If storytelling can be reduced to a formula, Cinderella is proof it works. Recently and ill-advisedly, movie studios tried putting a new spin on the chemical formulas of screenwriting, remixing gothic villainesses into misunderstood Klondike bars: hard on the outside, soft on the inside. Mixed results. Sleeping Beauty became mega-blockbuster Maleficent, enrobing Angelina Jolie with high fashion horns and crimson lipstick. Many liked the picture; I couldn’t bear it. Boring and derivative, the attempts to repackage the classic story felt vapid and overcooked, the sort of film that bears the harsh criticism of being too much and too little all at once. I enjoyed the vision of the Kristen Stewart-Chris Hemsworth led Snow White and the Huntsman (which earned the title big screen spectacle with some 65mm photography), although that too fell short. There’s nothing wrong with being revisionist, best shown in the fantasy genre by George R.R. Martin’s wildly popular A Song of Ice and Fire series.
But this trend has hit sour with movie critics, not because of the idea motivating these stories, but their execution. It also exhausted screenwriter Chris Weitz, who wrote the latest adaptation of the Cinderella story to be as open-faced and straightforward as possible. This is no revisionist tale but a by-the-book classic rendition. In other words, it’s a downright direct version of the story. The result is a film light on its feet while taking itself seriously, and feels effortlessly modern but never a retread. Cinderella isn’t amazing, but it didn’t have to be, and, so far, it’s the easiest to recommend movie of the year.
For those of you who live under the rocks that lay under boxes that are inside of bubbles, Cinderella is the iconic underdog story. Ella (Eloise Webb, but Lily James as she grows older), as she’s called in this version, is the only daughter of a handsome middle-class couple. Her father (Ben Chaplin) is cheery and strong and imbues her with a strong sense of character as heartbreak strikes their family. Ella’s mother leaves her a strong-willed platitude before dying, “Have courage and show kindness to others.” We’ve all heard a variation of this phrase growing up, and the universality of its message is a kindling take-away for young children.
But alas, she’s left alone in the world as both of her parents have passed, leaving her the recipient of much mistreatment and emotional abuse from her stepmother, a wealthy woman her father chose when he remarried. She has two daughters, who are every bit as despicable (Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera, respectively). There’s a grand ball for the prince to find a bride, played by Game of Thrones alum Richard Madden. He’s a prince, and thusly must be charming, so charming he is. Handsome and bright-eyed, he didn’t need to give a good performance to make the role work, and his chemistry with James sparks. With the help of a reimagined fairy godmother played like a goth-faced Mary Poppins, Ella is off to the ball. The two key stars in Madden and James ground and enliven the piece, and their scenes make you believe in ye-olde romance. As a twenty-something man, I have no shame admitting I grinned like a fool when they were together.
That’s not to say the rest doesn’t work despite them. Closer to his Shakespearean roots than with Thor and, one laments, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Branagh is confident and refined, smartly underplaying more than over. A reaction to the bombastic movies Hollywood keeps telling us we want, it’s virtuously conventional and deceptively small, brought to life with just enough wit that it doesn’t feel like a retread. With only a handful of characters and locations, there’s no artificial steroidization of the third act with CGI explosions. Cinderella herself doesn’t pilot a tank, the fairy godmother doesn’t hand her a bazooka, and the mice (oh, yes, they’re here) don’t morph into an army to combat the mustache-twirling villain. It’s smallness might restrain it from being as enchanting as maybe it should be, but it’s also a major plus in this movie culture. The direction chooses “beauty shots” carefully so as not to overwhelm a small story with a colossal stage.
The stepmother is an iconic role, as famous as any other in the story, and no actress could have been better cast than Cate Blanchett. Sniveling, rude, and revolting, she over-enunciates and points her finger as though it’s a spear crafted from diamond. Blanchett saves the ham for the third course, giving the first reels a slightly subdued stepmother. We can believe in the reality of her character more than anyone would ever want to, which gives Cinderella a bite previous versions didn’t. If you’re the type to avoid fairy tale or children’s stories but find yourself getting dragged along, she’ll be the saving grace of your ticket. Other than a general absence of oomph tugging things along, there is an odd, but serious criticism: Cinderella is not a musical, and it probably should have been. The screenplay seems to have organized the narrative structure to allow key moments of song. It’s an odd feeling where you feel the absence of a thing rather than the opposite. Nevertheless, 2015’s Cinderella is a heart-tugging take on a classic story that ought to be seen.
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