CINDERELLA Review

When I was a little kid and completely enamored with the world of Disney animated features I always wondered what it might be like to see those characters and those worlds come to life. Real life. I never thought it would happen after the live action versions of 101 Dalmatians and its money-grubbing sequel underwhelmed (at least they did in my adolescent mind), but then again I also desperately hoped that one day movie studios might wisen-up and begin building a shared universe where my favorite super heroes interacted on the big screen as well. I guess dreams really do come true (and that Disney will always be there to make them happen). And so, over the past few years, ever since the astounding success of Tim Burton's take on Alice in Wonderland, we have seen an uptrend in live-action films based on classic Disney properties. Whether they be from the respective studio that originated the tale in popular culture or not everyone has noticed this as a way to make some guaranteed money. Most of the attempts from outside the mouse house (Snow White & the Huntsman, Mirror Mirror) haven't exactly done gangbusters, while Disney, in its two previous efforts (the aforementioned Alice and last summers Maleficent), has seen nothing but green. Granted, neither one of these films were particularly good and neither were straight-up re-tellings of the original Disney classics either, but luckily things have begun to change on both fronts with the latest incrnation of this trend that is Cinderella. If you're expecting anything from this latest interpretation of a story that has been told so many times you could literally drown in a stack of DVD copies of all the different versions you're likely to be disappointed. There is no alternate perspective presented here and this isn't some strange kind of prequel/origin story that gives more background into the reasons why Fairy Godmothers exist, but instead this is simply a new interpretation, a live-action interpretation, based on Disney's 1950 animated film. While it might be obvious to then question the point, what is most fascinating is still that simple joy that comes with seeing your childhood memories brought to vivid life and that is what Kenneth Branagh's version does best: it elicits joy.

Cinderella (Lily James) encounters her Prince Charming (Richard Madden) by chance.
From screenwriter Chris Weitz (About a Boy) we begin the film as most fairy tales do: with a kind of epilogue that outlines our titular characters childhood, the tragedy that strikes and the values and lessons taken from it that will forever shape how they live the rest of their adult life. In the case of Cinderella or Ella (Lily James) as she is referred to by those who love her it is following the tragic death of her mother (Hayley Atwell) and with the intent of continuing to support her loving father (Ben Chaplin), that she welcomes her new stepmother Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett) and her daughters Anastasia (Holliday Grainger) and Drisella (Sophie McShera) into the family home in hopes of a fresh start. We all know the story from here, that Ella's father unexpectedly passes away and thus she finds herself alone, without any real family and at the mercy of an evil stepmother. In this current state, in the home she garnered such a happy childhood within she is ultimately relegated to nothing more than a servant girl forced to sleep fireside where the embers spark and cover her in ashes which in turn give her evil stepsisters the fuel they need to spitefully call her Cinderella. Pushed to the edge one day and unable to know for certain if she can continue to keep the promise she made to her mother that she would always "have courage and be kind." In this moment of heated frustration she dashes to the woods on horseback and has a surprise encounter with what she believes to be a dashing apprentice. Unaware, of course, that he is really the Prince (Richard Madden), Cinderella finally catches a glimpse of where she might once again find happiness; feelings that are only encouraged when the palace sends out an open invitation for all maidens to attend a ball. Naturally, Lady Tremaine is not keen on the more beautiful Cinderella having a better shot with the Prince than her daughters, but with a little help for her Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) dreams may come true for Cinderella after all.

In those ambitions I had as a young viewer to one day see these animated tales come to life it was always the thrill of seeing what they would look like in the real world that was the most curious and fascinating. Of course, computer animation and special effects have advanced so far since my childhood that it would be easy to see much of these "live-action" re-imaginings as little more than animated films with living, breathing humans playing the necessary characters (here's looking at you, Maleficent), but beyond the fact that Branagh's Cinderella is charming on its own terms is the fact he uses very little (or what seem to be minimal) special effects that take away from the reality of what we know is a fairy tale, but can't help but find an affinity for due largely to the character development and the work of the actors in these roles and in these fantastical environments. More than both of these factors is the basic approach Weitz took to the script. Rather than feeling as if he needed to place some type of twist on the material or offer up an original take on the story Weitz allowed his focus to be on the themes rather than the action taking place. With this in mind, there is nothing to be surprised about with Cinderella as far as plot devices or revelations are concerned, though there are slight deviations here and there, but more importantly you once again become wrapped up in a story you've seen and heard time and time again because of the characters and their codes propelling the action forward. We would not care so much for the well-being of Cinderella among her evel stepmother and sisters were it not for the humanizing elements of the script that Weitz brings to light early on, going more in depth than in past installments, while James brings a perfect balance of humble and beauty to the role. Even that of the typically disposable and archetypal Prince is fleshed out more with a deeper connection and bond built between Madden's Prince and his father, the King (Derek Jacobi). Both parental relationships our female and male leads deal with in this interpretation are rather touching and endure both of them to an audience already invested in rooting for them.

Anastasia (Holliday Grainger), Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett) and Drisella (Sophie McShera) in Cinderella
Beyond the simplicity of Branagh's directorial approach and the wonderful characterizations brought to life by a rather quaint, but stellar cast there is plenty more to appreciate here. Be it the wonderfully romantic and classical soundtrack from Patrick Doyle that more than compliments Branagh's visual style or the fantastic production design that is highlighted at every turn. Whether it be the country home of Cinderella's merchant father and ethereal mother that inherently brings a sense of home to the mix making the eventual invasion of Lady Tremaine and her materialistic daughters all the more painful or the expansive royal grounds and exquisite ballroom where the most famous of scenes takes place. There is an air of perfection to it that is rendered real by the absence of 3D and the storybook quality of the picture. The performances only intend to bring this sincere nature of the storytelling to life even further with both the aforementioned James and Madden delivering on their roles in ways that never come off too good to be true, but rather nuanced in the ways of dealing with their compassion while adhering to duties and tasks they don't necessarily want to do, but respect regardless. Grainger and McShera make Anastasia and Drisella as air-headed as ever with a mean streak in them that seems as phony as the moles above their lips. This hint of redemption in even these characters further emphasizes the angle Branagh seems to take on this world of inherently good people driven in the wrong direction by justifiable motivations. Even Blanchett's Tremaine, who is still as necessarily evil as she needs to be, is given the slightest bit of humanity that her daughters clearly don't understand, but try to imitate nonetheless. Supporting parts from Stellan Skarsgård and Nonso Anozie also serve to build on the heartfelt and devious sides of the film that are equally represented while all in all the film represents a piece of entertainment that is harmless, but perfectly fine for what it intends to be. There is nothing revelatory on display here and no one's saying anything new, but that a way to preach these same ideas have found a particularly enchanting voice doesn't hurt and makes the delivery sound all the sweeter.