“Cinderella” movie review

By Jeff Boudreaux

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It started with one of the most strikingly simple, yet effective teaser trailers in recent memory. No member of the cast or character was shown, just an enchanted pair of glass slippers. From that moment in 2014, I had anxiously awaited the unveiling of Disney’s latest live-action spectacle. Did it disappoint? Not in the least. In fact, what Disney and director Kenneth Branagh have managed to do is seamlessly craft a film with actors and actresses that is the epitome of what a live-action cartoon should be. The characters and magic from the 1950 Walt Disney classic have, in turn, been romanticized into this faithful reproduction.

Our beloved story begins by showcasing the wonderful relationship between young Ella (Eloise Webb) and her parents (played by Hayley Atwell and Ben Chaplin). Unfortunately, Ella’s mother becomes ill and dies, leaving her husband to care for the girl alone. Several years pass and Ella’s father asks his daughter’s permission to take a wife. Not wanting to see her father unhappy in any manner, teenage Ella (Lily James of PBS’s “Downton Abbey”) encourages him to take Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett) as his wife. Of course, along with the new wife come her two daughters, Anastasia (Holliday Grainger) and Drizella (Sophie McShera), as well. Ella’s new mother grows envious of the strong relationship between father and daughter, and when her husband is called away on business, she seizes this opportunity to move Ella into the attic and have her perform small chores. Word soon arrives of the unexpected death of Ella’s father, and this is where the relationship with her stepfamily really begins to go south.

Bruised by the loss of her avenue of income, Lady Tremaine relegates all housework to her stepdaughter, even having her clean out the fireplace – a particularly dirty job which earns her the nickname of “Cinderella,” coined by her wicked stepsisters. On an exceedingly dreadful day, Cinderella escapes into the woods where she happens upon a stag that is being sought after by a hunting party. The leader of the expedition, Prince Charming (Richard Madden), becomes smitten with Cinderella and tells her his name is “Kit.” Upon returning to his palace, the Prince petitions his ailing father (Derek Jacobi) to throw a royal ball and invite every female in the land, with the hope of once again seeing the girl that captured his stately heart.

The invitation is sent to everyone, however since Lady Tremaine recognizes the beauty of her stepdaughter, Cinderella’s chances of actually being able to attend become slimmer by the minute. And because she believes that one of her own daughters should be prime candidates for the Prince’s affections, it’s only natural that Lady Tremaine would take measures to prevent Cinderella from attending – mainly by destroying the dress that she fashioned from her mother’s wardrobe. I know it’s awful, and all seems lost, but that is what Fairy Godmothers are for! Initially disguised as a beggar, Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) decides to make things right by fashioning mice into horses, lizards into coachmen, a pumpkin into a magnificent carriage and…well, you know the rest.

Disney has really outdone itself here in terms of grandeur. The dress that is fashioned from the remnants of torn and tattered fabric is really a sight to behold. I’m hereby predicting costume designer Sandy Powell as an early frontrunner at next year’s Oscars for this outstanding creation. With gorgeous cinematography by frequent Branagh collaborator Haris Zamabarloukos, and amazing set decoration, there are some really glorious images to be found in this film.

The director’s vision is also realized in his characters and the actors chosen to play them. Lady Tremaine is not merely acted; it is brought to life by Academy Award winner Cate Blanchett’s amazing performance. Likewise, Helena Bonham Carter shines in a role that she seemed born to adorn. The outstanding supporting cast is rounded out by screen veteran Stellan Skarsgård as The Grand Duke and relative newcomer Nonso Anozie as Captain of the Guard. Lead actress Lily James is an absolute revelation and Richard Madden (Game of Thrones) as her leading man manages to be very likeable, and the two share some beautiful scenes such as Cinderella and Prince Charming’s traipse through the garden and their consummate dance at the ball. While soaking the latter scene in, I couldn’t help but thinking if I was the only one that thought the music sounded like a take-off on “Once upon a Dream?” I didn’t mind, but fellow Disney princess Aurora might!

As much praise that I am heaping onto this film, you would think that I am reviewing a piece of cinematic perfection. Not quite. The purist in me has to point out the aggravation of having to wait until the closing credits to hear any of the terrific songs that were featured in Walt Disney’s animated film. Now, I can understand “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” taking its place among the scrolling list of names, as a nod to the original. But for the iconic “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” to suffer the same fate, while most people are heading for the exits, is almost unforgivable. Cinderella sang in this film, so why couldn’t she sing this cherished classic? Also, the story dragged a little in the first half (pre-ball) and the mice were way too saccharine for my taste, but at least they weren’t scripted to talk. I cannot begin to tell you how much I shall thank Disney for that. And, as a plus, I must admit that the good fairy’s transformation of the animals was exquisitely rendered.

Everyone knows the classic fairy tale that is “Cinderella,” whether it is the Charles Perrault version that Disney has always drawn from for adaptation, or the aptly named Grimm account that is notably darker. (Don’t worry, here there are no wicked stepsisters cutting off appendages in order to adorn the most famous pair of shoes in the world, although admittedly I would have given one of mine to see it!) There are so many directions that this film could have taken in less capable hands. Fortunately it wasn’t just a rehash, but rather an embellishment by a studio that has a time-honored reputation to uphold. In terms of warmth and grace, splendor and love, “Cinderella” is a triumph in every sense of the word for Disney, and a perfect fit for families or anyone who just loves a good story – even if they’ve heard it a thousand times before.

*** (three out of four stars)


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