Disney’s banking on audiences showing up for director Kenneth Branagh’s live-action remake of Cinderella, the animated hit that brought the studio back from the brink of closure in 1950. However, it’s the promise of returning to the world of 2013’s Frozen, the two-time Oscar winner that earned more than $400 million at the box office, that’ll guarantee asses in seats.
The feature film is preceded by a screening of Frozen Fever, a new 7-minute animated short that focuses on Kristoff (voice of Jonathan Groff) and Olaf (Josh Gad) as they prepare a birthday party for Anna (Kristen Bell) while Elsa (Adele Dazeem, err, Idina Menzel) suffers through her first-ever cold. Every time the Ice Queen sneezes, an increasing amount of mini snowmen appear—picture chilled versions of Despicable Me’s minions crossed with the multiplying brooms of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and you have some idea of the crowd-pleasing antics you’re in for.
But like most follow-ups, this short is a letdown. So, how nice that the main event is such a pleasure to sit through! While not a musical retelling (which might disappoint some Disneyphiles), it’s nevertheless a worthy tribute to the classic.
Like most fairy tales, this one begins with the words “Once upon a time,” as we’re introduced to a little blond girl named Ella (Eloise Webb). She’s not a princess, but her family’s property serves as her magical kingdom. Her beloved father (Ben Chaplin) travels as a merchant, frequently bringing gifts home for his cherished little girl. Alas, magic can’t last forever, and her mother (Hayley Atwell) comes down with a terminal case of Disney Mother Disease. “Have courage and be kind,” the woman tells her daughter with her dying breath.
A decade or so later, Ella (now played by Downton Abbey’s Lily James) needs vast reserves of courage and kindness to deal with her new stepmother, Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett), and her unpleasant stepsisters, Anastasia (Holliday Grainger) and Drizella (Sophie McShera). All three are incredibly pale, which stands in stark contrast to their extravagantly loud clothes (costume designer Sandy Powell may have already sewn up next year’s Oscar).
Remembering her mother’s words, Ella politely offers her massive bedroom to her stepsisters—and is banished to the dusty old (but nevertheless huge) attic as thanks. Sadly, Ella’s dad dies during his next trip, making an orphan out of our enchanting heroine as her stepfamily turns her into their housemaid and dubs her “Cinderella.”
This is a mostly faithful adaptation, but during one of screenwriter Chris Weitz’s original flourishes, our would-be princess meets her Prince Charming (Game of Thrones’ Richard Madden) before the grand ball (which still serves as a delightful centerpiece in this stunningly photographed movie). Fleeing the harassment at home for a brief respite in the surrounding forest, she encounters a handsome stranger, interrupting his hunt. He doesn’t seem to mind.
After she convinces him not to slaughter any animals, he introduces himself—more or less. “They call me Kit,” he tells her. “I live at the castle. My father’s teaching me his trade.”
“So, you’re an apprentice,” Ella concludes—without divulging so much as her name. (Have to keep a guy coming back for more!)
“Of a sort,” he says, flashing the whitest teeth you’ve ever seen in a world without toothpaste. Arriving back at that castle, this “apprentice” barely conceals his excitement from his father, the king (Branagh’s mentor and regular repertory player Derek Jacobi), who will soon fall prey to Disney Father Disease. But first Kit convinces his father to open that exclusive ball—where the prince will choose his betrothed—to every woman in the kingdom, social standing be damned.
However, Lady Tremaine is determined to keep Ella from attending, even if it requires that she viciously tear the dress the young beauty plans on wearing—a dress that once belonged to her real mother. “It would ruin my daughters’ prospects to see them arrive at the ball with a ragged servant girl,” Ella’s stepmother tells the teary-eyed girl as Anastasia and Drizella share a heartless laugh.
Blanchett is a standout in a stellar cast that brings life to the familiar tale. And of Disney’s live-action remakes and reconfigurations of its cartoon classics, this is the most reverential of the animated source material. Whereas Maleficent upended 1959’s Sleeping Beauty, telling the story from the perspective of the ostensibly misunderstood villain, Branagh and Weitz have kept the blueprint mostly intact. However, two-time Oscar winner Blanchett has wisely sidestepped the traditional “wicked” aspect in favor of a moderately more modern interpretation—that of a hardened woman pushed into a corner, a mother who’s doing what she must to provide for her daughters and survive in a man’s world.
Helena Bonham Carter amusingly appears as Ella’s fairy godmother, complete with gifts of glass slippers and magical powers over pumpkins. And the former charming prince—now newly crowned king—shows up at Lady Tremaine’s doorstep during his massive manhunt to locate the mystery girl he danced with before she fled, leaving a glass slipper behind.
Seemingly every woman in this multicultural kingdom has tried on the crystalline pump, so it’s not surprising that Lady Tremaine attempts to stop her stepdaughter from slipping her perfectly fitting foot inside. What is surprising, however, is that Ella’s stepmother is the only woman in the land not to try on the specialized footwear. A cultured woman who made the mistake of marrying down in the hopes of providing stability for her family, and she doesn’t even try to claim a place as the new queen? This is a fairy tale!
Starring Lily James, Eloise Webb, Hayley Atwell, Ben Chaplin, Helena Bonham Carter, Richard Madden, Sophie McShera, Holliday Grainger, Nonso Anozie, Stellan Skarsgård, Derek Jacobi, Rob Brydon, Monique Geraghty and Cate Blanchett. Written by Chris Weitz. Directed by Kenneth Branagh. At Boston Common, Fenway, Assembly Row and in the suburbs.