Disney plunders its 1950 animated feature Cinderella for a live-action adaptation, with Downton Abbey‘s Lily James in the title role. The plot remains largely the same, as (Cinder)Ella is tormented by her wicked stepmother Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett), ridiculed by her stepsisters, and unexpectedly charmed by a prince (Richard Madden). At Cinderella’s lowest point, her fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) has a few things of her own to say about Cinderella’s fortunes.
As far as surprises go, you might say the surprise is that there are no real surprises. This film is not subversive, or reliant on new twists, but instead is a straightforwardly beautiful story, updated well in certain areas, and with no shame in its embrace of the charm of the original material. The original film ran 75 minutes, and a shocking amount of that was devoted to animal antics, so the human-centric material being adapted from it really must total more like 35 or 40 minutes, but its expansion to feature length doesn’t seem excessive.
There are no extraneous complications to the plot, but rather some very welcome clarification and character development. Lily James has a slightly tough role to play, given that Cinderella is such a paragon of kindness. But as predictable as scenes of her stepmother emotionally abusing her are, they are always punctuated by the knowledge that it is Cinderella’s own virtues that are her downfall for most of the story. Because she is so unfailingly kind, she is open to be used and treated cruelly. This is not new insight to this adaptation, but it is communicated well and keeps the fleshed out story of Lady Tremaine’s cruelty grounded in character.
Speaking of our villain, Cate Blanchett is fantastic here, predatory like a snake while also able to radiate wicked charm. There are moments of unspoken sympathy here and there given to her character, but they are always subtle and underplayed. There is no redemption for the stepmother here (Maleficent this ain’t), but this version of the stepmother is very much defined by her intellect as wedded to her ambition. She has reasoned and reasonable plans, and they would work if her stepdaughter was less obtuse in her purity. So Blanchett is given carte blanche in creating a wicked character, while also getting the audience to maybe see things from her perspective as well.
Some of the new aspects of the story are updated efficiently but significantly, as Cinderella’s “disguise” as a Princess and (in this adaptation) the Prince’s affectation as a mere apprentice both fit in well with a class-conscious message. It is nicely delivered here, and calls to mind similar sentiments from last month’s Kingsman: The Secret Service. Overall the story is indeed faithful to the original, including nods to the animated film’s animal material, and this gives to Cinderella a sense of being old-fashioned. The slippers are still high heels, after all. But the traditional stuff is balanced well with the updates, making for a satisfying whole.
Director Kenneth Branagh has transitioned from directing high-profile Shakespeare adaptations to mainstream tentpoles, and his variety so far has been commendable. Thor, a superhero film steeped in Norse mythology; Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, a CIA thriller; now Cinderella, a sumptuous fairy tale. Branagh brings his penchant for fencing and period dress (both featured in Hamlet) to the lavish production, but his most signature technical flourish is the dutch angle (the sideways tilting of the camera). Thor featured the most abuse of the technique since Roger Christian’s Battlefield: Earth, so it certainly surprised me that Cinderella features one and only one dutch shot (pictured above), but it’s a doozy. The restraint elsewhere makes this one shot stand out all the more, as Cinderella, racing with two minutes to midnight, appears to uncontrollably slide downward, both out the door and down in (affected) social class. Putting the bow on the film is composer Patrick Doyle’s pomp and circumstance, which enhance the simple charm of the film quite a bit. Incidentally, one of Doyle’s main leitmotifs in the film really reminds me of the main theme of Pan’s Labyrinth, by Javier Navarrete. But I digress.
Cinderella is a beautifully put together film, bolstered by a fantastic cast and a mix of old and new sentimentality. Scenes such as the fairy godmother’s transformation of Cinderella’s dress contain an undeniable movie magic as well as literal magic. This is a faithful and effective adaptation of a classic that definitely could have used updating (*cough* does Beauty and the Beast really need it too?? *cough*). A safe but splendid film. 8/10.
Bonus Review! (with mild SPOILERS)
In the real world, Frozen fever hasn’t died down in the least, and this 7-minute epilogue to the film is most welcome. In Arendelle, Elsa is determined to throw Anna a “perfect” birthday party; antics and fan service ensue.
I adore Frozen, and this short just goes for my, and many others’, warm and fluffy feels. The short is very much like a victory lap, and so its ambitions are mainly to give cameos and encores to elements of the film. Indeed, so many of those elements are frantically thrown in, it’s a wonder the Duke of Weselton didn’t show up for cake. I marvel at the fact that Santino Fontana (Hans) was rehired just to grunt! Also, the child chorus featured here is recognizable from early classroom scenes scrapped during development of Frozen.
But what I appreciate is that even in this bit of fluff, there’s insightful (in addition to fun) character stuff going on. Elsa’s determination to create a perfect day for Anna is obvious over-compensation for all the years of relative neglect that passed by as they grew up. This isn’t exactly groundbreaking drama, but you wouldn’t expect it to be. Take the short for what it is, a funny and charming window back into the lives of the characters Frozen fans love. And those little snowmen are great; I wonder what role they’ll play in Frozen 2…