An Animated Fairy Tale with Live Actors: Cinderella

03/13/2015 8:30 AM |

Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Opens March 13

Glory to the logistical redundancies that Disney’s 2015 remake of Disney’s 1950 telling of Cinderella performs but never overcomes: because the earlier film was animated (a post-WWII comeback for the studio, in fact) and the new one is ostensibly live-action, Cinderella’s chattering animal friends must look more like real birds and mice, and because real birds and mice are difficult to control, they are rendered through the magic of computer animation. In other words, cartoon mice have been refashioned as cartoon mice. To borrow a term from another source of repeated and often Disney-branded reminaginings: we’re through the looking glass.

Unlike the Tim Burton-directed Alice in Wonderland, which focused an older Alice returning to Wonderland, or last summer’s muddled smash Maleficent, which adopted a famous villain’s point of view, Cinderella does not even purport to look at old material from a new angle. It can only adjust the ingredients and bake time, elaborating on the pre-princess bits. We meet Ella’s saintly mother (Peggy Carter herself, Hayley Atwell) and father (Ben Chaplin) before each are dispatched, leaving the cheery young girl to become live-in servant Cinderella (Lily James) to her pitiless stepmother Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett) and her wretched stepsisters. The movie also allows Ella to meet the prince (Richard Madden) before the ball, answering (or at least defusing the hypocrisy of) a question about whether it would be better to actually meet someone before you decide to marry him or her.

With the longer lead-up to Cinderella’s blue dress and glass slippers, Kenneth Branagh’s film does improve upon its source material in a few ways: Cinderella and the prince have more charisma here than in 1950, if only because their cartoon equivalents are terminally bland. The screenplay by Chris Weitz attempts to deepen Cinderella by borrowing from other, more distinct Disney princesses of later eras: some of Rapunzel’s isolation and a dash of Belle’s bookishness. Lily Collins, whom Lily James resembles both in name and adorable eyebrow prominence, made a pluckier revisionist princess in the superior (non-Disney) Snow White retelling Mirror Mirror, but James and Madden do what they can. Their horseback flirtation isn’t exactly removed from tweenage dreams, never threatening to cross or even approach the line where sweet becomes innocently sexy, but it’s just grown-up enough for princess-friendly adults to possibly sigh wistfully without full embarrassment. Other glimpses of adulthood pass by too quickly: Blanchett brings some dimension to Lady Tremaine, and there’s a tantalizing moment that positions the wicked stepmother as a drunken gambler—a more interesting vice than social-climbing haughtiness, to be sure. The prince’s father is nicely played by Derek Jacobi, but the movie mutes his emotional impact by handing him its third parental death.

Through this mild if not-unpleasant rearrangement, the running time of the original Disney cartoon expands by nearly fifty percent, despite the new film excising much of the most elaborate animal-based comic relief, which runs neck and neck with the Fairy Godmother scene for the 1950 version’s most memorable element. Here Helena Bonham Carter plays the Fairy Godmother and has fun with the big transformation scene (even sans a catchy song), though the morphing of animals into humanoid coachmen has creepy Island of Dr. Moreau overtones that don’t really match the production’s romantic lushness—further emphasizing the bizarre goal of reproducing in “realistic” animation what was once joyfully animated.

Sometimes this transition involves a certain vivid painterliness: the gorgeous costumes and sets, rich in greens, blues, and yellows, come together for a striking ball scene, Branagh’s camera swooping through the crowds without giving in to his instincts for dramatic abandon. His stylistic tics feel stymied; pomp is no problem for Branagh, but it’s even trickier to wring Shakespeare out of this material than out of Frankenstein or Thor. Instead, the movie tames some of the cartoon’s most florid melodrama—the destruction of Cinderella’s homemade dress, for example, isn’t as pivotal or devastating as it is in the cartoon. Branagh amps up the vivacity of the images while cutting them together with gentle restraint. If anything, the live-action version moves further away from Grimm grimness. Instead, Cinderella and Cinderella both repeat a maxim about the importance of kindness and courage, kindness and courage, kindness and courage, like a self-help mantra the movie doesn’t trust its young audience to understand. It’s a sweet message that the movie would rather repeat than truly demonstrate.