“Have courage and be kind”
For anyone who cannot stand singing, Disney’s latest iteration of the timeless Cinderella is catered to you. I know Chris Weitz and the other screenwriters on the project before him poured through the fairy tale’s vast lineage for every detail they could cull together into what they surely believe to be the definitive version, but what I saw onscreen is the same thing I saw as a child in cartoon form. Just without the sing-songy “Bibbidi Bobbidi Boos”. There are a couple spoken ones for homage from the brilliantly batty Fairy Godmother as played by Helena Bonham Carter, but she doesn’t sing them as more than wizarding incantation. And besides her ten-minute whirlwind turning pumpkin to carriage and goose to man, there’s hardly any “magic” to be seen.
I mean that in the sense of fantastical creation—yes the mice “talk” but it’s merely high-pitched gibberish to accompany the mannerisms that do all the communicating—and the general stylistic sense of giving this film relevance. That’s not to say it isn’t good, I actually found the whole to be quite charming and a well-told entry into Cinderella‘s storied past. The casting was great, the visuals non-oppressive unlike Disney’s gaudy Alice in Wonderland, and the tone perfect for the PG audience it targets. Does it possess anything to make me suggest anyone would choose it over the 1950 musical? No. If anything it’s similarity only shows how well made and successful that early adaptation was. Maybe Mark Romanek could have given it edge at PG-13, but Disney desired more of the same instead.
Weitz and director Kenneth Branagh‘s work shouldn’t be dismissed, though. I applaud them for rendering the familiar enjoyable enough despite our knowing everything that will happen. That’s not an easy feat especially on the heels of another Disney interpretation through their cinematic Into the Woods and its darker, satirical slant. Going back to the pure innocence of the Cinderella of old allows parents to expose their children to her message of being one’s self in the face of adversity without the fear of any vestigial Grimm Brothers‘ embellishments. They may be bored in its staidness, but their kids won’t. My favorite part of the whole experience was listening to the two girls behind me giddy in awe. I wasn’t missing anything onscreen with their chatter and they showed me the power of fairy tales hasn’t diminished.
I enjoyed the care with which Weitz gives the background history of Ella (Lily James) and her tragic family. It’s a welcome to treat to see her so happy with mom (Hayley Atwell) and dad (Ben Chaplin), living a life of pure satisfaction with wont of nothing in lieu of the love they shared. So when death befalls them and her father remarries out of convenience and charity, it’s hardly surprising to find neither he nor she leaving the memory of mother behind. This is crucial to setting up why Ella’s stepmother (Cate Blanchett) grows so cold towards her. She isn’t evil—at least not at the beginning. I’m not condoning what she and her daughters Drisella (Sophie McShera) and Anastasia (Holliday Grainger) do, but there’s definitely jealousy of playing second-fiddle to a ghost propelling their actions.
Ella and the Prince’s (Richard Madden) meet-cute in the forest is nicely orchestrated with an even footing of respect devoid of the smugness Drew Barrymore utilized in her rendition Ever After. While many dismiss that version sight unseen, at least it tried something new. The starry-eyed Cinderella of now may not escape the archaic notion of a damsel to risk failure, but she doesn’t necessarily succeed beyond the status quo either. Maybe Hollywood has been going too crazy with its desire to always be bigger and bolder than the last, but the status quo is somewhat welcome. I guess if you’re set on remaking classics, staying true to them keeps the potential for vitriol at bay. It may not warrant adulation, but at least you won’t leave the theater with a scowl of disapproval.
Staying true to the Disney source, we witness a land of yesteryear with bright colors and simplistic attitudes. Mean characters are mean and nice ones are nice. Blanchett is a delight to despise, McShera and Grainger a hoot to laugh at and pity. There are few better-suited actors than Derek Jacobi to deliver a compassionate King, Stellan Skarsgård a connivingly opportunistic Duke, or the gregarious Nonso Anozie the Prince’s trusted confidant. Madden is an effectively charming and authentic love interest who isn’t vapid and vain like so many parodies nor oafish and haughty like princes we remember. There has always been something resonate with Cinderella’s prince due to his falling for a girl he loves rather than one of stature, wealth, and security. He falls for her beauty, intelligence, and uniqueness.
As for James, she gets every facet of Cinderella right. Whether the unapologetic affection towards Dad, charitable acceptance of servitude with Stepmom, unbridled excitement to dance at a ball, or staunch disapproval when realizing kindness transformed into exploitation, James is effortless in her transitions. You feel for her plight, admire her optimism, and wish to one day have your own dream come true. You could dismiss her as an opportunist, a hollow role model needing luck and magic to stand against oppressors, but there’s something commendable in her hoping humanity isn’t unalterably warped and twisted like her Stepmother. There’s a karmic lesson of just deserts underlying the good and bad and that’s what’s appealed over the decades. We didn’t need another example of it, but what’s been provided does the material justice nonetheless.
courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures