Starring: Lily James (Downton Abbey), Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine), Richard Madden (Game of Thrones), Stellan Skarsgard (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), Derek Jacobi (Gladiator), Helena Bonham Carter (Les Miserables)
Director: Kenneth Branagh (Thor)
Writer: Chris Weitz (About a Boy)
Runtime: 1 hour 45 minutes
Release Date: 13 March (US), 27 March (UK)
And so Disney’s trend of adapting their animated classics into live-action films continues, and they’re showing no signs of stopping. New versions of The Jungle Book, Beauty and the Beast and Dumbo are all in various stages of development, and I’m sure even more will come as long as the people keep paying. Why they keep paying is still a mystery to me, as Alice in Wonderland and Maleficent were gaudy, ill conceived and just all around missed the point. Cinderella seemed destined to walk the same path from the word go, and I was all set endure another lame rendition of a childhood story. But, to my surprise, Cinderella is actually…OK. It didn’t blow my mind and it’s still somewhat pointless, but it was OK.
Of all the fairy tales, “Cinderella” is the one that holds up the least well under modern scrutiny. The messages about kindness and perseverance still work, but its antiquated vision of the feminine ideal and the lack of a proactive protagonist don’t do it any favours. This new version, for the most part, tells the story straight with only embellishments to pad out the runtime to feature length. Whilst this reverence to the source material does give it a charming old-school vibe (and I’ll certainly take it over the misguided revisionism of its forbearers), the extended length does make the original story’s flaws that much more apparent. With a fresh perspective and more time to tell the story, it would have been nice if the contrivances of the fairy tale were explained with some logic or at least commented upon for their lunacy, but all of it is taken with a straight face. Many of Maleficent’s flaws are felt here too, such as the inconsistent tone and use of pointless narration to drive home the obvious, but it at least feels cohesive and doesn’t attempt any forced symbolism. But for as much as Cinderella doesn’t do much to fix the source’s flaws, it compensates by driving home what does still work about the story. The whole “be brave and kind” message is shoved down your throat a bit too much, but it’s certainly sincere about it and that’s why it ultimately works. By the film’s conclusion, even with all the holes in logic and questionable lessons for the female audience, it’s still hard not to smile.
There’s not much to the character of Cinderella on the page, but Lily James is earnest enough in her portrayal that you can buy it for the most part. She does nail the persistence of the character, always doing her best to stay kind even under the most heinous of circumstance but still showing enough humanity underneath to understand her torment. These moments make those when she finally gains her freedom to feel earned, and James’ whimsy and excitement in these moments really pay off. However, it still would have been nice if she had a little more to do. There is still no moment where she directly impacts the plot, as everybody else still either does things for her or she does exactly as she’s told. Her words do have a strong impact on the prince and she does eventually lash out at her stepmother, but other than that she is still a passive presence in her own story. Cate Blanchett’s Lady Tremaine is somewhat cartoonish at first, as are the stepsisters, and their behaviour becomes more unbearable than necessary by the time the ball arrives. However, when the story finally explains Tremaine’s motivations, combined with Blanchett’s go-hard-or-go-home performance, it does finally make the character work and turns her into more of a Machiavellian string-puller than just a shallow woman. Richard Madden’s Prince Charming is as pleasant as his character’s namesake and his chemistry with James makes the prospect of these two falling in love so quickly seem plausible. However, I wish there was more to his relationship with his father (Jacobi) and the scheming duke (Skarsgard). Helena Bonham Carter gives a very expected performance, but her screen time is brief and her quirks are reined in enough to avoid completely destroying the already shaky tone.
Disney always throws a lot of money into their productions, and rarely do they waste their expense. Cinderella’s visuals are very ornate, packed full of colour and detail, which gives it that striking fairy tale feel. All of it is certainly along the right lines, but I think a lot of it goes too over the top. The costumes often look sickly and overdesigned, the visual effects too cartoony and glittery, and Patrick Doyle’s score often emphasises the emotional beats a little too forcefully. I appreciate all the effort that’s gone into the production, but there is such a thing as doing too much work.
Cinderella certainly isn’t a film that needed to exist, but I wouldn’t call it a waste of anyone’s time. The movie’s simplistic charm combined with some welcome changes, assisted by strong performances from all the main cast, make this a version of the story told a thousand times one that may be worth sitting through once more. I still feel more could have been done to make the story more relevant to a modern audience or comment upon the more dated parts of the source, but it doesn’t soil the memory of the original either. I know a lot of this review has been me essentially saying “it’s not as bad as Maleficent” over and over, but really I’m just that thankful that it isn’t. I wouldn’t urge anyone to rush out and see it, but if you’ve got kids or you’re curious enough, it may be worth a watch.
FINAL VERDICT: 6.5/10
PS: The short Frozen Fever that plays in front is charming and it’s nice to see those characters again, but it is very brief and probably would have been more at home as an extra on the Frozen Blu-Ray. I’ve not been one to be bothered by Frozen’s never-ending popularity, but this and the announced sequel I think is too much at this point. But that’s a discussion for another day…