There is something to be admired in the stubborn nature of a new “Cinderella.” It’s an age old tale that we have seen incarnated on screen and stage, parodied and reimagined. Working with a story so familiar, I was expecting a contemporary spin on Disney’s live action remake of their golden age classic. Perhaps with a leading lady more closely drawn to resemble a modern young woman that addresses issues related to positive body image or feminism. Will the story shy away from its domestic setting for a more adventurous feel with darker elements threatening not only the characters but the world they live in? Nope.
“Cinderella” is true to its name, and gives us a straightforward fairy tale where magic makes dreams come true and our heroine lives happily ever after. It’s like finding an old coat you used to wear every day but haven’t for years; it’s never felt more comfortable than when you slip it back on.
The story begins with a young Ella (Lily James), which is her true name in this version, being told about the wonders of magic by her parents. The three of them live on their gorgeous property under cloudless skies. Rather than having both parents whisked away in some accident, their demise is gradual. We see her mother (Hayley Atwell) fall to an unspecified illness, leaving her daughter the all-significant message of “have courage and be kind” on her deathbed. Her father (Ben Chapin), a merchant, sees his marriage of the widow Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchet) as an act of kindness and a way of ensuring financial security. Only when he becomes victim to over-frequent travels, does Ella enter the tragic stage of her story.
From there, “Cinderella” follows the old tune. Ella suffers, is redubbed Cinderella after her brainless stepsisters find her face caked in soot, then comes the appearance of the Fairy Godmother. She is played excellently by Helena Bonham Carter, giving the character the personality of flustered professional and providing the funniest sequence in the film. We have the ball, the dance, and the glass slipper. There are some more details added to give the characters depth, but they feel like notes drawn in the margins. This isn’t a bad thing, as the story is meant to come off as one told two lines per page in a picture book. But it’s nice to spend a little time with the Prince (Richard Madden). While still a white-meat charmer, he also lost his mother and will soon lose his father (Derek Jacobi), who wants his kingdom secured through an advantageous marriage. It creates a parallel between him and Cinderella, and subtly gives us another reason to support their partnership. Love at first sight may be shallow, but at least it’s genuine.
The greatest task of “Cinderella” is creating an enchanting atmosphere, as it doesn’t have a story compelling enough to power itself. The artistic production of the film is incredible. The landscaping is picturesque, a perfect rendition of the idealized old world. The whole film is bright and colorful and the ornate background always gives the audience something to stare at. The costume design is almost too good, as I have an easier time remembering dresses and coats than the faces that wore them. There are times when the movie feels vapory, relying a little too much on the backgrounds and ambiance to keep us interested while simple dialogue is thrown back and forth.
I did have to stifle a few yawns, but once magic comes into play, the film shines. The scene of Cinderella and her escort running from the palace as the bells stroke midnight, her footmen turning back into lizards and her leaves sprouting on the wheels of her carriage, is thrilling and seamlessly animated.
Seeing characters traditionally animated brought to life works well. James plays Ella as she is written, and is able to bring out the pure innocence in the characters without it coming off as hokey. Blanchet is fantastic as the evil stepmother, anchored by her wicked smile. The two stepsisters are the typical comical airheads; their bickering draws some chuckles, although I wish they came off less as clones of one another. The mice characters, only semi-sentient and unable to speak, appear through exquisite computer animation that allows detailed expression.
“Cinderella” is an ordinary film, made strange in that it feels like something made long before now, redrawn with state of the art post production tools. Kenneth Branagh, in his first directorial work for Disney, brings his crisp traditional style and melds it well with the branding gloss the studio is known for. I like knowing that in the future, when young children want to watch a Disney “Cinderella” movie, they will have two equal options to select from.