Cinderella (2015)

cinderella-ball-gown-still-2015Walt Disney Pictures presents a film directed by Kenneth  Branagh. Screenplay by Chris Weitz. Produced by David Barron, Simon Kinberg, Allison Shearmur. Music by Patrick Doyle. Photographed by Haris Zambarloukos. Edited by Martin Walsh. Production designed by Dante Ferretti. Costumes designed by Sandy Powell. Starring Cate Blanchett, Lily James, Richard Madden, Helena Bonham Carter, Nonso Anonzie, Stellan Skarsgård, Sophie McShera, Holliday Grainger, Derek Jacobi, Ben Chaplin, Hayley Atwell.

What a wonderful movie Cinderella is: enchanting, romantic, generous, sumptuous, heartfelt, thoughtful. This remake of the 1950 Disney animated classic, directed by Kenneth Branagh, reverently retains all the elements you remember (some handed down from the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault), but doesn’t slap them together carelessly. It has an ambition to be good and the patience to make it so, and it’s not afraid to embrodier, expand, and—dare I say—even improve upon the inspiration. Disney has made a fortune recently in reinterpreting their perennials, but this one shrugs off its lesser stablemates and stands proud.

The movie is as lovely and strong as its heroine, and that’s one of the biggest surprises. The 1950’s version of our title character was pretty and nice, but that’s about it; the Disney animators were clearly more interested in the pixie dust, talking mice and wicked stepmother. This Cinderella rights that wrong and creates a specific, well-rounded Ella (The “Cinder” comes later)—one who cares about romance but does not let that define her. In a lengthy prologue, her mother teaches her to “be courageous and kind,” and that good advice she takes to heart as she grows up and soon finds herself orphaned and in the care of her disdainful stepfamily. We see how she accidentally banishes herself to the attic through her own generosity, with nothing but (non-talking) mice as company, but she preserves her own spark of good cheer. She is fetching and smart and anxious and teasingly progressive, and James plays her to perfection. All Cinderellas eventually end up at the royal ball, of course, but this one lets us savor her sharp intake of breath when Prince Kit (Richard Madden) touches her side.

Yes, Kit. Not Charming, because this Prince is more than a cardboard cutout. He calls himself an apprentice, and so he is, but one of governance, a subject he takes seriously. He meets Ella one day in a forest, and their mutual attraction gains something by the way both of them instantly challenge the class divide without realizing it, and before any Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo shows up. The King (Derek Jacobi), meanwhile, is not a pompous cartoon but possesses dignity and warmth, which is countered by a court full of schemers that want the Prince to wed for political reasons, not love.

Everyone is bestowed depth here. Well, maybe not Cinderella’s two spiteful and stupid stepsisters (Sophie McShera, Holliday Grainger); those figures exist to be caricatures, lest their hurtful behavior be felt a little too much. But Stepmother (Cate Blanchett) is dimensional and complex, not standard-issue wicked, her every action speaking to misplaced anger and self-loathing. Blanchett’s performance is broad but appropriately restrained—she doesn’t overplay, nor is she overused, and a late scene uses her as a perfect foil for our heroine, displaying with certainty what a selfless and good queen Ella could be.

The movie has all the elements of a Disney classic, placed in perfect proportion. We have Helena Bonham Carter as a scatterbrained fairy godmother, but her jokes are funny (“I do shoes really well”) and she doesn’t overstay her welcome. We have lavish and colorful production design that at every turn evokes animation come to life, but it never swallows up the actors. We have sweep and grandeur, but the movie never misses a chance for a little detail that makes everything sing. Branagh’s hand as director is light but sure, and Chris Weitz’s smart screenplay understands that fairy tales live not in their spectacle or their action, but in the way that they share keenly-felt lessons and truths.

Of course, we all know how Cinderella must end, although let’s not spoil too many details. Branagh’s movie is so good that it finds the precisely right closing notes: not simply with good winning, but with good being proven, even in personal and momentous ways that we do not expect. Here is a modern fairy tale that has the courage to end not with numbing action, but with something far more important: a young girl’s ultimate demonstration of self-worth. That’s real magic.

Note: the film is preceded by a short, “Frozen Fever.” Elsa and Anna fans will love it.

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