When a film is said to be “iconic”, it means that the story itself has become infused with a certain mythos, whereby the idea of said property is ever grander than the actual film. In instances like that, it really takes someone (or a studio) with a certain resolve to attempt to successfully retell a famous yarn. In the case of 2015’s Cinderella, a live-action adaptation offers the chance, an obligation really, to truly flesh out the story and make it memorable, in more ways than one.
After all, Cinderella is a tale that has existed in cultures all over the world for, believe it or not, nearly 2000 years. It’s a universal story which, after all this time, has taken on a very theatrical quality. So why not bring in someone who lives and breathes theater? Kenneth Branagh, as a stage actor, has an affinity for all things Shakespearean. But, as proven recently in films like Thor, he can also manage a story on a grand scale. Let’s face it, the 1950 adaptation was a simple story, and to do well by current standards, one needn’t simply go big, but nearly epic.
While many will easily see this for the nostalgia factor alone, let’s get one thing out of the way – Cinderella is not a cash grab. It is an amazing piece of work, and is such for a variety of reasons. First off, it is a grand visual experience (more than just dazzling dresses and scenery) which surpasses what you would expect from a fairy tale, Disney or not. Following that, it truly transforms the simple story into something current by rounding out the characters with motives and rationale; writer Chris Weitz places them in a world that feels like it has a pulse and gravity.
Branagh has always known the delicate balance between humor and drama. He’s a seasoned thespian which probably explains why, aside from his own track record of great showmanship, the cast includes the likes of Richard Madden, Stellan Skarsgård, Derek Jacobi, even Helena Bonham Carter. But of all the high-caliber talent, who would ever imagine disliking, let alone hating, Cate Blanchett. Yet if ever there were an unsavory character in the Disney villain camp, it’s the evil stepmother, and Blanchett takes the material and really ups the ante. Sure, everyone remembers the ‘girl who lost her glass slipper and then lived happily ever after‘ but Blanchett makes sure that in this story, hers is the name/character who will similarly endure.
She is so void of life and happiness she’ll make you wince – her performance really makes you feel for Cinderella. Even as a kid’s movie, that is pushing the limits of cruelty. That said, she is brilliant, as are her half-witted daughters (Sophie McShera as Drisella and Holliday Grainger as Anastasia) who miss no opportunity to make Ella’s life difficult. It’s hard to imagine how someone can be so inexplicably cruel…but Branagh and Weitz give backstory and impetus to all the cast/characters which helps establish a tangible three-dimensional presence.
While visual delight and splendor are calling cards for Branagh, so too is the musical accompaniment to his narrative. Long-time collaborator Patrick Doyle brings a bit of whimsy, fancy, and at the same time, reverence to this story. By providing this new score, to what is perhaps the most recognizable famous fairy tale, Doyle’s wholly original compositions for Cinderella create such a lush and vibrant backdrop to Branagh’s live-action adaptation of the classic animated film. The music is magical, enchanting, and, well, just so Patrick.
While everyone on the planet knows this story, well in fact, there are many moments where Branagh’s version shines and surprises. It’s a magical affair, with touches of humanity (especially with Lily James as Ella), more than a dash of charm, and a moral sprinkled in here and there. It’s not that Branagh and company take this tale and turn it on its head, or took drastic steps to become original. They sought to tell a familiar story that was not about a titular maiden who needed rescuing. The story is as much about the people in her life and her decisions as it is the famous glass slipper. While the world may not have needed another Cinderella story, the execution of and the liberties taken make this one a win. How’s that for a magic spell? Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo!