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Cinderella (2015)

Let’s set aside the fact that McFarland, USA is the first genuinely good live-action film that Disney has released in the past five years (Aside from Marvel’s output and the grossly mishandled John Carter, of course. And maybe Into the Woods, if we’re feeling generous.). Let’s set aside the fact that Disney’s last attempt at a live-action remake of an animated classic was an uninspired mess that damn near ruined the greatest villain in their entire history.

All of that aside, why the hell would anyone want to make another live-action take on Cinderella?

Yes, I know that so many other stories have been retold and reinterpreted to death, but not like this. There are toddlers who’ve never seen a Shakespeare play or read Dracula. There are full-grown adults who don’t know the plot to the Nutcracker Suite or Swan Lake. There are still people who’ve never actually read the stories of Robin Hood, King Arthur, or Sherlock Holmes. And it’s not like those stories and characters aren’t woven into our cultural DNA at this point, because they absolutely are. But Cinderella is such a simple, basic story that everyone has been able to recite it by heart since we were old enough to talk. It’s a story that everyone — EVERYONE — already knows.

This isn’t just the definitive rags-to-riches story, this is (with the possible exception of Snow White) the most definitive, archetypal, universally known fairy tale of all time. This is a story that’s been told and retold, parodied and dissected, reshapen into every possible configuration and context, and presented in every conceivable medium since at least 300 years before Uncle Walt was even born. You don’t even have the excuse of introducing the story to a new generation, because this is one of the very first stories that any child ever hears. It’s. Been. Done.

Couple that with the aforementioned lack of creativity and competence on Disney’s part lo these past few years, and I really, really was not looking forward to Cinderella (2015). I know Kenneth Branagh’s directing and Cate Blanchett is playing the evil stepmother, both of which look like great choices on paper. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that this is a live-action remake of a timeless animated film of a story that’s been done to death. I was convinced that this movie was a complete waste of time that wouldn’t bring anything we haven’t already seen before, and the trailers did nothing to prove otherwise.

But then the reviews came in. And they said it was good. Really good. Exceedingly good. I’ve gone through every review from every source I trust, and none of them were any less than glowing. How could this possibly be?

Well, the short answer is it’s because the filmmakers were smarter than I am. And thank God for that.

The slightly longer answer is because Branagh and writer Chris Weitz made this project with a tireless and staggering attention to detail. The visuals are the most obvious example, as everything is made to look positively opulent. The costumes and sets are all mouth-wateringly lavish, with none of the washed-out colors that have become so in vogue with fantasy films lately (see: MaleficentSnow White and the HuntsmanInto the Woods, the last few Harry Potter films, etc.). Yet the fantastic designs are never so outlandish as to look hopelessly laughable (see: Mirror Mirror) or to call attention to themselves as artificial sets (see: Branagh’s earlier adaptation of Frankenstein).

No, this fairy tale kingdom was obviously made with a few pages taken from Branagh’s work on Thor. Much like his presentation of Asgard, everything here is made to feel just heightened enough to look like a storybook kingdom, yet just grounded enough to feel functional and lived in. Some occasionally dodgy CGI aside, there really is a very strong illusion like the audience could step through the screen and visit this faraway land. Such a damn shame there was no 3D option for this film, though I’m sure the IMAX premium would be worth the price.

But none of that is what I meant when I talked about attention to detail. No, I was talking more about moments like Lady Tremaine’s first party in Cinderella’s house. The entire film is suddenly taken over with a rich golden color, which noticeably clashes with Cinderella’s blue dress. With nothing more than the strategic use of color, Branagh has made it clear that Cinderella is now a stranger in her own home. That’s a level of attention and expertise that can’t be bought with all the CGI dollars in Hollywood.

The script was crafted with a similar care to detail. The film makes very effective use of its 112-minute runtime, taking every opportunity to slip in a quick joke or a throwaway line of dialogue. When those moments don’t land, they’re out and gone before any damage is done. But when they do land, they add so incredibly much to the greater film.

