“Have courage, and be kind.” That’s the effortless but nonetheless winning message at the heart of Disney’s new Cinderella. In an age of conflicted antiheroes and darkened inversions of fairy tale characters, a film that recaptures the simple charms of its classic source material is the breath of fresh air that audiences may not have realized they needed to take. Cinderella is that film, an earnest and impeccably executed adaptation filled with the same wonder and magic that re-imaginings like Maleficent and Mirror Mirror, among others, evidently deemed too vintage for inclusion.
Their mistake. Director Kenneth Branagh and screenwriter Chris Weitz know better. By trusting in the power of the original Cinderella story, and only really modernizing it in how they identify themes of empathy, empowerment and positive body image, the pair have delivered an elegant and engaging movie that is leagues above any other fairy-tale reboot Hollywood has trotted out in the past decade.
Part of the reason for Branagh and Weitz’s success is that they never try to reinvent – because, in the end, the story never really required a reinvention so much as a good dusting-off. Cinderella‘s revelatory yet simple approach is to play it both smart and straight, adding such depth and personality to familiar characters that every foreseen line of dialogue leaps off the screen with new life.
Any self-respecting audience member, regardless of age or gender, can recite the story of Ella, a kind-hearted servant girl who wins the heart of a noble prince despite the machinations of her scheming stepmother and ugly stepsisters. What’s truly remarkable about Weitz’s approach to the material is how nimbly he brushes away the cobwebs, making every exchange sparkle with newfound vitality, and also not shying away from the darker emotional beats. It doesn’t matter that we’ve seen it all before – this Cinderella spellbinds all the same.
Branagh’s dazzling direction is just one way in which the film might surpass even Disney’s beloved 1950 cartoon. Cinderella is a marvel of costuming and production design, as extravagant and colorful as any child reading the fairy tale might imagine it to be (it’s early still, but production designer Dante Ferretti and costume designer Sandy Powell won’t need a lick of magic to secure Oscar nominations next spring). There’s a $100 coffee-table book to be made with Cinderella‘s images, from the gossamer blue of its protagonist’s ball gown, assembled in a colorful whirlpool of CGI magic, to an enchanted pumpkin bursting from a vine-covered greenhouse. It’s a sweet treat, and Branagh whole-heartedly embraces the eye-catching pageantry of it all.
Even more dazzling, though, is how Cinderella minimizes the magic of its story, telling the relatable tale of a kind-hearted, downtrodden but never dispirited girl who dreams of the better life she so richly deserves. Aside from where its narrative requires some actual fairy dust to keep the wheels turning, Cinderella‘s thrust is that a person of pure heart, if true to their compassionate disposition, can wield enough power to transcend all the darkness in the world. That may not be original or magical, per se, but it’s still a beautiful notion worth restating.
Yes, Branagh’s Cinderella (Lily James) does enlist the services of a fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter, an unadulterated riot) to make her way to the ball and dance with the prince of her dreams (Richard Madden). But for all Ella’s splendid garments and regal presentation, what wins him over is nothing other than her innate goodness – a trait he discovers, in a cannily added scene, weeks before the ball when the two cross paths and sparks fly in an idyllic forest. No amount of frilly fabric or maquillage can conceal a rotten heart, or prevent a virtuous one from shining through. That’s the kind of message Disney movies should be sending children – it’s no small wonder that Branagh and Weitz have transformed one of the studio’s least active heroines into a progressive paragon of selflessness and self-acceptance.
It’s easy to continue gushing over the encouraging implications of the movie, but it wouldn’t be right to ignore the unexpectedly sublime acting on display all around. James, with her dainty features and dulcet tones, was born to play the role of Cinderella, and it shows in every joyous twirl of her dress or sweet smile on her lips. Though some may presumptuously mark the casting of a thin, white actress in the role as a missed opportunity (which they aren’t entirely wrong about), James is such an unequivocal charmer that those critics won’t stay vocal for long.
Cate Blanchett is predictably smashing as Lady Tremaine, aka the ugly stepmother, bringing a tragic dimension to the character that makes her conniving ways all the more piteous. She’s deliciously wicked enough to terrify children but rarely hammy enough to distract the parents in tow, bringing to mind Glenn Close’s turn as Cruella De Vil in 101 Dalmatians (albeit with a more carefully cultivated veneer of refinement). As Prince “Kit” Charming, Madden lets his piercing blue eyes do a lot of the work, but he establishes a strong chemistry with James’ Ella that sells their love-at-first-sight connection – no easy task, any actor will assure you. And in slighter roles, Derek Jacobi does impressive work as a conflicted king, Hayley Atwell and Ben Chaplin make the most of their short scenes as Ella’s loving mother and father, and Sophie McShera and Holliday Grainger are teeth-gnashingly vile (in the most entertaining way possible) as the ugly stepsisters.
The entire ensemble, both cast and crew, is on Branagh’s tempo every step of the way, fully invested in making the most genuine and winsome version of this classic tale possible. They’ve succeeded with flying colors. Watching Cinderella feels much like attending that jubilant ball, swathed in fine fabrics and showered in fairy dust. The only difference is that midnight, and the return to flawed mediocrity that would represent for the film, never comes. Branagh, magician that he is, lets the audience luxuriate in an untarnished, golden evening, without ever breaking the spell it casts. Cinderella put a wondering smile on this cynic’s face, and it will do the same to you.
By believing in the story's timeless beauty, and infusing it with enough visual splendor and empowering ideology to delight modern audiences, Kenneth Branagh has made a Cinderella so unexpectedly magical as to rival Disney's original. You'll be utterly enchanted, as was I.