Cinderella (9 out of 10) – Directed by Kenneth Branagh; Written by Chris Weitz; Based on the 1950 animated feature and fairy tale; Starring: Cate Blanchett, Lily James, Richard Madden, Stellan Skarsgård, Holliday Grainger, Sophie McShera, Derek Jacobi and Helena Bonham Carter; Rated PG for mild thematic elements, in wide release March 13, 2015.
Cinderella is gorgeous, fun, and magical. Other than Kingsman, it is the best film to come out so far in 2015, but, as a bonus, you can take your kids to see this. Or, more likely, they will drag you to see its. But fear not, there is a lot to love in this remake, regardless of how you feel about the original source material.
Fans of "Game of Thrones" and "Downton Abbey" will also be pleased, as a stable of familiar faces makes up the leads in the cast, and they are all incredibly. . . *ahhem*. . . charming. On top of that, Cate Blanchett take an iconic swing at the character of the Wicked Stepmother. This is one of her best performances in a decade, perhaps since winning the Oscar for "The Aviator." Helena Bonham Carter also makes a hugely entertaining and fun fairy godmother. These two, and "Ella" as she is called in the movie, Lily James, form a trifecta of amazing female performances. Compared to them, the male leads seem serviceable, but almost a little lackluster.
Director Kenneth Branaugh hasn't made a film this gorgeous in years, and the sets and scenery and costumes look like they're painted with brilliant digital technicolor. (Likely, most of them are).
But at the core of this film are the feelings generated by this very familiar story. It's hard to make the narrative feel fresh or surprise you in any way. And yet, this does.
Everything you loved about the original? There are pieces of them in here, right down to digitally animated Jaq, Gus Gus, and Lucifer. There is one major exception: there is not really any singing. This is not a musical. However, if you stick around through the credits you get to hear Helena Bonham Carter sing "Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo" and Lily James try "A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes."
But layered on top of the familiar narrative are details and backstory that provide far more depth and motivation to our characters. But unlike last year's "Maleficent" or "Into the Woods," this is not a deconstruction or retelling from a new point of view. This is the Disney version of Cinderella, just with extra logic added to it. It makes sense why she gets the nickname Cinderella. It makes sense why the prince would invite all the women of the kingdom to a ball and why the pressure to marry. And these are real characters rather than. . .er. . .two-dimensional cartoons.
It's easy to write this off as a cynical cash grab, but resist the urge to do so. Believe me, Disney is going to rule the box office with this film, possibly even through the summer releases of their other tentpole franchises like "Avengers 2: Age of Ultron" (coming in just 7 weeks!)
How much money? Remember that in 2010, Time Burton's remake of "Alice in Wonderland" made over a billion dollars worldwide, and "Maleficent" made three-quarters of a billion ($758 million), making it the 4th biggest movie in the world in 2014. And that's not counting the merchandising.
And as if the draw of Cinderella wasn't enough on its own, the movie is also preceded by an amazing musical short, "Frozen Fever" in which Elsa tries to throw Anna the best birthday ever despite coming down with a cold, and her sneezes keep creating tiny adorable snowman minions. There's singing, there's dancing, there's sisterly love, there's Olaf and Sven and Kristof: it's "Frozen" and it will be a delight to anyone who loved the original.
And indeed, if there's one recent Disney movie to compare this to, it's Frozen. It is, quite simply, that good. It appeals to that perfect age bracket Disney princesses seem to attract most, and is less dark and deconstructive than Maleficent.
And like Frozen and Maleficent, there is a strong undercurrent of Girl Power. While not as overtly feminist as those other films, it offers a different path for a strong female character to tread. No, she does not need a man to save her. But, at the same time, she's not raging against the injustice that has befallen her. Instead, it's a kinder, softer touch where doing good and living well is its own reward. You could decry it as a mere martyrdom, but it's presented in a positive way as a little more zen and a little less confrontational. She's not boy crazy, but she's also still romantic. All in all, it's a good balance. And she certainly does love the beautiful dresses.
