How do you make a film adaptation of a classic folk tale stand out from the numerous other adaptations made throughout the years? I guess you could set it in modern times and play with the comparisons the material has with present day society. Or perhaps you add musical numbers to the story and promote it as a song and dance-centric take of an already beloved tale. Actually, wait a second. Here’s a funny idea. What if you took into account all of the previous adaptations and then applied the best aspects of each into one mega adaptation that doesn’t necessarily do anything groundbreaking but delivers fans a final product that is genuine to the very legacy that has allowed the source material to endure all these years? If it’s the latter idea that you think would be the most enchanting, then you are going to find great fortune in Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella.
As the best of Disney’s recent slew of live-action reimaginings, Cinderella not only delivers the expected story in all its magical glory but also builds upon the very cinematic excitement that The Walt Disney Company was founded on.
For those who fail to be familiar with the iconic story, Cinderella follows the teenager Ella (Lily James) who has the most beautiful and joyful upbringing. However, multiple tragedies strike and she is left to live with her nasty stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and two stepsisters (Sophie McShera, Holliday Grainger). Over time Ella’s well-being is manipulated and suppressed by her stepfamily, as she eventually becomes a maidservant in the very household she grew up in.
Meanwhile, the land’s dying king (Derek Jacobi) wishes for his son, Prince Kit (Richard Madden), to get married and sets up a royal ball as a means of matchmaking. When it is announced that the whole kingdom is allowed to attend the ball, Ella sees this as a way for her to get out of the house. Of course, her stepmother refuses and she is left stranded at home with her dress tattered and torn. Luckily this is a fairytale and so Ella’s poor fortune takes a positive turn as her fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) arrives to fix Ella up and send her to the ball.
The power of the film comes from its ability to tell a recognizable story with gusto. In fact just three months prior to its release, the character of Cinderella was seen in the Disney musical film Into the Woods. Because fairy tale films are so abundant, the success of this 2015 incarnation of Cinderella should not be taken lightly.
While it is perhaps a little longer than it should be, especially for a film that will draw in many children with its PG-rating, it carries such an energetic pace that does not permit too many dull moments. The film also benefits from the extreme likeability of its star Lily James, who provides Ella with an emotional honesty that, in more ways than one, rebels against the sugarcoated demeanor that is usually attached to the character. In fact, the film succeeds the most because of how its actors are able to induce more dimensions to their characters while still maintaining their cartoonish façades.
It is a film that surprises. Not in terms of plot, but in the way that it is able to entertain. Director Kenneth Branagh has more recently been on a streak of making mediocre films (e.g. Thor and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit), but Cinderella is by far his best directorial effort since his 1996 adaptation of Hamlet. By balancing eccentricity with elegance, Branagh has constructed a delightful romantic fantasy that will undoubtedly become a home video standard for many children.
One final note worth mentioning is the approach the filmmakers took in bringing Ella’s mice friends to life. Because the film is live-action and seemingly more grounded than the original animated Disney film from 1950, I did not expect the mice to be all that present. But the capacity in which they are featured in the film is splendid, especially in the way that they recall both the mice in the 1950 classic as well as (and maybe unintentionally) the mice in the 1995 film Babe.