Born to a loving father (Ben Chaplin) and a kindhearted mother (Hayley Atwell), Ella (Lily James) was always raised to “have courage and be kind” in her life. She was kind to all the creatures around her and saw the best in life. Later on, when her mother and father pass away, she’s left with a wicked Step-Mother (Cate Blanchett) and her daughters whom take advantage of her. However, everything changes after she meets a man by the name of “Kit” (Richard Madden) in the woods.
Cinderella gets her live-action resurgence with this latest incarnation of the popular Disney character and I think that this might be the most realistic version of her that we’ve seen. There’s certainly a fantastical element to the whole story, but this film really captures the emotional connections between the characters that was sorely missing from the original animated tale. The characters have some more depth, the film-making is top-notch, and the overall feel is exactly the sort of thing that modern moviegoers will enjoy. It’s not without its faults, but this is definitely one of Disney’s better live action endeavors.
Lily James has a permanent smile on her face after filming this, because it’s very rare that you’ll see her without the flashing of her pearly whites. She’s taught to “have courage and be kind” and James nails this, always helping those in need. Her character is pure and she plays Cinderella with an overwhelming sense of goodness. She’s often mistreated, but she never falters in her kind ways and we learn more about her through her interactions with those who cannot speak. James offers up a tenderness that will sweep you off your feet and she completely sells the rags-to-riches, without ever coming off as too cheesy.
Director Kenneth Branagh, known for his numerous Shakespeare performances, most definitely has an eye for the theatrical and this film is no different for him. The costume design is extraordinary and the world he creates does seem like something out of a fairytale. The castles and forests are magnificent and some of the sweeping shots that Branagh uses are simply breathtaking. He’ll focus on a character or two for an intimate moment, then pull back quickly and sweep you along the walls of the castle. If there was any doubt in his directorial abilities, let it be quelled now.
Whereas many Disney films suffer due to the lack of a connection between a prince and princess, Cinderella gets a lot right. Rather than just happening upon the Prince at the ball, Cinderella meets him in the woods and the two share a very special moment. The laugh, they smile, they flirt, and they get to see the world through the other’s eyes. The best part is the fact that neither knows who the other person is. To each other, they’re both just subjects in the kingdom. When they begin to fall in love, it all feels more natural and makes for a better tale.
With so much focus on Cinderella and the Prince, there’s not too much time spent with the side characters. While the King and his right-hand-men are well written and seem genuine, the wicked step-mother and her step-daughters are the weakest links in the film. Cate Blanchett is one of the greatest working actresses today, but she doesn’t bring anything new to the role. She’s still cruel for no reason and her daughters just bicker and insult Cinderella. The idea that these women are still so ugly on the inside without a reasonable explanation frustrates me, especially when so much of the film is explained so well.
Cinderella finally gets a shot at redeeming her story for a new audience and she (and the film) doesn’t disappoint. More time and care has gone into creating the romance between her and the Prince, which is what the believability of this fairytale hinges on. Kenneth Branagh creates one of the more visually appealing films this year and has a tremendous time with the period of the film. Some more time should have been spent on the step family, but the biggest letdown is the fact that Helena Bonham Carter only gets 5 minutes to shine as the Fairy Godmother, where she’s clean and helping someone for a change.