Sunday, March 15, 2015

CINDERELLA - A Perfect Fit

For years now - certainly since Dreamworks threw down the "anti-fairy tale" gauntlet with the first Shrek and arguably since the Disney Renaissance of the 90's - the in thing has been the subversion, revision, or deconstruction of traditional fairy tales. Sequels, prequels, restructurings, stories from the villain's perspective, and other approaches have lead to some great movies (2013's Frozen, for example), some admirable-if-uneven ones (last year's Maleficent) and some truly terrible ones (2010's Alice in Wonderland).

But for this year's live-action Cinderella, Disney took a different approach. With Shakespeare alum Kenneth Branagh (who also directed the first Thor) at the helm, this is a straight retelling of the story, from the friendly mice to the glass slipper. And somehow, whether through the refreshingly upfront nature of the tale or the stylistic approach of the film-maker, the result is a beautifully-told story that manages to feel old-fashioned in all the best ways without feeling regressive.

You already know this story, top to bottom. In fact, if you've seen a single trailer, you can probably pick out nearly every single story beat (even the "new" ones) before they happen. However, that's not the point of a film like this. Where Cinderella excels is at how it uses all the tools for fanciful melodrama in Branagh's arsenal (as well as the considerable resources provided by working for Walt Disney) to engineer a movie that just flat-out works on every functional level.

The film's first major notable coup is in its cast - Branagh has always had an eye for selecting stellar players, and makes use of a couple of his favorite standbys. Faces like Derek Jacobi and Stellan Skarsgard immediately lend a theatrical weight to what could have been throwaway roles, but the three MVPs of the film are Game of Thrones' Richard Madden, Cate Blanchett, and Lily James as the titular servant girl herself. All three actors are absolutely invested in their roles both in the broad sense of playing known icons, but also when it comes to investing as many personal layers as possible into the characters.

Branagh's approach to the subtext of Cinderella - which works best as a the story of a power struggle between two women with significant class undertones - is to use the basic framework of a girl, a stepmother, and a prince to examine how the methods of dealing with grief and loss can echo through a person's actions and shape their lives, as well as the lives of their children. Cinderella's mother (played briefly but beautifully by Haley Atwell) urges her daughter that true magic comes from "having courage and being kind," which the film uses to give Ella a strength more subtle and interesting than the usual "just make her a generic kick-ass because that's all we remember about Xena" approach so often taken with "Strong Female Characters" who actually have nothing else notable to define them (looking at you, Tauriel). Ella stays with her hateful new family to preserve her home, not because she's a doormat. She's far more active than her role in the story might suggest, and shows an impressive emotional resolve that pulls her to her feet when others need her even when her entire world seems to have been shattered.

In contrast, Prince Kit is shown to be far more sensitive (and even, at times, fragile) than most fantasy heroes are ever allowed, and is constantly impressed by Ella's aforementioned courage and kindness even though she never throws a punch or swings a sword. She's determined to see the world as it could be, rather than allowing misfortune to make her cynical and selfish as it has her stepmother. It shouldn't be a surprise that the director who make Thor a family drama that just happened to involve magic space vikings invests so much character into this story, but the personal touch is so much of what makes this story work.

The other large part of said formula is the film's utter commitment to its story and style. There's not an ounce of cynicism or irony on this film's bones, and the only self-awareness on display comes from the film's iron-clad desire to show off its gorgeous production design as possible. But even here, the movie has enough restraint to avoid shoe-horning in endless CGI-saturated action sequences. Even the finale, which the original Disney animated version turned into a literal cat-and-mouse chase, is far more focused on the human cast than the house pets.

In the end, it's this interest in the characters behind the archetypes that makes Cinderella such an accomplished telling of the tale. And while the 1950 animated version will always have an iconic familiarity, Branagh's luscious retelling actually makes for a much superior story.

I know that sounds like high praise, but...well, if the shoe fits.

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