Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Produced by Simon Kinberg, David Barron, and Allison Shearmur. Written by Chris Weitz. Release date: March 13, 2015.
In an age filled with cynicism, it’s a rare film to come along that’s earnest and heartfelt from its beginning to the point when the credits begin to roll. Cinderella is such a movie. Not technically a remake of the Disney animated classic – although it certainly borrows heavily from it – the film exists in its own little world, one where animals perfectly understand humans, fairy godmothers exist, and true love is the guiding force behind the most important of actions.
The plot essentially follows the animated film, which itself is based on a fairy tale written by Charles Perrault. Our lead is Ella (Lily James), whose parents both die, which forces her to live with an evil stepmother, Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett), who has two daughters of her own (Sophie McShera and Holliday Grainger). Ella becomes the house servant, because we need to see her hard done-by in order to root for her. She’s mistreated in various ways, and the only friends she can make are with the mice that populate the house. There’s a prince (Richard Madden) – called “Kit” in this version – a ball, a fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter), glass slippers, and all of the Cinderella staples you know and expect. If you don’t know the story, I won’t spoil it for you here.
There are a few differences, but they’re minor. The prince and Ella meet in the forest in this one, which makes some of the interactions between them later on a little odd. Ella is now a “country girl” whose house her family has owned for two centuries. Cinderella is essentially a longer, live-action version of an animated film you watched when you were a child.
I mention that it’s longer because, first and foremost, it is. The animated film didn’t even reach 80 minutes in length, while this one takes almost two hours to conclude. There isn’t enough content to fill up this running time. Outside of the “Cinderella staple” moments – the fairy godmother, the ball, the slipper fitting – there’s not a whole lot to this movie. Even the animated film, at times, runs a touch long, so increasing the running time and doing very little to fill that time just makes it feel meandering. It’s really telling when Into the Woods can wrap up its version of the Cinderella story in about 20 minutes; that’s about how much actual content there is.
It’s not like there aren’t things to improve, either. The characters in Cinderella were never particularly deep. With this extra time, more character moments could have been included. This, however, hasn’t happened. The prince is slightly more interesting, true, but Ella is still bland, the stepfamily is still evil just for the sake of being evil, and there’s just nothing to most of these characters.
Even more problematically, some of the character scenes we do get wind up making very little sense under even the slightest bit of observation. Ella gets asked at one point why she puts up with her stepfamily, to which she replies that she made a promise to her parents that she’d stay at the family’s home, since it’s been in their name for generations. But then the prince comes along and that gets completely forgotten. Having Ella, not dressed in ballroom garb, and the prince, dressed as a hunter but not letting on that he’s from the royal family, meet earlier in the film makes you wonder why they even have to go through with the “fitting of the slipper” near the end. They know each other! And, while this isn’t a character issue, I’ve always wondered why the glass slippers remained, given that they’re created out of thin air and we’re told that everything will return to normal at the last stroke of midnight. That’s just always bugged me about the story, at least the way it’s told by Disney.
It wants to appeal to those who are able to push the negativity out of their heads and watch a story about true love.
Here’s the thing, though: It doesn’t matter. The movie doesn’t care about any sort of cynicism you might throw its way. That’s not the state of mind in which you need to be in order to enjoy it. For some people, that will be impossible – you are not Cinderella‘s target audience. It wants to appeal to those who are able to push the negativity out of their heads and watch a story about true love. It’s magical and it doesn’t have time to care about any of its problems. It hopes you won’t, either. If you are the type of person who can easily get sucked in to a story like this, then you should see Cinderella.
Even for the cynical among us, there are still a few strong components for which you should be on the lookout. Any scene that involves a large amount of people, such as a brief fencing scene, or the glorious ball, are wonderful. The dance between Ella and the prince is expertly choreographed, beautifully shot, and the production design is exquisite. Cinderella is being directed by Kenneth Branagh, perhaps best known by cinephiles for his Shakespeare adaptations, but by the general public either for directing Thor or for playing Gilderoy Lockhart in the second Harry Potter movie. His strengths as a director primarily lie in the visuals. The best parts of Thor took place in Asgard because of the amount of effort put into the costumes and sets. The same is true here. In the dreary country home, the atmosphere is dull; it lights up when we move to the lavish castle.
Unfortunately, the gorgeous visuals only go so far. A lot of the CGI is subpar, particularly when it comes to the anthropomorphized animals. It’s really difficult to get that right, and it’s not a big deal, but it’s noticeable enough that it has the potential to distract.
Outside of a touch of political intrigue – the king (Derek Jacobi) and the grand duke (Stellan Skarsgård) want the prince to marry for the advantage it brings the kingdom, while he wants to marry for love, so there’s that dichotomy going on – the thing that the film most wants us to take from it is a big, important message. “Have courage and be kind” is repeated so many times that it would have become a parody in any movie with even an ounce of cynicism or self-awareness. But here it’s how Ella lives, and it’s at least a positive message for the children to take away from the film.
Is Cinderella a good movie? I don’t know. It’s got a lot of problems, such as a lack of content for its running time, a repetitive, heavy-handed message, lackluster CGI, and bland characters. But none of that matters. It wants to put you in a state of mind to get rid of all cynicism and negativity, root for Ella, and believe in true love. And, to an extent, it works. It also plays as a diametric opposition to the “darker” live-action Disney adaptations, and for that we should be glad. We need an earnest Cinderella for every cynical Maleficent; that balance is beneficial.
Bottom Line: Cinderella might have its problems, but if you can get on its wavelength, you’ll have a good time.
Recommendation: If you’re a massive fan of the Disney animated film, or if you’re tired of the cynicism in today’s movies, Cinderella is worthwhile.[rating=2.5]