Cinderella and the Return of Classic Disney Princess Magic

Walt Disney Pictures

Walt Disney Pictures

They are just retreading the same ground to make a bunch of money. This is the easiest and most succinct way to brush off Cinderella, Disney’s latest foray into their long-standing commitment to movies about princesses. To many, there is no reason to do another Cinderella movie because there is already one iconic Cinderella movie: the animated version that released in 1950.

That version, which was part of Disney’s golden age of animation, has long stood as the most iconic of all cinematic treatments. In fact, it’s the first version that many moviegoers of the past several generations have encountered. This was the case for me. I remember seeing Disney’s Cinderella for the first time on VHS. In the 80s and 90s, my grandmother was every so diligent at collecting all of Disney’s animated films as they were released from The Vault. This was the topic of discussion with my lovely companion prior to a screening of 2015’s Cinderella (because this is the sort of movie you should see alongside a lovely companion). We, like many others in our demographic age range, know all about The Vault and the Disney animated movies upon which our early childhoods were built. We are of the generation that should be most resistant to this new Cinderella – it is simply the live-action version of that which has come before it.

It wasn’t until about half way through the movie that I began to see what Disney is trying to do with not just Cinderella, but a number of its tales (see the forthcoming Beauty and the Beast). By handing it over to a crafty filmmaker – in this case, Kenneth Branagh – the Mouse House is looking to bring back the magic. Not only for those of us who grew up with Cinderella at any point over the last 65-years, but for all of those little boys and girls growing up right now. This is Cinderella built for our world. A little darker, with a tad more bombast and yet, it’s going to make a bunch of kids want to be princes and princesses all the same (and not just sing that same song from Frozen 36,000 more times).

The thematic fabric and basic story of Cinderella live on in Branagh’s new take. Lily James plays the titular Ella, who loses her mother (played briefly and wonderfully by Agent Carter herself, Hayley Atwell), but not before her mother imparts upon her the lasting wisdom of “be kind and have courage.” This mantra is reinforced and tested as Ella later encounters her wicked step-mother (brought to life by a deliciously sinister and yet layered performance from Cate Blanchett) and is forced to live with her after losing her father.

It is later, well into the first act, when Ella’s story treads into the most familiar ground. She meets The Prince (played by Game of Thrones alum Richard Madden), who is on the brink of losing his own father. She maintains her good nature and eventually meets her Fairy Godmother (played brilliantly aloof by Helena Bonham-Carter) and she gets to go to the ball. You may know the rest of the story.

What sets 2015 Cinderella apart from other adaptations – and there have been many, as the basic story of The Little Glass Slipper dates back beyond the Brothers Grimm, well into the 1600s – is the craftsmanship made possible by today’s filmmaking toolkit. Never one to make a big period costume flick look small, Branagh delivers an expansive, vivid journey through the tale of Cinderella. The costume and production design work alone is so impressive, the fact that the cast brings such life and personality to the roles feels like a bonus.

It’s big, beautiful production that at times feels a little more violent than the Cinderella we remember. Three very dramatic deaths permeate the run Ella’s date with destiny. Her world, while fantastic and far away, feels very grounded. It’s not the singsongy animated version, but there’s still plenty of resistance to the new Hollywood ideals of making everything darker and grittier (translation: still perfectly fine for little kids).

That last part is important, because kids are the target audience here. Branagh’s Cinderella lives comfortably in the most important of spaces: that of magic and wonder. Ella’s transformation before the ball and the massive costume dance party that follows all have an otherworldly quality – the kind of scale you could only create with animation 65-years ago. No matter how cynical you might be – hardened by the current climate of remakes, reboots and incessant sequels – it’s impossible to avoid getting caught up in the magic of a little Bippidy-boppidy-boo. Through carefully crafted design, a majestic score and a little digital wizardry, Disney has given a new generation a magical experience worthy of grandma’s collection.

The Upside: It’s a beautiful film, massive in its visuals yet still story-focused and well-acted.

The Downside: We’ve all seen this tale before, but that’s no reason to not to give it a chance.

On the Side: It’s very funny to me to see Richard Madden in the role of The Prince. He’s handsome enough, sure. But the story is so painfully akin to that of Robb Stark in Game of Thrones (he’s an heir betrothed to a highborn princess, only to choose a common girl and marry for love). It was nice, as a fan of Thrones, to see him live out the same story with a far less brutal ending.

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