Warning: SPOILERS AHOY.
Well, that was adorable.
Before I watch any live-action Disney film, especially one that’s a retelling of a retelling, I always make sure to lower my expectations first–not because I think the film is going to be bad per se (although Maleficent was pretty…meh), but because there will be inevitable changes to the story that may not sit well with me. In other words, I’m still willing to be surprised even as I hold up the 1950’s Cinderella cartoon alongside this most recent incarnation.
2015’s Cinderella, despite being the millionth retelling of the beloved Charles Perrault fairy tale, will surprise you if you let it.
I had doubts about casting Downton Abbey‘s Lily James as Cinderella (Ella in the movie) when I saw the trailer, but those quickly faded. She brought equal parts breathiness, naivete, and also quiet strength to the role. Some will no doubt pan her for her lack of fiery ass kicking, but these days, we seem to forget that there are many different types of women and that even those who can silently and steadfastly hold their own against the odds deserve time in the spotlight.
I may be biased because Cate Blanchett is one of my favorite actresses, but I truly could not hate her in the role of the Wicked Stepmother, Lady Tremaine. I was too busy admiring 1) her fashionable and occasionally avant garde (for the movie’s era) wardrobe with its deep green, black, and gold palette, and 2) how she manages to exude spite coated by a layer of grace, and most of all, jealousy toward Cinderella without ever truly explaining herself during their confrontation in the manor’s attic. Especially after revealing her backstory and motivation via the fairy tale mode, I thought, “aw, she’s just doing everything she can to survive, albeit being bitter the whole way.” Definitely an improvement from the rigid sternness of the cartoon Lady Tremaine; however, I felt that there was another note that her characterization lacked, thus hindering Lady Tremaine from becoming a truly complex character. Can’t put my finger on what it is, though.
It helps that Richard Madden has a charming smile, but I really enjoyed his portrayal of Prince Charming (or “Kit,” as he so adamantly calls himself as the Captain and Grand Duke interrupt his meeting with Ella in the forest with a “Your Maj–“). It might actually be more to the credit of the scriptwriters, now that I think about it: compared to the cartoon Cinderella, this prince has speaking lines, a personality, and most of all, humanity. Plus, I loved how he suddenly removed his disguise just as the Captain and Grand Duke were arguing about the one other maiden in the Tremaine household–my breath literally caught during that scene. (But did he seriously have to sit down for three seconds when Ella ran from him? I mean, my gosh.)
I wasn’t so sure about Helena Bonham Carter as the Fairy Godmother when I saw the trailer, given her the quirky darkness I’ve come to know her for, given her previous roles (Bellatrix Lestrange in the Harry Potter movies, Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street). I mean, she can put the “boo” in “bippity-boppity-boo!” But she managed to retain her quirkiness and her gift for deadpan humor while still keeping in tone with the rest of the movie (and in a glittery white cake of a gown, too). Not saying that her Fairy Godmother was better than the 1950’s Fairy Godmother (who had the most personality out of anyone in that cartoon, I think), but hers was an interesting rendition.
I must admit, I expected Kenneth Branagh’s direction to be more like the Shakespeare-esque overtones of Thor (2011)–but that’s not what happened in this movie at all. Plus, the slapstick, language jokes, and the witty one-liners hit me in all the right places (“I can’t drive, I’m a goose!”–it’s funnier when heard onscreen). Branagh has improved significantly from that first foray into film direction.
The set pieces were beautiful (that carriage!) and the costumes could be out there and even ahead of their time (Cate Blanchett’s wardrobe, for instance) without being distracting. I also like how there’s a color palette and sometimes even patterns for each character in the movie (just look at Cinderella’s step family). I did have a slight, inconsequential dislike for Ella’s default blue house dress. (Better than the cartoon Cinderella’s dress, but I mean, her parents must have had her wear other dresses when they were alive, right?)
I had a few issues with some aspects of the cinematography, particularly how the camera would cut and fade to another angle as Kit and Ella walk together in the palace gardens. I also got kind of dizzy watching them dance.
The writing and the storyline surprised me on the whole. There were also a few plot tweaks, mostly at the end, that echoed 2002’s Ever After (Drew Barrymore and Dougray Scott) in terms of politics. What didn’t sit well with me was how Kit’s father the King had to die in order to give Kit more humanity and depth; apart from this, I’m not sure what else that death accomplished. Tangentially, nearly every parent in this film died of an illness, making me think that Kit’s first order of business as king should be to investigate the source of this mysterious parent-killing disease. (Yeah, it was understandable with Ella’s parents, but the King, too? That’s too much in one movie.) But these are minor things.
What I really like about this adaptation is how Ella herself was given a backbone. “Have courage and be kind” is a message that could easily drown in this dog-eat-dog world, and I like how this was given more emphasis–Kit himself remarks to the Captain (Nonso Anozie) that he was more drawn by her kindness and goodness than her beauty (“Although she is beautiful,” he says). Ella even defies Lady Tremaine at some point, demanding to know the cause as to the older woman’s cruelty. When Kit finally asks her, before he fits the glass slipper on her foot, who she is, I at first thought it off that she introduced herself as Cinderella instead of Ella, given that reflection on how much Ella’s step family had “transformed her into a creature of ash.” But upon talking it out with my sister, I realize that this was just the right note–2015’s Cinderella is not a movie about breaking your shackles and claiming your freedom. It’s about staying true to who you are and believing in goodness and fairness despite the bitterness of the world.
One final note about the relationship between Kit and Ella. James and Madden really brought the two to life with their onscreen chemistry, and I love how the script took pains to somehow equalize Ella and Kit in terms of strength and humanity, station in life be damned (I just don’t like how they had to kill off a character to help in this). This is something I feel that a lot of media does not do well, or else I am not watching enough movies or reading enough books. They helped me to see that, no matter how many times I watch or read a Cinderella retelling, I will always hold my breath and my heartbeat will always flutter during the moment when Cinderella catches the prince’s eyes across the ballroom floor. 2015’s Cinderella is probably one of my favorite versions yet.