I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from Disney’s new live-action version of Cinderella, and I even had some doubts about how it might turn out (and I am definitely not the doubting sort). With Maleficent, it was clear from the outset that we would be seeing a familiar tale retold from the villain’s point of view, and this focus allowed the cast and crew to breathe new life into a well-known story. Cinderella, on the other hand, presented itself as a straight-forward adaptation, and I was worried that it would either feel dull or unnecessary as a result, with nothing new to bring to the conversation. (In the spirit of full disclosure, Cinderella was always my least favorite of the classic Disney princess films.) Could Cinderella find a way to be engaging and feel fresh despite its old-fashioned approach? In the end I was wrong to doubt, because Cinderella succeeds not in spite of its old-fashioned approach, but because of it.
We all know the story of Cinderella; how a girl was mistreated and made into a servant by her evil stepmother and stepsisters until the day she secretly attended a ball and won the heart of the prince, who tracked her down thanks to the glass slipper she left behind. Cinderella doesn’t stray from those major plot elements, but for this time around the characters and the story feel more developed, more natural, and more well-rounded. We first meet Ella as a young girl, beloved by her parents and treated like a princess. Her father brings her presents from his travels while her mother teaches her to always “Have courage and be kind.” Unfortunately, this happy family is torn apart with the death of Ella’s mother, and while she and her father support each other as she grows up into a young woman, he eventually feels the need to remarry.
Ella’s new stepmother, Lady Tremaine, however, is not at all happy with the new arrangement, disparaging their home while her two daughters run roughshod over the place. When Ella’s father dies while away on business her Lady Tremaine takes over the house, and when the servants are dismissed Ella is forced to take over all of the household chores, doing the laundry, cooking, and cleaning for her stepmother and stepsisters, who bestow upon her the name of Cinderella. She’s moved up to the attic and no longer treated like a family member or like someone who belongs in her own home. Fate intervenes, however, when the prince of their region, who is required by his father to marry a princess, breaks tradition and holds a ball open to all citizens of the land, and Lady Tremaine sees an opportunity to improve her standing by getting him to marry one of her daughters. Ella also wants to go, in order to see the palace apprentice, Kit, whom she met while riding in the woods, but Tremaine forbids it out of spite and jealousy. If only Ella had some sort of Fairy Godmother watching over her who might intervene on her behalf.
This latest version of Cinderella is bold in its traditional approach. There are no surprise twists, no new spins, no alternate versions. If you’ve seen the 1950 Disney animated version then you’ll know exactly what’s to come. But the magic in this latest updated version is how it makes everything three dimensional, in more ways than the obvious surface level. Ella is no longer a blank canvas, doing chores while she waits for her prince to rescue her, she’s a girl in a horrible situation whose reactions feel real and justified. She has emotional reasons for staying with her awful stepfamily, and has no dreams of being rescued by a handsome prince. Lady Tremaine is evil of course, but it’s more than just a simple hatred of Ella. Tremaine loathes her station in life, and how in their society a widowed woman has no opportunity to improve herself except through marriage. She’s resentful of the world at large, and of Ella in particular for having had happiness and love in addition to comfort and security. As for the prince, he’s more than just a charming face this time around, and he’s equally trapped in his situation by a father unwilling to break tradition and by advisors who would use him as a way to gain power.
The characters feel richer and more alive in part because of the quality of the performances behind them. Lily James gives Ella a kindhearted air, and helps to convey in her demeanor and attitude the sort of courage required to withstand her treatment without losing herself, but also the emotional toll of the abuse she suffers. Cate Blanchett makes Tremaine a creature of desperation, who is almost pitiable despite the “wickedness” of the character. And Helena Bonham Carter has a grand time making the Fairy Godmother quirky, fun, and just slightly off-balance. Richard Madden is given quite as juicy a part as the prince, but he and Lily James have a definite chemistry which brings life to the characters’ instant connection. The supporting cast is full of recognizable faces, from Derek Jacobi as the king, to Stellan Skarsgard as a duke, to Hayley Atwell as Ella’s mother.
What truly sets this update of Cinderella apart is how eye-wateringly gorgeous the entire film is. From production design to costumes to cinematography, everything has been crafted to please the eye, and director Kenneth Branagh has molded the film to feel like a symphony for the eyes. The ball sequence, starting with Ella’s intricate pumpkin carriage through the elaborate gowns and the lavish choreography, is particularly stunning. But what is special about Branagh’s direction is that all of the spectacle helps the serve the characters and the story. Ella’s dance with the prince is more than just pretty, it’s achingly romantic and even a bit sexy thanks to the juxtaposition grandiose nature of the stage yet the intimate connection between the two. The story is brought to richer life thanks to the quality of the production, instead of the sets and costumes serving as merely eye candy.
But Cinderella is not a film for everyone. It’s old-fashioned nature will be a turn off for some, while others won’t be able to look past the prominent negative attitude towards the 1950 version. But beyond that, Cinderella requires a certain level of belief that some will lack. Things like love at first sight are scoffed at by many, so accepting a Fairy Godmother will just be too much for some to handle. Even early in the film, a young Ella asks her mother whether she really believes in Fairy Godmothers, and her mother replies that she believes in everything. You may not have to believe in everything to enjoy Cinderella, but a belief in love is a must, as is a belief that “Have courage and be kind” is a worthwhile attitude towards life. You have to believe in happy endings, not that they always happen but that they’re always possible. And you’ll have to believe just a little bit in magic. But to those who believe, Cinderella can be a magical experience indeed.