Saturday, May 9, 2015

Film Review: Cinderella

Okay, I know I'm very late with this review, but life has been very busy.

Anyway… here is my review.

One of the biggest challenges with making the live action version of the classic Disney film Cinderella is the fact that it is so well known.  We already know all of the major story beats and the basic outlines of the characters.  And since this is a Disney movie and not a revisionist version like Ever After or Into the Woods, we can expect few surprises.

Thankfully, director Kenneth Branagh understood this.  Having made films of some of the most famous plays ever written, Branagh knows that in a movie like this it is not about surprise but spectacle.  The audience wants the familiar story but they want it painted on a broader tapestry.

Cinderella is a beautifully shot, colorful realization of a Disney animated film.  The story expands much of the surprisingly short animated feature.  Ella (Lilly James), later given the "cinder" moniker, is still the central character.  We spend much more time with Ella's father (Ben Chaplin) and her mother (Haley Atwell).  Ella lives an idyllic existence until her mother's health takes a turn for the worse.  And like all dying mentors in movies, she gives her daughter this wisdom:  "Have courage and be kind."

Ella's father then marries the Stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and takes in her two 1-dimenssionaly wicked step sisters (Sophia McShera and Holiday McGrainger).  Things go from bad to worse as these worldly women live high on the hog and then suddenly lose the main breadwinner.  This forces Ella to run the entire household for the most part like a slave.  One day, she has too much and goes riding off, where she bumps into the charming Prince Kit (Richard Madden) who she mistakes for an apprentice at the castle.  This is probably the best embellishment to the original story.  It gives this couple a chance to meet and build up some chemistry before they have their night at the ball.

The performances are surprisingly good.  I don't mean to say that any of the actors are bad, but the material is meant to be a bit on the simple side.  And yet masters like Blanchett are able to perform both the clear wickedness that children will see while at the same time giving subtle dimension to her anger.  She is a woman who has lost love and is gnawed by an unwanted jealousy of the affection and joy that Ella has.  Derek Jacobi plays the king, the Kit's father, who shares some very touching scenes that explore the love and sadness that exists often with fathers and sons.  James is very good as the lead who does the difficult job of making virtue interesting to watch on screen and Madden comes off as charming and regal while being approachable and affable.

I loved the visuals of this film.  The colors are bold and exciting in the way I remember the movies of my childhood.  Branagh gives them a sweeping scale and good touch of fun.

The themes are also wonderfully rich and Christian.  The whole point of Ella's journey is that she lives by her mother's mantra: have courage and be kind.  Because in that is magic.  It is her kindness that ultimately wins her Kit's heart.  It is her kindness that leads to her introduction to her fairy godmother (a delightfully silly Helena Bonham Carter).  And it is this kindness that moves her to serve her family.

One of the things I thought was beautiful was that Ella was not someone who was beaten down and unaware of her own self-worth.  She knew she was special.  But she served because she knew it was better to be kind.  When she is forced to give up her room and live in the attic, she does so out of kindness and finds the goodness in her new quarters.  She is happier in her servitude than her family is in their selfishness.

That, in and of itself, makes this a wonderfully moral tale.  And Ella does struggle with remaining kind to those who are not, but in the end she must choose between resentment and forgiveness.  Those last few moments were surprisingly powerful.

I would take any child to see this, especially a daughter (boys would enjoy a bit of sword-fighting practice, but the movie is mostly pageantry).  It is enjoyable and edifying.

4 out of 5 stars.

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