Cinderella Directed by Kenneth Branagh (PG)

The third effort in Disney’s plan to mine their animated empire with live-action reworkings, Cinderella rockets to the top of the list, easily outdoing last year’s Maleficent, and the blockbuster that ignited this company mandate, 2010’s Alice in Wonderland. Cinderella is the first of this new breed to find a balance between spectacle and intimacy, while retaining its fairy tale accouterments.


Credit director Kenneth Branagh, who’s seasoned enough to know when the movie needs anthropomorphized mice, fairy godmothers, and broad villainy, and when it simply requires time with genuine feeling.

 

Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

The live-action reworking of Cinderella has a heart to match its enormous scope.


Holding on to the love shared with her late mother (Haley Atwell), Ella (Lily James) is raised by her kindly father (Ben Champlin). To avoid loneliness, Ella’s beloved father marries Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett), who brings to the castle her iciness and the curse of two grotesque daughters, Anastasia (Holiday Grainger) and Drizella (Sophie McShera).


When Ella’s father dies, she’s left in Tremaine’s care, and the wicked stepmother has no patience for Ella, forcing her into hard labor to quiet her optimistic spirit.


After a chance meeting with Kit (Richard Madden), the royal prince of the land, Ella is taken by his kindness, eager to join the festivities as his kingly father (Derek Jacobi) arranges a party to help his son find a proper wife.


With Tremaine and her girls undermining Ella’s confidence with maliciousness, the young woman receives a little help from her Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) to put together a proper display of wealth to help sneak her back into Kit’s presence.


Considering the range of Cinderella adaptations, Disney has decided to remain in-house, essentially updating their 1950 animated classic. However, elements have been changed to ease the transition, such as downplaying the helpful rodents, Gus and his mouse family, who are used more sparingly, missing cartoon broadness.


Branagh doesn’t completely abandon animated inspiration, drenching the feature in color, employing hues to represent emotion and power, keeping the fantasy alert with sumptuously sweetened cinematography.


Production designer Dante Ferretti invests in enormous royal spaces and distinct castle rooms. Costuming by Sandy Powell is downright insane, with extraordinary attention to detail that makes magical gowns shine and everyday wear unforgettable.


Before the movie even has a chance to exhale, it’s clear Branagh’s in a particularly inspired mood, layering Cinderella with storybook decoration and tone, but making the work feel like a big studio effort from 1950, with Blanchett resembling Joan Crawford, not a fairy tale villain in a poofy outfit.


Technically, the picture is quite an achievement, though the CGI is a tad too sloppy to really sell Fairy Godmother transformations and castle extensions.


The new Cinderella (her nickname acquired while sleeping too close to a fireplace) is a more empowered Cinderella. Instead of bowing to Kit’s charms, the screenplay connects the two as equals with mutual attraction. Instead of being trapped in syrupy swoon, Ella and Kit are lively characters, each handed a backstory concerning loving but doomed parents that makes them particularly sensitive to genuine feelings.


As much as it can in a Cinderella movie, the romance feels organic, shaped carefully by Branagh, who wants to make that glass slipper moment count, but as a moment of joy, not submission.


Indeed, fragile footwear returns to the adventure, along with a pumpkin coach, and the Fairy Godmother. Branagh keeps the magic but dilutes its overall power, preferring to dig into his characters and motivations.


However, changes aren’t in place when it comes to malevolence, with Tremaine a true wicked stepmother, not a hero (a key Maleficent mistake), though her reason for cruelty is understood.


Performances are exceptional all-around. Blanchett’s mastery is a given, but James pulls off the impossible feat of humanizing a cartoon. Jacobi nearly steals the effort as Kit’s ailing father, making a throwaway role feel absolutely essential to the story.


Cinderella fights a few battles with pace, but unlike its brethren (which includes Snow White and the Huntsman), it has a heart to match its enormous scope. Branagh has cracked the Disney do-over code, hopefully gluing the creative dials in place for future productions.

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