In the current slew of reimagined traditional Disney tales, Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella is next in line. And you might be asking—what does this tale have to offer us anew?
The answer is: practically nothing. But it is an enchanting film nonetheless.
Minor spoilers for the film below. Obvious spoilers for Disney’s Cinderella as well.
The fact is, if you’re expecting a big spin on the tale going in, you will be disappointed. Cinderella is very much as its always been. Same basic tale, same beats, same Disney flourishes: You will find your favorite mice, your usual costume changes, your customary prince/commoner meet-cutes. The point of this live-action Cinderella is not to defy expectations, but to give everyone an update of an old favorite.
And that’s probably just as well. The Drew Barrymore vehicle, Ever After, did a fine job of giving a simpler, more feminist take on the Cinderella story back in 1998. Repeating those themes would be something of a waste, so this version opted to stick with what worked in this Disney-fied fairy tale. Cinderella is kind, her step-family is not, and she is destined to have one beautiful evening that will define the rest of her life.
Frankly, the whole update is a mesmerizing take on something familiar, and perhaps it works for being just that. There is no pretending that this version of Cinderella is anything other than a live-action spin on everything that worked in Disney’s animated version, and as such, there is little to disappoint. The film simply fleshes out the places where that narrative falls flat and calls it a day. The places where the cartoon were superbly dated or awkward are shaved off, making room for more enjoyable, more natural material.
What works best here is the casting, which is flawless to a fault. Cate Blanchett is a gorgeously evil stepmother, Richard Madden a delightful Prince Charming, Helena Bonham Carter a hilariously loopy Fairy Godmother, and Hayley Atwell the very best
Peggy Carter mother that little Ella could ever hope for. Kenneth Branagh is certainly an actor’s director, and knows precisely how to wring superb performances from every one of these corners; without that knowledge, the film would be poorer by far.
Cinderella also allows the room to breathe in places that would be called “give ins” in any version of this tale. This might be the first example on-screen of Cinderella getting to truly dance with her prince in a manner that seems realistic and completely epic. It does not call Ella silly and sad for dwelling on these moments. Instead, it acknowledges just how breathless such an evening would leave you, and because Ella is as her mother directed—courageous and kind—she is appropriately struck by having one of the most memorable, perfect nights of her life.
One of the movie’s greatest strengths is its ability to equate those very attributes that Ella’s mother was so very insistent on. The suggestion that bravery and kindness are intertwined irrevocably, that one must have courage to be kind, is completely bound to the narrative. In that way, Cinderella’s niceness, an aspect of the character often maligned for being of no use to her, becomes something of a superpower. It takes true force of will to be kind in the face of such adversity. Ella is heroic for never succumbing to a baser intuition. She understands in the purest sense what it means to take the high ground.
The film does not branch out in many unexpected directions, save for the prince (oh my god, it’s Robb Stark!) and his father (Derek Jacobi!). They are imbued with personalities that are seldom bothered with in Cinderella’s tale, especially in how they offer such a specific mirror image to Cinderella’s relationship with her mother. By that token, we are given more of an explanation as to why Ella would develop such a rapid romantic attachment to a stranger: They have more in common than one might expect, starting with a deep, abiding love for those closest to them.
The one place where the movie sadly does not reach such stellar heights is in the stepmother’s story. It seems as though Hollywood is content with giving deeper motivations to Cinderella’s stepmother while allowing her none of the forgiveness. If a tale takes great pains to show the ways in which a woman of her position can be wronged (or, at least, hurt and ignored), it would stand to follow that such a woman could be given some consideration, yet it is left off again. It’s a shame, because if Cinderella had reached out to the woman by the end, we would have seen something truly unique in the telling.
Still, if you’re in the theater to see a pumpkin turn into a carriage, a girl talk to mice, and a prince find true love in a blue ball gown, there is really no better place to find it. I have never been personally attached to the traditional Cinderella arc, but I could find very little to complain about in the two hours invested. In fact, I felt positively the opposite—never have I been so pleased to enjoy exactly what I was expecting. The film’s earnestness works for it; its beauty is undeniable, and its charm free for anyone who is feeling up for a ball. And these days, where romance is so often on special order, found nowhere on screen at all, it is exciting to observe that the most basic of fairy tales can still sweep us off our collective feet.
For an extra treat, make sure you stay through the credits. Lily James (Cinderella) does a lovely rendition of “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes,” and Helena Bonham Carter graces us all with a properly off-kilter “Bippity Bobbity Boo.” Then leave the theater with an especially light heart. Rinse and repeat.