It’s astounding how much exposition Weitz was able to cram into so little dialogue. The perfect example comes roughly two minutes into the film, when a very young Cinderella (played as a 10-year-old by Eloise Webb) is playing with her animal friends. Her mother (played by none other than Agent Peggy Carter herself, Hayley Atwell) remarks that we have a responsibility to care for animals, and a select few of us can hear them if we have the kindness to listen.

“So if we care for the animals,” asks Ella, “who cares for us?”

“Why, the fairies, of course!” replies her mother.

That… was… GENIUS. The Fairy Godmother is to Cinderella as Cinderella is to her animal pets. That one line of dialogue, that one simple analogy, does so very much to make the Fairy Godmother a character in her own right and not just some deus ex machina. It would explain so much about what she is and why she bothers to help Cinderella while still leaving more than enough to the imagination.

The whole film seems to follow a similar attitude. It addresses the same old complaints and critiques about the Cinderella story, but never in a way that comes anywhere close to parody. Instead, the filmmakers found ways to patch up the problems in such a way that the story somehow becomes even more magical.

Lady Tremaine is a fine example. Winston Churchill once said that tact is the ability to tell someone to go to hell in such a way that they look forward to the trip, and that perfectly describes Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of the wicked stepmother. The character is a master of passive aggression. With a cheshire cat grin and a gleam in her eye, Tremaine could spit poison and make it taste sweet as honey. But equally as important as Blanchett’s portrayal is that this Tremaine isn’t some consummately evil bitch who hates Cinderella for no adequate reason. On the contrary, her mistreatment of Cinderella is given a reason that’s logical and compelling without making the character any less irredeemable. Granted, that reason never really comes into focus until the third act, but that moment hits hard when it comes. Remarkably done.

Getting back to the Fairy Godmother, I can honestly say that I wasn’t expecting much from Helena Bonham Carter in the role. She seemed like an ill fit, though I suppose that’s only because she’s been working under all that pale makeup for Tim Burton all these years. Under the direction of ex-lover Branagh, however, Bonham Carter is made to look more drop dead gorgeous than she’s ever been in a very long time. What’s more, her stunning appearance is made to contrast against her typically eccentric and self-effacing persona, which lends a nice comic energy to what’s otherwise a perfunctory makeover scene.

The film really makes an effort to take the edge off the notion that Cinderella is a passive protagonist who gets everything handed to her through no trouble of her own. Granted, the filmmakers could only do so much with the source material they were given, and the film does chafe against those limitations at times, but the effort still pays dividends. A fine example is Cinderella herself, played by newcomer Lily James.

The filmmakers were smart enough to realize that Cinderella’s struggle is purely internal, and that’s where the movie puts the bulk of its focus. The story (or this interpretation of the story, at least) is about a girl who suffers tremendous physical, emotional, mental, spiritual abuse at the hands of her own stepfamily, to say nothing of the grief she still feels for her departed parents. She’s degraded in every possible way, and it’s obvious that she’s in a lot of pain for it. Yet she’s ultimately rewarded because she won’t let anyone else bring her down.

That sounds, of course, like your typical message of self-confidence, but the filmmakers were smart enough not to present the message in such cliched terms. The film instead breaks confidence down further into the virtues of courage, kindness, and optimism. Courage to stand up to the worst of circumstances, kindness to respect those around us — even those who transgress against us — and optimism that anyone can make the world a better place. Major kudos are due to James, who embodies these principles beautifully and makes every moment of the character’s inner struggle visible on the screen. Great work.

And what of her relationship with the Prince? This would seem to be an especially problematic character, given our cultural attitude shift toward the whole “love at first sight” thing. Once again, the movie does a bang-up job of addressing this problem in so many ways that enhance the final product.

To start with, the Prince’s father (played by Derek Jacobi) is dying, which means that the Prince is under enormous pressure to find a bride. More specifically, the Grand Duke (Stellan Skarsgaard) is pressuring the Prince to wed a princess who will bring wealth and power to the kingdom. Compare that to Cinderella, who has a dead father of her own and a family that doesn’t have her best interests at heart.

