Live action reboots of animated classics are all the rage these days, it seems. Disney’s tackled this with last year’s Maleficent, as well as indirectly through the film adaptation of Into the Woods, and other studios have tackled characters long associated with Disney, like Snow White (Snow White and the Huntsman and Mirror, Mirror). These adaptations tend to put a modern spin on the material, going so far as to humanize the established villains and create new villains.
In this context, Disney’s update of Cinderella is refreshingly old-school. Sure, in the transition from animation to live action, the new film has fleshed out some of the story, pre-ball, rather than repeat musical numbers from the 1950 film. But outside of those few additional details, and some fleshing out of Lady Tremaine, the film doesn’t try to dramatically alter the story as most audiences know it. It may not make for a fascinating new spin, but it does hold up better than other recent Disney adaptations.
As mentioned before, the biggest difference between the 1950 classic and the 2015 update is a fleshed out opening. Cinderella opens with Ella as a child, with her devoted father (Ben Chaplin) and mother (Hayley Atwell) living a happy life. When her mother becomes suddenly ill, she encourages young Ella to “have courage and be kind” before her death. Years later, Ella (Lily James) encourages her father to follow his desire to marry the widow Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett), who brings with her wretched daughters Drisella (Sophia McShera) and Anastasia (Holiday Grainger). After her father passes away, Ella is reduced to a servant in her home by her stepmother and stepsisters. In a rare outburst of pain, Ella rides away from home on her horse, where she encounters “Kit,” the Prince who hides his identity in order not to scare Ella away. The two depart without Ella giving Kit her name, so Kit encourages his father to open up a ball to find Kit a wife to the entire kingdom. And from there, you know the rest of the story.
There’s not a lot of depth to the story. Ella is good and kind. Her father is devoted to her. Her stepsisters are uniformly horrible. Kit is charming. Only Lady Tremaine is crafted as a multifaceted character, which is understandable when you have Cate Blanchett in the role. Tremaine isn’t simply evil; the film makes clear her cruelty toward Ella comes in part from fear for her future and neglect from her husbands. But make no mistake: Lady Tremaine can be just as broad in her cruelty to Ella as her daughters.
When it comes to the film’s message, this lack of depth doesn’t fully work. The overarching message – “be kind and have courage” – is rarely shown in action. It’s easy to show Ella getting along with her father, or Kit, or the farm animals. The only jump to kindness, though, is when Ella gives milk to a beggar woman, who is (of course) her Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter). As for courage, Ella doesn’t show that often either. She doesn’t appear to fear anything, nor is she willing to proactively stand up for herself.
Fortunately, director Kenneth Branagh has created a film that is visually bold. The costumes from designer Sandy Powell are bold and colorful, and the set designs from Dante Ferretti are stunning in their detail. The film’s aesthetic features enough nods to the 1950 film for audiences to make a connection, while still crafting something unique. It doesn’t quite make up for the film’s lack of effort at showing its message in action, but it does help create an amiable adaptation – one that, unlike Maleficent or Alice in Wonderland, prove watchable.
Cinderella • Rating: PG (for mild thematic elements) • Runtime: 105 minutes • Genres: Drama, Fantasy • Cast: Cate Blanchett, Lily James, Richard Madden, Helena Bonham Carter • Director: Kenneth Branagh • Writer: Chris Weitz • Distributor: Disney
Cinderella is accompanied in its theatrical run by Frozen Fever. While not an essential piece of viewing, Frozen Fever is a cute revisit to Elsa, Anna, Olaf, and the rest of the gang. The short takes place on Anna’s birthday, and Elsa is determined to throw her sister a tremendous party to make up for years of separation. Unfortunately, Elsa catches a cold, and while the cold’s side effects are cute (each sneeze is accompanied by the creation of adorable, mischievous little snowmen called Snowgies), her insistence on continuing Anna’s special day put Elsa and the rest of Arendale at risk. The short’s original song, “Making Today a Perfect Day,” isn’t quite on par with the music of Frozen (particularly the song it most resembles, “For the First Time in Forever”), and the song’s hat tip to “Let It Go” is a bit forced, but the rest of the short makes up for the song’s shortcomings.