Walt Disney Pictures
Rated PG for mild thematic elements.
Running time: 105 minutes.
Three stars out of four.
The Cinderella of Kenneth Branagh’s “Cinderella” never wields a samurai sword or a snarky, well-timed quip. She doesn’t transform herself into a warrior princess, nor does she wallow in too-hip pop culture references. She is decent and honest. She dotes on furry woodland creatures. And she holds tight to her mother’s mantra: “Have courage, and be kind.”
But the fact that this “Cinderella” is so straightforward when the trend of late has been to revolutionize the Disney princess image in films like “Brave” and “Frozen” makes it subversive in its own way. The earnestness of it all has its own appeal.
But while Branagh and screenwriter Chris Weitz stick to the basics in terms of content in bringing a live-action version of the 1950 animated classic “Cinderella” to the screen, the film as a whole is mind-blowingly elaborate from a technical perspective. The visual effects, production design, costumes, editing and score all combine for a thrilling experience. And the colors — good lord. They’re like nothing you could experience in the real world. Cinderella’s behemoth of a ball gown alone is 50 shades of blue.
Branagh made his name with the stately prestige of Shakespeare, both as an actor and director, but he’s dabbled in this kind of splashy, effects-laden spectacle before with 2011’s “Thor” and last year’s “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.” Drawing from both of those worlds, he seems to relish the innate theatricality of this kind of beloved fairy tale. Weitz might not initially make sense here, given that he started out with raunchy, testosterone-driven material with the original “American Pie.” But keep in mind that he also co-wrote and co-directed “About a Boy,” so there’s a sensitive side there, too.
None of that will matter to the little girls who are the target audience for this — or their moms, who won’t mind indulging in a bit of youthful nostalgia. They will fall in love with Lily James, who radiates purity and likability in the title role and finds just the right tone. (For the record, I brought my 5-year-old son with me, and he insisted it was “boring,” but the 4-year-old girl from his school who joined us at the screening was completely entranced.) But this Cinderella also has more of a spine and a spark than I’d recalled in previous incarnations of the story, as well as more of an arc. Maybe it’s because I’m approaching this now as a grown woman myself, but I sensed a stronger coming-of-age underpinning here as Cinderella goes from being an innocent child who suffers cruel abuse to a strong young woman who finds her voice.
In the beginning — as is so often the case in these classic Disney tales — there is a death: that of her beautiful and beloved mother (Hayley Atwell), who left a powerful impression on the young girl and remained a guiding force on the young woman she’d become. Cinderella’s father (Ben Chaplin) was just as instrumental in shaping her world view and encouraging her sense of wonder. But all that positive energy goes out the window when he brings home a new wife, the elegant but evil Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett) and her garish daughters, Anastasia (Holliday Grainger) and Drisella (Sophie McShera). And upon her father’s death, they promptly force her into a life of toil and misery.
Blanchett being Blanchett, she’s a formidable force, with a performance that’s equal parts camp and ice. But she finds shading to the archetypal figure of the wicked stepmother, and the script provides her with a back story to explain the origin of her cruelty. She also benefits from the most dazzling costumes of all in the film — the work of the great Sandy Powell — a richly hued, form-fitting array of outfits inspired by the great ’40s screen sirens.
From here, you’re familiar with the tale, correct? Cinderella meets and has an instant connection with a handsome gentleman (Richard Madden) in the woods who might just be an eligible prince. A fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter, in an amusing bit of casting, given her previous connection to Branagh) works her magic to turn her into a glittering vision for the ball. Mice become horses, a pumpkin becomes a coach, etc. And a pair of glass slippers provides a glittering final touch to Cinderella’s ensemble.
The fact that we know all these details and beats so well — and that Branagh and Weitz haven’t reinvented the wheel here — might make this version of “Cinderella” sound a little boring. But here’s where the technical wizardry plays such a crucial role. Branagh’s camera swoops and soars, and the mad dash at midnight to make it home before the magic wears off is just heart-pounding — a fast-paced, vividly detailed sequence that actually might make you want to applaud when it’s all over.
Yes, this is still fundamentally a story about love at first sight and a man rescuing a woman — traditionally romantic notions that still resonate despite their archaic nature and ordinarily would make me want to gag. Someplace in the back of my mind, I’m wondering while I’m watching this: Is this the standard to set for impressionable little girls? Is this the right kind of expectation to place before them? But the purity of vision and Cinderella’s abiding goodhearted nature — as well as her willingness to speak up for what’s right — are certainly worthwhile. She has courage, and she is kind. There are worse things to be in this world.