Once upon a time, a modern and live action update on the 1950 Disney classic animated tale of Cinderella was released. While keeping with the core narrative of the cherished yarn, director Kenneth Branagh (Thor, Henry V) and screenwriter Chris Weitz (About a Boy) have crafted a refreshing and beautiful film that remains faithful to the original. Like the character of Cinderella, the film has a big, open heart that will bewitch even the most cynical curmudgeon.
For those unfamiliar with the tale, it centers on Ella (Lily James), the much loved daughter of a merchant (Ben Chaplin) and his beautiful wife (Hayley Atwell of Agent Carter). As with all Disney classics, Ella’s mother falls mysteriously ill and on her deathbed inspiringly advises her daughter to “have courage and be kind”, a mantra which the girl dedicates herself to avidly as she ages into a charming young woman. Years pass and Ella’s Father marries the wicked Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett in a deliciously evil turn), who moves into their house accompanied by her Persian cat Lucifer and her dim-witted daughters Anastasia (Holliday Grainger from the upcoming The Riot Club) and Drisella (Sophie McShera of Downton Abbey). Following her Father’s untimely death, Ella is rapidly given the demeaning role of a servant to her villainous stepmother and stepsisters, and maliciously dubbed “Cinderella” after serving the women with embers on her visage. In a uncharacteristically frustrated move, she flees to the nearby forest and there she serendipitously meets Kit, aka the Prince (Richard Madden, formerly of HBO’s Game of Thrones).
In the same feminist vein as Pretty Woman, Cinderella and her Prince rescue one another and bring out the best in each other. In their first heated chance meeting in the forest, she has her very own white horse (literally and figuratively) and speaks her mind openly and confidently (as she should!). This is not your Mother or Grandmother’s Cinderella and she is no damsel-in-distress. She is refreshingly (in terms of previous iterations of the prototype) and unabashedly her own woman–a perceptive, empathetic person who is keenly attune with others’ tribulations. With enchanting screen presence, Lily James (Downton Abbey) is a revelation in the titular role. She gracefully encapsulates her character’s generosity of spirit and portrays the iconic archetype with poised ease.
Other than the winsome Ms. James, the other true shining stars of the film are Sandy Powell’s breathtakingly spectacular costumes and Dante Ferretti’s elaborate and detailed set design. Powell has a history of immediately establishing characters through color theory alone (see Julianne Moore’s primary-colored ensembles in The End of the Affair and Far from Heaven as examples), and Cinderella is no exception. Cate Blanchett’s regal 1940’s-esque gowns are varied hues of green, to symbolize her coldly-conserved jealousy of Cinderella’s bright-eyed innocence and humanity. Likewise, the central ball gown is made with layers upon layers of fabric, (all different colors that make up the shade of blue seen on the outer layer), as if to infer Cinderella’s symbolic layers of personality that were not otherwise seen in previous adaptations of the classic. Ferretti’s meticulous art direction captures the fairy tale world perfectly and his visually lavish palace sets are a knowing ode to the set design in Branagh’s Hamlet.
Cinderella is preceded by Frozen Fever, a Disney short that fans of the immensely successful Frozen will want to watch feverishly. Featuring the brand new hummable song “Making today a perfect day”, it details Elsa’s unveiling of an extravagant birthday surprise for her beloved sister Anna. Fans of the original will be delighted to see the return (or at least a loving nod to) all of the original film’s central characters and songs. Hordes of parents will undoubtedly want to bring their Frozen-worshipping children to see the short film alone, but we urge them to stay seated for Cinderella (especially the end credits that include the rollicking ‘Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo’ and ‘A dream is a wish your heart makes’, as sung by Helena Bonham Carter and Lily James, respectively).
Simply, Cinderella is a magical take on the classic fairy tale that modern audiences of all ages will delight in watching for many years to come.