A film review by Craig J. Koban March 29, 2015


2015, PG, 112 mins.


Cate Blanchett as Lady Tremaine  /  Lily James as Cinderella  /  Holliday Grainger as Anastasia  /  Sophie McShera as Drizella  /  Stellan Skarsgård as Grand Duke  /    /  Helena Bonham-Carter as Fairy Godmother  /  Richard Madden as Prince "Kit" Charming  /  Hayley Atwell as Cinderella's Mother  /  Nonso Anozie as Captain  /  Derek Jacobi as The King  /  Ben Chaplin as Cinderella's Father

Directed by Kenneth Branagh  /  Written by Aline Brosh McKenna and Chris Weitz

Outside of perpetuating an established brand and box office returns, I can’t think of anything more redundant and wasteful than adapting animated films to live action.  

CINDERELLA was already made into an iconic and magical 1951 animated Disney film that has long stood the test of time, so the thought of needlessly updating and/or retrofitting this fairy tale classic seems financially motivated at best.  Yet, this marks the third time that Disney has decided to partake in live action reworkings of their animated empire and considering the mixed results of the previous two (first came the 2010’s wrongheaded ALICE IN WONDERLAND followed by last year’s equally problematic MALEFICENT) I went into CINDERELLA with a deeply suspicious and negative mindset. 

Good news, though, because Disney tapped a seasoned directing pro in the likes of Kenneth Branagh, whom has demonstrated a remarkable range as a filmmaker lately (from his decent JACK RYAN reboot to dabbling in comic book mythology in THOR…not to mention his many dalliances with Shakespeare) and he seems more than equal to the challenge of adapting a story that has such widespread and universal familiarity with audiences.  Rather thankfully – and perhaps most refreshingly – Branagh and screenwriter Chris Weitz have fully embraced the 1950’s animated film in a mostly traditional and vibrantly old-fashioned approach.  No attempt is really made to contemporize the story or make it bleaker, darker, and more grounded and gritty.  No, Branagh and company have created an unendingly lush, opulent, and colourful big screen canvas to place their adaptation on, and one that sort of feels like a sprawling big budget studio picture made in the era that the animated classic was released in.  Yeah, there are no surprises at all in this CINDERELLA, but it’s so handsomely mounted that you’re willing to overlook that. 



CINDERELLA begins with a prologue that shows how a young girl named Ella (Eloise Webb and later Lily James) managed to be placed under the “care” of her vile stepmother Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett) and her two fingernails-on-a-chalkboard insufferable stepsisters, Drizella (Sophie McShera) and Anastasia (Holliday Grainger).  During her fist ten years Ella lived a wondrous existence with her mother (Hayley Atwell) and father (Ben Chaplin); they were loving and nurturing parents in every way shape and form.  Ella’s mother was taken from her at an early age due to disease and her father, somewhat reluctantly, eventually decided to remarry, forming a union with Tremaine.  Of course, it’s of no surprise here that Ella becomes an orphan when her last biological parent dies, leaving her in the custody – more like indentured servitude – of Tremaine.  Her stepsisters treat her no better, nicknaming her “Cinder-Ella” because of the way her face looks after sleeping too close on the floor to the fireplace on a nightly basis.   

Ella takes some solace, though, during her chance meeting with a dashing prince (Richard Madden), who’s actually pretending to be an “apprentice” when he locks eyes with Ella, who in turn provides no details to him as to her true living situation and standing in life.  Of course, both are helplessly taking in with each other, but the prince is facing his own personal struggles as well, specifically in the form of a dying king father (Derek Jacobi) and a conniving Grand Duke (Stellan Skarsgaard).  Both men want the prince to take a bride and marry for political convenience to continue the family lineage, but the prince just wants love.  The crown decides to hold a lavish ball to assist the prince in making his decision.  Hmmmm…I wonder if he and Ella will have a chance meeting there?  If only, say, a fairy godmother will sprinkle some magic on Ella’s hellish life and give her the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to attend? 

Sarcasm aside, virtually nothing in CINDERELLA strays away from the established canon of the animated film (SPOILER ALERT: the glass shoe fits the titular character in the end).  Alas, it’s the journey that Branagh takes you on that’s most rewarding while harnessing to and upholding the central strengths of the source material.  CINDERELLA is one of the most sumptuous looking films that I’ve seen in an awfully long time; it looks like a living, breathing storybook come lovingly to life.  Multiple Oscar winner Sandy Powell envisions ornately stunning costumes and Dante Ferretti’s production design – bathing the screen in a positively orgasmic collage of vivacious color and natural bucolic pleasures – makes CINDERELLA and absolute visual triumph on multiple levels.  When we do indeed get to the inevitable ball the film just reaches an apex of aesthetic confidence that one frankly doesn’t witness on the screen in abundance anymore.   

Even though Branagh has wisely chosen not to overtly tamper with the character relationships, he still embodies in many of them with more soul and compassion than what I was expecting.  Newcomer Lily James has a porcelain beauty that makes her a perfect physical embodiment of Cinderella, but she has a very thorny task of giving her character a sense of low-key pathos and desperation while, at the same time, embodying in her a figure of determination and spirit to change her station in life.  She’s well-paired with Madden’s prince, who’s more fleshed out beyond his façade of an obligatory handsome and debonair royal figure.  The film finds a psychological motivation towards Ella and the prince forming a union: Yes, they do love each other, but their coming together is also built on healing mutual pain on the home front.  Considering the forced and strained chemistry that could have been elicited here, the fact that Madden and James have an emotional authenticity on screen together is deeply commendable. 

The most intriguing character in Branagh’s CINDERELLA, though, is Blanchett’s wicked stepmother, a character that could have been delegated down to a one-note caricature as a sniveling protagonist.  Blanchett has some sly tricks up her sleeve here, showing Tremaine as a woman that’s capable of perpetrating social horrors, to be sure, but in small part seems to have a kernel of motivation based on past trauma for her evil ways.  CINDERELLA does not go out of its way to portray Tremaine in a sympathetic light, but it compellingly puts forward a notion that her vindictiveness towards people may have a motive in its own regard.  Blanchett manages to achieve the impossible of neither hamming it up to egregious levels nor being too understated and introverted.  We certainly want to see this woman defeated in the end, but throughout CINDERELLA there’s an attempt made to get audiences to understand why commits heinous acts.

CINDERELLA is awash in euphoric nostalgia and admiration for the original animated film.  It retains its magical trappings while adhering to its noble minded themes of family loss, inner resiliency, and becoming independent and self-actualized apart from demeaning forces.  Sure, Branagh doesn’t tinker with the 1951 film too much, which is probably a good thing.  In a relative day and age of dreary cinematic cynicism, it’s kind of nice to see a film like CINDERELLA approach its story with a sweetness, compassion, and feel-good optimism.  Yet, the film creates a very strange conundrum for the film critic: Does it need to be seen?  Not especially, considering the animated film that preceded it.  However, did I enjoy seeing it as a painstakingly and wondrously crafted live action fairy tale?  Yes.  That, and Branagh has a few…shall we say…fairy godmother tricks up his directorial sleeve to make this CINDERELLA stand out apart from our shared overt acquaintance with the material.   

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