Also, note the hypocrisy: The King and the Grand Duke both scoff at the idea that the Prince could have found his one true love to marry during a chance encounter in the woods, even though he has no idea who she is. Yet they expect him to marry a total stranger after one dance together at a royal ball.

Moreover, Cinderella is a girl with no idea of how to run a kingdom, forced to disguise herself because she feels uncomfortable in her own skin. Similarly, the Prince hides his true identity from Cinderella during their first encounter in the woods, since he’s very uncomfortable with his own royal office and he’s afraid that he won’t be half the king his father was.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a version of this story that bothered to draw so many parallels between the two love interests, but it was such a brilliant move in so many ways. It gives the characters some emotional common ground, which makes it far easier to believe that they’d see something in each other and click right away. Of course, it also helps that Richard Madden makes for a wonderful prince and his chemistry with James is smoldering. Madden’s charismatic turn brings so much to character who might otherwise have fallen flat, unlike some other recent failed Prince Charmings I could think of (yeah, Thwaites, I’m looking at you).

So are there any nitpicks? Sure, of course there are. I’ve already alluded to the sketchy CG effects on the animals, and I’m sorry to say that the third act has some weak moments. There’s also the narration voice-over, which generally adds more than it detracts, though a few brief moments of voice-over were pretty useless. Also, for all my talk about the film’s treatment of plot holes and how it enhances the greater film, there is one very prominent blind spot: No one seems terribly concerned about how a servant girl could have afforded to attend the royal ball in such extravagant style.

But the biggest problem would be all the wasted talent in the supporting cast. I’m okay with Rob Brydon getting only a brief cameo because he did a solid job of milking those seconds for laughs. I can also let Derek Jacobi’s all-too-brief screentime slide, because the character needed an actor who could leave that kind of royal impression with so little time. That doesn’t excuse Stellan Skarsgaard, however, who’s pitifully misused in a flat and unmemorable role. There’s also Nonso Anozie, who somehow manages to create such a great impression that I wish the film had found more to do with him.

Last but not least are Sophie McShera and Holliday Grainger as the two stepsisters. The two of them sorta blend together into an annoying and crude mess of (admittedly effective) comic relief, such that I honestly couldn’t tell one of them from the other. That comes with the job, I realize, but it’s still kind of a disappointment that the filmmakers could find so many creative ways to breathe new life into all the other established characters and leave these two with pretty much nothing.

Overall — and believe me, gentle readers, I am shocked and amazed to be putting this on record — I think that Cinderella (2015) may be equal to, if not superior to, the film that spawned it. Truly. Just as the animated film defined Cinderella for the past 60 years, this movie will define Cinderella for the next 60 years. Maybe longer.

It’s not an extraordinary film because it hits all the expected story beats. It’s an extraordinary film because of what it does to set up and deliver those story beats. I really can’t heap enough praise onto the filmmakers for their attention to detail, because that’s really what refines the story to make it even more magical, flying in the face of a modern jaded audience that knows enough to look for all the weak spots. The visuals are a joy, the cast is top-notch, the direction is incredibly good. Everything somehow clicked into place for this movie and the result is not a film to be missed.

Perhaps most importantly, the movie is a sobering and humbling reminder that there are no tired stories or cliched stories or even bad stories. There are only bad storytellers. The story of Cinderella is as threadbare as they come, yet Branagh and his team put so much into this movie that they succeeded in telling this fairy tale like it was the first time on screen. Just goes to show that with enough effort, creativity, passion, skill, and more than a little luck, even the ugliest screenplay can be polished into something beautiful.

…There’s a metaphor in there somewhere, isn’t there?

(P.S. I suppose I should write a few words about Frozen Fever, the short film that precedes the feature. I’m sorry to say that the short film pretty much entirely revolves around a new song that definitely ranks among the weaker numbers in the Frozen soundtrack, and some of the references to the previous film are a little too on-the-nose. Still, it’s a sweet little story for any fans out there who were curious about what’s happening in Arendelle. At least until the proper sequel comes out.)

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