There is magic in simplicity, in telling a story that is straightforward and isn’t trying to pull the rug out from the audience. You might not expect Kenneth Branagh, director of sumptuous Shakespearean adaptations, to do something “simple,” and yet that’s what he brings to the table in adapting Disney’s take on the classic Cinderella tale. The film is as big and beautiful as any he’s done, but at it’s core, this is the story we all know by heart with neither muss nor fuss. And you know what? That’s just fine. As of late, it seems studios are afraid to produce a straightforward tale, instead relying on modern-style twists. This strategy has been mostly successful financially (if not always creatively), so one would assume Disney would do something similar with one of the crown jewels in their Princess canon.
Color me surprised (and delighted) when the film unfolds just as one would expect it to. After the death of her father, Ella (Lily James) is left with her horrid stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and her moronic daughters (Sophie McShera and Holiday Grainger), who treat her as a lowly servant. When a dashing prince (Richard Madden) throws a ball and invites all the eligible ladies in the region to attend, Ella is forbidden from going. With a little help from an odd woman claiming to be a fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter), she is off to the ball in an enchanted coach wearing a stunning gown. She captures the heart of the prince, only to run off at the stroke of midnight.
That’s it. No weird “The villain is really the hero” twist, no “Prince Charming is actually a big ol’ jerk!”, and no “the magic is all in her head, she had it in her the whole time!” What you have is a lovely, honest telling of the tale with big, lavish sets and costumes and some wonderful performances from an eager cast. There are a few bits and bobs added to pad out the run time, but otherwise, it’s the story you already know. Some may complain that it brings nothing new to the table, but as a culture, we retell each other’s stories time and time again. If the re-telling is good, is it a problem that we’ve heard it before? I knew what was going to happen, and how things would unfold once the fairy godmother arrived on the scene, but seeing how the filmmakers translated it was quite a treat.
The biggest thing the movie has going for it is the cast. Lily James’s Ella is full of beauty, grace and, most of all, kindness. Kindness is a major theme in the overall story, and the film would have fallen flat with someone who felt fake in the role. Opposite her is the charming prince, now named Kit. In the animated version, as in many other tellings, the prince is kind of a placeholder; simply there because he needs to be. Here, Richard Madden makes the character an actual person, yearning for something different than the princesses he is told he must marry. Cate Blanchett sold me on the film long before it came out, and she delivers. Unlike other versions of the Wicked Stepmother, she is not only wicked, but wickedly funny, sneering all her lines with a sense of glee that radiates on the screen. She also adds a humanity to the character, making her hatred of Ella a product of jealousy rather than just being a boogeyman in petticoats. Even Helena Bonham Carter turns in a version of her whimsy-filled schtick that doesn’t feel tired. There are so many fun performances here that it’s hard to list them all, but it’s a lesson in actors taking what could have been an easy paycheck and turning it into something magical.
If you (or your children) enjoy classic fairy tales, especially Disney’s interpretations, then see this film. It’s a step in the right direction for Disney’s live action versions of their classic animated films, and it’s a delight from start to finish. This is family entertainment at its best, and I hope Disney keeps this momentum going as they mine their vault for old stories to tell anew.
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