I am not a big fan of remakes. I’m a purist with both feet firmly planted in Camp “The Original Was Better.” So I’ve been on the fence about Disney’s latest project to make live-action versions of their classic animated films. These movies are long-lived and long-loved; should Disney mess with success?
Cinderella gave the answer I hoped I wouldn’t get: they shouldn’t.
To its credit, the movie is remarkably faithful to the plot and characters of the 1950 animated original; thus, it doesn’t have much material with which to distinguish itself. Director Kenneth Branagh and the filmmakers tried to make the story feel new again, and for the most part they succeeded. But oddly, the movie’s best moments are the ones that didn’t change at all.
The story is, of course, the same: Ella’s childhood is fantastically happy until her mother’s death. On her deathbed, Ella’s mother gives her the film’s main sentimental tagline: “Have courage and be kind.”
Years later, grown-up Ella (Lily James) and her father enjoy quiet lives until he makes the always-questionable decision to marry the worst woman on the planet (seriously, in no version of this story does that choice ever make sense). Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett in a role that’s just as too small for her, as mice are too small to pull a carriage) and her two horrible daughters, Anastasia and Drisella (Sophia McShera and Holliday Grainger) make Ella’s home a cruel place. She starts by manipulating Ella, who’s kind to a fault thanks to her mother’s charge, into giving up her bedroom for her stepsisters. It’s a short jump from there to ordering Ella to cook and clean, and by the time news reaches the house of Ella’s father’s death abroad, Ella’s fate is sealed and the story gets going.
The introduction takes almost 40 minutes, but bouncy narration provided by Helena Bonham Carter (who plays the Fairy Godmother later on) helps keep it moving. And James makes a lovely princess-to-be: Ella’s perfect, bearing all her trials with a serene smile, even humming a song or two. Her impossibly gentle heart works if you’re looking for the fairy-tale archetype and not new depths of character. It also makes for a strong moment when she does break down under her stepsisters’ cruelty and races off from the house on an unbridled horse, trying to find some of her lost spirit. She finds a prince instead. (Sorry, no proud feminist moments here.)
As much as Ella is the perfect princess, Kit (Richard Madden) is the perfect prince, and their meeting is the perfect love-at-first-sight moment: blushing, flirting, banter, doe eyes, the whole nine yards. Madden and James’ chemistry is fantastic; their romance is sweet without being saccharine—though Madden’s VFX-enhanced blue eyes might also have had something to do with that. It’s innocent, genuine love, and is maybe the one thing this version improved upon from the original: the couple actually talks to each other.
This slow first part of the film gives Branagh time to illustrate the world of the story, and I use that word on purpose. Whatever narrative sins Branagh commits he makes up for with his fantastic sense of how to craft a fairy-tale world. Cinderella may be the most beautiful he’s ever cultivated. The production design for the film is absolutely stunning, like Branagh lifted the designs straight from a storybook’s illuminated pages. The costumes are decorated by intricate organic designs; the sets are packed full of details that enrich but never distract from the story; the shots are full of extravibrant colors, and blue in particular stands out everywhere you see it, as if the whole movie is just waiting for that magical dress transformation.
It’s worth the wait. Costume design and special effects come together to create maximum azure swishy-ness for Ella’s ball gown; you can’t take your eyes off it in her dance with the Prince. These moments that directly reference the original are the best parts of the movie: it’s just plain fun to giggle with Ella at Gus Gus the mouse, or watch her talk with the Prince in the garden, or hear the Fairy Godmother pronounce “Bippity, boppity, boo!” or feel the clanging of the clock counting down to midnight during Ella’s frantic escape. (The movie did fail to live up to its predecessor in one key place: the Grand Duke did not have his trademark pince-nez and it was very wrong.)
And there’s not just references to the original; Branagh also nods at other favorite adaptations: Ella’s clever banter with Kit and her rainy walk home after the ball are reminiscent of Ever After. Bits of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical also make appearances, including Kit’s name and the way the town crier calls “Hear ye, hear ye!” with the same cadence as the crier in the song, “The Prince Is Giving A Ball.”
That’s really the point of the film, to hail back to the years of fun the many versions of this story have brought us. But the movie tries too hard to be other things too. It’s full of these great tribute moments, but they’re shoved up against moralizing statements and weak attempts at sentimentality. “Have courage and be kind” would be bearable if it wasn’t joined by “I believe in everything,” and “Just because it’s what’s done doesn’t mean it’s what should be done.” The film’s natural sentiment lies in its nostalgia for the story itself, and I don’t think the filmmakers realized that would be enough, and maybe even a pleasant surprise, for the audience.
I had fun at Cinderella. I think families will too, if they come excited for the aspects of the movie that make it a sweet tribute piece and not a new version.
But though it would’ve been a refreshing reversal in the remake trend to just transfer an old story to a new format without altering its spirit, in Cinderella’s case, even just a few halfhearted alterations weakened the story. Disney knows Cinderella is a classic; they should have trusted it to keep standing on its own two glass-slippered feet.
The only sources of uncomfortable content are appropriately Lady Tremaine and the stepsisters. They throw a party at Ella’s house on their first night there to gamble with friends; Lady Tremaine is shown downing a few drinks. The three of them are very cruel to Ella, but it’s almost entirely verbal and emotional: rudeness, name-calling, gossiping behind her back. They rip up Ella’s first ball dress but in no way that physically hurts Ella or becomes revealing. Lady Tremaine says some hurtful things to Ella about her place in their household. There’s some thematically tough stuff: both of Ella’s parents and Kit’s father die, and both Ella’s mother and the king have touching deathbed scenes. There’s no language. Ella takes a quick, excited breath as Kit takes her waist for their dance, but the dance itself is the farthest thing from sexual. The only kiss is the wonderfully chaste, “true-love’s first” kind.
Jessica Gibson is an intern with Christianity Today Movies and a student at The King’s College in New York City.