Movie Review: Cinderella ( with animated short, Frozen Fever )
When one says the words “Fairy Tales,” the name Walt Disney springs readily to mind for millions of people. Several generations have been touched by the animated adaptations of popular fairy tales from his studio, that have resulted in millions of merchandised items, let alone billions of dollars in retail sales.
2015 marks the first official foray of The Walt Disney Studios retelling fairy tales in live-action, with Cinderella hitting the big-screen. Of note, is that this isn’t some low-key film. With the likes of Kenneth Branagh directing, and Cate Blanchett playing Lady Tremaine, it didn’t seem like they were going to low-ball this film like some studios would.
The film begins by showing a happy life for young Ella (Eloise Webb), whose world is soon beset by tragedy, after her mother becomes ill. In her final moments, Ella’s mother (played by Hayley Atwell) tells her daughter to “have courage, and be kind,” which young Ella takes to heart.
Some time later, Ella (Lily James) is happy for her father (Ben Chaplin) when he remarries, introducing the widowed Lady Tremaine and her two daughters into their house. However, when Ella’s father dies on one of his business trips, the family is soon beset by poverty.
It doesn’t take long before Tremaine and her daughters slowly begin to take advantage of Ella’s kind nature, quietly turning her into their housemaid. When one stepsister notes some ash and soot on her face, she mockingly calls Ella “Cinderella,” and the others soon call her nothing but this.
This film had been under my radar even since I first heard about it a few years ago. A few clips in the previews had me rolling my eyes, but once I saw the film, I was surprised how emotionally it hit me at times. It also helped that it seemed a tad more serious than what a standard PG-rated film could bring to the table (The PG rating is to films these days, what the G rating was back in my day).
I will admit, I didn’t know what to expect from a Branagh-directed Fairy Tale…but then again, he did impress me with what he was able to do with Thor back in 2011. Branagh definitely brings a sense of class to this tale, shooting it almost like he was directing a Shakespearean drama (which isn’t a bad thing). That ability to treat the material seriously definitely helps (at times).
Lily James brings a nice characterization to the role that may charm some, but irritate others. Instead of the animated film’s ‘a dream is a wish your heart makes,’ this film gives Cinderella a deeper resolve to stay true to her parent’s memory. Even in the face of adversity that would cause many anonymous persons to claim they’d put the stepmother and the stepsisters in their place, James’ Ella keeps pushing through. That to me is where the true beauty of her character lies: it’s not in a picture-perfect vision of beauty, but “who” she is, as opposed to “what.”
Cate Blanchett also does some understated acting in the role of Lady Tremaine. One positive, is that her actions have a little more grounding in the reality of the times. Though she is deplorable in several moments, the story manages to keep her in a grey area that not many retellings would ever consider.
The film does get a little silly when it gets to the animals, the stepsisters, and a few members of the royal staff, but it feels moreso like they are a minor distractions to keep the kids from nodding off. It almost put me in mind of the addition of Flit and Meeko to Pocahontas. And just like those characters, you won’t find any of Ella’s animal friends talking (except in their own ‘animal speak’).
Probably one great addition, is that the Prince (Richard Madden) is given more time to be a character, though he also has the added urgency of trying to become his own man, as his father the King (Derek Jacobi) wishes him to take the throne soon.
The film even gets its own “Jack Sparrow,” in the form of Helena Bonham Carter’s brief appearance as Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother. From her scatter-brained demeanor, to her bulging pupils lined with eye-shadow, one can’t help but feel she’s channeling Johnny Depp in a big way here.
Branagh also works once again with composer Patrick Doyle, who brings a wonderful regality and simplicity to the film’s score. He doesn’t recycle the animated film’s music in the overall film, but he does create a nice little theme for Ella, that stayed with me even after leaving the theater.
A couple downsides to the film, were that several moments that should be more emotional, just didn’t quite connect. I can take some syrupy stuff, but I will admit, the opening ‘happy family’ montage did feel like it got a bit too sappy for me. As well, the final third feels like they were rushing to layer in some last-minute story points, let-alone tie up the loose ends that were still dangling. Some may also notice some uneven editing, such as in a rather abrupt ‘smash cut’ near the end of the film’s second act.
Cinderella is definitely not the same as the Disney animated film we’ve almost all known since our youth, and for that, I greatly applaud the filmmaker’s efforts for not giving us a tired rehash. Instead, it’s a grand attempt to make the story a little larger, adding some more layers to a somewhat black-and-white story that generations have known for a long time, only from the animated film.
It’s already been confirmed that the studio will be giving us a live-action Beauty and the Beast adaptation next year. Much like how Iron Man ushered in a new era of superhero films, Cinderella feels like it could be the start of a new chapter in the studio’s live-action division. So far, the only live-action films they’ve made that have met with major success, start with the words, Pirates of the Caribbean.
On a personal note, I think if you enjoy this film, you might also find the story The Ordinary Princess, by MM Kaye, to be quite entertaining. I was surprised how several story points in Cinderella, reminded me of those in that story.
“…Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the theaters…”
If you weren’t planning to see Cinderella, chances are you will be seeing it if your children or young relations beg to see it, so they can see the animated short Frozen Fever that plays before the start of the film.
Taking place on Anna’s birthday, Elsa wants to make this a great event for her sister, as it is the first birthday the two will have been together for in a long time! And besides, it’s just a birthday party…what could possibly go wrong?
Frozen Fever follows the same type of epilogue storytelling as Tangled Ever After, returning us to a Kingdom where familiar faces abound…let alone little easter eggs for those who can find them.
Fever won’t bring world peace, but I think for many, it will have a few scenes that will delight (and one that I could imagine several theaters breaking out in applause to!).
Luckily for the adults, a certain song does not rear its head, and instead, we get a new one sung by both Anna and Elsa, and written by Robert & Kristen-Anderson Lopez. It almost sounds like they borrowed a little of the melody from their demo piece Life’s Too Short from their work on Frozen, but as it goes along, it becomes its own little thing (and much like Let It Go, I did wonder afterwards, how soon I could buy the single!).
The downside to the short, is that I could easily imagine kids getting restless after it is over, and demanding to their parents that they wanted to see more Frozen instead of Cinderella. As well, there’s a few new additions that are sure to make them want to hit the nearest Disney Store afterwards.
Cinderella – B (Final thoughts: care and effort was put into making this production something new, but it gets a little muddled at times in its editing, and final act. Some humorous moments may also seem a little hammy)
Frozen Fever – B (Final thoughts: a nice little return to the Kingdom of Arendelle, though some may find fault in that it’s more of a taste than a meal regarding these animated characters)