In this age of revisionist, modernized Disney fairytales, where we’ve learned that some of our favorite characters really aren’t what they seemed, the striking thing about the studio’s sumptuous new live-action “Cinderella” may not be what it is, but what it isn’t.
It isn’t revisionist. It isn’t modernized. The good guys are still good, the bad still bad. Prince Charming? Still charming. And the evil stepmother? She’s not, like Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent, merely misunderstood; As embodied by Cate Blanchett, she’s evil to the core. (And evil has never looked quite so fabulous.)
“Cinderella” is touching, visually stunning and very satisfying. Director Kenneth Branagh, working with a high-wattage cast led by the winsome and genuine Lily James, sticks to tried-and-true narrative formula, and infuses it with wit and style. If the glass slipper ain’t broke, he seems to be saying, why fix it?
A prologue shows us a little girl named Ella — a lovely thing who’s kind to all, and has a way of communing with animals. She lives in a rambling country home with her loving parents (Hayley Atwell, Ben Chaplin), and all is perfect until, of course, her mother takes ill and dies.
DIRECTED BY: Kenneth Branagh
STARRING: Lily James, Cate Blanchett, Richard Madden, Helena Bonham Carter and Stellan Skarsgard
RATED: PG GRADE: B
RUNNING TIME: 113 minutes
It won’t be long before Dad, sweet but inexplicably clueless, takes up with the widowed Lady Tremaine, who arrives with two dim-witted daughters. We know how bad things will get, but when Blanchett shows up with her raven hair, her chic ’40s-style glamour and the first of many jaw-dropping dresses (via masterful costume designer Sandy Powell), well, it’s hard not to secretly root for a villain with such stunning fashion sense.
But we digress. Cinderella’s life changes for good when her father dies, rendering her not only an orphan but a slave, too.
Out in the forest one day, she encounters a steed being chased by hunters. She admonishes the lead hunter to be kind and spare the animal. Her logic and pluck charm the hunter, who of course is Prince Charming (a ridiculously attractive, azure-eyed Richard Madden).
Back at the palace, he struggles against his duty to marry for wealth and advantage. Desperate to see that country girl again, he opens the upcoming ball to all women in the kingdom. But Lady Tremaine, more sinister by the moment, forbids Cinderella to attend; she even rips the dress that the girl has lovingly resuscitated from her mother’s closet.
Natch, Fairy Godmother turns up, in the campy, fun-loving personage of Helena Bonham Carter, who’s a bit rusty with the magic but ends up transforming a pink frock into an ice-blue confection fit for a princess, and a pumpkin into a gorgeous gilded carriage. The goose becomes the chauffeur — “I can’t drive, I’m a goose!” — and the crowning touch is, of course, the glass slippers. (“You’ll find they’re really comfortable,” Godmother notes, hilariously.)
The palace ball is as sumptuous as any little girl could want (kudos to production designer Dante Ferretti), and Branagh makes the ending, that magical moment where the slipper fits, as suspenseful as it can be when we’ve all known the story our whole lives.
There IS a message here, about kindness and forgiveness, and sticking to your life ethos no matter what confronts you.