Bravo, Disney. Walt Disney Pictures is continuing the legacy of modern retellings of classic fantasy tales, as seen in Alice in Wonderland (2010) and Maleficent (2014). It seems only natural that one of the most universal fairy tales would get a 21st century Disney makeover as well. Unlike the subpar Alice and Maleficent, director Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella is an exhilarating tour de force—perhaps even eclipsing Walt Disney’s original Cinderella (1950). However, this Cinderella is not a revisionist remake that puts a progressive spin on a classic formula, a la Brave and Frozen. Viewers expecting Cinderella to subvert the patriarchy may be sorely disappointed by its conservatism, but they’ll never be bored. This traditional fairy tale adaptation is enchanting in every sense of the word.
Lily James of Downton Abbey fame plays the eponymous glass slipper-wearer, and brings more life to Cinderella than ever before. Just as in the original fairy tale, Cinderella’s widowed father marries a vain, self-serving woman named Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett) with two vile daughters, Drizella and Anastasia (Sophie McShera and Holliday Grainger, respectively). When her father dies, Cinderella’s stepfamily turns her into their servant, forcing her to endure their constant mockery and scorn. However, a fateful meeting between Cinderella and a prince in disguise changes things; absolutely smitten by her compassion for a woodland creature, the prince stages a ball to which all the women in the kingdom are invited in hopes that he will see Cinderella again. The rest, of course, is classic Cinderella; her fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) comes to the rescue, magically turning pumpkins into carriages and getting Cinderella ready for the lavish ball.
However familiar the classic tale is, viewers will be on the edge of their seats, brimming with anticipation at the events to follow. Kenneth Branagh has pulled off an amazing feat, making the familiar material feel original in an engaging film that never leaves its viewers bored. Part of this magic is due to some minor revisions in the heroine’s character. There is a nuanced complexity to Cinderella’s character that extends beyond the superficial ideals of wearing poofy dresses and going to balls. Whereas the 1950 animated film tends to stress the tragedy that such a beautiful girl must act servile to her stepsisters, this production emphasizes Cinderella’s kindness (a word that is stressed numerous times throughout the film), which ultimately cements the romance between her and her prince. Cinderella is also imperfect in this adaptation— although she is inherently kind and giving, she initially lacks the courage to stand up for herself, mostly due to her desire to respect her deceased parents’ wishes. In fact, when the fairy godmother wants to give Cinderella a makeover, Cinderella nobly insists on wearing her mother’s favorite simple dress, albeit with a few magical tweaks.
That being said, the film’s design is eye candy in its purest form; the costumes, set design, and visual effects display an expert level of opulence. This is Cinderella like you’ve never seen it before— the transformation scene especially is packed with an exuberance that is breathtaking even by Disney’s standards. The film’s lush beauty can be bombastic at times, bearing the mark of its director’s extravagant Shakespeare adaptations, but it never intrudes the emotional crux of the story. In a nutshell, Disney’s Cinderella is the adaptation of our dreams.
Some viewers may lament that the glass slipper doesn’t break the glass ceiling. Cinderella fails to accommodate a modern perspective, instead preserving tradition. Nevertheless, its empowering albeit familiar messages of kindness and courage in the face of adversity, and reverie-like aesthetic makes this ball worth the price of admission.
P.S. Preceding the movie is a Disney animated short film entitled “Frozen Fever,” a delightful romp for viewers who need their Frozen fix before the upcoming sequel.
Josh’s Grade: A-
Running Time: 1 hr 53 min
Released: March 13, 2015