Charming cast, lush production, no surprises in ‘Cinderella’
With Once Upon A Time still knocking ’em dead on TV, the folks at Disney now realize what profits can be made from repackaging their old cartoon fairy tale classics into new live-action formats. Last year, they tested the cinematic waters with Maleficent, which was bold enough to retell the story of Sleeping Beauty from the viewpoint of its “evil” fairy villainess. Flawed it may have been, but it was such a radical retelling of the familiar story that it earned its own place in the Disney canon.
The latest Disney live-action reboot, Cinderella, sticks much closer to the original story (the Disney version, anyway), and so doesn’t feel quite as fresh. The production values are absolutely luscious, and Kenneth Branagh’s skilled direction imbues the story with humor, tension, and emotional complexity. But the difference is in the writing. Scriptwriter Linda Woolverton, who wrote Maleficent (also Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and Alice in Wonderland) comes from a generation of women who grew up chafing against the passivity of Disney cartoon heroines.
Chris Weitz, who wrote Cinderella, does his best to provide more of a personality for both his heroine and her Prince than they had in the cartoon version, and he succeeds pretty well. But he doesn’t have the same feminist fire. He’s content to stick to the same bare bones of the plot—complete with friendly, live-action mice (although at least in this version they don’t actually talk)—and tell the same old story in much the same old way.
Still, what the story lacks in innovation, the film makes up for in sheer loveliness, performed by a thoroughly engaging cast. It’s great to see Ben Chaplin back on the big screen in the prologue as little Ella’s charming merchant father. He and his beloved wife (a blonde Hayley Atwell, TV’s Agent Carter) raise their daughter in an idyllic country cottage surrounded by animals, beauty and love. Her mother teaches Ella to “Have courage and be kind,” advice she clings to when her beloved mother dies.
Years later, when Ella is a young woman (now played by Lily James, Lady Rose from Downton Abbey), her father remarries. No sooner does Ella’s new stepmother (a ferociously red-haired Cate Blanchett) move in with her two petulant grown daughters (Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera), than Ella’s father also dies, leaving her at the mercy of her cruel, resentful new step-family. She becomes their kitchen drudge, her quarters removed to the drafty attic, her only friends those sympathetic mice.
Why does she put up with it? Weitz invents a promise made to her parents to look after the house where they were all so happy once. Well, OK, but he’s more successful with a scene in the woods where Ella meets a handsome young stranger calling himself Kit (Richard Madden, who plays Robb Stark from Game of Thrones) whom she doesn’t realize is the prince. It’s because Kit is so beguiled by the girl’s beauty and kindness (she talks him and his hunting party out of pursuing a deer, which must be some kind of Disney penance for Bambi), that he orchestrates the whole royal ball ploy, open to all the marriageable ladies in the kingdom, to find her again.
Some sections are a bit slow: Ella bravely facing oppression from her step-family, or the overly lengthy ball sequence establishing Ella and Kit’s connection. With her blonde hair and dark brows, James so resembles Daenerys Targaryen, the dragon girl in Game of Thrones, we wish for a flying dragon to jolt things back to life.
But Helena Bonham Carter is fun as the loopy fairy godmother, the first transformation scene is well done, and the gold filigree coach conjured from a pumpkin is outstanding! But Branagh’s piece de resistance is the coach’s mad dash away from the palace as the clock strikes midnight, footmen morphing back into lizards, the driver becoming a goose again, snow-white steeds sprouting mouse ears and devolving down into rodent form, all while on the run. It’s a brilliant sequence that makes up for the unadventurous familiarity of the story.
Due next year: a live-action Beauty and the Beast, written by Woolverton. Stay tuned.
*** (out of four)
With Lily James, Cate Blanchett, Richard Madden, and Helena Bonham Carter. Written by Chris Weitz. Directed by Kenneth Branagh. A Walt Disney release. Rated PG. 112 minutes. PHOTO: Cate Blanchett plays the new stepmother of Ella (Lily James) in Disney’s live-action release of ‘Cinderella.’