The past few years have seen a sudden resurgence of live action films from Disney. After exhausting their theme park rides for material, they’ve turned to their animated classics for inspiration. The results however haven’t been that encouraging. They might have made a tonne of money, but ‘Alice In Wonderland’ was an offensively awful film and ‘Maleficent’ showed promise before crashing and burning. With the money coming in, Disney didn’t seem to really care whether the films were any good or not, and everything suggested that their live-action adaptation of ‘Cinderella’, their beloved 1950 animated classic, was destined for the same messy end. However, in every way that those other films got it wrong, Kenneth Branagh’s ‘Cinderella’ just about gets everything right.
Ostensively, the story hasn’t changed. After losing both her parents, beautiful and kind Ella (Lily James) is forced into servitude for her wicked stepmother Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett) and her two wicked stepsisters Anastasia (Holliday Granger) and Drisella (Sophie McShera), who have given her the nickname Cinderella. What keeps her going in the face of all that she’s lost is a promise to have courage and love in the face of any obstacle. We have a royal ball, a moment of magical assistance from her Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter), a romantic meeting with the Prince (Richard Madden) and a mad dash at midnight where she loses a glass slipper. Chris Weitz’s screenplay keeps all the story beats we expect intact, but weaves some kind of magic with them that elevates it to something even more enchanting and affecting.
Rather than going for the simpler option, the film takes its time to develop each and every one of its characters, particularly Ella, who somehow becomes a young, passionate woman of flesh and blood without relinquishing her role as a Disney Princess. Character motivations are well-plotted and thought through, and each narrative twist and turn lands perfectly. It’s a testament to the craft of this film that it can take a story we all know so well and inject some genuine life into it. It’s also a visually sumptuous film without falling into excess. After the grossly over-designed work in ‘Alice’ and ‘Maleficent’, this is a breath of fresh air. Of course the costumes and sets are ravishing, but they seem to fit within the world they exist in and consistent with the character wearing or existing with it. This is territory well-suited to Branagh, this being his best film in a very long time. There are moments of flourish and beauty, but the characters are always the focus, and each actor is given the space to exist and blossom. ‘Cinderella’ is a surprisingly mature film, executed with a considered pace and attention to detail that might not hold the gaze of little ones, but older children will be very taken by it. It’s funny, moving and magical in all the right places, and built around the basic principles that make up a great fairytale. There’s a reason why this particular story has endured for so many centuries, and the team behind this film have taken the time to understand the morals and the heart of it. There’s no doubt it wears it all on its sleeve, but at no point does that work against it.
For fans of Disney and the original animated film, ‘Cinderella’ is a real treat.
For fans of Disney and the original animated film though, ‘Cinderella’ is a real treat. Unlike ‘Maleficent’, which seemed to petulantly ignore its source material, this film embraces it. Character names are the same, down to Ella’s animal friends. Gus-Gus the mouse and Lucifer the cat are there, and the mice even speak in the same squeaky manner they did in the original. There’s also plenty of visual and narrative nods to moments and music from the film that somehow balance being little nuggets for fans to enjoy without being reduced to in-jokes. The only pity is that the music and songs written for the original weren’t incorporated into this film at all, but when the other Disney films based on their animated classics have flat-out ignored their source material, it’s such a delight to see this one embrace and celebrate its own.
The performances are also a treat, the entire ensemble very aware and willing to embrace the film that they’re in. Lily James is gorgeous as Ella, her delicacy driven by the fire and passion that makes Cinderella such a compelling character. Every moment she’s on screen is a delight, and she completely embodies what works best about the great Disney Princesses. Cate Blanchett is having a ball as Lady Tremaine, but rather than reducing her to a cartoon villain, she retains the same quiet intensity that made the character her so frightening in the original. That said, when there’s scenery to chew, she attacks it with aplomb. Bonham Carter is wonderfully batty as the Fairy Godmother and Madden makes a perfectly charming and passionate prince. The addition of faces like Derek Jacobi, Stellan Skarsgård and Hayley Atwell further bolsters an already magical cast.
I have to admit, I went in very skeptical with this one; I’d been burned too many times already by Disney the last few years, but very quickly I became utterly enchanted by ‘Cinderella’. This is everything a fairytale film should be - a visual feast with tremendous heart at the centre. Kenneth Branagh has done a sterling job, aided by Chris Weitz’s terrific screenplay and an absolutely wonderful cast. With their attention now turning to adapting their most sacred classic, ‘Beauty and the Beast’, let’s hope ‘Cinderella’ is less a lucky fluke for Disney than a sign of great things to come. This is one film this Disney fanatic will happily revisit as often as the classic that it’s based on.