A while back, before home video, Disney would re-release their animated classics every decade. This practice helped accomplish many things. A new generation was exposed to these classics, helping to drive a new group of customers to the theme parks and movie theaters. And in an era of less than stellar animation, these re-releases helped to provide family fare and helped Disney retain their hold on theater space. Then, home video created a new market and they began 'releasing from the vault' titles on a more frequent basis, because there was a new generation of kids out there who could become potential customers. The new parents would dutifully buy copies of "Dumbo", "Pinocchio", "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves", etc. for their children. Also, VHS tapes seemed to have a more finite life. The introduction of DVDs made these titles more long-lasting. And now, with everything going digital, they don't have the same bursts of revenue streams they once had. Their solution? Recycle the animated classics into new live-action films. Initially, this probably seemed like a gamble, but with the enormous success of some of these titles, the gamble appears to have paid off and they are dutifully working their way through the canon of titles, reintroducing the Disney Princesses to a new generation.
The success of the live action films at Disney is a little hit and miss. Some of the adaptations of non-fairy tale animated films and some of their theme park rides (the folks at Disney would turn the turkey legs they sell at the parks into a movie if they could) are hit and miss. For every "Pirates of the Caribbean" there is a "Haunted Mansion", for every "101 Dalmatians" there is a "Herbie". But with these live action fairy tales - they seem to have stumbled upon a great formula. "Maleficent" borrowed a page from all of the 're-boot' nonsense currently going through Hollywood and told the tale of the villain from "Sleeping Beauty". It was a role custom-made for Angelina Jolie and it became a huge success. There will probably be a sequel. Now with "Cinderella", they take a more straight forward approach and the results are even more dazzling. The film is already a huge hit prompting the studio to announce a live action "Beauty and the Beast" with Emma Watson, Emma Thompson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans and Kevin Kline.
Actually, the success of these live action fairy tales really shouldn't come as a surprise. A while back, the Disney marketing machine began branding all of the 'Disney Princesses' together, making them a huge juggernaut and reinforcing their images in the eyes of young girls everywhere. All girls of a certain age have to stop and meet the Disney Princess they love during a park visit.
All of these marketing machinations would make me more critical if the film weren't so good.
Directed by Kenneth Branagh and written by Chris Weitz (writer of "About a Boy", "The Golden Compass" and co-director of "American Pie") with production design by Dante Ferretti and costumes by Sandy Powell (both of whom have worked on a lot of Scorcese's films), "Cinderella" is simply one of the most sumptuous films I have seen in a long time. Every detail of the animated film seems to have been reimagined in bright, vivid live action.
Spending just a minute, let’s look at the costumes and production design. Ferretti has recreated all of the elements of this world, giving them an overly romanticized burnish - othey seem real but also seem to be ripped out of a children's book. The house where Cinderella lives is big, filled with the treasures of her father's travels, but also dusty and a little neglected. Most would be happy to live there as is, but when Cinderella's new stepmother and stepsisters arrive, they look at the house with undisguised contempt and Stepmother announces she will begin to redecorate. The Royal Palace is also beautiful and regal and the design seems to be both borrowed from a specific time period yet somehow it also seems unique. There is always something to look at and keep your eyes wandering across the rich tapestry.
Powell's costume designs are richly and inherently tied into the characters, adding another layer of detail to each. The connection of the color to the character might be a little too obvious, but if it weren't there, it would seem like a missed opportunity. Stepmother loves to wear green and chartreuse and the deigns of her outfits is clearly influenced by the 1950s. In fact, one of her dresses looks exactly like something Lucille Ball wore frequently in "I Love Lucy". The Prince wears spectacular white and blue uniforms, his devious Grand Duke wears black. Each of the stepsisters wears an outfit with ridiculous matching patterns and only a slight deviation in color. And then there is Cinderella's ball gown. It is magnificent. I read a quote from Powell where she states she wanted it to look like watercolor. She succeeds - a beautiful blue dress lined with crystals that sparkles and shimmers whenever Ella moves.
Branagh is a great actor and a very good director. "Cinderella" is a fine accomplishment he should be proud to add to his IMDb profile. He takes a perfectly cast group of actors and helps them achieve performances that are both believable and true to the source material. He and Weitz smartly provide us with more backstory - for instance, we meet Cinderella's mother - but they also keep references to the mice and animals - Cinderella has named the mice and they have a couple of interactions, which thankfully don't include the mice talking to one another. While the more incredible moments are still here, Branagh seems to hint at them making them seem more real and less important than they did in the animated feature.
When you have Cate Blanchett and Derek Jacobi in your cast, everyone else will benefit from their proximity. Lily James (Lady Rose in "Downton Abbey") plays Ella and seems to have perfected the blend of wide-eyed, simplistic optimism necessary to bring the role to life. It is interesting to watch Cinderella grow throughout the film. Initially, she is a loving and doting daughter ready and willing to accept everything her mother and father tell her about the world. As life's tragedies strike, you can sense that she is trying a lot harder to retain these same qualities. When she finally gets to the big Royal Ball, you can see her eyes light up with some of the fresh-faced enthusiasm that once seemed so unbridled at the beginning of the story.
Blanchett is simply perfection as the new Stepmother who is so jealous of Cinderella, preferring her two daughters (Sophie McShera, Daisy in "Downton Abbey" and Holliday Grainger, TV's "Bonnie and Clyde"). From the moment Blanchett walks on screen, an air of disappointment seems to charge everything around her. She doesn't like her new husband's estate and begins to redecorate, to make it less dreary, she begins to host parties and flirt with the male guests, she doesn't like the attention her new husband lavishes on his daughter to her neglect.
When Ella's father dies, Stepmother takes over and completely changes the household, to Ella's detriment. But Ella tries to retain her sunny disposition and this seems to upset her Stepmother even more because she can’t break Ella.
Blanchett smartly keeps her performance more low key, making it seem more realistic and therefore scarier. She does not rant and rave and throw her hands about. When she is looking away, her face is a mask of seriousness, melting away as she turns to address Ella. She is mostly smiles, but there is a definite menace lurking behind the plastered facial expression.
John Madden ("Game of Thrones") cleans up well and is suitably charming. But there is a restraint here as well and it seems more natural and real than you might expect. If Branagh is the director, Derek Jacobi will pop up somewhere and here he plays the ailing King. Stellan Skarsgaard plays the Archduke, intent on arranging a strategic marriage for the Prince. And Nonzo Anosie, a recognizable character actor, plays the Captain, the Prince's companion.
And no version of "Cinderella" would be complete without the Fairy Godmother. Here, Helena Bonham Carter has fun with the small, but pivotal role, adding a little touch of fantasy to an otherwise more realistic telling of the tale.
This version of the fairy tale is really quite good and the accolades should rightfully begin with the technical. But Branagh doesn't stop there and mixes in some very good acting from his stellar cast.
This "Cinderella" is worthy of the animated classic it is based upon.