In a way, it feels a little silly writing a review for Disney’s live action Cinderella. Just the two words “Disney” and “Cinderella” pretty much let you know exactly what you’re in for, so I can’t tell you much in terms of plot or tone you haven’t already guessed. I can’t imagine parents’ decision on whether or not they take their kids to see it hinging on quick google of the film’s reviews. It’s what we call a ‘critic proof’ film. That being said, it’s really good.
Director Kenneth Branagh successfully avoided all of the potential pitfalls that come with this kind of adaptation. The animated Disney classic was only a little over 70 minutes long, much of which was songs and comedic business between the cat and mice. The new live action film runs almost two hours (including the new Frozen short, Frozen Fever), is not a musical and limits the cat and mouse play, yet it never feels like we’re getting filler. The classic story is subtly elaborated on, with more details and time spent on all those familiar plot points. For instance, we get to see Cinderella’s parents before they pass, so her loss becomes more real. Nothing about it feels tacked on or unnecessary, screenwriter Chris Weitz deserves to be commended for this.
As with the director and screenwriter, the cast was also perfectly selected for their respective roles. It’s appropriate that Lily James, an unknown to anyone who isn’t a Downton Abbey fan, has landed a star making role as Cinderella. The supporting cast does much more than support their parts, particularly Cate Blanchett as the deliciously evil stepmother. Richard Madden (aka Robb Stark of Game of Thrones fame) plays Prince Charming, Derek Jacobi (a regular in Branagh’s Shakespeare productions) his ailing father, Stellan Skarsgård brings authority the Grand Duke character, and Helena Bonham Carter threatens to steal the entire film in her one scene as the somewhat nutty Fairy Godmother. In addition to these names, the film is peppered with recognizable character actors who are always a treat.
Other places this kind of film can veer off track yet this one holds strong include sense of humour and reliance on CGI, both of which are subdued and tasteful. They didn’t try to make one character responsible for all of the comic relief, and they weren’t afraid to have entire sections of the film pass without laughs, yet a lot of it is funny. Obviously any of the scenes involving magic transformations are going to use computer generated effects, which are achieved with a fantastic playfulness this part of the film requires. Elaborate physical sets and locations lend credibility to settings where other films may have relied on CGI. The only instance of the effects taking away from the experience was a computer generated elk Cinderella encounters in the forest, but I only bring this up because it’s literally the only flaw I can find. It’s unfortunate that some of the film’s trailers led with this scene.
Expect the inevitable success of this film to usher in a new era of live-action Disney fairy tales (it was announced earlier this week that Tim Burton is directing Dumbo). They’ve clearly put their best foot forward with this one, and the slipper fits it perfectly. It’s not a film I would recommend to absolutely anyone, but certainly anyone who was (or is) a Disney kid that can still get caught up in the romance and magic. Kenneth Branagh has made a film that is full of visual flourishes, elegant yet cute, funny yet whimsical, and as innocent as it is accomplished. Cinderella reminds us why the western world has subscribed to Disney’s interpretations of our fairy tales for nearly a century now.
Watch our interview with Lily James at Toronto premiere here.