“Cinderella” A Shoo-In
By Michael S. Goldberger
Special to the Observer
A recurring thought that comes to mind whilst viewing “Cinderella,” filmed under the auspices of Walt Disney Studios, is the caring conservancy with which the time-honored story is told. A testament to the folk tale’s enduring validity, its roots can be traced as far back as an Egyptian fable in the first century B.C. While director Kenneth Branagh doesn’t reach quite that deep, his joyously splendid retelling, based predominantly on French author Charles Perrault’s version and the 1950 Disney animation, exemplifies the art of breathing new life into a classic theme.
Both homage and amusement au courant, its timeless ethicalities carefully updated for contemporary palates and today’s unfortunate social realities, one hopes the evil stepmother thing is put to minimally identifying use. Cate Blanchett’s Lady Tremaine is one heckuva wicked, well, you know what. If Cinderella, sweetly portrayed by Lily James, can prevail despite her, she’s a, uh, shoo-in to find true happiness.
O.K., so it’s a little sexist that Cinderella’s salvation ultimately depends on a handsome prince, confidently depicted here by Richard Madden. Parents and guardians in demographics where this convention isn’t yet anathema may opt to just roll with it for now. Whereas folks of my so-called sophistication might want to tutor little Taylor thusly: “The prince is just a metaphor for success. In other words, you can become a renowned physician at N.Y. Presbyterian Hospital despite any obstacles. There’ll be plenty of princes to choose from there.”
Of course Ella, not to be called Cinderella until her déclassé sisters dub her that, is her own woman, even if put upon twice and then thrice by fates wickeder than any stepmom. Dedicated to the fond memories of her happy and proper, enlightened upbringing, she is all stiff upper lip and turn the other cheek, a pulchritudinous and hip, fairy tale mixture of Mother Theresa, Gandhi and Gloria Steinem. She is goody two shoes with gumption, an icon for all that is civilized, and resistant to our barely stifled urgings that she give those nasty hyenas a good what for or two.
Director Branagh beautifully ensconces the fable in settings artistically analogous to the literary treasure’s interpretation. Colorfully tasteful, imaginative art direction blends seamlessly with f/x magic to make for a heady atmosphere where dreams and good thoughts can flourish. A fine cast of principals, dressed in costume designer Sandy Powell’s fantasy era creations, completes the winning scenario.
Lily James, winsome yet resilient in the title role, exudes, in addition to all aforementioned qualities, an estimable talent for diplomacy…just the sort of assets you’d want in a President. Remember, there’d be the bonus that comes with her prince, a popular, experienced head of state to offer his counsel, but only when asked, of course. This is especially important in a world where ambitious politicians as wicked as any stepmother strive to line their pockets while assuring your sorrow.
Miss Blanchett strikes just the right chord between laughable caricature and realistic monster; Ben Chaplin as Ella’s all-too-soon sainted dad affectionately sets the moral tone; Stellan Skarsgård is properly mistrustful as the Grand Duke, advisor to His Majesty; Derek Jacobi is sweet as the kind but pragmatic king who insists that his son marry for the storybook kingdom’s political advantage; and Sophie McShera and Holliday Grainger as mean stepsisters Drisella and Anastasia, respectively, are comically ridiculous.
Expect no great surprises. While there are two or three traditionally accepted endings, Grandma will be happy to learn that the one chosen here doesn’t veer too appreciably from the one she knows.
The only real modernization is director Branagh’s judicious use of what technological advances are now available to the filmmaker. Virtually all art, save for cave drawings—and even then Alley may have “borrowed” from Oop—is a variation on a theme. Done well, the refurbish utilizes the new tools to better present the work, but without making them the focus. Now we have a more miraculous pumpkin-turned-carriage, replete with all the enchanted personifications and appurtenances, expertly employed not to change the author’s words, but bring them to life.
So the question now is not whether to take your own little princess to see “Cinderella,” but more aptly, who should take her? In this case you would be doing the grandparents a favor by letting them spoil the kid to a movie and some treats. But then you’d miss out on the nostalgic fun. Hence, I suggest a three-generation outing if possible. Insofar as whether or not the male heir to the throne will also enjoy the traipse through Fantasyland, note that this manly prince watched with breath as bated as anyone in the theater when the moment came to try on that glass slipper.
“Cinderella,” rated PG, is a Walt Disney Studios release directed by Kenneth Branagh and stars Lily James, Richard Madden and Cate Blanchett. Running time: 105 minutes