Does A Fourth Film Version of “Cinderella” Bode Well For Disney?
By Scott Kurland
Starring: Lily James, Richard Madden, Cate Blanchett, Stellan Skarsgard, Derek Jacobi, and Helena Bonham Carter
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Disney sure knows how to milk that Princess cash cow. When they’re not creating new Princesses like Elsa, Tiana, or their newest one Moana (coming November 2016), they’re remaking their old Princesses live action. Yes, it will be nice to see Belle played by Emma Watson in the remake of “Beauty & The Beast” based on the Stage musical (inspired by the animated film and fairy tale, wow that was a long description). However, with the recent progress of strong independent female characters, why would Disney take a step backwards? Isn’t the whole point of the original Disney films for girls to find the men of their dreams and live happily ever after? Yes, well no, well kind of both. If you really think about it, the main message is to follow your dreams and be confident. That leads us to this week’s film Disney’s latest updated version of “Cinderella” starring Lily James from “Downton Abbey”. Does the film translate well for a new generation of girls looking for a female role model? Let’s find out shall we?
Lily James stars as the titular character “Cinderella”, and unlike most version of this story it tells a different version of this classic, but informs us of what we have seen countless times before. Ella (James), is a young dreamer who is taught to be courageous and kind by her mother (Hayley Atwell). When Ella’s mother dies her father (Ben Chaplin) remarries. Ella’s wicked step mother comes in the form of Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett), who is a cold calculating woman with two spoiled nitwits for daughters (Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera). When Ella’s father dies, and her stepmother fires all the servants, Ella becomes the sole housekeeper. Her life is awful, but she tries to find the silver lining of her existence. Ella soon captures the eye of the Prince (Richard Madden) and enamors him to such an enchanting point, that he throws a royal ball for the chance to see her once more. Ella is forbidden by her stepmother to attend the ball. However, luck shines on her in the form of a Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter). Will Ella get her Prince? Or will she forever be known as “Cinderella”?...You all know the story she gets the Prince.
I enjoyed this interpretation quite a bit for many reasons, first being the casting of Lily James. You may know her as Lady Rose from “Downton Abbey”, but she is so enchanting as Ella. Trust me this is a Disney flick, enchanting is key when casting a lead. She has all the characteristics of a Disney Princess. Ella is kind, beautiful, and just the right amount of crazy that makes it appropriate for children to idolize her (she talks to animals....if that isn’t nuts I don’t know what is). James is classically beautiful, and because of that and her tiny stature the press has been concentrating on whether she was photoshopped or not for the posters. That isn’t news, nor should it be what you want people to focus on. What we should be focusing on is how good James is as “Cinderella”. If she failed and gave a subpar performance, many little girls would be let down. Trust me a five year old can tell a good performance from a bad one. Without James’ charisma this film would be DOA.
Cate Blanchett and Helena Bonham Carter are terrific as The Stepmother and Fairy Godmother. If this was a few years ago, Blanchett would have been the Godmother and Carter would be playing the evil Stepmother. Thankfully for “The King’s Speech”, Carter proved that she’s just as effective in the mother figure role as she would be in the villain role. Carter is barely in the film ten minutes, but she steals every scene.
Blanchett on the other hand is pure evil, and I loved it. Blanchett remind me of one of those old gothic Cathedrals she’s very beautiful to look at, but is also incredibly dark and cold once you spend more time with her. Unlike most portrayals of the Stepmother we get a wonderful backstory, she was once full of love like Ella, but that died along with her husband. Now she only protects herself and her daughters. I loved that little detail, and I loved these two performances.
Chris Weitz, the man behind “About A Boy” and “American Pie” wrote this script, and I’m conflicted about this. I like Weitz, I truly do, and I like his script. However, as great as the script is there’s one detail I have to take points off for. What is this detail you may ask? It’s the theme of “Be courageous and kind.” That theme is Ella’s motto and they shove it down our throats with a chimney sweep’s brush (sorry wrong Disney film.) Every line of dialogue Ella says has, “Be courageous and kind” in it. Or we hear the ghost of her mother say, “Be courageous and kind.” We get it, you’re awesome, let’s move on. Yet, besides that I loved this new version, and normally “Cinderella” ranks low on my list of Disney characters. I find her too sweet and perfect, even when she’s scrubbing dresses and making toast. For some reason Weitz script really stuck with me and hit a nerve, but a script is only as good as it’s director.
Kenneth Branagh is such a diverse actor and director, whether it’s Shakespeare or “Thor, he is a gifted story teller. What I love about Branagh directing “Cinderella” is what this equates to. Basically, fairytales and old school fantasy are now being treated like Shakespearean works. “Game Of Thrones”, “Snow White & The Huntsman”, even “Downton Abbey” all feel like Shakespearean style period pieces. Although they aren’t written in iambic pentameter they scream Royal Shakespeare company production values. The costumes, the dialect, even the use of RSC star actor Derek Jacobi scream the bard’s name.
Branagh’s direction is pitch perfect, he takes all of the aspects of Shakespeare and makes it child friendly. He paces the story out well, it never feels cliche , I know that sounds impossible considering we’ve heard and seen “Cinderella” many times before. Now a lot of people are going to be annoyed with certain things like the mice, the cartoonish special effects, and the recycled depiction of the step sisters. Branagh tries to make these aspects work for the audience, and for the most part he does a good job with making them work (not counting the step sisters; they were over the top and too much to handle.) Branagh brings back that same campiness he brought to “Much Ado About Nothing”, and it’s really entertaining to watch.
“Cinderella” has been done before, a lot, but with a excellent cast, screenwriter, and the master Shakespearean at the helm, it works. I have seen a lot of versions of “Cinderella” including the 1950 animated version and Jerry Lewis’ “Cinderfella.” Of all the remakes and adaptations I feel that this 2015 version is the best. Full of whimsy and magic, “Cinderella” is a real winner that children and adults can both enjoy. I highly recommend you see this film in theaters.
REVIEW RATING: B+