The cynical moviegoer, upon noticing that the preceding short to Cinderella is Frozen Fever, will hypothesize that everyone in the audience came only to watch a Frozen sequel. It’s a belief I held when I walked into the theater, but I noticed that no one ended up leaving. That’s because Cinderella, directed by Kenneth Branagh, is a competent and immersive retelling of the 1950 animated Disney film, and overcomes its flaws in character depth and plot porosity to produce a story that is charming and inspirational.
Deviating from recent live action Disney movies like Alice in Wonderland and Maleficent, which favored taking different perspectives and offering alternative interpretations of stories and villains, Cinderella takes an unironic approach that ends up being more innovative and interesting than the other movies. Lily James magnificently fits the role of Ella, the quietly heroic protagonist who learns from her mother to always “have courage and be kind”, no matter what the circumstances are. Ella’s capacity for bravery and love get severely tested when both of her parents die, her family falls into poverty, and her new stepmother and two hideous-in-every-way stepsisters relegate her to being the household slave. Dubbed “Cinderella” by her new owners, our heroine perseveres with indefatigable determination, charming the Prince Charming and relying on her goodness of heart to save herself. It is a film beautiful in its art as well as its message, and will certainly please fans of the animated movie by offering something old and something new simultaneously.
The animated Cinderella may appear dull and predictable nowadays to audiences, but this Cinderella has certain innovations to elevate and distinguish it. One of the film’s finest attractions, by far, is the wicked stepmother Lady Tremaine, brought to horrifically intriguing life by Cate Blanchett. It’s a brilliant choice to flesh out Tremaine as a woman who has suffered heartbreak and death in her past, demonstrating the pernicious effects of lack of love on someone, contrasting Cinderella’s joyful upbringing. Her cunning and oiliness are immeasurable, and she keeps audiences enthralled with every smirk and gesture she delivers, always imbued with acid and foreboding. It’s a testament to the film’s uniqueness that even though we have some idea that a happy ending is inevitable, we’re always kept wondering what Tremaine’s next move is, and what she has up her sleeve. James, for her part, avoids making Cinderella a boring goody two-shoes; she has her moments of wit and sarcasm, and exudes infectious charm in her performance. Kit the prince is more vanilla, but he displays plenty of resolve and positivity that make him a good match for Cinderella.
Visually, the film is a delight. There are wide and sweeping shots of lush forests and opulent palaces, and the outfits are garish and detailed, keeping eyes and attention focused constantly. The film does an amazing job of animating animals and especially when they transform into humans. They play crucial roles in moving the plot, particularly at the film’s end. Especially gorgeous is Cinderella’s transformation into her ball dress and glass slippers, and the pumpkin and animal companions becoming a carriage and servants. Every scene is wonderful to observe, and the cinematography captures the shifting moods of the film perfectly.
The movie’s main flaw lies in the number of visible plot holes that never get adequately addressed. There is a subplot involving an arranged marriage for the prince, but it’s brief and never poses much of a serious threat, ending up as a tiny distraction for the plot instead of something relevant. The film endswithsuggesting that the antagonists of the movie were banished from the kingdom, raising the question of why the prince couldn’t have solved his dilemmas by expelling all of his enemies and then being free to marry Cinderella. The Fairy Godmother swoops in to give Cinderella a new dress and slippers for the ball, but how come she didn’t see it fit to intervene earlier by getting Cinderella out of her hellish situation, and whydoes she never arriveagain for Cinderella?
Helena Bonham Carter’s Fairy Godmother is entertainingly loopy, but her presence in the movie is limited to one scene, which is just long enough for her ditzy persona to grow annoying. One constant fly in the ointment is the excessive use of narration by the Fairy Godmother, which is distracting more than informative. The film could afford to reduce the amount of explanation and instead enlighten us through dialogue and action. The supporting characters, such as the stepsisters, the scheming Grand Duke, and the prince’s right-hand man, lack depth and complexity. They generally serve as comic relief, and tend to be ornaments instead of essential figures. The Grand Duke makes an alliance with Tremaine, but this development turns out to be quite unintimidating.
For all its issues, however, Cinderella is a film worth enjoying. It may initially appear schmaltzy, but it keeps viewers concentrated and invested in the struggles of its titular character from beginning to end. This movie certainly bodes well for the upcoming live action Beauty and the Beast. Disney has a gift for reimagining its fairy tales inventively and touchingly, and I sincerely hope they continue this trend.