DVD Release Date: September 15, 2015
Theatrical Release Date: March 13, 2014
Rating: PG (for mild thematic elements)
Run Time: 112 min.
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Cast: Lily James, Cate Blanchett, Richard Madden, Helena Bonham Carter, Stellan Skarsgard, Sophie McShera, Holliday Grainger, Derek Jacobi, Ben Chaplin, Hayley Atwell, Rob Brydon
After tackling much darker and more ambitious narratives with Into the Woods and Maleficent last year, it felt like Disney was opting for the ol' safe route with a live action update of its beloved Cinderella.
While the storyline is familiar, there’s no need for contempt because there's still plenty of magic left in that trademark glass slipper, including inspired direction from a strong stage presence like Kenneth Branagh (Thor), an underlying message about the importance of kindness, and striking visuals where every detail is lovingly and elaborately crafted. The script from Chris Weitz (About a Boy) also adds complexity and considerable character development to the final product. Rather than focusing primarily on the rag-to-riches romance (also handled in a less cloying and cringe-worthy fashion), Weitz switches up a few of the relationship dynamics to intriguing effect. Long before dancing mice are her only allies and her eccentric fairy godmother shows up, Cinderella is just a Ella, a young girl with flaxen curls and a fairly charmed life. Clearly the light of her doting parents' (Hayley Atwell and Ben Chaplin) lives, Ella is not only beautiful on the outside but has a wonderful heart where thoughtfulness and thankfulness are priorities.
Of course, the true test of character is how one behaves when everything is far from perfect, when tragedy strikes. Ella (Downton Abbey's Lily James) gets a crash course in grief when her beloved mother unexpectedly gets sick and dies, and her father remarries a woman (a terrific Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine) who is, well, pretty much the polar opposite of his first wife.
In so many productions like this, the Wicked Stepmother is almost a cartoonish antagonist, an opportunity for a pedigreed actress to "ham it up" for a change. There is a deliciously awful glee in the insults Blanchett's Stepmother hurls at her new stepdaughter, but there's an underbelly of sadness that motivates her actions. A key scene illustrates this perfectly when the stepmother overhears Ella's father tell his daughter how much he misses his first wife and how much he loves Ella. Not only is it immediately clear that she’ll never quite measure up, but it's a sentiment she can relate to given how much she loved her first husband and became an unhappy widow herself.
Left to care for two dreadful daughters she can barely tolerate, she's forced to marry for her family's survival. Being married to a man who doesn't love you is bad enough, but being married to one who dies out of the blue and leaves you virtually penniless is quite another. Given her perilous circumstances, it's really not surprising when the stepmother turns on the girl who reminds her of all that's gone very wrong. It's how she goes about it that isn't easy to watch.
Now basically a slave to her dreadful stepsisters Anastasia (Holliday Grainger, Anna Karenina) and Drisella (Downton Abbey's Sophie McShera) and her demanding stepmother, Cinderella remains guided by her mother's last words to be brave and kind. When she's not cooking, cleaning and running the entire household, Cinderella finds rare solace in wandering off in the woods. It's there where she encounters a handsome young man (Richard Madden, TV's Game of Thrones) who introduces himself as "Kit."
Beyond their mutual good looks, the duo shares an ease with conversation and wit. Plus, it's a rare moment when they both can be somebody else for a change. Kit, a prisoner of sorts to a life he never chose, is immediately taken with her, but knows that marrying for love isn't an option when you're royalty. Meanwhile, Cinderella sees the exchange for what it is, a pleasant memory but probably nothing more.
The rest of the story plays out as it should—but enjoyably so. With a few little changes along the way that freshen things up (thinking here of the scene when the kooky fairy godmother (a scene-stealing Helena Bonham Carter) shows up to help Cinderella get ready for the ball), watching is nothing short of enchanting. As entertainment goes, Cinderella is as sweet as buttercream frosting but an enjoyable diversion where princesses are more than pretty and boy-crazy. In the Disney universe, that's progress.
CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers):
- Drugs/Alcohol: Celebratory champagne. Wine with dinner.
- Language/Profanity: None. In one of her many rude outbursts, Cinderella's stepmother calls her a "hussy."
- Mature Themes: Cinderella has to deal with the death of both her parents at a young age. Cinderella's stepmother also lost the husband she loved the most and dealt with financial challenges after his passing.
- Sex/Nudity: No sex or nudity—only kissing. Some of Cinderella's dresses are a mite cleavage-y.
- Violence: Only of the comedic variety, although Cinderella's stepmother isn't afraid to hurl insults her way on many occasions. There's also discussion of whether animals should be hunted.
- Spiritual Themes: One character is asked if she believes in magic and being able to communicate with animals and responds, "I believe in everything."
Publication date: March 12, 2015