By Matthew McKibben | March 13, 2015
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Writer: Chris Weitz
Starring: Lily James, Hayley Atwell, Cate Blanchett, Helena Bonham Carter, Richard Madden, Holliday Grainger, Sophie McShera, Nonso Anozie, Ben Chaplin, and Stellan Skarsgard
I’ve been a fan of Disney’s classic animated movies for as long as I can remember loving movies. Some of my earliest movie memories are of watching the 1983 re-release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in the theater with my family and then eating up the late-1980s – 1990s run of Disney classics such as The Little Mermaid, The Lion King, and Beauty and the Beast. Even though I’m a grown man, I’ll admit to getting a little weepy at some of the more “magical” aspects of these types of movies. Whatever… I’m a former Marine who loves to camp and watch crap get blown up by superheroes, but I’ve always had a soft spot for Disney’s more romantically inclined and old fashioned animated movies. If you have a problem with that, come at me, bro. I’ll break a glass slipper over a bar stool and fight you to the death with the shards.
Not that the list is altogether all that lengthy, but Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella is easily the best live action adaptation of an animated movie that Disney’s ever made. It’s miles ahead of Tim Burton’s trainwreck-y Alice in Wonderland and is easily superior to 1996’s 101 Dalmatians. Cinderella is a movie more concerned with adding shading and layers to a story you already know and love, and less with providing an entirely new sketch ala 2014’s Maleficent.
When I heard they were remaking the classic Disney stories (Maleficent last year, Cinderella this year, The Jungle Book and Beauty and the Beast are on deck), I suspected they were going to be re-imagining all of the stories we all knew and loved, giving us contemporary approved angles on characters we already know and love. That’s certainly what they did with 2014’s Maleficent. That movie asked us to disregard what we thought we knew about one of the all-time great Disney villains by giving her a sympathetic and relatively complex back story. You can tell from frame one that Branagh clearly adores the classic Cinderella movie and is more concerned with fully realizing those animated cells in a classically real setting than he is with making us sympathize with the evil stepmother or “updating” Ella to have more modern sensibilities.
If there’s been a less cynical, more syrupy movie made in the past 50 years or so, I’m having a hard time thinking of it. You’d perhaps have to go back to the 1940s and 1950s era Walt Disney classics like Bambi, Sleeping Beauty, and the original Cinderella to find a similarly sweet and straightforward movie. I wish I had known this going in because I spent the first 15 minutes of the movie letting go of my cynicism and the modern day baggage I brought with me into the theater. Decades of movie watching have produced kind of a muscle memory of what to expect in movies like this. This movie lacks bite, but that’s one of its strengths, not one of its weaknesses. I’m curious if making a movie this syrupy sweet and uncomplicated was a conscious (some would read cynical) decision on Disney’s part, or if this is just the nature of Cinderella’s story and they really had no other choice. It makes sense to give a villain like Maleficent a complicated backstory, yet there’s really only so much one can do with a story about a put upon housemaid who likes to keep company with dirty mice and her fairy godmother. Regardless of the decision behind it, I’m curious how this will all play with 2015 audiences who have spent the last decade with princesses with a little more bite to them. I do prefer these types of stories to have a little more bite to them, so I hope this is more of a one-off type of throwback story, and less of a marketing strategy on Disney’s part.
If you know the 1950s Cinderella, you know the updated story, too; a young woman’s parents die (a Disney staple), leaving her at the mercies (or lack thereof) of her stepmother and stepsisters. With the help of her fairy godmother, she attends a ball, wins the heart of the prince, has a footwear wardrobe malfunction, and then lives happily ever after. I don’t want to shortchange the original 1950 classic, because it’s an all-time great movie that’s more than stood the test of time, but the character motivations and actions in that movie are relatively simple and straightforward. Ella is good, the stepmother is wicked, the prince is charming, and the stepsisters mean and cruel. Although the update is almost beat by beat identical to the original, the very fact that these are living, breathing actors instead of hand drawn cells of animation, makes them easier to relate to.
Kenneth Branagh made his name adapting some of Shakespeare’s best works. His Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing, and Henry V are all some of the best representations of those works that have ever been made. And in some ways, those very works act like a springboard and template for this movie. Cinderella’s story is certainly not on par with any of Shakespeare’s works, but what makes this movie kind of great is that Branagh treats the material as if it were. Sometimes, that’s the difference between a good movie and a great one. Everyone involved in this movie gave Cinderella the respect they felt it deserved and the results all pay off on the screen. That’s a testament to Branagh’s direction and Chris Weitz’s screenplay.
A lot of the heavy lifting in this also comes from actress Lily James’s portrayal of the title character. She injects a more soul and depth into the part than what was present or possible in the 1950 classic. Although she’s still kind of a pushover, there’s a sense of the anger and frustration that lies below the surface that simply didn’t exist with the original variation. In these kinds of movies, Princes are even more cardboard than the Princesses, but Richard Madden was able to breathe life into his part as “the Prince.” Although he’s in the movie far less than Cinderella, he’s very much her equal and his “happily every after” is just as much in question as Cinderella’s.
Unsurprisingly, Cate Blanchett gives the strongest performance in the movie. Her part could have easily been over-written and performed in such a way where little scenery went unchewed, (like Glenn Close as Cruella DeVille in 101 Dalmatians — who was kind of awesomely campy), but Blanchett’s a good enough actress to know when to let it rip and when to hold back. Although the movie isn’t overly concerned with giving her an in-depth backstory, it was wise to give her a scene or two where you see that there’s something else going on behind her wickedness. You’re not made to sympathize with her, you can certainly see the roadmap that got her to where she is.
Haris Zambarloukos’s (Thor and Mamma Mia!) cinematography was really quite beautiful and rich, with the actors, sets, and costumes all really popping off the screen. Costumes have always been an integral part of the Cinderella story and Sandy Powell’s (Gangs of New York and The Aviator) work in this is extraordinary. The CGI work was solid and didn’t call attention to itself, but I have to admit to being a little creeped out by her lizard turned stagecoach servant. If you can “bippity boppity boo” a lizard to a stagecoach valet, can you also do something about his creepy lizard teeth?
As I mentioned above, I’ve always been a fan of movies like this. I’ve always been drawn to the simplicity of the relatively simple character motivations and to the inherent goodness that seems to run through these movies. My kids have seen superheroes use violence to save the world more times than I can probably count at this point. As a parent who constantly has to monitor the kinds of stories my kids are watching and the kinds of messages they’re receiving, I’m glad that there’s a movie like Cinderella coming out that keeps things simple and pure of heart. Perhaps the virtues of kindness and an almost unnatural goodness are not really in fashion these days, but I’d argue that because of that very fact alone, this is a movie worth watching.