Saturday, March 21, 2015


 4 / 5 

After Disney unleashed its overblown Wizard of Oz prequel and an ill-advised revisionist take on Sleeping Beauty, there was reason to fear Cinderella.  After all, as the credits rather cynically put it, this is a live-action version of "Disney's Cinderella Properties" -- oh, and a fairy tale by some French guy.

So, what in the world is Kenneth Branagh, whose admirable abilities as a director of movies like Dead Again and Shakespeare's Henry V were so squandered on the first Thor movie, doing with such an overtly commercial project?  The doubter in me, well, doubted the outcome.

I was wrong to do so.  Branagh, it turns out, has brought class, wit, elegance and undeniable charm to a project that seemed so crassly designed to sell more princess gowns to little girls and Swarovski crystal shoes to their mothers.  Branagh's Cinderella suffers little from the synergistic visions of its producer, and instead casts an enchanting spell over the source material.

As he proved with his best Shakespearean films, if you're going to tell an old and classic story, tell it right and do it with grace and skill.  In Cinderella, he does just that, aided immeasurably by willing and generous actors, not to mention a screenplay by Chris Weitz (About a Boy) that knows precisely when to be honorable and when to wink and nod at the Disney source material.  (Perrault's original fairy tale is so slight and provides only the backbone -- it really is the 1950 animated film that's being remade here.)

It's the rare movie from the modern version of The Walt Disney Company that would have made its founder proud, rated PG for head-scratching reasons ("mild thematic elements") -- Cinderella is a film that will make the pulse of little girls beat faster, but also contains joy and satisfaction for childless adults.  It's a dazzler, lessened only by the modern over-reliance on computer-generated visual effects that feel overblown and under-imagined -- the moments that are the most eye-popping are not the majestic aerial shots of a digitally rendered kingdom or the slightly underwhelming transformation in the garden.  The best moments are the ones filled with the emotion we associate with the tale: romance, mythical love at first sight, and the longing Cinderella carries in her heart.

That longing is a little more fleshed out than Disney animators managed 65 years ago.  Back then, Cinderella (like so many on-screen heroines) wanted the prince because she needed a man.  Today, Cinderella wants the prince because in a first brief meeting they regard each other as equals; he does not know her, she does not know him, but he likes her unusual vision of life, and she admires his respect -- something she receives none of at home, as every child knows.

As Cinderella, actress Lily James pulls off the feat that Julie Andrews did so well in movies like Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music: She's naive and wholesome without being cloying.  Her stepmother (a deliciously sinister Cate Blanchett, playing it all with perfect dastardliness) has relegated her to servant status not because Cinderella is a simpering footstool but, rather, because she isn't.  In this version, Cinderella has a real identity as a young woman suffering from grief and loss, but who has developed a worldview with a simple guiding philosophy: "Have courage and be kind."

Cinderella is kind, almost to a fault, because she wants to respect the dying wish of her mother.  But as the stepmother ("Madame will do," she suggests when Cinderella stammers to find the right name for her) heaps humiliation upon humiliation on the girl, Cinderella finally does reach her breaking point.  And this is where things get even more interesting, because the film suggests that only upon asserting herself and acknowledging the impossibility of being that perfect "Disney princess" will a fairy godmother appear to grant a wish -- in other words, get a backbone girls, and develop your own sense of self: Not bad lessons for youngsters to learn.

Helena Bonham-Carter's brief role as said godmother is amusing but not quite as grand as it might have been -- but that's because the movie is reserving the real heart of the movie for the prince's famous ball.  As he has done in most of the rest of the movie (the post-ball pumpkin-coach chase scene is the only real exception), Branagh showcases surprising reserve.  Cinderella is a movie made with some delightfully old-fashioned notions of how to shoot and frame scenes, and more than most modern directors, Branagh frequently lets the actors act without multiple cut-aways, and in a wonderful waltz sequence generally allows the camera to find and linger on the main characters.  I loved the way Cinderella was filmed and edited, with restraint and confidence.

That's not to say it's a perfect film.  The opening is so sticky-sweet you might feel a toothache coming on, while the climax can't quite get over the problem that will always be inherent in Cinderella: She can't be truly happy until she's got a rich man at her side.  Yet, Cinderella makes up for some of those deficiencies, particularly in a surprisingly unnerving scene toward the end when the movie suggests that if she doesn't find the prince, Cinderella may go slightly off her rocker.  (That makes it a bit of a relief, actually, when he slips that shoe on her foot.)

What does it matter, though, if Cinderella is flawed?  Flaws can make diamonds all the more interesting, and that's the case here, too.  Just when I was ready to write off Disney's strategy of remake after remake after remake, Cinderella comes along and wins my heart and suggests that, just maybe, there are still reasons to tell these classic stories in different ways.  Cinderella is traditional and straightforward, it's simple and its heartfelt.  It does exactly what Disney used to tell us is the only thing we have to do to get what we want: It believes.  And it makes us believe, too.

Cinderella is a lovely little thrill, a movie that wants to tell a story, and a story that wants to be a movie.

Viewed March 20, 2015 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


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