“This thing is so old-fashioned,” Lady Tremaine tells Cinderella of the hand-me-down dress the latter hopes to wear to the ball, “it’s practically falling to pieces.” One might have expected the same of Cinderella, Disney’s live-action retelling of its animated classic released exactly 65 years ago. But the sentiment voiced by Lady Tremaine, a.k.a. the “wicked stepmother,” is accurate neither in the particular sense (the dress is lovely) nor more broadly. The new film, directed by Kenneth Branagh, is nothing if not a tribute to old-fashioned virtues, of care and craft and modesty, of simple stories well told.
There have been several attempts at the live-action reimagining of fairy tale classics over the past few years. In 2012, Relativity tried Snow White as a comedy (Mirror Mirror) while Universal opted for an over-the-top CGI action-fest (Snow White and the Huntsman). On the small screen, we have the police-procedural Grimm as well as Once Upon a Time, in which wicked Disney icons—Cruella de Vil, Maleficent, and Ursula the sea witch—are joining forces like supervillains. Disney’s made a few big-screen bids itself in the past year, from the ironic reversals of Maleficent (also an over-the-top CGI action-fest) to the ironic everything of Into the Woods.
But it turns out that what was needed wasn’t irony, or CGI, or cops, or comedy. The best reimagining of the bunch scarcely even counts as a reimagining. Instead, Branagh’s Cinderella remains true to the storyline—and more important, the spirit—of its innocent, animated forbear. It’s all there: the kind, forsaken Cinderella (Lily James); the dashing prince (Richard Madden); the wicked stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and her selfish brood (Holliday Grainger, Sophie McShera); even the fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter). The tone is one of quiet wonder. This is a world into which magic could creep, but seldom does.
Insofar as the script (by Chris Weitz) takes liberties, they're in the service of enriching, rather than upending, the classic fable. By far the greatest change is that it tells the fore-story that leads up to the main story, of Cinderella’s happy childhood before the dark clouds descended, of the loving mother (Hayley Atwell) who died young and the kind father (Ben Chapin) who made the terrible mistake of remarrying wrongly before he, too, passed away, abandoning “Ella” (who had not yet received her sooty, mocking modifier) to the escalating cruelties of Tremaine and her daughters. The 1950 film dispensed with this backstory in a tidy, 90-second prologue; by instead conveying it at length onscreen, Branagh’s film deepens not only Cinderella’s loss, but also her resilience.
The other alterations are of a kind. The movie tones down the slapstick and animal comedy: The mice are present (along with the demon-cat Lucifer) and the bluebirds make a few brief cameos, but in their place Cinderella functions as her own tailor. Rather than a hotheaded buffoon, the king (Derek Jacobi) is a kindly father to the prince, and one whose own time is also running out. In a rare but important nod to modern mores, the prince first meets and falls in love with Cinderella not in the ballroom, but admiring her skill on horseback when he meets her in the forest during a hunt. (By contrast, the decision to have her cinched into a wasp-waisted, organ-crushing corset for the ball is a rare misstep.) There are moments of knowing comedy, as when the fairy godmother, in search of a suitable conveyance to the ball, asks Cinderella, “Do you grow watermelons?” But for the most part, the film offers an admirable example of playing it straight.
The cast is uniformly strong, in particular James, who nimbly walks a tightrope between sweet and saccharine in the title role, and Blanchett, who is magnificent in her malevolence as Tremaine. Those Game of Thrones fans among us, however, will have to be forgiven our disorientation at the presence not only of Madden (a.k.a., Robb Stark) as the prince, but also of Nonso Anozie (who played Xaro Xhoan Daxos) as the Captain of the Guard. I think we can all join together in rooting against the sequel Cinderella 2: The Red Wedding.
But crucial to the success of the film is the wistful, understated touch of director Branagh. His lengthy Shakespearian resume serves him well here, as does the fact that he was the man—perhaps the only man—capable of making the first Thor movie while keeping a straight face. In many hands, Cinderella’s throwback moral (repeated several times) to “have courage and be kind” could have come off as hokey and insincere. In Branagh’s—well, it’s still hokey. But its sincerity never seems in doubt.
At the end of the movie, when the prince learns that Cinderella is not, as he’d imagined, a princess, she asks him: “Will you take me as I am, an honest country girl who loves you?” This is, on an elemental level, the question that the entire film is asking its audience: to accept it as it is, without baubles or dragons or clever in-jokes or political revisions. Say no to that offer if you wish. As for me, I’m with the prince.