Cinderella is the everyman of princesses. She's not of royal breed or upbringing, but is elevated by her determination, love and kindness — even under the hellish circumstances of enduring the cruelty of her wicked stepmother and two stepsisters.
Her extraordinary rise to deserving and fitting royal trappings has made Cinderella, more than any other famous Disney royalty, the most ubiquitous princess in our modern pop culture.
It's her castle that adorns the logo of the Walt Disney Pictures company and is the centerpiece of its theme parks. And her underdog and hardworking personality has landed her in various adaptations, including Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical (which was turned into a popular 1997 TV special starring Brandy as Cinderella and Whitney Houston as her Fairy Godmother), a recent Broadway revival that ran for nearly two years and film adaptations, including the 1998 “Ever After: A Cinderella Story,” starring Drew Barrymore, 2004’s teenage rom-com “A Cinderella Story,” starring Hilary Duff and Chad Michael Murray, the ABC drama “Once Upon a Time” and the recent adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s musical, “Into the Woods.”
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A revival seemed inevitable, given the recent proliferation of seemingly unnecessary sequels and remakes to some of Disney’s most popular titles, including “Alice in Wonderland” (2010), “Tron: Legacy” (2010), “Oz the Great and Powerful” (2013) and “Maleficent” (2014).
But unlike those titles that have adopted a darker and confusingly cynical tone, story, color scheme and perspective, the live-action remake of Disney’s 1950 animated classic “Cinderella” ditches the darkness and drab for color, light and, most importantly, life.
All the essential ingredients are here: An enchanting and extremely likable Cinderella (Lily James, known mostly for her portrayal of Lady Rose MacClare on “Downton Abbey”), a despicable and malicious stepmother (Cate Blanchett, bringing her evil levels at full volume), annoying stepsisters Drisella and Anastasia (Sophie McShera and Holliday Grainger), a dashing and charming prince (Richard Madden, known for his role as Robb Stark on “Game of Thrones”) and a magical and benevolent fairy godmother (played by the wonderfully eccentric Helena Bonham Carter).
But what elevates this well-known story from falling into a superfluous live-action fairy tale translation is the direction and script.
Director Kenneth Branagh has plenty of experience dealing with iconic royal characters and grand and fantastical worlds. One of the most popular film adapters of William Shakespeare, Branagh has directed and/or starred in numerous Academy Award-nominated film adaptations of the Bard’s plays, including “Henry V,” “Much Ado About Nothing,” “Othello,” “Hamlet,” “Love’s Labour’s Lost” and “As You Like It.”
In addition, Branagh introduced the Asgardian superhero “Thor” to international audiences. Branagh’s approach is steady and doesn’t stray far from telling a complete and compelling story. An accomplished actor in his own right, Branagh as director is able to give each character space and guidance to turn most of the story’s one-dimensional characters into real humans. His light but graceful touch is most effective in the celebrated royal ball sequence when Cinderella, adorned in her flowing blue dress and iconic glass shoes, meets the Prince and fall in love.
Now, these high-fantasy notions of love at first sight and the like that are all too common in Disney’s animated fare are given a reinvigorated life in Chris Weitz’ screenplay. The author of previous films, such as “About a Boy,” “Antz” and “The Golden Compass,” Weitz' faithful adaptation to the original Disney animated film is interspersed with added, but essential details. The backstory of Cinderella’s parents and their tragic and untimely deaths adds new dramatic urgency to the young girl’s predicament of being stranded with her wicked stepmother and stepsisters, which the original animated film doesn’t explore.
Death is, in fact, a surprisingly constant companion in this “Cinderella.” Her parents, the wicked stepmother’s first husband and the Prince’s father (played by Derek Jacobi) all die in the course of the film. And in the wake of these untimely deaths, the characters go from just being cartoons to real, breathing humans. The collective response to death by the film’s characters is where the relatable feelings of anxiety, fear, dread, excitement and love flourish. And just like the butterflies on Cinderella’s pristine crystal blue dress, the characters soar.
That’s the real gift of Branagh’s adaptation. It presents characters everyone knows in a new light and with added empathy. Yes, even the evil stepmother Lady Tremaine can be felt sorry for. It’s a wonderful example that Disney should emulate for further live-action remakes. The pressures of everyday life, plus a little bit of magic, make for great storytelling. It’ll be love at first sight.