Thursday, March 12, 2015

Review: "Cinderella"

I've not been a fan of this recent trend of turning old fairy tales and/or animated classics into live-action spectacles. The competing Snow White flicks were exercises in excess, and while visually sumptuous "Maleficent" suffered from serious storytelling issues. The less said about "Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters," the better.

But "Cinderella" finds the spark of magic missing from those other films.

It's heartfelt and wise, paying homage to the Disney cartoon while smartly inserting more modernistic sensibilities into an ancient tale. Director Kenneth Branagh and screenwriter Chris Weitz craft something that is at once old-fashioned and newfangled, and is sure to delight little princesses everywhere -- and many of their kings and queens, and possibly even some princeling brothers, too.

They even manage to render the wicked stepmother... well, sympathetic's not the right word -- let's say more relatable as a flesh-and-blood character, as opposed to simply representing a stereotype.

Lily James plays young Ella, a country girl raised at a modest estate by loving parents, who alas soon depart the scene. They're played by Hayley Atwell and Ben Chaplin, both emotionally resonant presences despite limited screen time. They teach her to "have courage and be kind," something that becomes harder when the socially climbing Lady Tremaine (an icy Cate Blanchett) comes into Ella's life, along with her spoiled daughters Anastasia (Holliday Grainger) and Drizella (Sophie McShera).

She's relegated to the role of servant, living in the attic and toiling all day with only a few mice and other creatures as her companions. She is sneeringly dubbed "Cinderella" by her betters because of her penchant for sleeping by the kitchen hearth for warmth, which usually results in a sooty complexion.

In one of the movie's more sensible alterations, the stepsisters and stepmother are no longer horrid hags; ugliness is no longer the calling card for depravity within. Indeed, Ella spends much of the story in frump mode, with only a toothy smile and a warm heart to recommend her. Her transformation for the royal ball at the hands of her fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter, who we'd normally expect to see in the stepmother role) is just that -- a welcome respite from the soon-to-return drudgery.

The CG effects for her change are quite wondrous, with the pumpkin, mice and goose -- aided by a couple of garden lizards -- making for a dazzling coach and company.

Richard Madden ("Game of Thrones") plays the prince, who also gets an upgrade beyond Generic Handsome Dude in a Tux. He wants to marry for love, while his ailing father (Derek Jacobi) urges him to wed for advantage -- egged on by the smarmy Grand Duke (Stellan Skarsgård). He's smitten by Ella when they run into each other in the forest, each mistaking the other for something other than what they are.

Of course, all that gets sorted out in the end. "To be seen as we truly are" is the lesson here, with gowns and glass slippers as simply the enchantment that helps things move along.

It's the little touches that make "Cinderella" an unexpected delight. I adored the use of "Lavender's Blue," an old British nursery song, as both a musical and narrative theme. ("When I am king, dilly, dilly, you shall be queen.") Lily James makes for a sweet and self-assured Cinderella, who doesn't need a princess' crown to be noble and true.

Note: The film is preceded by "Frozen Forever," an animated short that's a follow-up to the hit feature of 2013. It gathers all the old gang together for another go-round that's fun and sweet, though the song isn't on par with the original music.

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