The triumph of “Cinderella” is not its performances or its writing, not how it looks or how it sounds, but how it feels. The tiresome string of fantasy reincarnations that trade charm for malice, bright colors for blacks and browns, have exhausted the very audience they were meant to enchant. So determined was Tim Burton to create a twisted Wonderland of his own design that he never stopped to think if it made any sense, if maybe it was an indulgent misstep. Disney’s recent pseudo-remake “Maleficent” was nothing if not achingly dull, a “leap before you think” type of movie that I’m sure sounded great when it was pitched. “Cinderella” manages to hit all the notes its predecessors didn’t. It doesn’t try to overstep its boundaries. It is a fairy tale told with warmth and heart, exactly how fairy tales should be told.
I was surprised to learn that the director of the movie was Kenneth Branagh, an actor and filmmaker known primarily for his Shakespearean work. With adaptations such as “Henry V,” “Othello,” and “Hamlet” to his credit, Branagh has of late made forays into the action and fantasy genre, directing “Thor” and “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.” Now he has opted for something far more light-hearted than CIA agents or Norse deities, and fortunately for us he has learned to adapt his style to the source material. The use of Dutch angles in “Thor” was distracting primarily because it sticks out in comparison to the bland style with which the other Marvel movies have been shot. Whatever theatrical inclinations he has as a director have been wisely toned down.
Branagh manages the right balance of drama and whimsy, and one does not detract from the other. The first twenty minutes or so are devoted to Ella’s life pre-evil stepmother. We see her as a young girl, then as a teenager, and finally as an adult. Everything preceding her perpetual enslavement is surprisingly effective. It is a trend in recent Hollywood to favor manipulation over real emotional elicitation, but for Ella, who loses her mother, then her father, nothing feels cheap. The greatest asset Branagh lends to the movie is his sense of pacing; the movie feels quick, yet each moment sticks.
Yet the real strength of the movie is the cast. I failed to count a single weak actor. As hit-and-miss as child actors can be, Eloise Webb does a great job of convincing us that she is a younger version of lead actress Lily James, and that we are seeing one character at two different moments in her life rather than two performances out of synch with one another. James and Richard Madden as Cinderella and the Prince, ‘Kit,’ respectively share a believable chemistry and are good enough together that their whirlwind romance is at least plausible. Minor roles are played admirably. As the King, Shakespearean theater actor Derek Jacobi lends fantastic intelligence and depth to his limited scenes. Stellan Skarsgard is appropriately smarmy as a politically minded advisor. Helena Bonham Carter is given but one scene as the Fairy Godmother, and this is the only performance I felt was a bit overdone. She’s too ditzy for her own good, wacky for the sake of being wacky, as if she’s afraid she’ll lose the attention of the audience by employing any inkling of nuance.
The defacto scene-stealer of the film is Cate Blanchett. When we are first introduced to Ella’s stepmother, a large, ornate hat shields her face. Our first glimpse of her is of her eyes, glancing hungrily about the mansion. Her arrival in a large carriage, stepping daintily down the step and through the door, is all the pomp and circumstance she deserves. Blanchett is equal parts evil and pained, scheming and stupid, beautiful and ugly. She dictates every scene as an omnipresent force; it stretches beyond acting a part, stretches to creating a mood. It’s not an Oscar-winning performance, but it serves the film to perfection, much like Meryl Streep’s turn as the Witch in “Into the Woods.” She plays to what is expected of her, of her role, and it is to her credit that she understands the limitations of what she can and can’t do with her character.
“Cinderella” is an inherently silly concept, and I applaud the people behind it for recognizing that anything other than a down-the-line adaptation would have been a waste of time and effort. For all its simplicity, the movie turns out to be a treat. Lately, Hollywood seems bent on fitting square pegs into round holes, unnecessarily shoving this and that into a movie in the hopes that it will broaden the appeal. Maleficent was a great villain. Did she have any business being the antihero of her own CGI-laden vehicle? Probably not.
There’s something refreshing about this film. The absolute joy and energy with which it functions is infectious. I found myself laughing and cheering along with the younger members of the audience. “Cinderella” is totally content to tell a story and do nothing more. Ella isn’t the hero of some ancient prophecy. The movie doesn’t devolve into an inane battle scene. There aren’t any fast-talking sidekicks, any incessant musical numbers, or any blustering, meandering subplots. The beauty is its willingness to admit the restrictions of retelling a tale of fairies and people talking to mice and pumpkins turning into carriages. It’s what you begrudgingly take your little sister to see on a Saturday afternoon, and then, in a shocking twist, you’re just as excited as she is. Movie magic at its finest.
Review by Lucas Dispoto