3.5 stars. Rated PG, for mild dramatic tension
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.13.15
Doubts notwithstanding — and I had plenty — Disney has done a respectable job, with this live-action update of its own 1950 animated classic.
Kenneth Branagh’s presence in the director’s chair certainly helps; it stands to reason that the Irish Renaissance man who brought Shakespearean regality to 2011’s Thor could grant (let’s be candid) a fairy-tale trifle with the same degree of dramatic heft.
In lesser hands, Thor could have sunk beneath the weight of its laughably pompous dialogue and overwrought premise ... but no, Branagh gave it class. He does the same here, with this fresh interpretation of Cinderella.
To be sure, he had able assistance, starting with a solid script from writer/director Chris Weitz, still best known for his 2002 adaptation of Nick Hornby’s About a Boy. Weitz’s take on Cinderella is a little bit Grimm (as in Brothers) and a little bit Disney, with a soupçon of modern feminist sparkle. The resulting narrative is appropriately cheerful, poignant, bleak and swooningly romantic, as needs must.
With respect to the latter, wait until you catch Cinderella’s arrival at the Prince’s ball: Rarely has a character been afforded so splendid an entrance, and rarely has a director milked a scene with such unapologetic oomph.
Which brings us to this film’s young star: Lily James, who makes a flawless Cinderella. She’s eminently believable as an unassuming country lass, albeit one who’s well-read and possesses the perceptive wit of a Jane Austen heroine. At the same time, James “cleans up” marvelously, when a bit of Fairy Godmothering transforms ash-begrimed Cinder-Ella into a breathtaking vision who transfixes all in her presence.
James has a natural ingenuousness that Branagh employs to full effect: the sort of sweet sincerity that Christopher Reeve brought to Superman, when he spoke of fighting for “truth, justice and the American way.” Nobody laughed when Reeve delivered that iconic line; well, nobody laughs here either, when James’ Ella — recalling a promise made years back, to her mother — resolutely insists on facing the world with “courage ... and kindness.”
Pronounced just like that, with a slight pause between the two attributes. Again, the sort of statement that, if delivered even the slightest bit wrong, would prompt snickers from our oh-so-sophisticated 21st century audiences.
Trust me: No laughter erupted during Monday evening’s preview screening (at least, not at that particular moment). Indeed, the audience lapped it up. It would appear that Disney’s current run of “princess power” has yet to subside.
Good as James is, though, she’s well-met on the fairy-tale battlefield by Cate Blanchett’s deliciously haughty, ferociously malicious Stepmother: an archetype so quietly sinister, that she isn’t even granted an actual name. Blanchett’s Stepmother isn’t given to theatrical flourishes — think Glenn Close’s Cruella De Vil, in 1996’s live-action 101 Dalmatians — but instead purrs with the smug, malevolent satisfaction of a villain who knows that she holds all the high cards.
Blanchett’s presence further enhances that classically Shakespearean tone I referenced earlier; the same is true of magisterial Derek Jacobi, who radiates the noble wisdom that one would expect from the King of this land in a faraway place, at a long-ago time.
With all these elements in place, and utilized with such precision, how could this project miss?
Answer: It doesn’t.
Actually, there’s another element for which Branagh and Weitz deserve praise. Classic Grimm’s fairy tales are laden with tragedy, and can get quite nasty, even gory. Turning them into animated musicals — as beloved Uncle Walt did, during his prime — blunted the pathos and ferocity, allowing viewers to appreciate the storylines from a safe emotional distance.
Bringing such a tale into the live-action realm, and encouraging us to identify so firmly with a heroine as enchanting as James’ Ella, runs the risk of overwhelming us with dour, dreary and downright depressing details. But Branagh and Weitz walk that line quite cleverly, depicting the frequent heartbreak that poor Ella experiences, while nonetheless maintaining an overall cheery, even optimistic tone. That’s an impressive bit of atmospheric legerdemain.
So: Once upon a time...
Evil stepmothers don’t appear from thin air, of course, and so we’re introduced to Ella as the happy child of two doting parents (Ben Chaplin and Hayley Atwell). They’re archetypes, like many characters in this story, and known simply as Father and Mother.
