Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Review: Cinderella (2015)

Cinderella (2015)

Rated PG for mild thematic elements

Disney's latest adaptation of Cinderella, this one a live-action film directed by Kenneth Branagh, is old-fashioned almost to a fault, but at this point, they've more than earned the right to do a "traditional" fairy tale movie. Anybody hoping for a revisionist take on the story like Frozen or Into the Woods will be disappointed, but Cinderella does enough right that it's easy to forgive its faults. It shows that Disney still remembers what worked about its classic fairy tale canon, while also expanding its characters and giving them enough new layers that, even if you're familiar with the original story, you'll find a lot to enjoy here.

You should know the story by now -- Ella's wicked stepmother and catty stepsisters, the fairy godmother, the handsome prince, Ella having to leave the ball by midnight, and of course, the glass slipper. This film basically follows that story beat-by-beat, but in between those beats, things start to get interesting. Ella's life with both her parents (played by Ben Chaplin and Hayley Atwell) is expanded into a lengthy prologue; her motto of "have courage and be kind" was given to her by her mother, in her last words before succumbing to illness. Her wicked stepmother Tremaine (Cate Blanchett) and stepsisters Anastasia and Drisella (Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera) forcing her to be their maid comes as a direct result of her father's death while on a merchant expedition; the loss of his income forced them to lay off the paid servants and make do with Ella, the relative that none of them particularly liked to begin with due to her quirks (talking to mice will do that). And most importantly, Prince Charming (known here as Kit, and played by Richard Madden) is given a real personality beyond being handsome and, well, charming. Like Ella, he too feels trapped and enslaved, this time by the rigid, formal court of the royal family and its attempts to control his love life and make him a "proper" heir. The King (Derek Jacobi) and the Grand Duke (Stellan Skarsgård) want Kit to marry the princess of Zaragoza in order to bring the kingdom into an alliance that may protect it from its enemies, and Kit is despairing at being unable to make his own decision about who to cherish and hold 'til death do them part. Eloping with the country girl Ella is his form of rebellion against his family. (I'm not surprised that Richard Madden comes from Game of Thrones; he feels right at home amid the palace intrigue of his side of the story.) Of course, when Lady Tremaine finds out, she uses this knowledge to try and get the Grand Duke to grant her and her daughters royal title.

These changes don't shift the direction of they story all that much, but they definitely give flavor to it, adding some new wrinkles to a story that many people know by heart from childhood. Otherwise, well, it's pretty much exactly what you'd expect from a big-budget Cinderella movie. The sets and effects are lavish, Kenneth Branagh's direction is fantastic in both senses of the word, and the cast is grand, with Lily James and Cate Blanchett easily being the standouts. James brings real heart to the title character as she struggles to make the best out of her increasingly crappy situation in the first half, occasionally cracking under the strain, before being swept up in romance in the second. She is a star in the making, an actress who I will certainly be watching out for in the future. Blanchett, meanwhile, skirts the edge of camp as the wicked stepmother Lady Tremaine, but in the end delivers an excellent performance, playing her less like a cackling grande dame and more as a cold-hearted bitch who's out for only herself and her daughters. Her take on Tremaine was evil in an all too human way, and she was outstanding at getting me to absolutely hate her. Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera were great comic relief as the catty stepsisters, while Derek Jacobi and Stellan Skarsgård brought some major class to the royalty, even in fairly minor roles. I do wish Helena Bonham Carter had a bit more to do as the Fairy Godmother beyond narrate the story, as her character did seem to come out of nowhere once she actually appeared on-screen, but her presence was certainly welcome.

Score: 4 out of 5

It's certainly not revolutionary, but if you're a fan of old-school Disney fairy tales, you will fall in love with Cinderella all over again. A very good family tale, and an example of Disney in full form.

(Oh, and it comes with a Frozen short before it. Open your wallets, parents of America. I wasn't kidding when I said that Frozen would become a license for Disney to print money.)

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