Review: Disney's 'Cinderella' Is The Fairest Of Them All
Forbes, 23 February 2015
Thumbnail: Lush, colorful, with an emphasis on empathy and empowerment, Walt Disney's 'Cinderella' is the best film yet in their “turn our animated classics into live-action blockbusters” sub-genre.
Next up came last summer’s 'Maleficent', which was more of a sidequel (think 'Saw IV') which retold the tale of Sleeping Beauty before and during the timeline of the classic tale from the point of view of the somewhat sympathetic Maleficent. The title character was of course played by Angelina Jolie, which was a big part of why the film, a production nightmare that it was, opened with $69m and went on to earn $241m domestic and $758m worldwide. Next on tap is Kenneth Branagh’s 'Cinderella'. What’s interesting about this entry is that it is the first such entry that is basically just a straight retelling of the story made famous (for much of the target audience) by the respective animated classic. It is not a prequel or a sequel, or a “the story you only thought you knew” revamp of an iconic property. It’s basically just another big-budget live-action variation of 'Cinderella'.
It also mostly lacks star power, as (all due respect) Lily James and Richard Madden are not remotely movie stars (yet) while Cate Blanchett and Helena Bonham Carter are not quite as media-friendly as the likes of Jolie or Mila Kunis. That’s perhaps a minor detail in the end, but the lack of hardcore star power and any new “hook” means we shouldn’t be expecting another $700m+ worldwide cume. Of course, depending on how much the film cost (I don’t have the budget) that might not be an issue. It should still pretty much dominate the month of March give-or-take Lions Gate Entertainment’s Insurgent the next week and DreamWorks Animation’s Home the week after that. Helping things will be the 'Frozen Fever' animated short that will play before theatrical prints of this film. For the record, I have not yet seen said short cartoon, but I will do my best to report back should the occasion present itself.
What’s interesting is that Walt Disney, which has no shortage of franchises at the moment, has found a way to further monetize the animated classics in its library without making explicit sequels to those would-be untouchable classics. We can debate whether that is a good thing from an artistic point-of-view, but it is also worth noting that these films are as a whole a franchise, without the explicit need or intention for each one to give birth to a multi-film series. Yes 'Alice in Wonderland 2' is coming in May 2016 and we may-yet see 'Maleficent’s Revenge' in a few years, but the films thus far are rather self-contained and (if need be) one-and-done affairs. If I were madly speculating, I might argue that Disney is eventually going to use the main characters in these films (along with the in-development Beauty and the Beast and Pete’s Dragon, and the on-and-off-again Peter Pan and Snow White films) to form some kind of Avengers/Fast Five type team-up film where they gang up to take out the Chernabog from Fantasia, but that’s for another day.
'Cinderella' is one of my least favorite “first generation” Disney animated features, so it is with much surprise that I tell you that Director Kenneth Branagh and writer Chris Weitz’s 'Cinderella' is easily the best of Disney’s “take an animated feature and make it into a live-action film” efforts thus far. It is unique among the adaptations thus far in that it is not a sequel or prequel, even much of a so-called re-imagining. It is a relatively straightforward telling of the iconic story, specifically the version that most of us are familiar with thanks to the 1950 Disney cartoon. The would-be changes are merely in terms of beefing up the character development and adding much-needed shading to the supporting cast. The painfully simple story becomes an advantage as it leaves the filmmakers more time to focus on character. The film is unafraid to mine the darker emotional currents of its tale, but it contains a streak of optimism and that wouldn’t be out of place in a certain CW superhero show co-starring Jesse L. Martin.
On a technical level, the picture is a visual marvel. The production design by Dante Ferretti is a gorgeous blend of mostly real-world locales and (just enough) flights of fancy and pageantry. The special effects are sparsely used, to the point where the somewhat FX-heavy transformational scenes threaten to take you out of the movie. Now they don’t thanks to committed and grounded acting by all participants, but that’s for later. Unlike the somewhat overstuffed fantasy worlds of 'Alice in Wonderland' and 'Maleficent', Cinderella sticks to telling what amounts to a real-world story with just a touch of magic when the story requires it. The film is a wonderland of vivid color and evocative pageantry, rendered in glorious 2D. The big ball dance scene, where Cinderella waltzes with an eager and excited Prince Charming, is ravishingly filmed and cut so that it resembles a classic Disney animated dance sequence without a single obvious special effect. The film is full of lovely little touches that add to the inherent suspension of disbelief, not the least of which is a crop of wholly developed and (mostly) three-dimensional characters.
