If you told me 10-15 years ago that there would be a live action ‘Cinderella’ movie directed by Kenneth Branagh and written by half the directors of ‘American Pie’, I would have told you to “Shut yo mouth” like one of the backup singers in ‘Shaft’. Yet here we are many moons later, and not only has that come to pass, but almost feels inevitable.
Disney seems intensely committed to reviving all its old animated properties in live action, so a new ‘Cinderella’ was inescapable (even if Disney just released a live action ‘Cinderella’ retelling in ‘Into the Woods’, but whatever…). Chris Wietz made an unexpected slide from comedy into fantasy long ago for reasons best known to himself, and after being hired to helm ‘Thor’, Kenneth Branagh has transformed into the most unlikely blockbuster practitioner to ever bust a block. So, this movie was practically preordained like a sad servant girl destined to win over a prince at the big ball. The final product is pretty much exactly what you’d expect. It’s charming, if deeply and distractingly old-fashioned.
In keeping with recent Disney reboots like ‘Maleficent’ or ‘Alice in Wonderland’, the tale’s backstory has been bolstered significantly, but at least it hasn’t been transformed into ‘Lord of the Rings’-style fantasy spectacle for no apparent reason. No, Branagh and Wietz keep things fairly faithful to the source, and the director even amassed an almost entirely British cast to make this feel like the most expensive episode of BBC fairy tale theater ever produced.
Things start shakily with an overly idyllic childhood for Ella (the “Cinder” comes later) in which her mother drones on endlessly about loving nature and remaining pure. Blah blah blah, mommy dies and Daddy-Ella marries a wicked stepmother (wonderfully and theatrically played by Cate Blanchett). This time, the step-momma gets a backstory involving being betrayed by a man and forced into finding an unhappy marriage to support her sniffy daughters (Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera, playing villains who are just ugly on the inside this time).
Daddy dies and Ella is forced to slave away for her evil stepmother and stepsisters. She ends up covered in cinders from working in the kitchen and sleeping in an attic with only CGI mice for company. (Thankfully, they don’t sing.) So, the sisters call her Cinder-Ella, and thus the legend is born. Before you know it, Prince Charming has a ball, a fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter, doing exactly what you’d expect) gives Cinderella a pretty dress and glass shoes, and you know the rest of the story. It’s ‘Cinderella’.
Despite my flippancy in that plot summery, there’s no denying that the nicest part of this remake is how sincerely Branagh and his team approach the material. There’s no ‘Shrek’-style pop culture irony, and no CGI battle scenes to awkwardly spice up the source material. Everyone involved committed to making an old-fashioned fairy tale, and it’s oddly refreshing to see that again. The millions of dollars that Disney funneled into the production pay off with a larger-than-life aesthetic that feels halfway between a live action cartoon and an elaborate Broadway show. It’s all very pleasant, pretty, sweet and sincere in a way that’s hard to be overly cynical about. This is a fairy tale, after all.
The cast commit fully, in good ways and bad. Lily James and Richard Madden play idealized fairy tale leads without a single wink to the camera, and do so well even if those old archetypes lack any real human core. Blanchett steals away the entire movie by playing her villainess as an evil character straight out of classic Hollywood, with vamping expressions and flowing hair. The character should feel a bit wooden as written, but Blanchett revels in the cartoonish evil with such delight that it’s impossible not to fall under her spell. Bonham Carter delivers her usual eccentric insanity and gives the movie is biggest burst of genuine laughs as the fairy godmother. A few other ringers like Rob Brydon and Stellan Skarsgard put more effort into their minor characters than they deserve, but all that really does is make one-dimensional characters two-dimensional. Don’t expect too much.
Branagh is fully in control of the production from the first frame and delivers the face value fantasy with class and panache (even sticking in his old buddy Derek Jacobi as the king). Some might be surprised that the director whose career once seemed destined to be exclusively Shakespearean has ended up making massive popcorn fodder, but that always seemed to interest him for those paying attention. Beyond the handful of thrillers he made between bouts with the Bard, his Shakespeare adaptations were always big and poppy. Even his Oscar-nominated debut (and still his best movie) ‘Henry V’ was played as an action epic. The man always wanted to entertain, and now he can on the largest possible scale. His ‘Cinderella’ offers exactly what’s promised with effortless grace. This is as good of a movie as a sincere adaptation of ‘Cinderella’ could possibly be, and that’s just fine. There’s an audience for it and they will be pleased.
It has to be said that after the empowered princess tales that Disney has cranked out over the last 5-10 years, this story is showing its age. It doesn’t really have a feminist angle, and the tale teaches young women that their existence can be validated by a rich man so long as they’re naturally beautiful, kind, quiet, and wear a killer dress/shoe combo. An argument can be made that such stories probably aren’t relevant for the young girls of today. However, letting politics get in the way of a fantasy this sweetly and sincerely traditional seems like a bit of an overreaction. ‘Cinderella’ is harmless old-timey family fantasy fluff for those who have an interest in such things. No one else was ever going to see it anyway, so let those folks have their fun.