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19 Mar 2015

A Classic Retold: This Live-Action 'Cinderella' Is a Rousing Success

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Lily James in Cinderella. Lily James in Cinderella.

Director Kenneth Branagh knows what Disney junkies, young and old, crave in their fairytale movies—and he unabashedly delivers the goods with Cinderella, the latest live-action (non-animated) retelling of a Disney animated classic.

Pixie dust, ornate castles, fireworks, princesses, evil stepmoms and quirky CGI mice abound in this lush and striking new take on the girl with the glass slippers. Of course, any Cinderella movie would be a slog without a good actress playing the title character. Luckily, Branagh has scored a great one with Lily James (TV’s Downton Abbey); she’s one of the most charming actresses to ever occupy a Disney iconic role.

Screenwriter Chris Weitz gives Cinderella a sweet and sad backstory, showing us a young girl (Eloise Webb) living a happy and secure life with her doting parents (Ben Chaplin and Hayley Atwell). As the fairytale dictates, Cinderella loses her mom, paving the way for the queen of all stepmothers—played here by a spot-on, devilish Cate Blanchett.

Branagh takes a traditionalist approach to the material—but that doesn’t mean his take isn’t original. He brings a lot of class to the Disney universe, and he also respects how beloved the Cinderella storyline has become.

There’s nothing in his and Weitz’s telling that betrays the original material. Cinderella doesn’t bust out an electric guitar or ride a motorcycle while chewing tobacco: This is a relatively straightforward treatment. As with his Shakespearean adaptations, Branagh has a way of making traditionalist approaches original and fresh.

Blanchett and James are so good in their roles, in part because they aren’t trying to break the mold. They embrace their parts as if they know what we have come to expect, and the result is a sort of adorable nostalgia, in the case of Cinderella. She’s a genuinely nice person for whom you can root, as portrayed by James.

As for Blanchett, she’s completely cruel—a conniving, reptilian, selfish person. However, this stepmother also has her charms. She’s a two-sided beast able to convince Cinderella’s affable dad that her moving in is a good idea.

Adding to the charm is Helena Bonham Carter as the Fairy Godmother. As to be expected, Carter plays the character as joyfully weird and quirky. The “transformation” scene in which the Fairy Godmother gets Cinderella ready for the ball is the best scene in the film. When the pink gown transforms into that glorious blue dress adorning the spinning James, it’s pure movie magic.

It’s all very Disney, with Branagh relishing the chance to show Cinderella immersed in pixie dust, and geese transforming into stagecoach drivers. It’s fun to see Branagh embracing the Disney canon and making it his own.

The film isn’t a musical, although it does contain a wondrous score by Patrick Doyle, and Cinderella does sing one tune deep in the movie. It’s a marked improvement over the animated Disney original, which was never one of my favorites.

Live-action renditions of Disney animated classics seem to be a new trend, and Cinderella is much, much better than the muddled Maleficent. Tim Burton is supposedly in talks to do a live action Dumbo (Huh?), while Jon Favreau is doing the same with The Jungle Book.

Most promisingly, Emma Watson is pegged to play Belle in live-action retelling of Beauty and the Beast, so I have high hopes for that one. Branagh has proven here that remaking Disney cartoons as live action films isn’t such a bad idea after all.

A side note: Frozen lovers will have the pleasure of a cute, brand-new Frozen short before the main feature kicks in.

Cinderella is playing at theaters across the valley.

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