TRADITIONAL, BUT STILL MAGICIAL
Once upon a time (or rather several years ago), the Walt Disney Company has taken several classic fairytales (some of which they adapted before and immortalized in their illustrious history of animated features) and produced them for big and lavishing live-action theatrical releases. Beginning with the sequel reimagining in Alice in Wonderland, to the prequel story in Oz, the Great And Powerful, and last year’s untold story in Maleficent, these films have had a unique approach in an attempt to break traditional representation from these iconic tales. Now, for the year of 2015, Walt Disney Pictures continues this fairytale revival with the live-action retelling of the memorable story Cinderella. Does the film find its own cinema “Ever After” magic or has the clock already stroke midnight on this fairytale feature?
Holding onto a promise made by her late mother. Ella (Lily James) is raised by her good spirited father and matured into kindhearted adult. To avoid loneliness and longing for companionship, Ella’s father marries the recent widow Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett), who brings her snooty and mean spirited daughters, Anastasia (Holiday Grainger) and Drizella (Sophie Mcshera) into Ella’s life. When her father unfortunately dies, she’s placed into her stepmother’s care, who, having no love Ella’s whimsical optimism, forces the young maiden into hard labor of servitude. After a chance encounter with a young man named Kit (Richard Madden), the royal prince of this particular land, Ella’s hope is rekindled, joining in the excitement as Kit’s kingly father (Derek Jacobi) arranges a royal ball to help his son find a suitable wife. With Tremaine and her daughters humiliating and forbidding her from attending the ball, Ella receives unexpected help from her Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter), lavishing the young woman in a beautiful guise as a princess with the notion of a second chance encounter with her beloved prince.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
Similar to a lot of other fairytales, the classic story of Cinderella has been told and retold in many ways and on multiple platforms. While Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1957 Cinderella was indeed successful as a musical written for television (with a number of production companies adapting it for the stage), perhaps the most iconic rendition that’s commonly known by most is Disney’s animated Cinderella, their twelfth animated feature that debuted back in 1950. With critical success and a legacy that’s still revered today, Disney’s cartoon version of Cinderella has enchanted millions, both young and old generations, and continues to do so, hailing itself as hallmark achievement for the Walt Disney company. So with the glory and prestige of the animated version preserved over the years, Disney, keeping up with the hot commodity of recent fairytale redux, transitions the fairytale of Cinderella to an up-to-date live-action cinematic release that’s told in a traditional way, but still carries its whimsical pedigree.
While other recent live-action fairytale movies (including some from Disney) have tried to create “something new” from these tales (taking place before or after the original story, thematically direction altercations, shifting, points of view, etc), Cinderella, for the most part, keeps the familiar story intact and present it in way that many will remember it from the 1950 animated film. Helming this fairytale reimagining is actor / director Kenneth Branagh. A true thespian actor in front of the camera, Branagh pulls together his collective knowledge of filmmaking behind the camera lens, which includes British dramas, Shakespeare projects, and even a Marvel comic; a resulting factor that crafts Cinderella with just enough glamour, detail, charm, and flights of fancy to be something worthwhile in the now commonplace field of Hollywood “remakes”.
Minor changes have been made from cartoon to live-action, including the removal of all the numerous musical songs found in the animated tale and downplaying the involvement of Cinderella’s friendly rodents and their “cat and mouse” mischief with Lady Tremaine’s cat Lucifer. In conjunction with that, Branagh’s Cinderella still retains all the nuances from cartoon and its fairytale roots, complete with a wicked stepmother and stepsisters, a fairy godmother, a pumpkin carriage, glass slippers, and a magical spell that lasts only until the stroke of midnight. All of this is present and accounted for, but the movie dilutes these aspects slightly with more focus on the motivations of characters and their performances.
One of the most outstanding elements in the movie is the overall production design of the feature. Rather than the muted colors of the real world, Branagh washes the screen with a vibrant palette colors that shine and shimmer with fantasy hues to dazzle the eyes. Costume designer Sandy Powell must be mentioned for her incredible work on all the costumes made for the movie. Whether made for a male or female cast member, each one is exquisitely detailed that feels like a cross between fantasy and colonial attire. The art direction team for Cinderella must also be recognized with a surreal fanciful world that feels both different and familiar (i.e. the royal palace looking more like a fantastical imagine of the Palace of Versailles rather than the classic fairytale castle). Even the musical score for the film is enchanting with Patrick Doyle creating beautiful background melodies that swell with a “Once upon a time” bliss. The film’s visuals effects are primarily good with the exception a few shoddy effect shots that date and cheapen movie.
