PLOT:An update of the classic tale of Cinderella who, saddled with an evil stepmother and two wicked stepsisters, manages to win the heart of the heir to the throne and become a princess herself.
REVIEW: You'd be hard-pressed to find a more charming, lovingly-made, winsome (the adjectives could go on and on) live-action Disney fairy tale than Kenneth Branagh's CINDERELLA, which is more or less a perfect adaptation of their 1950 animated feature. With this film Disney has tossed aside many of the cheesy/kitschy tendencies of their recent fantasy updates (Maleficent, Oz the Great and Powerful, Alice in Wonderland) and gone traditional, bringing us a blessedly straight-forward love story that will satisfy those who cherish the animated incarnation and a new generation of moviegoers.
Although, it should be interesting to see what the "new generation" makes of this, a fantasy that is almost completely irony-free. It doesn't wink at the audience, it doesn't have snarky asides or attempt to freshen up the material; it simply is Cinderella, with nary a beat changed or frame out of place. The main character hasn't been toughened up and the text isn't carrying a new feminist angle. Indeed, I can already hear the naysayers claiming Branagh and screenwriter Chris Weitz took the easy route by choosing to be this harmless, this "safe." But for me, something so effortlessly sweet and lacking in snark is to be appreciated; when almost every modernization of a classic story is done with a satirical edge, it's frankly very heartwarming to witness a completely innocent take on the familiar tale.
You know the story, don't you? Young, beautiful Ella (gracefully played by Lily James) is raised by her two adoring parents (Hayley Atwell, Ben Chaplin) until untimely deaths robs her of them both. Ever the optimist (her mother taught her well), Ella is placed in the "care" of Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett), the despicably haughty woman Ella's father shacked up with briefly after the demise of her mother. Tremaine is a vindictive social climber, needlessly cruel to Ella, as are her two snotty daughters (Holliday Grainger and Sophia McShera), who quickly dub Ella "Cinderella" because she's often covered with soot from the fireplace. Despite the torment, Ella makes her own life manageable by tending to her animal friends (the mice and goose are accounted for) and honoring her parents legacy by being kind and grateful.
During a ride in the woods one day, Cinderella meets Kit (Richard Madden) and naturally the two fall instantly in love. She thinks he's an apprentice at the nearby kingdom, when of course he's the heir to the throne, and since his father (Derek Jacobi) is on the way out, Kit needs a wife ASAP. Prodded by the king's handlers to find a lady of royal means that would enhance their kingdom's standing, Kit decides to invite every woman in the land to their upcoming ball in the hopes of seeing that enchanting girl once again. For her part, Ella wants desperately to attend, but is reprimanded by Lady Tremaine, who simply wants one of her daughters to catch the prince's eye so that they'll find financial security once again. Ella is crushed, but a fortuitous meeting with her fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) means she can attend the bash after all, in particularly elegant style.
As mentioned before, Weitz's script hits every necessary note; even those who don't think they know the Cinderella story will recognize the iconic hallmarks of the tale. Unlike last year's strange MALEFICENT, which saw Disney undermine one of their coolest villains in order to make her a misunderstood hero, CINDERELLA has been delivered unsullied with modern touches. There are even shots that seem to the untrained eye to be taken directly from the 1950 film, such as the magical moment Cinderella is given a lavish dress by her fairy godmother. It should be noted that much of the film's magic comes courtesy of the technical crew Branagh has assembled: the cinematography is gorgeous, Haris Zambarloukos' frame is always filled with color and and interesting detail. He's aided immeasurably by veteran costume designer Sandy Powell and production designer Dante Ferretti, both of whom could probably outfit this movie in their sleep but have really gone all out to make CINDERELLA as lush as possible.
But it's really Branagh who deserves the lion's share of credit. This is a real director, you see, and one who knows how to tell a story with actors on tangible sets. No offense to the likes of Tim Burton and Sam Raimi, directors I really admire when they get things right, but their Disney efforts were chintzy cartoons, bustling with CG and noticeable greenscreen and containing very little heart. Branagh's film certainly contains plenty of visual effects, but they're not omnipresent; indeed, the film thankfully seems to go out of its way to deal with them at all in favor of real sets with real props. Dare I say everything in CINDERELLA appears to actually be there, not conjured on a computer. You are hereby forgiven for JACK RYAN, sir.
CINDERELLA has been splendidly cast from top to bottom. I've never seen Lily James before, but she's a magnetic screen presence, never failing to uphold that daunting "Disney Princess" title. Madden (who, as a Game of Thrones fan, I've certainly seen before) is an equally compelling Prince, naturally charismatic. I suppose Branagh couldn't have found a better wicked stepmother than Blanchett, who doesn't chew the scenery but ominously nibbles at it, letting her piercing eyes do a ton of the work. Also, it's nice to see her character has not been given some sad-sack backstory in order to make us sympathize with her; Lady Tremaine is just a miserable person and we hate her. The evil stepsisters provide some comic relief, with Grainger and McShera more than up to the task of going over-the-top as couple of bratty buffoons.
I'm sure I'll take some heat for this review, but so be it. CINDERELLA, in all its cheerful glory, is worth it.
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