In case you haven’t noticed, we’re big Disney fans in this household. Just a few weeks back, the entire family traveled to Walt Disney World to spend a week in the resorts and parks, and to take part in the Princess Half Marathon weekend. (I promise a recap post on that is coming soon!)
While at Disney, we saw promotions for the new live-action Cinderella movie, of course. And why not – the castle in Magic Kingdom is named for her, she was the most popular princess for a long time (before Rapunzel, Anna and Elsa came along), and her story is one that is known by just about every female from a young age. And with the teasers I saw, I knew we’d want to go watch this movie. Here’s our review of Cinderella.
The story of Cinderella follows the fortunes of young Ella whose merchant father remarries following the death of her mother. Eager to support her loving father, Ella welcomes her new stepmother and her daughters Anastasia and Drisella into the family home. But when Ella’s father unexpectedly passes away, she finds herself at the mercy of a jealous and cruel new family. Finally relegated to nothing more than a servant girl covered in ashes, and spitefully renamed Cinderlla, Ella could easily begin to lose hope. Yet, despite the cruelty inflicted upon her, Ella is determined to honor her mother’s dying words and to “have courage and be kind.”
She will not give in to despair nor despise those who mistreat her. And then there is the dashing stranger she meets in the woods. Unaware that he is really a prince, not merely an apprentice at the Palace, Ella finally feels she has met a kindred soul. It appears her fortunes may be about to change when the Palace sends out an open invitation for all maidens to attend a ball, raising Ella’s hopes of once again encountering the charming Kit. Alas, her stepmother forbids her to attend and callously rips apart her dress. But, as in all good fairy tales, help is at hand, and a kindly beggar woman (Helena Bonham-Carter) steps forward and – armed with a pumpkin and a few mice – changes Cinderella’s life forever.
Directed by Kenneth Branagh, Cinderella stars Lily James, Hayley Atwell, Cate Blanchett, Helena Bonham Carter and Richard Madden.
The 2015 Cinderella follows the primary story of the classic 1950 version nearly identically. There are certain elements that have been changed – notably, the film is not a musical, and while she does get assistance from her mice friends, there are no talking animals in the film.
Where the films differ most is the focus on giving expanded backstory to each of the main characters. We get to see a lot more about Cinderella’s life before her mother died, and we get to see the close relationship between Ella and her father. The mantra of “have courage and be kind” is repeated and we see how it shapes Ella. We’re given a reason for why Ella never fights back or chooses to leave the house and strike out on her own. Similarly, we get to see a bit more between the Prince (Kit) and his father, and we see a charming relationship between Father and Son and between King and heir, and where those two relationships have to come into conflict.
Lady Tremaine is given a bit more backstory and explanation for her motives and for why she never cares for Ella. I’m not sure her backstory is enough to justify the pleasure she seems to take out of torturing Ella, but we learn she’s had her own share of heartbreak, too.
Best of all, however, we get scenes of Ella and the Prince where they do more than just dance. They get to talk to one another, and share secrets and thoughts and ideas. It’s still a short two scenes, and doesn’t leave them with much more time to build a lasting romance than Anna and Hans have in Frozen, but at least it’s more than just “They danced, and therefore they’re in love.”
Lily James gives us a very convincing Ella/Cinderella, and Richard Madden has cleaned up exceptionally from Game of Thrones to make a very dashing Disney Prince. Cate Blanchett plays Lady Tremaine with gusto, seeming very much like a younger Angelica Huston, and Helena Bonham-Carter’s Fairy Godmother is perhaps a bit more scatterbrained than the animated version, but is a heart-warming presence.
Kenneth Branagh has a fantastic eye for the cinema, and with a Disney-backed budget, we would expect nothing less than fantastic from the director who gave us Thor, Hamlet and Henry V. I chose those three films specifically to point out how high the bar was set.
Branagh surpasses it. Cinderella is absolutely breathtaking. From the little details of watching butterflies magically transform into jeweled accents, to the sweeping vistas of the kingdom, to exploring the little details that make Ella’s house a warm and loving home, Branagh uses the camera to overwhelm us visually, using both sweeping wide shots and intimate close-ups. The line between CGI and practical make-up and effects is hard to draw, and everything is given the attention to make the visual world of Cinderella a fully immersive experience.
