Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella is classical and vibrant, a remarkable adaptation of the timeless fairy tale. I remained skeptical about a live-action adaptation of one of the most famous Disney animations until the first act ended, after which I was enthralled. Branagh brings the film faithfully to life while seamlessly infusing it with the ever-present themes of mortality and love. Tack on a more empowered hero than expected and the story brings forth the sense of wonder and enchantment that so few films for children lack nowadays. The emotional depth packed by the film is enforced by the talented actors rounding out the ensemble, with Ben Chaplin and Derek Jacobi providing compassionate father figures that mold and form the two lovers at the heart of the film. The standout, though, is Cate Blanchett, a woman whose foul stench from her soul emanates through the screen into the theater; after playing powerful figures throughout her career, whether evil or magical, she transforms into a bonafide villain with a sharpened tongue and cruel laugh. The ensemble makes Cinderella a tender and vivacious adventure.
For those unfamiliar with the legendary fairy tale, the story of Ella (Lily James) begins with the mournful death of her mother (Hayley Atwell). Her father (Ben Chaplin) works as a tradesman of sorts, traveling to neighboring lands and supporting the family to live in the house his family has owned for over 200 years. Lo and behold, his loneliness begins to dominate his personal life and he seeks out a fellow wealthy widow that needs help, and the two marry. Ella’s new stepmother (Cate Blanchett) is a vile woman that uses the young woman as a servant around the house, which grows overwhelming after her father’s death leaves her alone with the wretched matriarch. Her new stepsisters, Drisella (Sophie McShera) and Anastasia (Holliday Grainger), are nightmarishly materialistic and idiotic, forming a trifecta of awfulness with which Ella must cope. They assign her the name “Cinderella” because she wakes up one morning with ash from the fireplace on her face; this only happened because her attic dwelling was too cold and she needed warmth. Her life begins to look peachy, though, when she runs into “Kit” (Richard Madden), whom she later finds out to be Prince Charming.
The rest of the story is legend and familiar lore, yet that never hinders the film’s impact. It’s not a greatest hits compilation of the famous moments in hopes of earning a quick buck; Branagh makes the film feel isolated from the traditional Disney manufacturing line and in a realm of classical, old-fashioned storytelling. Down-to-earth and heartfelt are not terms usually assigned to fairy tales, but Cinderella warrants them. Chris Weitz’s screenplay understands how to develop characters and give the audience context, assuming they know nothing about the story and filling in all of the necessary moments for emotional impact. A strange and brief Helena Bonham Carter appearance as the Fairy Godmother is not only inspired casting, but a wonderful dose of magic in a tale that otherwise feels grounded. James is exceptional in the lead, even if her corset-controlled figure sends an unnecessarily bad message about body image for young girls. Outside of that glaring issue, the film empowers Cinderella, particularly as her name becomes the form of emotional power that helps her grow into her own woman. Cinderella is a terrific Disney entry that shows promise for the future of live-action adaptations of their classics.
Grade: ★★★★ (out of 5)