The idea of taking the 1950 Disney animated classic, Cinderella, and making it into a live action movie could have been filled with nothing but negatives. Hiring Kenneth Branagh as director and Chris Weitz (About a Boy, recently tapped to pen Star Wars: Rogue One) as screenwriter, the project was already off to a fantastic start.
Branagh and Weitz also brought this classic fairy tale into the modern era. Lily James’ Cinderella would be just fine without her prince. She makes the most of a horrible situation and the audience adores her for it.
Disney’s Cinderella, circa 2015, may have the same origins, as you can see in the Cinderella trailer. She adores her father and mother and is adored by them. Her mother dies young and her father perishes soon after bringing home a stepmother (a wonderfully wicked Cate Blanchett) and stepsisters. Then things get ugly. Cinderella is reduced to the help and mistreated on many levels, as so many know from the iconic tale.
What is so compelling in this particular version of the story is that although the framework is the same, the character development of our titular heroine is completely different and how James delivers it is also a huge aspect. Cinderella is strong and that does not come out of nowhere. It is something that was instilled by her father at a young age when he told her that kindness and courage would go a long way. In this world, they are her powers. It is almost like she is a superhero of the fairy tale age.
In Branagh’s Cinderella, she meets Prince Charming and has no idea who he is. And he has no idea who she is. They meet on equal terms. In fact, they are both on horseback. They’re both intrigued by the other, and we can see a spark of romance that goes way beyond a “someday my prince will come” mentality. These two really care for one another and it is clear they are smitten.
When the legendary ball happens at the prince’s palace, and Cinderella is not permitted to go by her stepmother, it is crushing. We know they belong together, but it is not simply because she needs saving.
Enter the sublime Helena Bonham Carter as the Fairy Godmother. The actress is beyond brilliant in the role and has an absolute ball making Cinderella’s dream night come true.
And speaking of the ball, it is just a microcosm of another reason this Cinderella is so divine, charming and brilliant. The production design is as real as it gets. Those are actual sets, no CG here. It feels as magical as any animated flick can and it’s stunning what Branagh and his team have done with the look throughout. From the Fairy Godmother transformation to Cinderella’s dank room in the attic -- it is as loving of a tribute as can exist for a live action version of a beloved animated classic.
James is a vision. She emits the qualities we think of when we imagine a living and breathing Cinderella. It had to be the most supreme of challenges to find their lead, and Branagh completely nailed it. And where to start with Blanchett? She is as wicked as any Disney villain, and yet there is a grace and charm to her character that sucks you in, even though you know she is just this side of terrible.
Whereas in the animated Cinderella where Prince Charming had maybe two lines, in Branagh’s vision, Richard Madden plays him as the most fully developed of characters. The Game of Thrones star was born to be Prince Charming on many levels, not the least of which is his ability to project his own powers of kindness that mirror the woman that he so clearly adores.
Our Cinderella review finds that, in hindsight, this is a project that should never have been seen as having any drawbacks -- between Disney’s capacity for brilliance, Branagh’s command of telling a terrific tale and a cast where each was born to play the roles they inhabit. This live action version of a beloved animated icon is truly magical.
Who would have thought that Disney could take the same story six decades apart and spin two classics that could not be more different while still staying true to the core fairy tale? Frankly... anyone who has paid attention to what the Mouse House does.