Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Remakes and updates of classic fairy tales have become common fare at the box office over the past few years. One can look at the likes of “Snow White and the Huntsman,” “Maleficent” and “Mirror Mirror” as releases that ultimately failed to capture the most beloved aspect of these fairy tales. On the other hand, “Cinderella,” directed by Kenneth Branagh, is traditional, sincere and a little old-fashioned, but it updates the right parts to make sense to the modern viewer while staying true to the classic tale.
The film’s prologue added a new level of character development that the 1950s animated original film did not. While Disney’s animated version wrapped up Cinderella’s origins into an introduction that revealed nothing concrete about her young life, this retelling adds richness to both the story and several of the characters. Screenwriter Chris Weitz’s liberties with the script do not shake up what the Disney audience came to see — a rags to riches classic — but rather add what the animated version chose to gloss over in favor of talking animals.
The helpful woodland creatures do make an obligatory appearance, but Ella (Lily James) is more of a go-getter and sews her own dress, actively defying her wicked stepmother, Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett). With the added story of the deaths of her kindly father and mother, Branagh’s Ella is resilient and hardworking and not quite as desperate as the original made her seem. Many of the other characters benefit from the live-action retelling as well. The king is not as much of a fool, the prince (Richard Madden) is attracted to Ella for reasons other than her tiny waist and Lady Tremaine’s malice is palpably delicious. Blanchett is glorious in this role, bringing as much viewing pleasure as Angelina Jolie did to “Maleficent” by making the stepmother’s resentment of the title character just a little more understandable.
James and Madden make a charming on-screen couple, though their characters are still rather flat. They are not necessarily dull, but it’s clear the film did not want to delve into a more diversified pool of actors that could have revamped the story to reflect more diverse audiences. James makes a beautiful, white, Anglo-Saxon princess with a similar look to the animated character, and Madden brings the dashing smile that brought him “Game of Thrones” fame and fan girls. Their acting leaves nothing to be desired, but the simple roles they play fit into the cookie-cutter couple that every little girl aspired to be in.
Another element that this retelling does better than the original is the emphasis on individuality. In keeping with “Frozen’s” “Why would you marry a man you just met?” mentality, Madden’s Prince Charming falls in love with Ella when he meets her on horseback during a hunt, rather than at first sight at the ball. “Cinderella” is nowhere near bold enough to change the story to include Charming and Ella actually getting to know each other beyond a few meetings, but it’s a pleasant update from putting the utmost importance on blond hair and a corseted waist. This reworking shows a continuation of Disney’s move toward a more progressive view of relationships.
Branagh is the biggest asset to this film. Coming off successful, entertaining adaptations of Shakespearean classics like “Hamlet” and “Much Ado About Nothing,” he is clearly well aware of where this story stands in the modern cinematic canon. The direction is earnest and heartfelt, with tweaks made in the right places but holding up a respect for Disney’s original. The oft-repeated “have courage and be kind” lesson of the film is one that young viewers may roll their eyes at, but it’s a timeless message that does no harm to retell.
“Cinderella” is still a fanciful fairy tale full of sweeping dresses, singing birds and splendid castles, but it also contains some fairly hard-hitting death scenes that elevate it to a more mature level. Parents may have a little more explaining to do with their children after seeing this movie. While Branagh doesn’t bring the quirkiness of “The Princess Bride” or the biting irony of “Into the Woods” to this princess adaptation, he can be excused because it’s made clear that that was not the intention of this film.
While Disney has no need for additional fairy tale adaptations, “Cinderella” is a cinematic success. Viewers going in with expectations based on the original animation will not only have those expectations met, but exceeded. It may even win cynics over with its wholehearted approach to a classic love story.