It was recently announced that a live action adaptation of Disney’s The Lion King is in the works and will be helmed by Jon Favreau. The director did a fantastic job on the live action The Jungle Book released this year so the beloved Oscar and Grammy winning film, released way back in 1994, is in good hands. This announcement reminded me of a review I did for Disney’s live action Cinderella which was released last year:
A LIVE action Cinderella movie? Meh.
This was my highly unenthusiastic reaction when I found out that Disney was bringing back its classic animated tale in this form 65 years later (I checked). The trailer was bright and colourful, as expected and Helena Bonham Carter looked to be in her usual kooky form as the Fairy Godmother, but I had zero desire to see this movie.
Not that I dislike fairy tales – my movie tastes are quite eclectic and I thoroughly enjoyed Maleficent, for example – but for Cinderella I had a “been there, seen that” sort of attitude. It is a tale that everyone knows – the original story dates back to the 17th century and there have been more than a dozen television and film adaptations starting as far back as 1899 – and I had very low expectations that Disney could do anything new with this well-worn tale. After I watched the movie, however, I thought “wow, this was pretty dang good”. Here’s my non-spoiler review in four slices:
#1 Charming Cinderella
I think the major reason the movie worked so well is actress Lily James, who plays the eponymous servant girl turned royalty. I had not seen the actress before – her best known role is in the British period drama “Downtown Abbey” which I have heard great things about but never watched – and was thoroughly impressed with the range and breadth she brought to a character that could have easily turned out one dimensional. James’ Ella – her evil stepsisters tack on the “Cinder” later – is delightful: bright and hopeful, strong yet vulnerable, humble yet assertive. She is not a damsel in distress but a damsel caught in a distressing situation, and you really root for her to find happiness.
Unlike most other adaptations, including Disney’s classic 1950 animated movie, this version includes Cinderella’s mother prior to her death. She is played by Hayley Atwell, best known as British agent Peggy Carter from the Captain America movies and the spin-off “Agent Carter” television series. She importantly gives Ella her life motto: be kind and be courageous.
This addition shows the loving family before Ella loses both parents and we can better appreciate the stark difference between that time and her forced labour under her wicked stepmother and two stepsisters. The stepsisters are cartoonish, silly and almost slapstick, and are primarily comic relief. Some of that humour, and a couple other physical comedy jokes, fall flat (no pun intended) but most of the comedy hits the mark.
#2 Bad stepmother. Very bad!
Cate Blanchett as stepmother Lady Tremaine is delightfully devious. She never raises her voice or hand to Ella which makes her conniving, wickedness and cruelty even more potent. Blanchett appears to have thoroughly enjoyed herself in this role. Like Ella, Lady Tremaine is also given a bit more back story so we can understand her motivations rather than “she’s evil because she’s evil”.
The two female leads are the highlight of the cast though the ladies will find Richard Madden very handsome as Prince Kit. He shares great chemistry with James though you have to inevitably suspend your disbelief that two encounters could produce such a great love and adoration.
Madden, best known as the bedraggled, war weary Robb Stark in the HBO fantasy drama Game of Thrones, is almost unrecognizable as the pristine heir. His father is portrayed by veteran English actor Derek Jacobi who can play royalty in his sleep. The Kit/King relationship reflects Ella’s own healthy relationship with her parents and contrasts her abusive relationship with her stepmother.
#3 A diverse, fantastical world
For an industry that is at times accused of “whitewashing” it was refreshing to see an ethnically diverse fairy tale kingdom that included captain of the guards Nonso Anozie, another “Game of Thrones” allum, and a Spanish princess. Bonham Carter, as mentioned above, did not disappoint as the odd and quirky Fairy Godmother. She may be typecast in these roles but neither the actress nor the audience seem to mind.
In Bonham Carter’s Fairy Godmother scenes the special effects put the fantastic in this fantasy and IMAX really captures the brilliant transformations of the mice, lizards, goose and pumpkin into horses, footmen, coachman and carriage respectively. Cinderella’s dress is the stuff of dreams and if the special effects team had pulled these images from the minds of children reading the books they could not have captured it better. The colours of the movie are bright and vivid, giving the effect of a lucid dream. The costuming, drawing from various historical periods and places, lends to a timeless feel. The plot mostly follows the traditional story but there are some tweaks that serve to expand and enhance.
#4 That old magic
Only at the end credits did I realise that it was British actor and director Kenneth Branagh who helmed this movie. Branagh, who has diversified his filmography beyond Shakespeare to include the horror Mary Shelley’ Frankenstein, super hero blockbuster Thor and last year’s action thriller Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, shows his deft hand with Cinderella, bringing life to these fairy tale stock characters.
It is a story told for centuries but it is an attribute of a classic that it never gets old. So I entered the movie theatre dubious and with low expectations but I left feeling enchanted. And, like a child who wants to be read their favorite bedtime story for a the thousandth time, Disney’s Cinderella still conjures magic from a centuries-old tale.
Rating: Cinderella gets 3.5/4 glass slippers.
So have you seen Cinderella? What did you think of it? Feel free to comment below.
For more live action Disney you can check out my review of The Jungle Book here. And for more great movie stuff you can check back redmangoreviews for new posts Monday to Saturday.
NB – This review appeared in an altered from in the Trinidad and Tobago Newsday