Cinderella (Kenneth Branagh, 2015)
Sixty-five years after the Disney animated classic, director Kenneth Branagh has created a Cinderella for 21st century audiences. A timeless fairy tale, there isn’t much in the way of modern revisions, but Branagh and screenwriter Chris Weitz do flesh out the original, creating a strong role model in the kind and resilient (Cinder)Ella.Though the 1950 animated version of Cinderella is cherished by young and old, there’s no denying a few obvious flaws in its storytelling when examined with a modern eye. Firstly, the characters are one-dimensional – the evil stepmother and ugly stepsisters are caricatures, and Prince Charming lacks any depth whatsoever. Cinders and the Prince fall in love within minutes of meeting one another, and then the Prince doesn’t even recognise the supposed love of his life without her make-up on. There is a strong emphasis on external beauty, which is equated with internal beauty. A woman requires saving by a man. And most flawed of all is the concept of a happily ever after. Because what happens when Cinders and the Prince move in together and start to annoy the crap out of each other? This live adaptation doesn’t quite overcome all of these problems, but it sure does try its darndest. Chris Weitz has added greater substance to every character, creating a far superior product for audiences to enjoy.
Lily James demonstrates effortless grace and beauty in the role of Ella, whose character traits of courage and kindness are emphasised. She is easy to root for, never becoming sickly sweet, and her boundless optimism in the face of adversity is inspiring. One gripe is the unrealistic body ideals which Disney just cannot bear to part with. While the costumes by Sandy Powell are generally fantastic, Ella’s corseted waist in her ball gown is almost identical to that of a Barbie doll, so much so that viewers may fear for her health. Blame shouldn’t necessarily be placed on the designer, however. It seems Disney must have a clause about waist measurements, if every movie they’ve ever produced is anything to go by.
The Prince (Richard Madden) is awarded far greater depth in this adaptation. More than just a hot bod on a horse, here he’s presented as a young man with both ambition and heart, and one who treats Ella as his equal. Weitz attempts to deal with the unrealistic marriage-in-five-minutes issue by adding in an earlier scene where Ella and Kit meet briefly and chat, unaware of each other’s identity and standing in society. Unfortunately, an additional five minutes probably still isn’t enough to make their relationship uber-credible, but the audience will probably be too blinded by Richard Madden’s blue eyes to notice.
Cate Blanchett is a scene-stealer as Ella’s stepmother, without ever overdoing it. There’s a fire in her eyes which communicates her every feeling, including her own grief. Weitz provides us with glimpses into the stepmother’s motivations. Rather than simply being wicked, it is clear she has hardened as a result of life’s cruel blows. She’s still a bitch, but she’s certainly not one-dimensional. And her costumes are fierce! The stepsisters, Drisella (Sophie McShera) and Anastasia (Holliday Grainger) are as obnoxious and garish as you’d expect, and thus undeniably enjoyable. Thankfully, the film avoids stereotypes about physical “ugliness” – the stepsisters are physically attractive, but are shown to be ugly through their behaviours and put-upon appearances. McShera and Grainger are both clearly having a ball in these roles, so to speak.
In addition to these further developed characters, it is the magical nature of Cinderella that will truly enchant young audiences. Cinderella’s famous transformation scene, as well as its subsequent reversal, are the highlights, led by Helena Bonham Carter in an amusing turn as the Fairy Godmother. The pumpkin’s transformation into the golden carriage is remarkable, and there is much fun to be had in watching various animals turn into other beings at the flick of a magic wand. The film boasts exquisite production design, art direction, cinematography, and visual effects, and is accompanied by a captivating score. On the artistic front, this film nails it.
Tweens would appear to be the perfect audience for Cinderella, whereas very young children are likely to be bored with the added depth to the story, particularly in scenes regarding the nobility. The new Frozen Fever short plays before the film, luring Frozen fans who will not get an immediate chance to see it without buying a ticket to Cinderella. There’s the obvious princess connection, but the millions of littlies who enjoy Frozen will not be able to sit through this. Disney will be laughing all the way to the bank.
All in all, this Cinderella doesn’t drastically revise the classic story, but it can’t be accused of being too much of a cookies and cream misrepresentation of reality. Ella is an orphan who experiences emotional abuse, so she deserves her happily ever after (even if the film does end at the start of her hasty marriage to the Prince). It might be a bit simplistic in terms of love, but it avoids the sexist tropes of many a Disney princess story. As for how Disney will deal with Belle’s blatant Stockholm Syndrome in the upcoming live film adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, still remains to be seen.
This review was first published at Film Blerg