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Non-Review Review: Cinderella (2015)

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2015.

Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella is probably the safest and most down-the-middle live action remake of a classic Disney cartoon. It is not as heavily stylised or esoteric as Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, but it is also not as deeply flawed as Maleficent. If anything, Cinderella suffers from a lack of its own identity or energy. It is a well-made and functional film that avoids any truly significant problems, but it also lacks any real edge that might help it stand out.

Cinderella looks lovely. Dante Ferretti’s production design and Sandy Powell’s costume designs are breathtakingly beautiful. Branagh’s direction is clean and crispy, avoiding excessive clutter and trusting the story to tell itself. The cast are great – with Cate Blanchett and Helena Bonham Carter doing wonderful work. Even the script does exactly what it needs to do, walking the line between traditional and self-aware with considerable grace. Cinderella does pretty much everything that you would expect a live action adaptation to do.

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At the same time, it lacks any real sense of cinematic ambition. It is nowhere near as iconoclastic as Alice in Wonderland or as ambitious as Maleficent. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – Alice in Wonderland attracted a lot of criticism for playing more as a Tim Burton movie than an Alice in Wonderland film, while Maleficent tripped over itself in its attempts to re-write the classing story of Sleeping Beauty as a feminist parable. Cinderella‘s problems are much less severe, but its accomplishments are also less noteworthy.

The result is probably the most solid and reliable live adaptation of a classic Disney cartoon, albeit one that never seems to have any real ambition or verve.

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“Names have power,” the fairy godmother assures use reasonable early in the film, and it’s hard not to get a sense that Cinderella is fascinated by its own mythology and iconography. The film is pretty slavishly devoted to the familiar trappings of the cartoon. A lot of Cinderella is spent justifying its various tropes and conventions – teasing the audience with a “secret origin” for most significant parts of the classic cartoon. Early in the film, it is revealed that the young girl is called “Ella”, leading to a rather contrived justification for the “Cinder” prefix later in the film.

All the expected plot beats are here – the evil stepmother, the cute anthropomorphic mice, the pumpkin, the blue dress, the prince, the slipper. There are precious few surprises or subversions to be had. What little modifications are made to the actual plot feel almost superfluous. There is no need for a conspiracy within the royal household to split attention away from the lead female character, and it winds up feeling largely redundant and unnecessary. It is great to spend time with Derek Jacobi and Stellan Skarsgård, but it feels like time that could be better spent.

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The most significant changes to the core story are all around Cinderella’s immediate circle. Her two stepsisters, for example, are no longer characterised as ugly – at least not explicitly. Instead, they are played by Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera, who are not made up so as to downplay their beauty. The narration quite cleverly suggests that they might be “as ugly on the inside as they were fair on the outside”, a nice twist that subverts a lot of the classic “ugly is evil” morals of classic fables and stories.

Indeed, Cinderella works quite hard to develop the character of the “wicked stepmother.” In the original cartoon, Lady Tremaine was very much an addition to the long cavalcade of wicked evil single women over the age of thirty. Much like Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty or the Evil Queen from Snow White, Lady Tremaine gave the impression that women of a certain age were either loving and doting members of a traditional household, or were monstrous and inherently evil. The original cartoon gave little motivation of Tremaine’s attitude towards Cinderella.

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In contrast, Cinderella does try to flesh out the character a little bit. The decision to cast Cate Blanchett in the role works very well – Blanchett is one of the best working actresses today, and gives the role a great deal of depth and nuance. However, Chris Weitz’s screenplay also gives her a history and back story that tries to account for her behaviour and to explain why she does the things that she does. The scripts hints quite early on at some of these ideas, and then gives her a big scene with Cinderella towards the end, explicitly stating them.

In some ways, that back story and development touches on the same feminist themes of Maleficent. It must be very tough being a female character in a Disney kingdom. Lady Tremaine explains that she lost everything with the death of her first husband and is simply trying to do what is best for herself and her daughters to ensure their survival. The fact that the political and economic power in Cinderella seems to be focused on male characters reinforces this idea. The Prince is male, his mother is absent, all his advisers (and even his portrait painter) are all men.

