Over the past half decade Walt Disney Studios has spent a great deal of time and money to create live action versions of some of their own animated classics. While these films have performed at the box office, creatively they were often lacking. The studio may have finally found its own fairy godmother in the form of director Kenneth Branagh and his new adaptation of “Cinderella.”
The Oscar nominated filmmaker is best known for shepherding new versions of “Hamlet” and “Henry V” to the big screen. The former was released almost 20 years ago, but Branagh earned a reputation for bringing a modern sense of realism to Shakespeare's creations even if the stories were still set in the distant past. This talent made him a smart choice to direct the underrated “Thor” and an even better hire for a movie that could have been just another shell for Disney”s consumer product division.
The latest incarnation of the classic fairy tale mostly follows the version put forth by Charles Perrault in 1697's “Cendrillon.” The marked difference is an opening sequence that focuses on the loving relationship between a young Ella (Eloise Webb) and her mother (an almost unrecognizable Haley Atwell). Ella's mother instills a remarkable kindness within her daughter and a love for animals and the family's country home. Tragically, her mother passes away due to a sudden illness leaving Ella”s goodhearted father (Ben Chaplin) to raise her by himself. Eventually, with Ella in her late teens, her father asks permission for one more chance at happiness. That comes in the form of a recently widowed socialite Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett) and her own two daughters, Anastasia and Drizella (Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera). Always looking on the bright side of life, Ella (now played enthusiastically by Lily James) wholly endorses her father's wishes and Lady Tremaine and her little devils quickly arrive to stir the pot.
Branagh and screenwriter Chris Weitz make some interesting choices at this point in the story and throughout, for that matter. Blanchett plays the classic wicked stepmother with a wonderful Joan Crawford inspired facade, but they intentionally make her character less sympathetic than you might expect. Our understanding of the Lady”s motives are communicated in one telegraphed scene where she overhears Ella and her father discussing their love for her departed mother and how they see her in their home, which Tremaine now lives in, every day. This would potentially hurt anyone and it's just enough to plant the seed of resentment between Ella and her new Stepmother. When Ella's father passes away during a long business trip, our heroine”s situation becomes increasingly dire. Lady Tremaine certainly becomes increasingly manipulative, but her actions aren't over her dislike of Ella as a person. Instead, it's the frustration and burden of becoming potentially destitute with the death of yet another husband. The filmmakers could have expanded on this, but that might have made it just a smidgen too real. They don't want the audience to forget they're watching a fairy tale and want to keep things just fantastical enough for hope to live behind every corner (or almost talking mouse).
Ella”s new family slowly uses peer pressure to make her the de facto house servant. Who else could wash the clothes and cook the meals? These clearly aren't skills Anastasia and Drizella have learned (we comically discover they actually have no talents whatsoever). Her stepsisters are smart enough to christen her with the nickname Cinderella though after she awakens with an ash-covered face after spending a night sleeping by the fire. Bella certainly isn't happy about her situation, but she's so inherently optimistic and loves her house so much that she seems resigned to just grin and bear it. However, after one particular episode where Lady Tremaine spectacularly insults her, she has something of an emotional breakdown, jumps on a horse and races through the woods to try to blow off some steam. That's where she first encounters Kit (a charming Richard Madden), the Kingdom”s most eligible bachelor who is happy to find a young lady who doesn”t recognize him as the heir to the throne. It's hard for any actor or director to pull off love at first sight, but Branagh is lucky enough that James and Madden have just enough genuine on screen chemistry to make you at least want to believe it's possible.
Eventually, the tale proceeds, as you'd expect. Prince Charming wants to find the mysterious girl he met in the forest so a ball is set to determine his bride. Lady Tremaine sees this as the best opportunity to escape misfortune and mistakenly believes one of his daughters could actually win his hand. And Cinderella? There is no way that Diva is going to take the chance her dowdy stepdaughter might embarrass her in front of the rest of the realm. She'll remain on the farm, thank you very much.
It should be noted that Weitz plays with the third act slightly by adding another justification for Lady Tremaine's actions, makes the King's wishes a significant part of the story and extends the search for Cinderella after the ball, but all and all it's still basically the traditional story Perrault wrote centuries ago. Yes, there is a magical Fairy Godmother (a kooky and glammed up Helena Bonham Carter), a pumpkin coach and that iconic glass slipper. Still, there are certainly moments where you wonder if this is the Cinderella little girls should aspire to be. 1998's “Ever After” was a wonderfully contemporary take on the tale that empowered our heroine to aspire to be more than a princess. Almost 20 years later, this Bella's strength comes from her inherent optimism and belief in kindness. Is that enough for the 21st Century? It certainly slightly disconcerting and will be a discussion point for some parents, but sitting in theater its hard not to get swept up in Branagh's old-fashioned cinematic magic.
It must be noted that Branagh couldn”t come close to pulling that off without some absolutely jaw-dropping costumes by designer Sandy Powell, another beautiful score by longtime collaborator Patrick Doyle and impressive production design by Dante Ferretti. In particular, Ferretti helps create an intricately detailed land for Branagh to explore whether in physical or CG form.
What makes “Cinderella” work is the combination of some textbook eye candy and the delightful pairing of James and Madden. When Cinderella arrives at the ball, after the audience has spent a good hour primarily at the farmhouse, it needs to be a magical moment and it is. That first dance between Bella and Prince Charming? A wonderfully conceived and staged sequence that exceeds your expectations. The climactic moment of discovery? It features a smart storytelling twist that you might not have seen coming.
Is this the “Cinderella” little girls and boys need in 2015? Not necessarily, but if it encourages them dream a little more is that such a bad thing?
“Cinderella” opens nationwide on March 13.