Cinderella plays it overly-safe in transitioning from cartoon-to-live-action but is sure to entertain Disney's go-to juice box crowd.
Following years of comfort and familial bliss, kind-hearted pre-teen Ella (Lily James) loses her adoring mother (Hayley Atwell) to unexpected illness. In an effort to move past his despair, Ella's father (Ben Chaplin) remarries - forcing his daughter to co-habitate with a calculating stepmother, Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett), as well as a pair of entitled stepsisters (Sophie McShera and Holliday Grainger). After wholeheartedly welcoming and accommodating the Tremaines, Ella quickly becomes the focus of her stepmother's cruelty and jealousy - believing she will forever live in Ella's shadow (not to mention the shadow of Ella's deceased mother).
However, when Ella's father is killed during a merchant trip, Lady Tremaine desperately clings to the family's luxurious lifestyle, dismissing the service men and women to save costs - while demanding that Ella take over the chores and maintain the household. Unwilling to abandon her family home, and without anywhere to go, Ella tries to make the best of her situation - until a chance encounter with the kingdom's prince, "Kit" Charming (Richard Madden), causes Ella to dream bigger (with a little help from a fairy godmother).
Cinderella marks Disney's latest cartoon to live-action adaptation - based on a combination of Charles Perrault's 1697 source story and the studio's iconic animated movie from 1950. Whereas Maleficent attempted to explore the story behind Sleeping Beauty's malevolent baddie and Into the Woods played off musical/fairytale tropes (both with mixed results), Disney has taken a much more straightforward approach in Cinderella. Indulging limited variation from the classic hand-drawn version, director Kenneth Branagh (Thor) creates a kid-friendly, live-action, retelling of the classic tale with minute character flourishes and enhanced visual spectacle (e.g., CGI magic effects). The result is a harmless, albeit often melodramatic, adaptation that should entertain casual filmgoers (especially young girls) but does little to push the boundaries of Cinderella canon or live-action fantasy cinema.
As indicated, the story endeavors to turn traditionally "evil" characters into slightly more nuanced (read: flawed) antagonists - especially in the case of Stepmother/Lady Tremaine - and, more often than not, Branagh and screenwriter Chris Weitz (Star Wars: Rogue One) succeed. Instead of black or white villains and heroes, Cinderella finds a serviceable balance between cartoon spirit and live-action drama. Children and pre-teens will appreciate the film's colorful pallet and effortless humor - but the filmmakers also inject enough modern sensibility to ensure older viewers receive fresh insights and plot beats to chew on.
This isn't to say that Cinderella is a major reinvention or particularly unique origin tale, since Branagh is still checking off key story staples (Cinder-Ella, etc), but for viewers who want to see Disney's cartoon in vibrant live-action, the director delivers - with the added bonus of slightly more subtle character development. To that end, despite a major focus on Cinderella, Branagh's film is Cate Blanchett's movie. The actress brings a chilling realism to Lady Tremaine and, more than any other player in the movie, provides a new way of looking at the timeless character. Tremaine's initial scenes of introduction and development are on-the-nose but once she is firmly rooted as the home's bitter and unyielding matriarch, Branagh and Blanchett produce a vicious iteration of the "wicked Stepmother" without resorting to animated villain impersonation. The part isn't going to win Blanchett any awards but the actress is crucial in elevating Cinderella above an otherwise standard live-action cash grab.
Lily James (Downton Abbey) is also likable in the titular role - carrying a convincing performance, whether bantering with Prince Charming or talking to CGI animals. Still, even though the audience is privy to more of Cinderella's story this time, there's only so much that James can do with the role. Weitz includes wordplay and situations that put Cinderella on a more even playing field with her Prince, rather than a naive damsel in need of rescue (from poverty and a wicked stepfamily); yet, since Branagh's movie is a Mouse House production, the title character is still locked into a pretty standard Disney Princess story arc.
Game of Thrones fans will be excited to see Richard Madden back in medieval wears and, much like James, the actor provides a genial take on stock fairy tale hero Prince Charming. That said, while certain moviegoers may be suffering from Helena Bonham Carter fatigue (after becoming a Tim Burton movie fixture), the actress and her Fairy Godmother are easily one of the most welcome aspects of this Cinderella story. Whereas fairies and magic are relatively simple to depict in animated form, weaving fantasy into a live-action tale of romance and child abuse is slightly more difficult. Fortunately, Bonham Carter's Fairy Godmother is a downright amusing bridge between that heightened reality and full-on fantasy - made even more impressive by stellar (albeit cartoonish) visual effects.
Cinderella plays it overly-safe in transitioning from cartoon-to-live-action but is sure to entertain Disney's go-to juice box crowd. Parents with fond memories of the 1950 cartoon telling will find some enjoyable homages along with a slightly more nuanced set of main characters. Nevertheless, while this Cinderella carries a higher level of cinematic sophistication (thanks to solid performances, rich costume design, and colorful CGI animation), Branagh does little to update the core storyline for modern moviegoers, successfully replicating the source material for live-action - both the good and the bad.
Cinderella runs 112 minutes and is Rated PG for mild thematic elements. Now playing in regular and IMAX theaters.
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