Thanks for returning, Dear Reader, after I spent all of the last post venting my spleen when I should have been reviewing the new, live-action Cinderella movie. So let’s get to that without delay.
My verdict: it’s quite good!
This adaptation takes the Disney animated version of the Cinderella story and plays it refreshingly straight. It doesn’t make the story darker or more adult. It doesn’t add any inventive twists that make us see it in a new light. It doesn’t try to make the characters “fresh” and “hip.” Instead, this film takes the story you already know and just does it well.
Except for the songs, everything from the classic animated film is there. Even Cinderella’s mouse companions are included, rendered not-too realistically in CGI. They don’t talk or wear clothes, but they appear just cartoony enough that when they listen to her and give her aid it doesn’t feel like something out of Willard.
The only real change is that we actually see our heroine in her pre-cinder days having an idyllic childhood with her parents before her mom dies and her dad remarries (and then dies). Yes, they give Cinderella an origin story. Perhaps it’s the influence of all the popular superhero stuff these days. I would say that this bit wasn’t needed except that, just like Peter Parker, she’s given words to live by that become the core of her character. Rather than “with great power comes great responsibility,” Cinderella’s mantra is “have courage and be kind.” It’s a small thing that has a big (though subtle) impact. On a number of levels, it might be hard for modern audiences to accept a heroine who is so subservient to her stepmother and takes the cruel barbs from her stepsisters without so much as a snarky comeback. But with the simple addition of this phrase — “have courage and be kind — we can now view Cinderella as a strong character who stays true to herself and doesn’t let her vicious antagonists tear her down. It is her courage and kindness in the face of a long, hopeless life of toil that is rewarded by her fairy godmother.
As a parent who keeps a close eye on the messages his kids are exposed to, I find Cinderella’s “have courage and be kind” refreshing and even laudable.
Director Kenneth Branagh’s experience with adapting Shakespeare to the big screen must have been a real boon when it came to maintaining the traditional story. I imagine that when most of your career is spent working on productions where you don’t allow yourself the leeway to even change a single line of dialogue you get pretty good at focusing on how to bring out the best of what’s already there. Branagh’s Shakespearean background also probably has something to do with the nuanced, multi-dimensional performances he coaxes from the actors.
Okay, not that it’s difficult to get fine acting from the likes of Cate Blanchett or Derek Jacobi. But remember how my biggest complaint about Maleficent was that no one besides the protagonist seemed to be a real, fleshed-out person who had reasons for doing whatever they did? Well, in Cinderella, everyone down to the lizard-turned-coachman feels fully-realized.
The king (played by Jacobi) doesn’t want his son to marry a peasant girl but comes off as a good, likable person even as he stands in our protagonists’ way. The king’s advisor is a schemer (and clearly is taking kickbacks to arrange a particular marriage with the prince) but his efforts to keep the prince from Cinderella are professional, not personal, since he’s acting on the king’s wishes. Cinderella’s father dotes on her and was deeply in love with her mother, but after years of being a widower is desperate to grab a little happiness for himself. Cinderella’s stepsisters are… well, they’re pretty shallow, but it’s not surprising considering who raised them (and you can tell that even their own mother doesn’t like them).
That brings us to the Stepmother. She’s a catty, jealous, mean-souled harpy who cares only about making a secure future for herself and her terrible daughters. Yet, despite the hints that she only married Cinderella’s father for his modest estate, Blanchett’s performance suggests that, like him, she still carries the wounds from losing her first spouse. There’s an interesting bit when Cinderella is having a heart-to-heart with her dad before he leaves on a trip and the Stepmother, spying on them for a moment, looks hurt. Now, it takes a very small, petty, self-centered person to be jealous of a father’s bond with his daughter… But, given that, why would she be hurt if she didn’t care on some level? We never really see why Cinderella’s father falls for this
woman shrew but it’s possible that there really was some spark between them. At any rate, the film is full of little touches like that which, when added up, create an antagonist who is utterly despicable yet pitiably human. By the end of the movie, I couldn’t help but wonder if the Stepmother was, ultimately, someone who was not able to hold on to her courage or kindness and let life transform her into a grasping wad of insecurities who would take pleasure in trying to do the same to an innocent girl.
Another major success for Cinderella is the chemistry between our heroine and her love interest. She has a chance encounter with Prince Charming — not realizing that he’s the King In Training — and the actors really sell the instant attraction. Lily James looks as though she’s just on the verge of leaning in and kissing the Prince throughout the whole conversation. In a later scene at the palace, Richard Madden’s expression shows us just how smitten Prince Charming is when he is able to drop the “have courage and be kind” line in conversation.
So, yes, it’s good, but how is it for the kids? Well, given that it adheres so closely to the source material, it’s just as appropriate for young audiences as the animated Cinderella. My girls paid attention but seemed a little bored at times. This may have been because it was during their sleepy time of day. As I recall, though, they weren’t exactly riveted by the original version, either (sorry, Walt).
By way of justifying my previous post, I will say that Cinderella is as well done as Maleficent was poorly done. It may not be a movie that we will feel the need to own or re-watch often but it’s absolutely one I will hold up as a model of how any future such live-action adaptations should be handled.