“A dream is a wish your heart makes,” Cinderella sang over sixty years ago, and while mediocre trailer after mediocre trailer came out for Kenneth Branagh’s live-action interpretation of her tale, apparently millions were wishing for something special. And it’s a dream come true. Cinderella, contrary to what anyone could have expected, is actually an immensely charming fairy tale.
After a double feature of ill-conceived live-action “reimaginings” of classic animated works – Alice in Wonderland and Maleficent – one almost wonders why Disney placed their trust in yet another one of these works. But it pays off, in great part because Branagh manages to retain all the little things that made the original so delightful, while totally changing the flow of the narrative. It’s as though he and screenwriter Chris Weitz practically had a field day creating a back story and endearing script out of existing material.
The film presents us with Ella (Lily James) from her very youth, allowing the audience to grow closer to a character whose life prior to the character’s prince period one never truly got to know in the animated work. It’s because of the loving relationship with her mother and father here that their subsequent death and replacement by wicked stepmother, Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett), is all the more impacting. And, as always, Ella’s kindness makes one root for the romance between her and Prince Charming (Richard Madden) – who she meets before the ball this time around – and for the chance at escaping her step-mothers grasp.
But as much as the fairy-tale structure is still there, Weitz’s script does an impressive amount of character building that one would never expect. The first, and most important, is dropping the ultra-heavy mouse focus that the animated film insisted on having (understandably so). It places the focus on Ella being a character with actual agency in spite of her dire situation; crafting her own dress, doing her own chores, finding joy in the worst situations (her move to the attic for instance), putting a positive spin on words used to hurt her (identifying as Cinderella instead of Ella), and even riding out on a horse and meeting her prince. That last one offers a positive interaction for the two instead of resorting to the old ‘love at first dance’ routine that isn’t particularly satisfying. In fact, upon rewatching the animated film, it’s hard to wonder why anyone found this an interesting love story at all considering the circumstances they met and married under.
These shifts in storytelling allow everyone involved in the main cast a chance to shine as brightly as the costuming, which is often showy and immaculately crafted by Sandy Powell, perfectly suited to the scene, the mood, and the character. Each one is brimming with personality that their animated counterparts didn’t get as much of a chance to exhibit, though some are admittedly left to match the sense of enthusiasm their former selves had sans giddy tunes (i.e. Helena Bonham Carter being her usual silly self to positive effect with little Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo). Where we see the most distinct improvement is Blanchett’s step-mother – who slips ever-so-comfortably into the shoes of a cunning woman likely to go Mommie Dearest on everyone in her path – and the ever so charming duo of the Prince and Ella. As the titular character, it’s impossible to take your eyes off Lily James’ face and her ability to deliver every beat of kindness not with naivety, but with a fitting grit that’s unfamiliar for a Disney princess.
And so much of Cinderella‘s success lies in its immense charm, almost perfectly delivering both familiarity and freshness. Even the little bits where Branagh takes a moment to throw in a gratuitous joke for the kids don’t feel as unnecessary as they actually are, solely because they fit into the endearing fairy tale production. As such, Cinderella is the kind of “reimagining” Disney should continue striving for; one that properly builds upon a decent foundation and makes something surprisingly magical.
Directed by Kenneth Branagh; written by Chris Weitz; based on Disney’s Cinderella & Charles Perrault’s Cendrillon; starring Lily James, Cate Blanchett, Richard Madden, Stellan Skarsgård, Derek Jacobi and Helena Bonham Carter.
Cinderella is now playing in theaters everywhere.