Happily ever after

Nope, no cynicism here.

Nope, no cynicism here.

Rated 4.0

Rumor has it that there’s a project afoot at Disney Studios to produce live-action versions of a number of Walt Disney’s animated features. A cynic might see in this a creative bankruptcy at Disney, cannibalizing the past for want of fresh ideas. Personally, I say if they can all be as good as Cinderella, bring ’em on.

Directed by Kenneth Branagh and written by Chris Weitz (crediting both Disney’s 1950 feature and Charles Perrault’s original tale), Cinderella is a gloriously sumptuous confection, played miraculously straight without irony, revisionism or cynicism. After all the tinkering with fairy tales in recent decades—from Into the Woods and Wicked through Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman to the lamentable Maleficent and the awful Red Riding Hood—it may be that the most revolutionary approach to filming fairy tales is to see them afresh through the eyes of a child hearing the story for the first time.

It can’t be easy. How many people really remember the first time they heard this story? Well, just for the record, I do: It was Disney’s original version, on my fourth birthday. Weitz and Branagh may remember their first times too—their movie breathes and pulses with that same sense of discovery. And they take their time building the story. They don’t rush or compress things; there’s no subtext of “you know where this is going; let’s just get it over with.”

Of course, we do know where it’s going. Branagh and Weitz take us over familiar territory with new scenery and new inhabitants. At the same time, they invoke and honor the 1950 animated feature. Time and again Branagh’s compositions, abetted by Dante Ferretti’s breathtaking production design, mirror the earlier movie’s images: Cinderella with her beloved father, for example, or weeping at the garden bench when her hopes of going to the ball have been dashed.

Cate Blanchett, top-billed as the stepmother, flawlessly echoes the animated stepmother as drawn by Frank Thomas and voiced by Eleanor Audley in 1950. The stepmother is the most loathsome and frightening of all Disney’s villains because she’s the most completely human—no magic or witchcraft, just wickedness and cruelty. Blanchett pays tribute to Audley while making this stepmother her own.

The movie’s revelation is Lily James as Ella (here, the character’s true name). James will be familiar to viewers of Downton Abbey, where she plays the flighty, irresponsible cousin Rose. Cinderella showcases a feature of James that gets little play in Downton Abbey—she has what must be the most radiant smile in movie history. “Have courage and be kind,” Ella’s dying mother (Hayley Atwell) tells her early on, and James’ Ella radiates that courage and kindness. She’s simple without being simple-minded, long-suffering without being a doormat. It’s an expert performance, and James’ Cinderella deserves to make her a star the way Mary Poppins did for Julie Andrews.

The most brilliant stroke of Disney’s animated Cinderella was the idea of telling much of the story through the eyes of the mice who magically become the horses on Cinderella’s pumpkin coach. Branagh and Weitz nod to that with Ella’s little mouse friends. They don’t talk or sing, however, and this new version never quite rises to the sublime, exquisite sweetness of those mice building “a lovely dress for Cinderelly.” But it compensates in other directions, fleshing out the characters of the Prince (Richard Madden), the King (Derek Jacobi) and Ella’s father (Ben Chaplin).

Some may miss the songs. The Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) says “bibbidi-bobbidi-boo,” but she doesn’t sing it. And yet the one song we hear (besides “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes” under the closing credits) is from a different Disney movie entirely: “Lavender Blue (Dilly-Dilly)” from So Dear to My Heart (1949). It’s a surprising choice, but curiously right.

This lovely, charming movie can never replace the 1950 Cinderella (which, after all, was perfect), but it stands beside and complements it. Next up, reportedly, is Beauty and the Beast in 2016 with Dan Stevens (also of Downton Abbey) and Emma Watson. They’ve got a helluva hard act to follow.