Tale as old as time…no, I’m not talking about Beauty and the Beast – now that Walt Disney Pictures is knee-deep in adapting all their princess films that’s coming soon – but their latest effort, Cinderella. Examining Cinderella in a modern context isn’t new. You can look at countless films from every decade for some element of the “Cinderella story” within. But Disney’s attempts to flesh out misunderstood characters like Maleficent and the Evil Queen in Snow White and the Huntsmen didn’t yield perfect results, so it makes perfect sense for Disney to examine a rather blah character and give her some much-needed personality for 21st-century ladies. Unfortunately, Kenneth Branagh and screenwriter Chris Weitz do little more than dress up the same princess in the same gorgeous gowns. Outside of some good acting, there’s little life outside of these fancy shoes.
Ella (Lily James) is left to be the servant to her stepmother, Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett) and two dimwitted stepsisters (Sophie McShera and Holliday Grainger). A chance run-in with the future King of the land, Kit (Richard Madden), leaves Ella hoping to get to the ball. With the help of her Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter), Ella gets her wish.
The trailers for Branagh’s Cinderella were heavily compared to 1998’s Ever After, a feminist take on Cinderella starring Drew Barrymore. If you’ve recently watched Ever After, you’ll notice Ella and Kit meet in a glade and talk with horses…like in Ever After; they have a romantic moment in a garden…like in Ever After; our Prince is promised to a woman from Spain…like in Ever After! There’s also liberal copying from 2004’s Ella Enchanted (more than the characters having the same name).
Lily James is a beautiful young woman, but her Cinderella takes everything with a smile on her face way too often because the film’s moral, “have courage and be kind” is rammed down the audience’s throats at every turn. Yes, kindness and courage are important, but they are Ella’s de facto traits. She’s so kind that animals love her – if you thought the CGI fairies in Maleficent were creepy….CGI rats aren’t much better – and she has courage to….actually, I’m not sure where courage factors in. Courage to attend the ball? That’s really the Godmother’s doing. Courage to stand up to her stepmother? Someone comes into the room she’s locked in and gives her the strength to tell her stepmother where to shove it. Really, the script wants the audience believing the courage is inherent in the kindness, but said kindness leaves Ella looking like a doormat with fancy shoes. Look at Ella Enchanted, that movie utilized kindness in order to show there’s some moments which require a person to assert themselves – one can’t be nice all the time, to everyone – but here Ella identity is being nice, nothing more; someone cue Meryl Streep’s Witch from Into the Woods, “you’re just nice!”
Past Disney live-action movies tried hard asserting personality into their characters, lending a “never before told” element to the story, and satisfying more progressive attitudes towards women. So if Ella hasn’t changed much from the 1950 film, what about Lady Tremaine and the stepsisters? When this project was first announced, I assumed we’d learn about why Lady Tremaine is the way she is. Blanchett must have studied the original animated film, particularly Eleanor Audley’s vocal cadences, because there are moments where it seems as if you’re watching the animated segments come to life. A simple “do shut up from her” leaves you smiling and in fear of her (and those cheekbones!). And when she’s dressed in a leopard-print robe, it’s evident she’s a woman not to be tamed, rocking clothes worthy of her. But the wardrobe isn’t the only way Blanchett’s character asserts herself – but the movie does give her several costume changes as do many of the females here. Cate Blanchett exudes sheer ferocity, and it’s a shame she doesn’t have enough pull in this film. A third act speech where Lady Tremaine discusses her first marriage for love and the other to keep her daughters safe and secure opens the door to a new realization on a tired character, but it’s little more than a few sentences. (Not to mention, Anjelica Huston says something similar in, you guessed it, Ever After.) Maybe if the film had examined how Lady Tremaine sees Ella, or even just some additional interactions between the two, it could have provided context.
If anything, Madden’s Prince Charming…aka Kit receives the grandest characterization. He gets a name, a backstory, and he doesn’t have to be reminded to be kind and have courage as those are already man traits! To his credit, Madden definitely rocks the Disney Prince mantle. He’s charming, obviously, and sweet, with a great chemistry with James. Kit is desperate to “marry for love,” and thus he’s given an additional impetus to have a relationship with Cinderella than she does. There’s an additional series of events between Kit and his dying father, played by Derek Jacobi, but it’s questionable why they’re included. In a movie adhering rather well to the source material, why the need to create additional context on the prince? And, again, why can’t this be applied to the title character?
The side character are all rather one-note and do little more than prevent the movie from having a small cast. Stellan Skarsgard plays the Grand Duke, a character you’d assume would have more villainous intentions considering, but he mostly spends time getting Kit and the Spanish princess together. There is a brief sequence of him scheming with Lady Tremaine, but he comes off disinterested in it all by the end. Grainger and McShera are fun as the stepsisters, while Ben Chaplin and Hayley Atwell are fine in small scenes as Ella’s parents; Nonso Anozie is also great as Kit’s friend, the Captain (this movie actually contains quite a few people of color).
You might notice my avoidance of the elephant in the room…aka Helena Bonham Carter. Her Fairy Godmother plays like a rejected character from a Tim Burton movie, and she talks like she’s trying to contain Matt Dillon’s giant teeth from There’s Something About Mary in her mouth. Seriously, is she wearing flippers, veneers, what? There’s some bizarre makeup effects utilized when she’s an old beggar woman – akin to Maleficent – and outside of her “bibbity boppity boop” moment, we never see her again. Her total screentime: less than 15 minutes! But, just because you can’t see her, doesn’t mean she isn’t constantly present. She’s the narrator! Boy, does Branagh love hearing her talk because absolutely nothing happens without her explaining to the audience what Ella is feeling and thinking. These wordy narration scenes are done in moments of silence when the characters are obviously taking things in. Maybe the movie assumes children won’t understand, but it also fills up the screen with pointless words the audience isn’t buying. Screenwriting 101: Show, don’t tell.
Attached to the film is the new Frozen short, Frozen Fever! Frozen Fever, indeed, as this film continues to dominate and I wouldn’t be surprised if Disney isn’t trying to give that film the live-action treatment. The short deals with Elsa (again voiced by Idina Menzel) being sick on Anna’s (Kristen Bell) birthday. As she tries to show Anna her birthday plans, every sneeze creates a bunch of mini snowmen. The mini snowmen are cute, as is the vocal work on Elsa as she gets sicker and sicker. But, it’s hard not feeling this was a hastily rushed short created to capitalize on the fervor. Kristof and Olaf are barely in this – we do find out what Hans is doing in a rather ingenious sequence – and the song isn’t particularly great. It’s a short, so you can’t critique too harshly, and it’s fun watching these characters return, but it’s hard not feeling that the creators aren’t burned out by it all.
This is a Disney remake in the purest sense of the world. Those who had absolutely no problems with Disney’s Cinderella, outside of it being animated, will eat this up! The opulent production design and costuming are award worthy and worth a watch. At 112 minutes, the movie doesn’t overstay its welcome with additional subplots and moves briskly. Cate Blanchett is fantastic and deserved far more screentime (hell, give her her own movie!); Lily James and Richard Madden are good. Frozen Fever is a fun distraction before the film, but won’t trump its source material either.