Who could have seen this one coming? After not even including it on my (admittedly jam-packed) top 10 most anticipated list of the year, I wasn't expecting a lot going in to Cinderella. If you've read my review of last year's Maleficent, you know that I was somewhat lukewarm on Disney's last attempt to retell an animated classic in live-action form. Even with the well-known cast of this film, not to mention a director who's made a few films lately that I've really enjoyed, I just couldn't allow myself to get very excited. The trailers showed some promise, but even then my skepticism couldn't be shaken. How many times can they retell this story and expect us to show up in the theaters? It couldn't possibly be anything but a blatant Disney cash grab... right? While the House of Mouse will certainly make bank on Cinderella, I was surprised to discover just how wrong my assumptions were.
Ella had a simple, yet blissful childhood, growing up in a cottage house with her loving parents and carrying an innate optimism that her mother urges her never to lose. But Ella's bliss cannot last forever, as her mother is stricken with a serious illness that will soon claim her life. In some of her last words to her daughter, she admonishes Ella to "be kind, and have courage", which becomes her mantra throughout the trying years ahead. When her father decides to marry a widow with whom he's become acquainted during his travels, Ella agrees to make the best of her new stepmother and two stepsisters' agitating company. However, she must face tragedy once again, as her father falls ill while travelling and passes away before he can return home, leaving Ella in the clutches of her greedy, cruel stepmother.
Hopefully that didn't give too much of the plot away, as anybody even remotely familiar with this story should already know that Cinderella is constantly under the tyrannical thumb of her stepmother. If this movie does nothing else, it gives this character an extra dimension that I never really understood from other tellings of the story - though she endures extremely harsh treatment, she never lets go of her kindness. I feel like this is an undervalued trait in today's society, but it's such an important one. It shows great strength for Ella to not only withstand the torment suffered by her stepmother and stepsisters, but to maintain her humanity even in the darkest of times. The depth with which the story explores the character's background makes her not just more relatable, but that much more admirable in her actions (even if the point is driven home a little too blatantly at times).
Not only does Ella get a fully fleshed-out character, but so does the primary antagonist in this story. Indeed, many may actually find themselves sympathizing somewhat with the stepmother, given her financial woes and the extreme lengths to which she'll go in order to get ahead in life. She's the antithesis to Ella in many ways, but primarily in her lack of compassion for those she doesn't deem worthy of her time. It can be easy for us to find ourselves in that cynical state from time-to-time, but in reality the world is a better place when we react like Ella, with kindness and bravery in any situation.
See, I didn't expect to go into a sociological argument about the merits of kindness during a review of a Disney princess story! But this film actually has some depth to it that many may not be anticipating. Much of that I actually attribute to director Kenneth Branagh, who had done this very thing in Marvel's Thor, not to mention in the many adaptations of William Shakespeare he's directed over the years. Though this film does keep the meat of the story intact, it also enriches the familiar tale with subtle throughlines of character development that weren't even implied in the source material. This isn't just a fantasy about a girl getting everything she ever dreamed of, but she actually brings something to the table that makes her an ideal ruler in the kingdom she inherits. There's a lot of discussion about whom the prince should marry that would benefit their kingdom in terms of wealth or political affiliation, but ultimately it's the positive influence the future queen can have on the people that is of the utmost importance to Prince Kit. This is an expansion that not only fits with the material on which it's based, but it actually propels the story beyond expectations, which I really appreciated.
The cast of this film was terrific, and each of them brought a unique element to the story. Cate Blanchett is great as the malevolent, yet inwardly broken stepmother, who is more of a ruthless opportunist than an actual villain in the traditional sense. She has moments where she bares morsels of her humanity that make her motivations a little more understandable, and that wouldn't work if there wasn't such an accomplished actress in the role. Background characters played by the likes of Stellan Skarsgard and Nonso Anozie do their jobs well, but ultimately it's the charisma of both Lily James and Richard Madden, as Ella and Price Kit respectively, that really bring the story together. Their chemistry is actually believable, and regardless of how little they know of each other we actually want them to be together in the end.
Surprisingly one of the weak links for me was Helena Bonham Carter, who just kind of seemed to be in a slightly different movie than everyone else. In a way I guess that's appropriate, since she's the one element of magic that's introduced into the story, but her over-the-top line readings were a little jarring compared to the dramatic story we'd seen unfold up to that point. Still, she works for the part she's given, and her character actually solves one of the plot holes that may come to mind regarding the original 1950 cartoon.
The last thing I want to talk about is also the thing I loved most about Cinderella - the score. Written by one of my favorite composers, Patrick Doyle created an absolutely gorgeous piece of music that will surely get a lump in your throat. I found myself welling up within the first ten minutes, and at one point I was compelled to lean over to my wife and whisper "this music is amazing!" Particularly the theme that comes to prominence right before the ball absolutely gives me chills, and I had to buy the soundtrack as soon as we got home. Go and see this film if for no other reason than to hear this beautiful music... but it helps that it's combined with great visuals and an interesting story.
As you can clearly tell, I really enjoyed this film! Believe me, it comes as much of a shock to me as it might to you, considering this isn't typically my genre of choice. I might even go so far as to say that while this didn't make my list of most anticipated films of the year, I wouldn't be surprised if it made my list of top ten films at the end of the year. There are so many more elements to talk about that I just don't have enough space to mention (How cute were those mice!), but suffice it to say that it's a great story for kids and a really interesting retelling of an old favorite for adults. Cinderella may not be perfect, but it does what it set out to do to near perfection. I give Cinderella a solid three and a half stars.
CINDERELLA is rated PG for mild thematic elements