Let’s be clear from the start. This film is not an imaginative retelling or a sizzling musical update. This is Walt Disney’s classic “Cinderella” through and through.
Director Kenneth Branagh and screenwriter Chris Weitz show reverence for one of Disney’s most romantic stories. While it’s been updated a bit, “Cinderella” retains its roots and remains familiar to those who’ve witnessed the various iterations of the Cinderella tale. It’s a sweet story but as we know, Disney films have their dark moments.
“Have courage and be kind.” These are the parting words of Ella’s sick mother. They bring an end to Ella’s bucolic life and loving family, but she takes the advice to heart. Ella, played by Lily James of “Downton Abbey,” is the model of kindness. James’ character on “Downton Abbey” is Lady Rose, a buoyant girl who fills the room with her youthfulness. James brings that same charm to her role as Cinderella (in photo above).
Ella and her father are eventually joined by a foul trio of ladies, namely a new stepmother and her two insufferable daughters. Cate Blanchett as the stepmother is as evil as she can be. She blends sweetness and malice into a classic villainous character. The daughters, played by Sophie McShera (“Downton Abbey”) and Holliday Grainger (“Jane Eyre”) are too buffoonish to be evil, but they provide levity during their screen time.
The sisters give Ella the nickname Cinderella, and help create a life of servitude that Cinderella cannot escape. But, in a chance encounter in the woods, Cinderella meets a young handsome “apprentice” who turns out to be her prince. Richard Madden (“Game of Thrones”) is every bit a prince with his deep blue eyes and ridiculously white teeth. He is charming and even seems vulnerable; a royal lad with royal problems.
It’s only her fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) who can bring Cinderella out of her dismal life. When she arrives, the film takes on its most magical moments. Even with a magic wand and her “bibbidi-bobbidi-boo,” Bonham Carter is more restrained than you might expect her to be in such a role. She delivers Cinderella to the ball and love finds its way into Cinderella’s heart.
“Cinderella” is a lavish and stylish film thanks to the lush cinematography of Haris Zambarloukos (“Thor”) and the ingenious and detailed production design of Dante Feretti (“Hugo”). Costume designer Sandy Powell must have leapt at the opportunity to dress this menagerie of disparate characters. Her work is remarkable from start to finish.
It could be Branagh’s experience with Shakespeare that allows his direction to stay true to the Cinderella tale, while still making his mark. He and screenwriter Weitz do not give in to princess culture and grant the characters some depth.
After a slow start, “Cinderella” delivers on its promise. This version will dazzle children who are meeting Cinderella for the first time. It is sweet enough to maintain its classic Disney pedigree, but not so saccharine that it becomes corny. “Cinderella” is a family film that will delight almost everyone.
All photos courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures