based on the 1950 motion picture and the fairy tale by Charles Perrault
2015 • 112 minutes • Walt Disney Pictures
Despite my fervently fevered hopes, there was never any real chance that Kenneth Branagh’s live-action adaptation of Disney’s Cinderella would follow in the radically feminist footsteps of Maleficent. While Sleeping Beauty is widely considered one of the best Disney films, Cinderella is the film that saved Walt Disney Animation from shutting down in the early fifties. The film and the character are so intertwined with the company that Walt Disney World is crowned by her castle. Letting Linda Woolverton turn in a script that is literally about destroying the patriarchy for Maleficent is one thing; letting Christ Weitz radically change what Jess Plummer calls the “ur-Disney movie” is quite another.
So Branagh’s Cinderella doesn’t make many changes to the original film. We do get a bit more of Ella’s childhood (including a kind turn by Hayley Atwell as Ella’s mother), an adorable meet-cute in the forest between Ella and the Prince, a more fleshed out relationship between the Prince and his father, and some half-hearted court intrigue involving the Grand Duke. Any commentary on the original text is largely kept to Ella’s characterization. The film deepens her already established compassion, best expressed in the scene where Lady Tremaine is horrified to discover that Ella pities her. She questions why things are the way they are, but the most radical implication of that is that Ella is a vegetarian. Lady Tremaine gets a sympathetic backstory in one brief scene, but a pointedly feminist retelling it is not.
What it is is a Disney pantomime. In fact, various reviews have characterized the film as a Ruritanian romance and as a pantomime, and both of those descriptions hit the nail on the head. It’s familiar, unchallenging, camp, and jaw-droppingly gorgeous. I cannot impress upon you how gorgeous this film is, even with the unnecessary CGI we know and loathe from Alice in Wonderland and Maleficent. The production design explicitly set out to recreate a film made in the fifties about the nineteenth century, and that specific aesthetic is present in every stitch and tchotchke. Sandra Powell’s stunning costumes alone are worth the price of admission. Specifically, Cinderella’s blue ball gown needs to be seen in motion to be believed—it is a garment you cannot take your eyes off of, undulating like some fairy ocean. By the time Powell popped fifties cardigans over the stepsisters’ day gowns, I was practically frothing at the mouth.
But the greatest garments are worn by Cate Blanchett’s Lady Tremaine. They’re so gorgeous that it would be easy for them to wear a lesser actress, but Blanchett takes to the largely uncomplicated villainy of Lady Tremaine with ferocious, almost murderous aplomb. Every look, every glance, every pose, every cackle… there’s a moment in the film where Nonso Anozie’s Captain angrily asks her if she thinks she is some kind of god, to order Ella about so, and Tremaine is practically choking on bellowing “I’m Galadriel, you wretch!” Subtlety be damned, and subtlety be largely unmissed. Against such camp heights, the rest of the cast can only hope to hold their own. Lily James is a perfectly sweet Cinderella, and Richard Madden is a perfectly sweet, adorkable, and dashing prince. It’s only Helena Bonham Carter’s daffily glam turn as the Fairy Godmother that could go toe to toe with Blanchett, and she only gets the one scene.
Wonderfully, the universe of Cinderella is a diverse one. While Ella doesn’t get out of the house much, when she does, she’s moving in diverse crowds where the most visible extras are likely to be people of color. The princesses summoned to the ball come from all over the world. It even technically passes the racial Bechdel test, when a black noblewoman asks the Captain if she can have one more go with the shoe. Of course, this doesn’t extend to casting any of the leads with actors of color, to which I can only say incredibly rude and unprintable things.
It’s still very much in the vein of Disney’s recent live-action offerings—lots of needless CGI and action sequences, although, thankfully, it doesn’t sink to the indulgent depths of Maleficent. There’s also the horrifying suggestion that Cinderella’s mice friends might actually be capable of speech, as their dialogue appears to consist of remixed samples from the original film. (Although Jaq is revealed to be a Jacqueline, which is a nice touch.) I’m curious to see how these films age. I’m fascinated by the idea of films adapting films, because film is a relatively young medium (compared to literature and theater), but copyright largely limits those to the realm of parody. Having a series of Disney films that explicitly riff on Disney films and can do whatever they like is really interesting to me. So far, only Maleficent has done something outright radical with it, but I’m still pleased it exists. Cinderella is a marshmallow fluff chaser to its animated counterpart, but it’s a gorgeous one.
(I’m still holding out hope that the Emma Watson-starring Beauty and the Beast is more Maleficent and less Cinderella.)
I saw this film in theaters.