Directed by Kenneth Branagh, Disney’s latest Cinderella is a surprisingly traditional take on the classic tale, with a few tiny twists thrown in to keep the viewer on their toes. The look of the film is fantastic, but unfortunately the plot, and indeed the actors themselves, end up taking a back seat to the costumes and magical CGI.
This version sticks very closely to Disney’s 1950 classic, right down to the names of the kitchen mice the downtrodden Ella (Lily James) chooses to befriend. We begin with a quick overview of Ella’s childhood, an idyllic endless summer in a country house with her beloved parents. Until, that is, her mother (Hayley Atwell) succumbs to a fatal illness (one of those mysterious Hollywood illnesses that seem to have no symptoms except fainting, quickly followed by a quiet and painless demise). She leaves her daughter with the advice to ‘have courage and be kind’, which becomes the film’s central tenet.
Ella’s father (Ben Chaplin), although grief stricken, eventually finds the strength to remarry. Unfortunately for Ella, he remarries the sinister Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett), before smartly dropping dead himself and leaving Ella alone with her insufferable step-mother and punchable step-sisters (Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera). However, all is not as dark as it seems, as Ella soon happens upon the local Prince, Kit (Richard Madden), while out for a woodland ride. And then…well, you know the rest.
Sadly for Cinderella, it’s hampered throughout by a general lack of emotional depth, and also by a central romance that falls just a little bit flat. A Cinderella without a convincing pair of lovers is inevitably going to leave the audience wanting. While James and Madden are both very competent in their separate roles, put them together and what have you got? Well, it’s certainly not bibbidi-bobbidi-boo.
Yes, it’s a fairy tale, and love at first sunlit horse ride is therefore the order of the day, but you’d be hard pushed to find a less convincing pair of lovers. Robb Stark Prince Kit is all charming smiles and awed stares, while Ella is sugar and spice and all things nice, but the romance lacks complexity. This is almost certainly not the fault of the actors themselves, however, as traditional fairy tale characters are almost invariably one-dimensional (this is also a U certificate film, so chemistry between characters can only be taken so far).
The film’s most moving relationship is actually between Prince Kit and his father the King (also dying of the same mysterious malady that did for Ella’s parents). This probably has a lot to do with the fact that the King is played by Derek Jacobi. Jacobi is only onscreen for a few minutes, but his finely honed performance is an immediately obvious testament to his skill; one well aimed glance says more than a soliloquy could.
The same is true of Cate Blanchett’s take on the evil stepmother, who has a definite forties femme fatale vibe about her, which is exceedingly watchable. The scene in which she finally confronts Ella about all the goings-on with the glass slippers is easily the best in the film, holding a few surprises for those expecting the story to stick totally with tradition.
Helena Bonham Carter should have been a shoe-in as the Fairy Godmother, but her delivery seemed a little wooden as she magicked rags into riches. However, this is not a film without its quirky, funny moments, and a fair few of these are provided by HBC during her short scene, such as when she nonchalantly transfigures a pumpkin into a coach (forgetting to first take it out of the greenhouse). Also, the transformation of Ella’s ragged dress into a ball gown fit for an Oscar nominee is a piece of glittering CGI mastery that is not to be missed (shades of ‘Make it pink! – Make it blue!’ from Sleeping Beauty here as well).
Ultimately, it’s the look of the film that really makes it worth watching. Obviously we have to pay tribute to the fabulous sparkling costumes (some true Disney realness from Sandy Powell) and the almost unbelievably shiny glass slippers (frankly I’d have been satisfied if the film was simply an hour and thirty minutes of those shoes on a rotating plinth). But we also have to give a nod to the intricate décor of each set, the elegant glass domes stuffed with hothouse flowers, the perfectly laid out formal gardens, and so on; I spent more time looking at the wallpaper than I did at the actors’ faces.
While Cinderella isn’t perfect, it certainly achieves the aim it sets out to; charming a new generation of children with Disney’s classic tale of friendly mice, sparkly shoes, and dresses so big you have to turn sideways to fit through a door. And all that stuff about being brave and kind is a pretty good message to take home as well.