Here's the awful truth: there's not much left to say about the fairy tale "Cinderella." This is a story that has been told, re-told, re-made, re-worked, and re-imagined so many times that its basic beats are ingrained in the popular consciousness. There's a girl who is treated poorly by her wicked stepmother and buffoonish stepsisters, is visited by a fairy godmother, attends a royal ball and catches the eye of a prince, and, after a kingdom-wide search to find the owner of the glass slipper she left behind, is married to the prince. Cue the happily-ever-after.
So the latest version of this tale doesn't bring any drastic change to the latest retelling. But it does come from Disney, the company responsible for 1950's animated, arguably-definitive cinematic version of the famous folk tale. Ella (Lily James) lives a happy life with her parents (Hayley Atwell and Ben Chaplin) in an unspecified kingdom. But when both parents die, she is left in the care of her callous stepmother (Cate Blanchett), waiting on her and her stepsisters Drisella (Sophie McShera) and Anastasia (Holliday Grainger) hand-and-foot. Her destiny changes, however, when she meets "Kit" (Richard Madden) in the forest, forming an instant attraction; little does she know that Kit is actually the Prince. When Kit decides to throw a ball for the entire kingdom in an effort to find her again, Ella - with help from her fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) - attends against her stepmother's wishes, and...well, you know how it goes from there.
It could have - and perhaps should have - been a rote, pointless remake of an oft-told tale, it's only reason for existence being that it's a license to print money for the Mouse House. Instead, the film goes above and beyond, becoming something that's at once exactly what it's supposed to be and something unexpected. You could even call it magical.
More after the jump.
For the past five years, Disney has turned making live-action versions of some of their beloved animated films into a profitable cottage industry. Though these films - starting with mega-blockbuster Alice in Wonderland (2010) and continuing with Maleficent (2014) - made gobs of money, neither one fully lived up to its potential. In fact, the biggest knock against both of them is that by "re-imagining" their source material, they become a pale imitation of other films, most notably adult fantasy epics such as The Lord of the Rings: huge battle sequences tacked into films that didn't exactly need them. Both of those films lost track of what made their stories work: in the case of Alice, the sense of hallucinatory wonder, and in the case of Maleficent, the film's reworking of the relationship between Aurora and Maleficent.
Now, Maleficent was a much better film than Alice in Wonderland (as well as 2013's Oz: The Great and Powerful, which doesn't strictly fit this trend but is similar enough - a reimagining of a pre-existing property - that many people lump it in anyway), precisely because it genuinely reworked the story into something insightful and interesting. It also had the benefit of a terrific performance by Angelina Jolie in the title role and a lack of Futterwackening. And's that's a good point to make: these films have been getting better with each new installment.
Cinderella is the best one yet precisely because it avoids the aforementioned trap: it doesn't try to be anything more than what it is. Ella is not re-imagined as a fierce warrior a la Alice, nor is the Stepmother turned into a tragically-misunderstood loner a la Maleficent. Instead, Ella is simply a young girl with an enormous heart, a worthy role model in her belief that being good is always the right thing to do, and the Stepmother is quite simply wicked, though Blanchett's performance offers shades of a difficult past that could have made her this way. The magic and visual effects are kept to a minimum, instead allowing the story to play more as a sweeping romantic drama than fantasy epic.
Give credit to director Kenneth Branagh for keeping the film focused, Branagh, equally well-known for his Olivier-like penchant for both acting and directing with a keen interest in Shakespeare, stages the film with plenty of close-ups of the characters, often framed just off-center with the background out-of-focus. The emphasis is clear: Branagh is far more interested in the characters than he is in the usual fantasy shenanigans. And it's an emphasis that, for the most part, works. James isn't the strongest performer, but she makes Ella compelling enough to make her a protagonist worth investing in (the same, unfortunately, can't be said of Madden's Kit, who's just not fleshed-out enough to be very interesting). Blanchett, as mentioned above, does a great deal with her Stepmother, making her a malevolent force through bitter readings and deadly glares; it's an excellent performance from an actress who seems incapable of anything less. And Carter is great fun as the ditzy Fairy Godmother, getting to flounce about entertainingly without tipping into total lunacy.
But it's more than just the focus on character that makes this version of Cinderella great. Branagh's real success is how he dives head-first into the film's visual splendor, delivering on the eye-candy and design-porn in every frame. Of course, when you have Dante Ferretti (Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, The Age of Innocence) doing your production design and Sandy Powell (The Young Victoria, Velvet Goldmine) doing your costumes, you'd be foolish not to highlight their work. Powell, especially, puts together some outstanding looks, completely revitalizing Ella's iconic blue dress and crafting a stunning green number for the Stepmother. Similarly, Ferretti's design of Ella's country home gives it a look that's at once sophisticated and simple before the Stepmother's arrival, and homey yet distant once Ella's parents are gone. This is to say nothing of the Prince's ball, itself a feast for the eyes: all swirling color and royal decorum.
Of course, there are some hiccups here as well. As with his previous for-hire blockbuster work, 2011's Thor, Branagh has trouble wrangling some of the more effects-heavy sequences, particularly when the clock strikes midnight. Thankfully, these sequences are few and far between, with the aforementioned scene being the worst offender, but for the most part these moments distract from what the film is doing best.
Ultimately, this Cinderella makes the case for its existence by fully reveling in the fairy-tale romanticism, with Branagh's strong direction guiding the film into being a feast for the eyes and warm comfort for the heart. It may not take the story anywhere new, but there's plenty to be said for putting together a more-than-competent production. To paraphrase the film's repeated mantra, it has the courage to be itself and be kind to all of its characters. And with just the right little bit of magic. B+