Happily Ever After

Last year Disney had two box office hits – Maleficent and Into the Woods – that took the fairy tales that have been the studio’s specialty for decades and turned the stories on their ear. Now they’ve gone in the opposite direction and released a faithful live-action version of the studio’s animated classic, Cinderella.

The story qualifies as a “tale as old as time,” as the song in Beauty and the Beast puts it. The European folk story existed long before it was committed to paper, and the classic version, Charles Perrault’s “Cendrillon,” was written in 1697. The Grimm boys created their own version in the 1800s, but the classic feature of the story, the glass slipper, is only in Perrault’s take on the tale. On the surface, it seems an anachronistic story for today, with the paternalistic element of Cinderella being saved from servitude by the prince. One of the best film versions, Drew Barrymore’s Ever After, threw that out and had Barrymore’s Danielle save herself before the prince arrives. But when you go back to Perrault’s tale, the two-part moral at the end makes it appropriate for almost any age. The first moral is that beauty is a treasure, but graciousness is priceless – something to remember in this Internet age! Perrault’s second moral, though, gives the story a darker edge. “Without doubt it is a great advantage to have intelligence, courage, good breeding, and common sense. These, and similar talents come only from heaven, and it is good to have them. However, even these may fail to bring you success, without the blessing of a godfather or a godmother.”

Screenwriter Chris Weitz (About a Boy, Antz) has followed the 1950 animated version closely, but has also expanded the story in strategic places, especially with the influence of the mother (Hayley Atwell, looking completely different from her Agent Carter role in the Marvel universe) and father (Ben Chaplin). It underlines the difference of the world once the stepmother (Cate Blanchett) takes over, as well as gives Ella (Lily James) strong motivation to remain kind and courageous in the face of it.

It would be easy to overdo the evil stepmother, especially in light of the shallowness of her daughters Drisella (Sophie McShera) and Anastasia (Holiday Grainger). The two girls are like the animated characters come alive, but Blanchett rises to a higher level. Her embodiment is as smooth as a snake and completely devoid of cartoonish attributes. She too easily could be someone you’ve met, if you were ever so unfortunate.

Just as fine a job is done by Lily James, who is best known as Lady Rose MacClare on “Downton Abbey.” It’s not easy to play a pure and courageous character without coming across as saccharin, but she manages it. She’s ably assisted by Richard Madden as the Prince. Another addition by Weitz has the Prince and Cinderella meeting before the ball. In fact, the meeting is the motivation for the Prince to open the ball to all the women of the kingdom, in the hopes of meeting Cinderella again. Madden’s prince is charming, but with so much more depth that the love story makes sense. (One does have to wonder, though, why Madden would take a role that includes a wedding scene after his experience as Robb Stark on “Game of Thrones.”).

The supporting cast is first-rate, with Derek Jacobi as the King, Stellan Skarsgard as the Grand Duke, and Helena Bonham Carter as the Fairy Godmother.

But it is director Kenneth Branagh who deserves a great deal of praise for whipping up this confection and making it both tasty and pleasing to the eye. He brings to the film the feel of a Shakespearean play, like “Romeo and Juliet” with a happy ending. The camerawork is gorgeous, while the pacing of the story is just right. There’s also a bit of the operatic element that made Thor such a success.

Also deserving of praise is the costume design by 3-time Oscar winner Sandy Powell, who has worked on Martin Scorsese’s films since Gangs of New York and also did Young Victoria and Shakespeare in Love. She uses a brighter color palate that fits beautifully with the fairy tale essence of the story and also provides a counterpoint to Cinderella’s blue ball gown. The CGI team works magic throughout the film, particularly with taking the mice of the animated feature and turning them into a realistic version. Even though they don’t burst out singing “Cinderelly, Cinderelly,” they’re charming and they do save the day. The team gets to go wild with the Fairy Godmother’s preparations for the ball, as well as the stroke of twelve midnight, and both sequences are pure delights.

By going closer to the Perrault story from almost 320 years ago, Branagh and crew have created a fresh and refreshing version. That is a true accomplishment.

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