Can Cinderella still capture little-girl-all-grown-up?
When I was a kid, we only owned two movies: Disney’s Bambi and Cinderella. And since Bambi’s mom [SPOILER ALERT] gets shot by a hunter and dies, I’m sure we never watched it more than three times. Our VHS copy of Cinderella, however, we wore to shreds. To this day, my mom can quote several scenes in that movie verbatim—and she’s not a movie quote person. Thus, when I learned Disney had made a live-action version, my inner 6-year-old did pirouettes of glee.
The film also presents an interesting vision of racial equality, where races as we know them live and intermingle in 19th-century Europe as if skin color were no different than hair color.
My outer 33-year-old was a little more cautious. Let’s face it: the romance at the core of Cinderella (1950) does not hold up well to modern viewing. Prince Charming is barely more than a cardboard cutout; he and Cinderella fall in love after one evening, overcome intractable relatives, get married, and have their happily-ever-after. Birds carry the girl’s wedding veil. The movie’s true beauty is in the side characters, the songs, and the magnificent animation.
Director Kenneth Branagh’s live-action Cinderella, starring Lily James as Ella and Cate Blanchett as her wicked stepmother, loses most of those elements (no talking animals, but Gus-Gus the mouse almost squeaks words). Instead, it strengthens the romance, the backstory, and the human characters into something approaching three dimensions.
Ella’s own mother never appeared in the classic movie, but she plays a prominent role in this version, both before she dies (fair warning for children: there is a lot of parental death in this movie) and after, when her advice sustains Ella through hard times, encouraging her to be the kind, courageous woman she grows up to be. Including Mama, Papa, and the house itself as a family member to be cherished goes a long way toward explaining why Ella stays. She isn’t just a martyr to housework—she’s caring for the things she loves.
The set pieces are a visual feast, from the glass swans cradling the entryway chandelier in Cinderella’s home to the hand-painted vines curling up the staircase wall, and all the flowers, paintings, and wood carvings between. Sumptuous fabrics, gold military braid—the movie is a costumer’s fairy tale come true. If some of the styles seem blended from different eras, it’s okay. This isn’t supposed to be the real world anyway.
The film also presents an interesting vision of racial equality, where races as we know them live and intermingle in 19th-century Europe as if skin color were no different than hair color. It’s a lovely ideal for children to see play out in the beauty of a fairy tale. They won’t know there’s anything different about it, of course—only adults will notice the diversity. If only children didn’t have to learn from our bad example.
Prince Kit (look, a real name!) lives up to the “charming” moniker, but his relationship with his father, the king (Derek Jacobi), is one of the unexpected highlights of the film. One might wish for a little more depth and development, but considering the source material, Richard Madden’s take on Cinderella’s prince is a welcome improvement on the original.
The actors seem to revel in their roles: Cate Blanchett earns some sympathy for the stepmother, and then nasties the heck out of the character. Her daughters (played by Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera) are more silly than they are mean. Their comic exaggeration can be a bit too broad, but even that has roots in the original movie. Helena Bonham Carter’s aging elfin beauty lends itself perfectly to the slightly batty fairy godmother. The gang is all here (even Lucifer the cat, but no Bruno the dog, alas).
But for longtime fans of the animated classic, the best part might be the “Easter eggs” hidden throughout the film: nods to the original that only huge fans will catch. Disney is allowed to copy itself, and fortunately it takes that license and runs with it. Reportedly, the 1950 Cinderella saved Disney’s bacon; the 2015 Cinderella is a lush, lovingly painted homage to that legacy.
Cinderella is rated PG for no reason I can tell, other than the parental deaths. This is a beautiful, old-fashioned family movie in all the best ways.