'Cinderella' Enchants (to a Point)

Dir. Kenneth Branagh (Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)—3.5 stars

Disney has come a long way since the initial 1950 release of its animated film “Cinderella.” Now, princesses are not supposed to marry men they have just met, violent sorceresses can become complex anti-heroes, and sisterly love may triumph above romance; the recent “Frozen,” “Maleficent,” and “Into the Woods” have all challenged and reinvented the status quo in new and exciting ways. Surprisingly, however, Disney decided to follow this darkly majestic sequence with a new, nearly unchanged adaptation of the squarely traditional “Cinderella.” Although the story is not substantively innovative, it still provides an enchanting spectacle.

The script makes no alterations to the ancient fairy tale. Young and beautiful Ella (Lily James) enjoys a luxurious childhood before becoming an orphan. Forced into servitude by her cruel stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and rude stepsisters (Sophie McShera and Holliday Grainger), the newly nicknamed Cinderella hopes for a better life despite daily humiliation. Her dreams eventually come true when the local prince holds a ball with the intent of choosing a bride. With a little help from her fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) and miscellaneous garden items, Cinderella arrives at the ball, wins the prince’s heart, and—after some antics involving a glass slipper—becomes queen.

The fairy tale’s main flaw lies in its one-dimensional heroine. In most literary versions and in the original animated movie, Cinderella is pretty, gentle, and passive, but little else. She is hyperbolically and uninterestingly perfect. In the live-action adaptation, however, James frames Cinderella as a fairly normal person who manages to be kind through valiant effort. She responds to abuse with teary eyes, trembling lips, and a slightly strained expression: The viewer can see her fighting against her hurt and anger, and this complexity is much more appealing than inhuman patience. Murmuring her clichéd mantra—“have courage, be kind”—James manages to project a quiet and lovely determination.

Still, Richard Madden brings the same warmth and goodwill to Cinderella’s prince as he does to his “Game of Thrones” character Robb Stark. He also develops a real sense of chemistry with James. Most Disney couples display a strange and total lack of eroticism, but director Kenneth Branaugh and the two actors dare to defy this tradition: Hands touch waists, wrists twist, and slight gasps sound on both sides. Of course, there is no explicit sex, but the attraction is palpable.

All these performances, however, are overshadowed by Cate Blanchett as Lady Tremaine. Using her painted mouth and wide-brimmed hats with almost surgical precision, she expresses a marvelously intricate viciousness; she also successfully conveys the villain’s complex feelings and backstory. Lady Tremaine is evil, but she is also jealous, wounded, and insecure—and funny. Together with McShera and Grainder, she supplies a strong level of amusing obnoxiousness throughout.


More than the compelling acting and successful humor, the movie’s main draw remains its visuals. Besides the breathtaking pre-ball transformation scene, the movie displays masterful, Renoir-esque shots of blooming countrysides, stone castles, magnificent dresses, and sumptuous interiors. One shot in particular exhibits a beautiful sense of whimsical luxury: A birds-eye view of the stepsisters’ bedrooms becomes a frame of splashy, lurid color.

Startling and original, the images are the the most innovative element in a somewhat conventional movie. For all its grace and visual intricacy, “Cinderella” makes no significant attempt to experiment with the Disney canon; it generally contents itself with lovely reiterations of classic themes. Lily James’ prettily-laced corsets seem almost emblematic of the entire project. Still, as a piece of pure and colorful entertainment, the movie succeeds.


Recommended Articles