From the first time they put pen to paper, the House of Mouse changed things. Classics from Snow White to Sleeping Beauty capitalized on groundbreaking innovation, brokered a new medium for entertainment and launched the phenomenon of the Disney princess, a cultural landmark that lasted for decades. Maybe it was my being a teenager and all, but from what I gathered, that cultural landmark dried up around Y2K, petering out with a string of computer animated duds. Dinosaur, Atlantis, Brother Bear and Chicken Little all represented a low point for the imaginative power of the ubiquitous studio, especially when juxtaposed with the meteoric rise of Pixar. With a certifiable hit in Princess and the Frog reviving the old-fashioned charm of the Disney engine a year earlier, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland arrived on the scene to dominate the box office to the tune of a billion dollars. Dollar signs in their eyes, the once great studio turned its attention to recycling old mainstays with new CGI to the collective groan of people everywhere.
The next string of these revivals showed little hope for the future of Disney live action princesses. Snow White and the Huntsmen majorly disappointed, Mirror Mirror charmed few and Maleficent absolutely horrified (before becoming the second largest grosser of 2013). Maleficent wasn’t the only one to exit on top as Huntsman also earned generous wheelbarrows full of cash. And cash makes the industry wheel go round. With live action remakes of Beauty and the Beast, The Jungle Book, The Little Mermaid and Cruella in the works, this trend seems doomed to repeat itself. And then there was hope. A surprisingly charmed retelling of an old classic, Kenneth Branagh‘s Cinderella is Disney’s first good, nay great, entry into their live action revisionist collection and one that magically transforms a face-palming trend into one that we actually look forward to.
Somewhat straightforward in its adaption, Branagh’s work begins by winding back the clocks to Cinderella’s prologue. That whole tragic “parents going bye-bye” act gets much more attention here than in the animated original and instead of coming across as humdrum and customary princess fare, Cinderella’s losing her folks actually leaves a sizable lump in your throat, in large part due to Lily James‘ earnest and tender portrayal of the timeless princess and a talented supporting cast peddling the fictional goods with palpable warmth and commitment.
Emotionally broken but hoping to remain strong per the promise she made to her dying mother to be courageous and kind, Ella (the Cinder part of her name comes later by way of stepsister mockery) falls under the emotionally abusive thumb of her wicked Stepmother, played to perfection by a silky and serpentine Cate Blanchett. We all know the rest of the story and it plays out in deceptively straightforward manner but with more than enough heartfelt magic and good-natured appeal to keep you thoroughly entranced throughout.
In a tear of pitch perfect casting, Helena Bonham Carter steps confidently into the bewitching shoes of the Fairy Godmother as the King of the North himself (Richard Madden) occupies the role of Kip a.ka. Prince Charming. But it’s James who shines most as the iconic fairy tale princess and in her Branagh has conjured his own pumpkin to carriage transformation. She possesses the remarkable ability to truly transfix an audience and – paired with Madden – turns a ballroom dance scene into something both heart-rending and mesmerizing. My icy heart be melted.
Good though the cast may be, they are far from wholly responsible for the soaring success of Cinderella as Branagh’s dazzling product glitters with visual brilliance. From Sandy Powell‘s striking costumery to Dante Ferretti‘s impeccably detailed production design and Patrick Doyle‘s sweeping and sumptuous score, the spellbinding power of Cinderella casts enchantments through a digital wand and meticulous design. Shining, shimmering, splendid in its technical marksmanship, Cinderella is sure to be a major below-the-line player in next season’s Academy Awards. Any and all to-be high praise is substantiated by Branagh’s keen eye for detail. Though his feel-good objective is candid, he achieves his goal of dazzling the audience.
Full of life, love and beauty, Cinderella is that rare product of uncommonly good intent that actually casts a spell. Accented by bips and bobs of architectural magic, Braunagh’s live action fairy tale is as transportive as it is well-meaning, delivering a message to young girls and families alike that’s actually worth listening to. With the Disney train steaming forward at full speed, hope, it seems, is once again in the air.