Director Kenneth Branagh knows what Disney junkies, young and old, crave in their fairy tale movies, and he unabashedly delivers the goods with Cinderella, the latest “live action” remake of a Disney animated classic.
Pixie dust, ornate castles, fireworks, princesses, evil stepmoms and quirky CGI mice abound in this lush and striking new take on the girl with the glass slippers.
Of course, any Cinderella movie would be a slog without a good actress playing the title character. Luckily, Branagh has scored a great one with Lily James (TV’s Downton Abbey), as charming an actress as any to ever play an iconic Disney role.
Screenwriter Chris Weitz gives Cinderella a sweet and sad backstory, showing us a young girl (Eloise Webb) living a happy and secure life with her doting parents (Ben Chaplin and Hayley Atwell). As the fairy tale dictates, Cinderella loses her mom, paving the way for the Queen Bee of all stepmothers, played here by a spot-on, devilish Cate Blanchett.
Branagh takes a traditionalist approach to the material, but that doesn’t mean his take isn’t an original one. He brings a lot of class to the Disney universe, and he also respects how beloved the Cinderella storyline has become.
There’s nothing in his and Weitz’s telling that betrays the original material. Cinderella doesn’t bust out an electric guitar or ride a motorcycle while chewing tobacco. This is a relatively straightforward treatment, and it was a wise choice to go that route. As with his Shakespearean adaptations, Branagh has a way of making traditionalist approaches original and fresh.
Blanchett and James are so good in their roles because they aren’t trying to break the mold. They both embrace their parts as if they know what we have come to expect, and the result is a sort of adorable nostalgia in the case of Cinderella. She’s a genuinely nice person you can root for as portrayed by James.
As for Blanchett, she goes full-blown cruel, giving us a conniving, reptilian and selfish person. However, this stepmother also has her charms, a two-sided beast able to convince Cinderella’s affable dad that her moving in with the stepdaughters is a good idea.
Adding to the charm would be Helena Bonham Carter (Branagh’s ex-girlfriend) as Fairy Godmother. As to be expected, Carter plays it joyfully weird and quirky. The “transformation” scene where Fairy Godmother gets Cinderella ready for the ball is the best scene in the film. When the pink gown transforms into that glorious blue dress adorning the spinning James, it’s pure movie magic.
It’s all very Disney, with Branagh relishing the chance to show Cinderella immersed in pixie dust, and geese transforming into stagecoach drivers. It’s a lot of fun seeing Branagh embracing the Disney canon and making it his own for nearly two hours.
The film isn’t a musical, although it does contain a wondrous score by Patrick Doyle, and Cinderella does manage to sing one tune deep in the movie. I will declare it a marked improvement over the Disney animated original, which was never among my favorites.
Live action renditions of Disney classics seem to be the new trend. Cinderella is much, much better than the muddled Maleficent starring Angelina Jolie. That was a case where they should’ve left well enough alone. Tim Burton is supposedly in talks to do a live action Dumbo (huh?), while Jon Favreau is doing the same with The Jungle Book.
Most promisingly, Emma Watson is pegged to play Belle in a live action retelling of Beauty and the Beast, so I have high hopes for that one. As Branagh has proven with his little gem, remaking Disney cartoons as live action films isn’t such a bad idea after all.
For Frozen lovers, you will have the pleasure of a cute, brand new Frozen short before the main feature kicks in.