Ella (Eloise Webb, in these early scenes) is a precocious and kind-hearted little girl, with an affinity for animals: a sensitivity that Mother both believes in, and encourages. But Ella doesn’t get much time to absorb such wisdom, for — alas — Mother isn’t long for this world.
Time passes, during which Ella matures into a young woman; Father eventually marries anew. Enter Stepmother and her hilariously repulsive teenage daughters, Anastasia (Holliday Grainger) and Drisella (Sophie McShera, immediately recognized as Daisy, on TV’s Downton Abbey). Decorum of a sort is maintained for awhile, with Father still on the premises; all too soon, though, business affairs take him farther and farther afield ... at which point, Ella is banished to the attic, and then, inevitably, gets downgraded to a sort of scullery maid.
A chance encounter with the dashing Kit (Richard Madden) brightens Ella’s otherwise dreary existence: a meet-cute moment she handles with a level of candor that she likely would have squelched, had she realized that she was talking to the prince of her land. (Kit, immediately sensing this, is coy about his actual identity.)
Back at the palace, both the King and Grand Duke (Stellan Skarsgård) insist that Kit must take a bride, in order to properly “secure” the kingdom. (Against what, remains somewhat hazy.) The King, a doting father, is sympathetic to his son’s desire to marry for love, rather than political advantage; the scheming Grand Duke has plans of his own.
The palace Captain of the Guard (Nonso Anozie, both cherubic and stern), definitely on Kit’s side, quietly hopes that Things Will Work Out.
Clearly doing his best to stall, Kit proposes that they hold a grand ball, but with a twist: one open not merely to the titled and wealthy, but with invitations extended to every maiden in the realm. (We cannot help but wonder at the size of that guest list...!)
Cue Ella’s joyful desire to attend, if only in one of her mother’s hand-me-down dresses; cue this film’s harshest scene, as Stepmother and her spiteful daughters do their best to prevent that.
Ah, but Ella has a fallback option, of which she isn’t initially aware: an actual Fairy Godmother who can do rather miraculous things while uttering the mysterious incantation of “Bippity boppity boo” (a phrase that prompted its own song, in the animated film). Fairy Godmother is played with goofy zest by Helena Bonham Carter, who has a ball with the role. As do we.
Carter also narrates the entire film, bridging various sequences with mildly (and amusingly) barbed commentary.
Finally, Ella also has a quartet of diminutive friends on her side: the four mice who’ve become pets during her exile in the attic. They don’t all have names like Jaq, Gus and Bruno, as was the case in 1950, but they certainly have distinctive personalities; their behavior and hijinks give this film plenty of droll moments.
Let it be said, as well, that these mice are a marvel of subtle CGI wizardry; it’s hard not to believe they’re real mice ... except for the fact that they’re rather more clever than the mice in our attic.
The CGI enhancements become much more buffoonish when it comes time for Fairy Godmother to concoct Ella’s coach, white horses and footmen: the one time this film veers dangerously close to the sort of slapstick overkill that could wreck the entire endeavor. Branagh clearly understands this, while also recognizing the need to grant viewers an appropriate level of hilarious chaos when the clock begins to peal midnight.
All in all, he walks the fine line pretty well: a statement that applies equally to his film as a whole. This new-and-improved Cinderella could have fumbled, fallen and flopped half a dozen times, for an equal number of reasons; somehow, Branagh avoided the obvious pitfalls while delivering a thoroughly charming, audience-friendly telling of this (originally) 17th century fable.
And I do mean audience-friendly. Monday’s preview audience participated with the enthusiasm of patrons at an old-style stage melodrama, audibly hissing at some of Blanchett’s snarkier lines, clapping when Ella (finally!) stands up to her, and cheering when the lights came up and the credits began to roll.
You just don’t experience that very often, these days.
As a quick sidebar, this film opens with a delightful Disney cartoon short — Frozen Fever — which is a 7-minute treat. The premise finds Elsa, Kristoff and Olaf attempting to give Anna the birthday party she never enjoyed while growing up ... but things go awry as Elsa gradually succumbs to a minor cold and fever.
Because strange things happen when an ice princess sneezes...