Given the nature of the story being whimsical and fairytale-ish, the performances in Cinderella are theatrical bold and that’s a good thing. Lily James captures Ella beautifully with her theatrical talents (thanks to her role on Downton Abbey) to make you sympathetic towards her character. She’s kind, sweet, and does a really good job as the film’s protagonist. Opposite her is Richard Madden as the young prince Kit. Madden, who many Game of Thrones fans will remember as Robb Stark, also rises to occasion with a confident and sincere character that’s giving a little more back-story than normal Cinderella interpretation for Prince Charming. It also helps that their love for each other (Ella and Kit) feels organic for viewers to buy into their love-at-first-sight romance. Sharing the most screen time behind Lily James is Cate Blanchett as the wicked Lady Tremaine. Blanchett, who is extremely talented actress, masters her role with her poise and ease. Her character arc isn’t altered (her mistreatment of Ella is still Tremaine’s primary focus in the story), but there are moments that sort of humanize her, allowing glimpses of justification for her disdain resentment towards Ella. Last of the primary cast is actress Helen Boham Carter as Ella’s fairy godmother. Carter, who’s been known to play eccentric roles in her film career, seems to relish the opportunity to play this part, brining her own quirky charm to a very memorable scene in the Cinderella cannon.
Even though they’re minor characters, Holliday Grainger’s Anastasia and fellow Downton Abbey star Sophie McShera’s Drisella do offer some comic relief as Ella’s stepsisters with their constant sisterly bickering towards each other. Rounding out the cast is fellow Game of Thrones Alum Nonso Anozie as Kit’s captain of the royal guard, Stellan Skarsgard as the Grand Duke, the talented Derek Jacobi as Kit’s father (the king), and a small appearance of Haley Atwell as Ella’s mother.
Even with all the alterations and modifications made to the film, the overall tone of familiarity to its narrative can be problematic to some as the film doesn’t throw that much of a curve ball to viewers with surprises and twists. I found myself saying “Okay, so this scene going happen next and the followed by this scene” and so on. It’s hard not to remember the story of Cinderella (especially since I watched the Disney version multiple times in my childhood) and it can be a little dull and perhaps predictable that its story doesn’t deviate from its set path. (It was to me, but a very minor one at that). Another minor problem for me was the film also had a handful of pacing issues with a hurriedly first act, an elongated middle act, and a somewhat rushed ending. I’m not saying it was a long movie (felt rather short to me), but did seem a tad unbalance as whole at certain points. All in all, these were minimal negatives I found during my viewing of Cinderella and really didn’t truly dampen enjoyment of the film.
As a special bonus to this fairy tale remake, Disney places its new animated short Frozen Fever in front movie. Fans of the mega animated hit Frozen will thoroughly enjoy this short cartoon, featuring all their favorite Frozen characters like Elisa, Anna, Kristoff, and Olaf (with all original actors reprising their respective roles) and a brand new song called “Making Today a Perfect Day”. To me, it was nice and memorable cartoon short that, like its feature predecessor, held its own and, following the recent announcement from Disney that Frozen 2 is being made, was a happy return jaunt to the Kingdom of Ardendelle…if only for seven minutes.
Cinderella, Disney’s latest movie in its pursuit of fairy tale resurgence, doesn’t deconstruct the iconic tale with a fresh and new innovative twist, but mostly presents the story as traditional, lighthearted, and straightforward. While familiar beats of its narrative are predictable in nature and a fending off a few pacing problems and a little sloppy CGI, Branagh and his creative team have pulled off a magical feature that honors the animated Disney classic, while, at the same time, infusing new creativity with colorful cinematic art directions, great performances from its cast, and the thematic message of “being kind and courageous” for modern audiences; making the story of Ella (or Cinderella) an enchanting and memorable endeavor. With Beauty and the Beast, Disney’s next fanciful live-action adaptation, on the horizon (debuting in 2017), the question remains if Disney will keep this traditional trend going or will they try something new for the reimaging tale of Belle and her Beast.