I assume I don’t need spoiler warnings for this one, but just in case, I will presume you all have at least seen one or two versions of this story (and those two versions are probably Disney’s 'Cinderella' and the Drew Barrymore cult classic 'Ever After'). Nonetheless, the film immediately establishes its own take on the story. both visually and narratively. “Have courage and be kind,” young Cinderella is told by her dying mother (Hayley Atwell), and that message (repeated as often as someone utters “fear” or “afraid” in 'Batman Begins') is not so much about the notion that those who show such traits will have good things happen to them but rather that if everyone would stop being needlessly cruel then the world would be a better place. That’s a pretty obvious sentiment, but again in these empathy-free days it’s a message that bears repeating. The story pretty much goes as you’d expect it to, with the key deviation being that Cinderella (Lily James) and Prince “Kit” Charming (Richard Madden) actually meet well before the big ball and establish a convincing chemistry together.
The young lovers/heroes of the story are quite “charming,” even if the film skirts around the “young would-be leader can be a better ruler than his traditionalist father” sandbox that (the delightful and underrated) 'Ella Enchanted' dived into head first. Explicit villainy is kept to a (naive?) minimum, as the few bad apples are merely doing what they think they must to survive and/or maintain peace. Derek Jacobi is strong as the dying king, and if anything the film is as much about young adults dealing with the loss of their parents as it is with the traditional fairy tale trappings. Cate Blanchett is suitably wicked as the “wicked” stepmother, although the film never lets us forget the very real societal power structures that put in in that place. Blanchett is a little hammy in the second act, but she has a powerful and humanizing moment near the climax right when she is at her most devious. Her many outfits are a treat in-and-of-themselves and Sandy Powell may well have already won next year’s Best Costumes Oscar. Helena Bonham Carter has a blast as the fairy godmother, even as the FX-heavy “let’s go to the ball” sequence threatens to take us out of the real-world drama that has thus-far been established. There is also a somewhat needlessly frantic chase away from the ball, although the kids in the audience ate it up accordingly so who am I to argue?
For too many movies or television shows, the notion of a “strong female character” is merely a humorless woman who can hurt people and wreck stuff as efficiently as the stereotypical male action lead, or at least has just enough moments posing with a weapon to sell that notion in the trailers. But of course those of us who clamor for “strong female characters” merely want popular entertainments where the women on screen are as complex and developed as the male characters. That’s the niftiest trick in Cinderella, which takes one of the least obviously feminist fairy tales (and one of Disney’s least proactive leading ladies) and gives us the ideal variation of an empowered female lead who does not show her strength through violence and action but rather through inherent decency in a world that seemingly punishes such things. Cinderella does get her big heroic moment, not an action scene but rather a climactic beat where she chooses not to act and chooses to potentially sacrifice her own happiness for the good of others, in a moment not-unlike the finale of 'Jupiter Ascending'. To the extent that such a thing is possible in the world in which she exists, Cinderella is the teller of her own story and the master of her own destiny.
Kenneth Branagh has created a surprisingly lively and enjoyable variation on an oft-told tale, not by reinventing the wheel but by giving the stock characters more depth and more personality. The picture is a technical triumph and a surprising acting treat, and the film manages the tricky balance of updating the story for today’s sensibilities not by awkwardly inserting action beats or “girl power” moments, but rather by emphasizing that a person, male or female, can be an empowering character even absent traditional action heroics. It lacks the explicit subversion (and Anne Hathaway show tunes) of 'Ella Enchanted', but it still pulls of the challenging task of artistically justifying a live-action retelling of the animated variation on 'Cinderella' without altering the core story. It is no less a “Cinderella story” than the likes of 'Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone' or 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory'. But the film justifies itself by virtue of its unexpected quality. On the short lists of live-action adaptations of Disney animated classics, 'Cinderella' is (thus far) the fairest of them all.