And, oh my, that dress. It is absolutely gorgeous. A little concerning are reports that Lily James had to go on a liquid diet to fit into its corset and that they have digitally altered he waist to make it impossibly small. It's really unfortunate, because it just wasn't necessary to make her so unnaturally thin, especially given the unconscious messages we're sending to little girls everywhere. Buzzfeed has taken some images and made her waist more proportional, and the results are immeasurably better.
It's really unfortunate that this has to be an issue with an otherwise impeccable film. This is doubly ironic given the lengths the film goes to in lampooning the vanity of stepsisters Anastasia and Drisilla, including a scene of painfully tying one of them into an incredibly constricting and uncomfortable corset.
The film is also effortless in its attempt to display diversity. The Captain of the Guards is black. And he simply is. No mention of it, no nothing. There are diverse members of the kingdom. And, to top it all off, in my opinion, Cinderella is not the most beautiful woman at the ball. That prize goes to Princess Chelina of Zaragosa, to whom many would like to see the prince betrothed. And as her name suggests, she is supposed to be a vaguely Latina or Spanish princess, played by Jana Perez.
Given the inexplicable controversy that surrounds every casting announcement that Human Torch is going to be black, or there's now a gay character in the Star Wars canon, or the lead character in the first standalone Star Wars movie is a woman, i's good to just see diversity as it should be. There's really no scary agenda here, people. And it's great. We could use even more diversity. And it's good to see Branaugh continuing his work of race-swapping characters that otherwise would just be default "white" actors and giving them to actors of color (Denzel Washington in "Much Ado About Nothing," Idris Elba in "Thor").
There isn't any reason I should like this movie as much as I do. I'm not the target audience. My 9 year old daughter who came to the screening with me? Definitely is. And, if possible, I enjoyed this even more than she did.
I'm not a huge fan of the original source material. Of all the classic Disney princesses, she is the least interesting. She is the most passive. Things happen to Cinderella. She does not make things happen. And there's the sexism. "Leave the sewing to the women. . ." Ahhh, the 50's. When you could get away with that, or with the racist crows in "Dumbo."
And so when you're the dad of a 9 year old girl fed a steady diet of saccharine Disney marketing, fairy godmothers and taffeta dresses, it's utterly refreshing to see an actualized female character out of the blandest one of all.
What do I mean? Well...
[Minor spoilers ahead, but. . .hey, this is Cinderella. You know what happens so I'm not really "spoiling" anything.]
Ella is a real person. She feels the loss of her parents, but chooses to believe that choosing to be brave and kind is the best path, regardless of your circumstances. Her choice to become a servant to her stepmother and stepsisters makes sense in the emotional logic of the film. And it makes their choices to be cruel and self-absorbed all the more tragic. They plant the seeds of their own destruction, while Ella's kindness plants her destiny.
And finally, she is no flibbertigibbit. She's not pinning all her hopes and dreams on marrying a prince: that's her sisters' agenda. Instead, in a charming case of mistaken identity, she first encounters the prince in the woods, and she does it at her dirtiest and most disheveled. (Seriously, when you see this scene, pay attention. Her hair is matted and unkempt. She is covered in sweat, ashes, dirt and soot.) She mistakes him for another commoner -- an apprentice -- and wants to attend the ball merely to see him as she is led to believe he works in the castle.
And when Ella thinks all hope is lost, she doesn't pine for the prince, but revels in her memories. She's going to make her life better herself, not wait around for royalty to rescue her. In this, she mirrors advice many of us may have heard as children "It's nice to be important, but it's more important to be nice."
We had a long talk after the movie about boys and falling in love. And fairy tales and feminism. And this film, while it has its flaws, portrays a strong, noble character worthy of emulation by today's young girls. The prince didn't fall in love with the girl in the beautiful ball gown. He fell in love with the dirty girl in the forest who showed bravery and kindness. And she didn't fall in love with him because he danced with her at the ball, but because of special secrets and emotional connection they share after leaving it. We can only hope that they internalize the message of being courageous and kind rather than needing to be below a size 0 to be beautiful in that dress.
Take your kids to go see this. Several times. Celebrate it and discuss it. And let's hope Disney's continued mining of their back animated catalog will turn out as well as this.
9 out of 10