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However, Cinderella runs into a bit of trouble because there is a clearly a limit to how sympathetic it will allow Lady Tremaine to become. Much like Maleficent undercut its own feminist themes by suggesting motherhood as the sole path to redemption, Cinderella acknowledges the sort of power and wealth disparity that exists for these characters in this world but then reinforces that. There is only so much sympathy that Cinderella can afford Lady Tremaine, because it needs her to be the “boo-hiss” villain of the piece. So the film never accepts her legitimate criticisms.

This is the same problem that Disney ran into when it released Oz: The Great and Powerful instead of simply producing an adaptation of Wicked. Acknowledging the potential gender issues with classic stories like this is one thing, but there has to be a willingness to change the stories themselves.  So instead of subverting the unfortunate subtext of the character in the original Cinderella, the live action adaptation doubles down. It acknowledges that Lady Tremaine might have reasons for being the way that she is, but never addresses those reasons.

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Still, this is less of a problem with Cinderella than it was with Maleficent, because Cinderella does not put quite the same emphasis on its attempts to rehabilitate the source material. There is an argument to be made as to which approach is better or worse – Maleficent seemed a lot more willing to engage with the problems in certain classic Disney stories, even if it mishandled them; in contrast, Cinderella makes a few polite nods towards these problems, but never explicitly tackles them.

Cinderella looks and sounds quite lovely. Branagh constructs a stunning cinematic landscape that feels wonderfully fake – as if the characters occupy some middle ground between cartoons and the real world. Branagh is unafraid to draw from his source material. Cinderella never really pretends to be anything other than an adaptation of the classic cartoon, quoting extensively. Patrick Doyle’s soundtrack is uniquely its own, but it also cleverly evokes the classic soundtrack of Betty Lou Gerson. At one point, Branagh films fireworks as if they escaped from the Disney logo.

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Cinderella is solid and functional. It does what it sets out to do, quite well. It never defies or subverts expectations, but instead satisfies them.

All audience members are asked to rank films in the festival from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, here is my score: 2

8 Responses

  1. Good review. This sounds like a solid offering. I’m guessing watching these films with muted expectations pays off.

  2. It’s simple and old-fashioned, but it still works enough that it was fine. Nice review.

  3. Good review.

    Having just seen ‘Cinderella’ I get the feeling I liked it more than you did perhaps because it’s tradtionalism actually seems fresh after a relentless wave of deconstructionist takes. I think this is the first time I’ve seen the Prince Charming role played straight since ‘The Little Mermaid’ – and that was nearly 30 years ago. Since then we’ve had so many evil princes and airheaded princes that making Kit a likable character is slightly surreal.

    ‘Maleficent’ was a curiously empty headed film (I remember you didn’t think much of the good faries in the original animated film but I still say it is a strange sort of feminist take to turn three moral, brave, capable female characters into selfish, brainless bumblers.) ‘Cinderella’ is maybe less adventurous in that but it is well told and acted rather than trying to impart a lesson so clumsily it betrays it at every breath.

    • That’s a fair point.

      I don’t know, though. I think the script comes close to acknowledging that the “evil stepmother” is an unpleasant stereotype, only to shrug its shoulders and just go along with it.

      And you’re right. Cinderella is light and frothy and fun. And those aren’t bad things. It does what it sets out to do, but I just thought there were nods at ways that it might have been more engaging. (Then again, a little unironic fairy tale is perhaps just what the doctor ordered in this most wry and self-aware of eras.)

  4. “Cinderella acknowledges the sort of power and wealth disparity that exists for these characters in this world but then reinforces that”

    Well, this comes with the territory of setting a story in that overall time period. You can’t really change the (dis)balance of power and wealth without changing the whole setting completely, effectively going through a revolution, and that’s something a single movie like this, focused on adapting a fairy tale, just can’t do.

    Expecting for a movie like this to end up changing the whole social, political and cultural system to better fit the characters’ outcomes into our own modern sensibilities is asking for too much, I think. The characters can only go so far as to change their situations, even with a fairy godmother at hand.

    • Yep, but you can’t acknowledge those issues while reducing the “evil stepmother” to a stock villain. The movie provides a nice scene that points out that the character was doing what she had to do in order to survive, and that she was trying to protect two children who could not look out for themselves, but this jars so sharply with everything that leads up to and follows from that moment. It is an interesting point, and one I appreciate the film trying to make, but it also makes a lot of the film around it quite difficult. If you are going to raise those sorts of issues, and the film does, you can’t fold them back up and stuff them in a drawer when you need a on-dimensional villain again.

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