Disney is hitting the live-action remakes hard right now. Last year it was Maleficent’s intriguing take on the evil fairy’s side of the story. This year it’s Cinderella, based heavily on the 1950 animated film of the same name. Using that as inspiration, Director Kenneth Branagh (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Thor) has created a very pretty movie that remains respectful to the source material.
Perhaps too respectful.
While Maleficent was far from perfect, it at least offered something new and distinct. Hate it or love it, there was something worth talking about in a more mature version of Sleeping Beauty (1959) where good and evil were not as simple as they first appeared. In comparison, Cinderella (2015) sticks rigidly close to its animated counterpart and offers very little that is original or fresh. Watching it is hardly a chore, but you won’t find any surprises waiting.
The premise is exactly what you’re expecting. Ella (Lily James) is the beloved daughter of a country gentleman. Unfortunately the tragic death of his wife leads her father to re-marry unwisely, and his own demise leaves Ella in the power of her avaricious social climbing step-mother (Cate Blanchett) and moronic step-sisters. Hoping to meet a young man she previously encountered in the woods (Richard Madden), she endeavours to attend a ball at the palace with the help of her mysterious fairy god mother (Helena Bonham Carter).
The film is strongest where it deviates from or builds on the animated canon. For example, fleshing out Ella’s backstory with her family and expanding on her relationship with the Prince does a lot to make the film more accessible to modern audiences. Writer Chris Weitz (About a Boy, Antz) has clearly put some thought into developing the characters and giving them logical motivations, within the frame of the story.
Inevitably, there are aspects that the audience will roll their eyes at, like the Prince’s dilemma between marrying for love and duty, which has been faced by literally every other member of Disney royalty ever. However, to its credit the film tries to approach it from a new angle, casting it as being less about duty and more about a father’s anxiety to provide a stable future for his son. The journey of the King (Derek Jacobi) toward recognising and acknowledging his son’s ability to make his own decisions is one of the film’s more touching storylines.
This theme of parental control is echoed less benignly in the step-mother (Cate Blanchett), whose gradually escalating emotional abuse is actually rather disturbing to watch. Ella’s real moment of triumph is not trying on the shoe, as you would expect, but her refusal to live any longer under the woman’s shadow or allow anyone else to. It makes a nice change to have Cinderella’s personal growth be about something other than catching a man.
The real stand-outs are the leads Richard Madden and Lily James. Madden brings a real sense of humanity and vulnerability to the Prince, while James infuses what should be a very bland character with an appealing warmth and sweetness. Less impressive were the step-sisters, played by Sophie McShera and Holliday Grainger. Though the actresses are trying their best, their characters are nearly indistinguishable from their cartoon counterparts and their slapstick humour feels out of place.
This is, unfortunately, the overall problem with the film. It re-used so many of the elements from the original Disney movie that it was difficult to tell when it was slyly winking at the audience, and when it was just going through the motions. Were the overly-intelligent mice really intelligent, or was it just Ella projecting her loneliness and need for companionship onto them? Was it absolutely necessary that there be a random cat named Lucifer? And in a storyline that was at least attempting to be logical, why didn’t the fairy godmother use her powers years earlier to help her goddaughter?
All that said, this is not a bad film. While it will never make the top-ten list of revisionist fairytales, it’s not intended to. It’s marketed as a live action remake of 1950’s Cinderella, and that’s exactly what it delivers. Once accepted for what it is – light, harmless escapism – it’s fairly enjoyable for adults and absolutely dazzling for children. The protagonists are loveable, the story inoffensive, and, honestly, there are worse films to take the kids to this weekend.
THE REEL SCORE: 6/10