“Cinderella” is marvelous, thanks to its enthusiastic cast and Kenneth Branagh’s nonconformist vision.
Movie Review #961
Aside from the few who were with their kids, I was quite likely the only guy in the theater with a ticket for “Cinderella”. It’s a fact that I had expected, but frankly, I find it sad. Kenneth Branagh’s take is not a dreamy movie for little girls. Okay, maybe it can be looked at as that, but it’s not so specifically targeted at little girls as the 1950s animated movie was. It is a nostalgic restoration of that original Disneyfication, with a spirited, whimsical attitude that can be appreciated by all who appreciate the value of the original tale.
For those who aren’t familiar with the story (and if that happens to be you, I might recommend a few quick Google searches that could improve your cultural literacy), this is the ultimate rags-to-riches tale. The movie gives it a few slight twists. For example, Cinderella (Downton Abbey’s Lily James) is known as Ella for the majority of the film. She’s only given the moniker when her wicked stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and her self-centered stepsisters mock her as she sweeps the cinders, among so much other elbow-grease that is guaranteed not the slightest bit of appreciation. But what we might automatically call a “retelling” from Branagh is not a retelling at all. 2015’s “Cinderella” isn’t modernized, and that’s major nonconformity when we consider that modernization has become a trend for Walt Disney Pictures. There’s two hints of the modern age hidden in here. One is the empowering casting of an African-American as having a major role in the royal castle. I find this element to be highly commendable, an assertion of society in 2015, to substitute what was most likely assumed to be an all-white castle in 1812 when the Brothers Grimm wrote their account. The other minute suggestion of modernization in the most recent account isn’t as admirable: a bubblegum pop song that appears over the closing credits. It took me right out of the period piece setting and straight into Disneyland.
You have to give Branagh props for his achievement. His vision of “Cinderella” speaks to both the story’s straightforward narrative and its moral parable. He’s taken a recent turn from serious, arthouse films into a career centered more in Hollywood. Since 2011, he’s also directed two action films (“Thor” and “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit”), but “Cinderella” gives them both a run for their money as far as fulfilling entertainment. There’s a deeper meaning to this Cinderella than we normally see. Branagh offers symbolism to the story so to indicate that Cinderella will only gain beauty by means of freedom. Her acquirance of the somewhat iconic blue dress symbolizes that freedom that brings out the beauty in her. It’s almost shocking watching Lily James look so disgusting as she slaves around for her step-family, whilst every other leading lady in Hollywood must, by some undocumented contract, look beautiful.
But that’s not to say that James’s performance lacks the same ebullience. We don’t go into the movie expecting to care about her protagonist nearly as much as we ultimately do. Only to outshine James in their own performances are Cate Blanchett, who is wonderfully sinister in her role as the evil stepmother, and Helena Bonham Carter. Bonham Carter plays the fairy godmother marvelously; in fact, she’s the highlight of the film. And given how unexpected it is for Bonham Carter to provide a character meant almost singularly for comic relief, her performance is that much more appreciable.
Live-action fantasies have proved a curse for not only Disney but also a number of acclaimed directors. Since 2010, Tim Burton, Mike Newell, Rob Marshall, Sam Raimi, and Gore Verbinski have all faced mixed reception for their efforts in the genre. You’d think Kenneth Branagh would be doomed to meet the same fate for “Cinderella”. Instead, we have one of Disney’s best films since their first “Chronicles of Narnia” adaptation.
Note: Disney’s theatrical releases are traditionally preceded by an animated short. The short shown before “Cinderella” in theaters is called “Frozen Fever”, and as you might guess, it is intended to build on the success of 2013’s “Frozen”. What puzzles me is the title. Elsa doesn’t have a fever in the animated short. It’s stated several times that she has a cold, which is completely different from a fever. By now, wouldn’t several health organizations have sued Disney for teaching kids to confuse colds and fevers? Not that I endorse such lawsuits, but it’s a huge oversight on Disney’s part.