Kenneth Branagh should just direct everything. I mean, he obviously knows what he’s doing with Shakespeare. But outside of that he makes consistently good, solidly entertaining movies. Thor was grand comic-book fun, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit a crackerjack international thriller, and his newest, a live-action version of Cinderella, is a wonderfully gentle, beautiful, and magical production.
The script by Chris Weitz (About a Boy) borrows from both the original fairy tale by Charles Perrault and Disney’s classic 1959 animated film, but more or less retains the by-now familiar structure: a happy young girl named Ella (Lily James) lives peacefully with her parents, mom dies, dad marries a widow (Cate Blanchett), dad dies, after which stepmother and stepsisters treat her cruelly.
Weitz and Branagh wisely see fit, however, to flesh the story out just a bit. We meet, however briefly, Ella’s parents (Hayley Atwell, Ben Chaplin) and see their positive influence on her, the evil stepmother gets a bit more background and so feels not quite as evil, and the kingdom’s handsome prince (Richard Madden) is actually allowed to cry when he mourns a character’s impending death.
That last scene perhaps best demonstrates Branagh’s deft balancing act here. The drama has weight, yet doesn’t weigh the movie down nor is Tim Burton gothic, while the fairy-tale stuff feels nicely grounded and not over-the-top. Ella and the prince’s dance at the ball, for instance, feels alive with a joy seemingly generated by the youngsters themselves. A truly magical moment, that.
And Disney spared no expense in bringing the story to live-action life. The sets and costumes—Ella’s gown, in particular—are impeccable and possess incredible detail (check out Ella’s beautifully ornate coach), while the CGI, which Branagh thankfully employs judiciously, is quite impressive. It’s amazing how real the mice Ella befriends look, and how expressive they are.
James displays a winning and perfectly fairy tale-like personality as Ella and Madden is a satisfactory prince, but the majority of kudos go to the vets, like Helena Bonham Carter, as a delightfully daffy fairy godmother, and Derek Jacobi, wonderful as Madden’s ailing father. Blanchett simply steals the show, injecting just the right amount of malice into her insults and cackling like a pro. – [DVD] [Blu-Ray]
DVD Release Date: 9/15/15