It’s hard to justify a live-action remake of an animated movie like 1950’s “Cinderella” — a movie that doesn’t particularly need to be retold despite its abundant number of adaptations. To remake a film like “Cinderella,” one would expect the filmmakers to take a different approach, perhaps shifting the viewpoint to that of Anastasia, one of the evil stepsisters, or presenting the story in a historical setting with a feminist perspective, as 1998’s “Ever After” did. Ironically, though, 2015’s “Cinderella” succeeds so well precisely for the opposite reason. Instead of nixing the fantastical elements, the fantasy is piled on, and the film is a vivid and colorful live-action remake instead of a dark or gritty interpretation.
Rave and Quality 16
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Ella (Lily James, “Downton Abbey”) finds herself in the care of a wicked stepmother (Cate Blanchett, “Blue Jasmine”) and two cruel stepsisters, Anastasia and Drizella (Holliday Grainger, “The Borgias” and Sophia McShera, “Galavant,” respectively) after both of her parents pass away. Here’s where the story changes a little: Rather than meeting Prince Charming for the first time at his lavish ball, Ella meets him during an afternoon of horseback riding in the forest, and he misleadingly introduces himself as Kit (Richard Madden, “Game of Thrones”), an apprentice who works at the castle.
This change benefits the logic of the story, for the most part. When Kit goes home and finally does throw the ball, he opens it to all eligible maidens for the purpose of finding Ella. The film rarely attempts to inject feminism into a story that naturally denies its female protagonist her agency, but putting Ella and Kit on more equal footing aids the storytelling and makes their love more credible. With Kenneth Branagh’s (“Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit”) direction, the camera makes circular pans around Ella and Kit, drawing a natural parallel between their horses circling around each other as they meet in the forest and their later dizzying dance scene. There’s nothing complex, exactly, about their love, but there rarely is in a fairy tale.
The film puts other slight spins on the original. In the hands of a gloriously unlikable Blanchett, Lady Tremaine is both entertaining and a little more tragic than the 1950 stepmother; Chris Weitz’s (“The Golden Compass”) script insinuates that Tremaine’s resentment for Ella is born out of grief and a deep-seated jealousy of Ella’s late mother, whose place Lady Tremaine will never be able to fill. When a man arrives to tell the family of Ella’s father’s death, he says to Ella, “He spoke only of you and your mother.” The pain on Lady Tremaine’s face in that one shot signals the beginning of the disdain Ella will face in her stepmother’s servitude.
The film is also occasionally quite funny, especially when Helena Bonham Carter (“Les Misérables”) appears as the Fairy Godmother who revitalizes the film with a self-aware spin on the character, turning a passing lizard and goose into the footman and coachman of Ella’s pumpkin carriage. The coachman, with a nose resembling a goose’s beak, says, “I can’t drive; I’m a goose,” and though it’s silly, the coachman’s perplexed delivery earns laughs.
The willingness to indulge the fantastical aspects of Cinderella’s story is also its greatest flaw. The film’s existence in the first place is a little hard to justify, since it stays so close to the 1950 version, hardly giving Ella any complexity beyond the obvious emotions: sadness at her parents’ passing and happiness when she’s with the prince. When the film does try to go more complex, elaborating on Ella’s embarrassment at her lack of noble standing, it falters a little, especially because this film’s Prince Charming never cares even slightly about whether or not the love of his life is a princess. The main conflict feels forced as a result.
Thankfully, though, the preservation of the original film’s sense of adventure overrides any major flaw “Cinderella” might have. Always fun and featuring a dazzling array of bright colors and costumes, the movie might not deliver a daring new take on the original story, but its traditional nature is what makes the film so appealing.