After Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland made a fortune at the box office, it was only a matter of time before Disney brought another of their classic animated films back to the big screen in live-action form. The only question was how different from the original animated films would the next one be? The answer: not much. And that’s a good thing.
Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella doesn’t exactly revolutionize the Disney fairytale, but it also refuses to pander to the under-10 audience live-action Disney films have catered to in the past. Instead, it fleshes out the characters from the original tale, modernizing the story by giving the characters depth, while still existing within the parameters of the traditional fairy tale we all know so well.
Cinderella, played by the surprisingly delightful Lily James, had an idyllic childhood – during which she was only know as ‘Ella’ – until her mother died and her father remarried. After her cold Stepmother moved in with two bratty daughters, Ella’s father died, and her stepmother effectively turned her into a maid, teasingly calling her Cinderella. In the newest adaptation, this all plays out exactly as one might expect. Ella’s childhood isn’t just happy; it’s perfect. Beginning the film with a sequence filled with rays of sunshine and butterflies (literally) may not have been wildly interesting, but it does set the whimsical tone for the rest of the film, and it establishes Ella’s connection with animals which, as we all know, plays out later in the film. The movie doesn’t really begin until Cate Blanchett makes her first deliciously wicked appearance as Ella’s stepmother, and, thankfully, that happens pretty quickly.
Blanchett’s Stepmother is delightfully cruel, but not overly so, making her a joy to watch. Screenwriter Chris Weitz even gave her a sad backstory, hinting at the sad reality of times when a woman could only be kept out of poverty by marriage, but the film isn’t called ‘Lady Tremaine,’ and her backstory is little more than forced exposition. Thankfully, in the hands of Blanchett, the exposition doesn’t feel so contrived that it detracts from the film.
Where Weitz’s script went wrong was in the introduction of a new villain: the Grand Duke, played by Stellan Skarsgard. The Grand Duke, one of the King’s most trusted advisors, is desperate for the Prince to marry advantageously, meaning to marry a princess. At the ball, it is revealed that he has already promised the Prince to Princess Chelina of Zaragosa, despite no orders from the King or the Prince to do so. While his existence serves to aid in making the Stepmother’s plight as a widow more understandable, the Grand Duke’s motivation for promising the Prince to the Princess of Zaragosa is never really explained. Yes, it would expand the Kingdom, but what does he care? No matter whom the Prince marries, the Grand Duke will never be more than a Grand Duke. It’s true, the Grand Duke allows for the film to add depth to the Prince, played by Game of Thrones hottie Richard Madden, who frankly deserves all the screen time he can get, by putting him in the position to take a stand for true love. His lack of motivation coupled with Skarsgard’s oddly wooden performance makes the Grand Duke a completely boring and unnecessary villain, and a constant reminder of the film’s flaws.
The filmmakers of Cinderella clearly wanted to rework the fairy tale in a more feminist light, as evidenced by the Stepmother’s larger role. In terms of Cinderella’s character, who is, let’s face it, incredibly boring in the animated film, the trick to making her character more modern lay in re-imagining her introduction to the Prince. Instead of only gaining the Prince’s attention and affection at the ball, Cinderella first meets the Prince while riding a horse in the woods. Not only does this create a fuller character for the Prince, little more than a prop in the animated film, but it also sends the message that women don’t need to be made over by a fairy godmother to catch the eye of a man. The moral of Cinderella becomes, “Be brave and be kind,” as opposed to, “Put on makeup and a pretty dress and you might just marry rich!” Moreover, it gives Ella a personality outside of her sad circumstances. She’s not just some poor girl looking for her Prince, she has a kinship with animals and isn’t afraid to break convention or stand up to a man. As she tells the Prince, “Just because it’s what’s done, doesn’t mean it’s what should be done.”
Furthermore, when the Prince finally finds his Cinderella at the end, she takes a stand before she even tries on the glass slipper by asking him to accept her as she really is, instead of the perfect Princess he thought she was at the ball. Of course, as she is, Cinderella is still a classically beautiful, skinny blonde with perky boobs and a tiny waist, but regardless, she’s not painted with glitter or perfectly coiffed, and that’s something. But, here’s where things get a bit tricky. He asks her for her name and she answers “Cinderella.” Why? She’s finally given the choice to define herself, to set herself free from her Stepmother’s clutches, and yet she still chooses to be known as Cinderella, the name given to her out of spite by her stepsisters.
Now, I understand that the name ‘Cinderella’ holds too much weight in the fairytale world, and in the original story of Cinderella, but I can’t help but think it almost diminishes her. It also doesn’t make too much sense within the time frame presented by the film. The way the narrative is set up, it feels like her stepsisters had just begun to call her Cinderella when she meets the Prince, which makes it much more of a bully’s insult than something a self-respecting woman would adopt as her moniker. That said, I understand why she had to identify herself as Cinderella. It is the title of the film, after all, and I suppose one could take her adopted name as proof of a woman embracing her past, no matter how hard or painful. (Though, I must admit, it’s a stretch.)
Finally, if Cinderella is to be commended for anything, it’s the fact that both Weitz and Branaugh resisted the temptation to cater to the under-10 audience. There was no equivalent of the disastrous Mad Hatter breakdance from Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, and what child-aimed humor Cinderella indulged in (mostly during the fairy godmother’s one scene) was whimsical and natural. By not focusing on a younger audience, Cinderella is able to remind older viewers of the beauty of fairy tales and the hope that dreams can come true.