cinderella has been a tale good enough to stand on its own for so long, there’s no need to mess with it now.
We meet Ella (Lily James), whose memories of her long-dead mother (Hayley Atwell) and recently dead father (Ben Chaplin) are all she has to sustain her in her present circumstances. Her wicked stepmother (Cate Blanchett) keeps her as a servant, hardly worth regarding on anything like an equal level with two blathering stepsisters (Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera). Ella isn’t even allowed to go to the ball where the handsome prince (Richard Madden) will pick his bride. With some help from the fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter), she’s sure to make it there anyway. The set-up is classically familiar, and elegantly efficient. In this telling, the story is content to be a lovely experience of comfortable rhythms.
The result is a movie that’s never a surprise, but always gloriously old-fashioned. Cinderella is in style and form a throwback, serious about the human emotions flickering in a thin archetypal tale, but light on its feet when it comes to incorporating shimmering, glittering widescreen wonders. The occasional CGI assist aside, it could be the best live action fairy tale of 1962. It’s a softly sturdy CinemaScope spectacle, beautifully appointed and handsomely photographed, Dante Ferretti’s lush pseudo-historical storybook production design flowing in warm colors and fine fabrics. Director Kenneth Branagh marries the pop sensibilities of his Thor with the grandeur of his Shakespeare adaptations, finding a comfortable space of serious lightness. He treats each expected development with sentimentality and gravitas, lightly confident in the story’s ability to operate effectively.
And indeed it does. The frame is filled with gorgeous gowns, lovely waltzing, and a smooth tone of pomp and pageantry. I’ve never much cared for the love story, but the film sells it as a fantastical escape from a horrible circumstance, a dramatic reward of riches for one who so patiently and kindly deserves happiness. I found myself transported into the uncomplicated fantasy of it all, dodgy (mercifully speechless) CG animals and all. In the midst of the usual plot beats and the terrific design, the screenplay by Chris Weitz (About a Boy) provides some degree of shading to the characters’ standard types. The film fleshes in some additional motivations. The prince finally seems not just a handsome man in tight pants, but an actual character too, and a nice, humble, emotional one at that. But the film achieves its most humane nuance simply by bringing in reliably excellent character actors like Derek Jacobi, Stellan Skarsgård, and Nonso Anozie to elevate small but crucial roles.
Best is Blanchett who plays the stepmother in a wonderfully regal Joan Crawford-esque performance halfway between Mildred Pierce and Lady Macbeth. The script provides sympathy for her evil, an understanding of how her heart has hardened that makes her less a pure villain and more a pitiable person lashing out in pain and jealousy. That Ella is able to meet this nastiness with sadness, but ultimately grace and compassion is part of her eventual happily-ever-after. It’s because she’s not a shameless schemer or a callous revenge-seeker that we can appreciate this gentle fantasy. I most liked this sumptuous version for pivoting the theme away from True Love wish fulfillment and towards an emphasis on the importance of kindness and forgiveness. That’s nice. Here there are no songs and no subversion, just a straightforward, irony free, gauzy retelling of this fairy tale at its most family friendly and least overtly sexist. It’s inessential, but sweet.
Note: Disney has paired Cinderella with Frozen Fever, a new short film sequel to their mega-popular – and pretty good – Ice Queen musical you’re still humming. It’s a harmless handful of minutes, with a so-so new song and an inconsequential fresh magical wrinkle. It’s mostly useless. Regardless of their recently announced intention for a feature-length Frozen sequel, this short is dull enough to make me wonder if, creatively at least, the company should just let it…oh, you know.