After last year's dreadful, near fatal experience that was Maleficent, I walked into Cinderella prepared for the worst, so imagine my surprise that what I found was a lovely, earnest, traditional re-telling of the classic story in such a straightforward manner as to seem old-fashioned. And to find a film that exudes an old-fashioned sincerity in this age of irony and cynicism (even in family entertainment) has now reached the point where the discovery of such a thing feels refreshing, somehow.
Kenneth Branagh takes the Cinderella story and gives it to us straight, with some spectacular sets, extravagant costumes, endearing performances and thankfully, as little CGI as possible (yes, the mice are there, but they're onscreen just a minimal amount, and they don't so much talk as make squeaky noises in the background). There are nods to the 1950 Disney classic of course (which this is no replacement for, but works as a companion piece), but the surprise is in the attempt to make the characters feel like real people rather than archetypes. There are no less than three "death of a parent" scenes in this movie (maybe keep that in mind when you take the kiddies), and no attempt at all to throw in superfluous war and battle sequences, unlike recent rebooted fairy tale adaptations Maleficent, Snow White and the Huntsman and Alice in Wonderland.
In fact, the lack of extraneous action packed with special effects is such a relief and change of pace that it allows you to relax and enjoy the simple story and performances in a way none of these other films have. The fresh faced Lily James (Lady Rose for Downton Abbey watchers) plays Ella, renamed Cinder by her evil stepsisters for sleeping near the ashes in the fireplace, after having been turned into a servant in her own home. But I suppose it's redundant to explain the plot, isn't it? If you don't know the story of Cinderella, I'm not sure where you've been residing for the last hundred years, but surely not on Earth. In this version, the Prince is given a bit more to do, or at least a meaningful relationship with his dying father, the King, and is played with verve by Richard Madden (formerly Robb Stark, for Game of Thrones watchers), who shares a nice chemistry with James as Cinderella, an added bonus in stories such as these, where all that's usually demanded of Prince Charming is that he live up to the adjective his name describes. But, as you'd expect, the best performance in the film is reserved for Cate Blanchett, who sneers deliciously as the evil Lady Tremaine, or as we all know her, the Wicked Stepmother who invented the term. She relishes the role so much, you wish she could have had a bit more screentime, even.
Scene for scene, Cinderella gives you exactly what you want and expect, and somehow, Branagh directs in such a brisk and satisfying fashion that it's not a bad thing. Employing fabulous and overly decorative locations, excessive costumes, color blind casting in the Kingdom (a welcome touch), and an overload of sugary confection when it comes the ballroom sequence, Cinderella's dress and midnight flight (sparkles everywhere!) that it fits Disney's brand of consumer satisfaction, this time with no complaints whatsoever. Every once in a while, it feels so good just to get exactly what you ordered- no more, no less.
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