Like their other recent live-action reimagining (Maleficent), Disney chose not to make Cinderella a musical. Instead, we get a beautiful score from Patrick Doyle, along with two after-the-credits reprises from the animated feature.
Doyle’s score is more than up to the task of guiding us through the emotional arc of the film, without ever once drawing attention to itself. I leave it to the viewer to decide if this is a good thing or if it merely makes his music serviceable, although Aaron and I lean towards the view that the music should only become the focus of a scene when it is, in fact, the focus of the scene.
During the post credits, Lily James sings “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes,” and it is very pretty, while Helena Bonham-Carter provides a humorous take on “Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo” that left a smile on the faces of my entire family.
Breathtaking visuals, a strong score, and excellent acting gives us a film that manages to retain almost all of the charm of the animated film while giving additional depth to the characters and the story. Cinderella herself is notable for being given significantly more agency and drive in this film, as opposed to the mostly passive version we see in the animated classic. The Prince, as well, is more developed than the animated classic, showing us why the two of them might fall for each other. (And he wisely has the ability to recognize the girl he loves by her face, and not just her foot in a shoe.)
The explanation for Lady Tremaine’s wickedness doesn’t really mesh with her actions when she first moves in with Ella and her father, even before his untimely death. Although Cate Blanchett does her best with the role, it never really manages to elevate her above the cartoon version of the character. She still seems to be evil for the joy of being evil.
Additionally, that deeper look at the characters comes with additional run-time, and even with the modest run-time of 112 minutes, Cinderella still felt like it was just a bit too long. Our kids were able to sit through the film, but were definitely a little wiggly during the slower moments. Branagh could have tightened a few scenes to keep it to a more kid-friendly length and (more importantly) pace.
I was concerned that it would be a difficult task to bring a classic retelling of Cinderella back to the theaters, considering that Cinderella is thought of by many as weaker when compared to some of the modern Princesses, with a story centered around the girl being swept away from all of her problems by a dashing prince and fairy godmother. After all, it was less than two years ago that we were all charmed by the two sisters of Arendelle as they proved that a fairytale doesn’t always have to end with a handsome prince and a wedding.
Did Cinderella succeed? Mostly. It is, in almost every way I can think of, a better film than the animated one, and we certainly enjoyed it. The story itself still has issues from a feminist perspective, but I thought Disney did a good job of trying to manage those elements by providing more interaction between Cinderella and her Prince, and giving us a Cinderella with a lion’s heart. She fiercely believes in the values taught to her by her parents, unwilling to compromise on those values even at her own expense, and despite her miserable circumstances, it’s those same traits that eventually help her reach her happy ending. Although I’d argue that while “have courage and be kind” are admirable values, they’re less so if they cause you to let yourself be abused.
But at the same time, I don’t think it’s necessary to have a take-away lesson from every movie, and we’re allowed to have a heroine with flaws, mild as they may be in this case. It’s okay to watch a movie simply because it’s beautiful and lets us escape the mundane for a short while into a world where dreams can come true if you just believe. With that goal in mind, this movie is an absolute success. Cinderella is worth watching, and is sure to become a part of our movie collection.
Bonus: Frozen Fever
There is, of course, the segment of the audience who is coming not for the feature, but just to see Frozen Fever, because of the… well… Frozen fever that has struck Disney fans. (No, we’re not immune. We love Frozen, and during our recent visit, we did the Meet and Greet with Anna and Elsa and attended “For the First Time In Forever: A Frozen Sing-A-Long” at Hollywood Studios.)
As a short, one should not expect Frozen Fever to have the same depth as the original feature. It doesn’t, and we shouldn’t expect it.
What it is, however, is a heartwarming short tale about Elsa (along with Olaf, Sven and Kristoff) trying to plan a perfect birthday for Anna (after thirteen years of Elsa being completely absent from Anna’s life during birthdays). But, despite being the Queen of Snow and Ice, Elsa is not immune to the type of cold that comes from a virus rather than chilled temperatures, and her magical abilities interact with her cold to make the day go rather less smoothly than planned.
It’s very cute, and all of the original voices (except for Hans) reprise their roles. The original song for the short “Making Today a Perfect Day” is charming and pleasant, and if it won’t push “Let It Go” out of your child’s playlist, it will at least add some variety to a soundtrack that most parents have heard repeatedly.
(Disclaimer: I was provided free tickets for the preview screening, however I received no other compensation. All opinions are mine and those of my family.)