Leave your cynicism at the door: Kenneth Branagh’s reworking of Disney’s classic has charm to spare; optimism as infectious as it is cheesy; and the kind of on-screen wonder that we rarely see in so-called big screen adaptations of fairy tales, outside of the realm of animation. Cinderella makes magic on its own terms, and doesn’t bend to the whims of the modern audience’s expectations – and that’s what makes it so fun, touching, and memorable.
You know the story: Ella (Lily James) is a downtrodden servant to her two step-sisters and stepmother (Cate Blanchett), who treat her like the dirt they make her clean up day in, day out. When a Royal Ball is announced, where the Prince (Richard Madden) will be looking for a suitor, they rush at the chance of getting hitched to the soon-to-be monarch, but condemn Ella (now nicknamed ‘Cinderella’ after her ash-flecked face) to the house. That’s where Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother comes in (Helena Bonham Carter) – cue mice turning into horses, pumpkins turning into carriages, a forgotten glass slipper, and the search for its owner. We know the tale inside-out; why would we want to see another cash-in on a beloved classic? Wasn’t Maleficent punishment enough?
That’s where Cinderella is most surprising. From the offset, veteran director Branagh weaves genuine magic with spectacle, and sets up his heroine for a life of struggle we can believe in – regardless that it takes place in a faraway, imagined land. For in Cinderella herself, we have a deceptively strong moral centre for the movie. Acting only in the best interests of those around her, whether they be her punishing stepmother or the mice she’s made friends with, Ella never falters in her almost unnerving subscription to the movie’s oft-stated mantra: have courage, be kind. It’s an overbearing philosophy that may be too simplistic for some, but Cinderella’s heart has a genuine conviction we see too little of in kid-oriented fare. But thanks to Lily James’ own doe-eyed performance as the titular character, we slowly come to subscribe to this way of thinking almost as much as she does.
The great casting doesn’t stop there: Stellan Skarsgård leads the pack as a dastardly advisor to the Prince, while Mr. Eligible himself is played by Richard Madden, who somehow turns the character’s age-old blandness into a wistfulness we can actually root for. Cate Blanchett’s turn as the evil stepmother is perfect, making a delicious twist on Cruella De Vil via Audrey Hepburn, and even though Helena Bonham Carter’s casting as the Fairy Godmother is a casting call you could see from a mile off, she actually does well with the little screen time she is given. Just don’t ask her to throw you a party any time soon.
But really, it’s the parts in-between these performances that make Cinderella work: Chris Weitz’s screenplay keeps every bit of the magical tale’s integrity intact, and never opts for a more modern storytelling format via way of a Grimm’s Fairytale-esque reinvention – which we would have ended up with if original director Mark Romanek had stayed on board. Kenneth Branagh stepped in when he departed the project, and the results are – quite meaningfully – magical, right from the instant a baby swipes a cloud from the air in the film’s opening minutes. It’s this kind of complete and utter belief in its own power, its own myth, that marks Cinderella out from the revisionist, irony-dripping glut of late, like Oz, the Great and Powerful or Snow White and the Huntsman. The movie may be syrupy, but it’s also sincere, and just like its heroine, its kindness may be its own downfall – but if you’re willing to listen to the story of Cinderella just one more time, make it this one.