The animated “Cinderella” was the first movie I ever saw on Maui and one of the few classic Disney films with a female protagonist that I’ve always found universally appealing, funny and adorable. I had a stuffed “Gus-Gus The Mouse” and used to know all the lyrics to “Bibbity-Bobbity Boo.” Despite my admittedly intense affection for “Maleficent” last year ( do you know any other full grown men who saw it three times in the theater?), I wasn’t looking forward to a new “Cinderella.” I should have been more open-minded, as someone even more magical than a Fairy Godmother was behind the camera: the film’s director, Kenneth Branagh.
Remakes are usually and deservedly met with skepticism, especially if the original was perfect the first time. In theater, they don’t call them remakes but “revivals.” Branagh, who is one of the best theater-turned-film actors/directors, clearly understands the value of taking a familiar work and shaping it into something new, but with the heart of the story intact. He did this with his film adaptations of “Henry V,” “Hamlet” and “Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein,” and he’s done it here as well. While not as stylish as his masterpiece, “Dead Again,” Branagh’s brilliance as a theater artist once again carries over in his panache as a director.
In addition to the gorgeous costumes, rich sets and a great Patrick Doyle score, the casting is key to bringing this to life. Lily James plays the title role of the orphaned girl who suffers under the watch of her wicked stepmother (played by Cate Blanchett). Cinderella’s step sisters (played by Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera, both hilarious) torment Cinderella with glee, until the arrival of her Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) on the night of the big ball changes everything.
Blanchett is riveting, finding a balance of frightful intensity and haughty buffoonery in her portrayal. Yet, this wouldn’t have worked had James not dug deep and found the inner strength that makes Cinderella such a valuable character. The message of telling young girls to be proud of who they are, and not be afraid of letting their true selves show, is a good one. James’ touching performance is the heart of this lovely, enthralling film.
Likewise, playing the handsome Prince who falls madly for Cinderella, Richard Madden is the real deal. The camera loves him and he posses the charisma and acting ability to suggest a long career ahead. Many films over the last fifteen years have featured breakout actors playing princes in big fantasy films, few of which we’ll ever hear from again. Watching Madden and James exchange looks of deep affection and longing in the ballroom scene, their chemistry is red hot.
Helena Bonham Carter is just-right as the Fairy Godmother, giving it just the right mix of motherly warmth and dingbat whimsy. The CGI during the transformation of Cinderella’s dress and pumpkin are really beautiful, a rare example of special effects assisting the story without dominating every frame.
Branagh films key scenes, like the ballroom dance and Cinderella’s fleeing the event, in a visually exciting manner. I enjoyed the holdovers from the animated film, like the convincingly animated mice (very funny and really cute) and Lucifer the cat.
Running at just under two-hours, the editing is tight and makes the story fly by. A scene in which Cinderella chats with a friend in town (who we never see again) is the brief, sole example of a needless moment. Otherwise, Chris Weitz’s screenplay faithfully sticks to the blueprint of the original. In some ways, this is a missed opportunity, as there is a lack of surprise or fresh interpretation to the narrative.
One of the many things I loved about the dark, emotionally charged “Maleficent” was how it made a familiar tale seem different. Yet, “Cinderella” doesn’t waste time with superfluous side characters or narrative rabbit trails but remains keen on re-telling a great fairy tale. All of the scenes depicting the Prince’s affectionate relationship with his father, played by Branagh regular Derek Jacobi, are deeply felt. The one big story alteration, changing the ending somewhat, results in Blanchett getting more time to flesh out her character, which is a good thing.
I hope we’re past the lousy, “gritty” fairy tale updates like “Snow White and the Huntsman,” “Red Riding Hood” and “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.” If future live-action depictions of Disney animated classics are like this, I welcome this new genre. What could have been soullessly commercial or a market-tested cash grab like “Flubber,” is instead vivid and dazzling, a children’s film done right.