There is fun to be had in Cinderella

by Steve Pulaski

Kenneth Branagh’s traditional retelling of Cinderella comes as a huge surprise for me in 2015, mainly because Disney has had a successful run at transforming fairy-tales and fantasy ideas into something bigger and more subversive, especially in the past few years. We’ve had films like Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland give us Wonderland like we’ve never seen it before, Oz: The Great and Powerful transport us back to the place where we all spent sometime during our childhood and give us a beautiful new story in the land of the Yellow Brick Road, and even last year’s Maleficent gave us a taste of a rarer, darker side of Disney. I use all these as footnotes because it’s strange to see how straightforward Branagh and writer Chris Weitz (who may just be one of Hollywood’s most diverse screenwriters with this, Antz, American Pie, The Golden Compass, and a future Star Wars stand-alone project under his belt) make this adaptation of one of the most known and beloved fairy-tales.

Does the plot even need to be reiterated at this point? The story of Cinderella is firmly in place here, with the titular character being played by Lily James in a performance that assures we’ll be seeing more of her in the future, and Cate Blanchett as her evil step mother. All of the Cinderella storytelling features are here, from her run-in with Prince Charming, to the immaculate glass slippers, and even the Ball, where Prince Charming (Richard Madden) will select a woman to be his princess.

Directed by
Kenneth Branagh
Lily James, Cate Blanchett, Richard Madden
Release Date
13 March 2015
Steve’s Grade: B

As you can see, Cinderella does more than tell the story in a completely straightforward manner, but it also plays it pretty safe, which is the film’s immediate issue. We’ve seen Disney and other Hollywood productions take fairy-tales to new heights, and even if they’re not amazingly strong retellings/reimaginings (The Brothers Grimm), they still get points for toying with age-old subject matter and bringing audiences something new and different. Cinderella plays its entire outing in a safe and eloquent manner, almost like Cinderella herself. While it’s nice to see a committed retelling of a story that, granted, hasn’t seen a mainstream, live-action adaptation, it’s also disheartening to see an opportunity to breed new life into the story so heavily missed. Once we recognize that all the Cinderella conventions are in place, we are robbed of any kind of excitement or tension because we are all reflecting on bedtimes-gone-past when we heard how all the events in this story played out.

Nonetheless, there is fun to be had in Cinderella. For one, James and Blanchett liven up the film in an incredible manner. James lives up to the physical and idealistic traits of Cinderella beautifully, preaching her own personal gospel of courage and kindness throughout the entire film, and even showing us that she is human in scenes when she weeps to herself about how she has failed her mother. Blanchett, on the other hand, is worth the ticket price alone. If Meryl Streep could get an Oscar nomination for her performance in Into the Woods, one could only call bias if Blanchett doesn’t at least receive some early consideration. She is devilish and wickedly entertaining as the evil stepmother, doing more than chewing scenery and existing as an empty, storytelling convention, but truly giving power and energy into her performance thanks to strong dialog delivery and telling facial expressions; Blanchett is a riot on screen for the entire time.

In a time where TV news brings us more and more uncertainty in the world, and reports run amok about people treating others with needless disrespect, ignorance, and prideful arrogance, Cinderella reminds us of the most touching and attractive human qualities in a way that, while traditional, identifies their importance and gives us a film that beautifully encompasses them. The visual effects on display here, vividly shot and only more beautified by cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos, combined with the meticulous, candy-colored costumes make for an eye-popping film that works its magic so heavily with its sights that it reinforces its morals and ideas quite nicely. All of this prevents Cinderella from too obviously being what it ultimately is; a favorable but safe retelling of a classic story that disguises its familiarity by giving all of its aesthetic and actor fields life and gusto.

NOTE: Preceding Cinderella in its theatrical release is Frozen Fever, a short film revolving around the characters from the hit Disney film Frozen. The short involves Elsa (voiced by Idina Menzel) and her friends Hans, Sven the moose, and Olaf the snowman (Josh Gad) preparing a surprise party for her younger sister Anna (Kristen Bell). Elsa, however, has a cold, where every sneeze produces several tiny little snowmen, sort of resembling Olaf, but she persists on, taking her sister through all of the little decorative zones she has set up for her before taking her to the final party. The short reinforces my believe that the Frozen characters are best in small doses, and I only wish now that instead of the Frozen 2 we all knew was coming, we’d see these characters populate several, extremely fun shorts like this.