Monday, March 23, 2015

Cinderella - Where Cynicism Goes to Die

Goddammit, Disney.

"Cinderella", the original 1950 animated film is as pure and beloved as a Golden Age Disney classic should be.  Attempting to remake that movie is hopeless, you are inevitably going to lose by comparison.  So is there any particular new twist one can put on the original fairy tale in order to do something new with the concept that has not been done before?  Well, if you want to be slightly more realistic and try to add more feminine agency into the story, you have the 1998 film "Ever After" starring Drew Barrymore.  If you want to make it spunky and comedic, there is the 2004 Anne Hathaway movie "Ella Enchanted".  If you're going to deconstruct the story you have "Into the Woods".  I guess that leaves only disturbing body horror, but unfortunately the Koreans have that covered too.*

Kenneth Branagh solves the artistic question of his new "Cinderella" movie by doing nothing new at all.  All the other moves in this live action fairy tale wave that we have been riding for about four years now have had some new idea going into them, be it ripping off Twilight for "Red Riding Hood" or giving the villain the title role for "Maleficent".  Branagh will not have that, he's going to have his ball, glass slippers and all.  He looks Walt Disney in the face, and says "yes, I am going to take you down, old mustachio'd rumored-to-be-antisemitic man.  I'm going to remake your movie on your terms, and I might even do it better.  Once more into the breach, dear friends!"

Therefore 2015's new "Cinderella" movie has no particular reason to exist.  It does not offer a new perspective, it has nothing new to say about the story that Walt did not already say, it cannot justify its existence in any way.  So it doesn't matter what this movie does, it has to suck by definition.  Yeah, the characters can be charming, the mood can be reverential and endearing, the pacing could be perfect, and the art style immaculate but I have to hate this movie because it says nothing and means nothing.  So I will go kicking and screaming into this review, gritting my teeth while I admit bitterly that "Cinderella" is a great movie.  Even though I hate the entire for it, the fact is that Branagh actually pulled it off, making the first truly memorable and great film of this year.

Keeping up momentum and energy is difficult in a movie whose plot has been spoiled a thousand times by every mother's bedtime stories.  Everybody already knows the twists to the Cinderella tale, which makes my job easier since I do not actually need to write a plot summary.  Plenty of films across all genres have predictable endings (in 99.999% of stories good is bound to triumph after all) but it is another thing entirely when the audience knows exactly what is coming, when it is going to happen, and how many scenes from now Cinderella is going to be trying on that glass slipper.  If this movie is going to work every character needs to be entertaining and move the plot along.  Not one scene can flag, or else the audience will realize 'oh damn, we're only at the Fairy Godmother part, we still have at least an hour before this is over.'

You can tell Cinderella is having a hard time because the hair above her smooth skin and perfect features is slightly frizzled.
Other than a slow opening, which is a few scenes of the lead maiden (Lily James)'s idyllically childhood, "Cinderella" rapidly picks up speed and never lets go.  This is done mostly through an expertly-cast collection of likable entertaining characters who manage to add fun and character to what by rights should be a bland stodgy retread.  Obviously whoever was going to get to play the Wicked Stepmother, and the Evil Stepsisters were going to enjoy themselves as hammy dispensers of sarcastic quips.  Kate Blanchett as Lady Tremaine is slimy and wanton, with huge bawdy laughs and eyes full of manipulation.  But somehow I managed to like the step-sisters even better, played by Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera respectively.  They dress gaudy, speak catty, and are absolute comic delights.

"Cinderella" manages to extend the joys of good casting beyond the easy roles.  Richard Madden plays Prince Kit, the man of Cinderella's dreams.  You may know Madden as TV's Robb Stark, the King in the North, which will mean this review will now be peppered with "A Song of Ice and Fire" references.  (Enjoy.)  Chris Pine basically ruined the good Prince forever by turning him into a douche frat boy in "Into the Woods", yet Madden manages to resurrect the character back from cynicism simply by being earnest to the role and having... just dreamy... blue eyes.  Still even the Prince is outshone by one of the few men with a legitimate claim to being the Greatest Actor of All Time, Derek Jacobi, as the King.  He does not have much screen time, but Jacobi adds a veteran loving touch that somehow ties together the entire production.

In the one small change from the Walt version, the Prince and Cinderella meet before the king's ball, and immediately fall in love.  The rest of the plot is mostly a difficult meandering between the two characters, who at first both pretend to be different people, and are then trying to meet again and consummate their relationship.  Prince Charming has to convince his court that he must marry for love, not advantage - thus dooming his prospects with House Frey - and Cinderella has to escape her wicked step-relatives.  Her aid there comes from her Fairy Godmother, played by very self-aware Helena Bonham Carter, a fashionista sprite full of spunk and winks to the camera.  Bonham Carter, as you might expect from the tone of this review so far, is very very good in this movie.

When it comes time to design the wedding, I sure hope they choose a color other than Red.
If there is any flew to the casting and energy of the movie, it is with Cinderella herself.  Lily James is not exactly bad, just lacking much to do.  The Stark Prince is equally underwritten, but he at least has more characters to bounce off of, his female counterpart has to mostly interact with cartoon mice (who do not talk this time).  Cinderella is far too perfect and nice to have any real dimensions one way or another.  It is implied this time that she is not suffering under Lady Tremaine because she is forced to and abused, just because she feels bad for them and wants to keep up her late mother's household.  But that kills a great deal of the threat.  Where a lot of characters are more fleshed-out, Cinderella seems to have become more of a prop than ever before.  You do get a few hints of sexual urges - the kind of lust that humans have, that look of 'I want some Winterfell cock' (see above).  There is good chemistry between the leads, but not a great romantic tale to be told.

That flaw is measured out a great deal by the costuming and the set design.  This is after all a G-rated fantasy for girls, so you need big sweeping ballrooms full of pomp and circumstance.  The costume designer seemed to have the most fun drawing up the two-toned colors for the guards and the hideous dresses for the wicked step-sisters, otherwise it is mostly contained, reasonable, and very nice period attire.  Branagh does not need much camera tricks to get good shots when he has good-looking actors in handsome ballgowns on lovely sets.  CG is mostly kept to minimum, used only for Cinderella's little cartoon mice friends  and the transforming pumpkin carriage along with its changeling drivers.

Still the best part of "Cinderella" is generally how pleasant the production is. "Cinderella" is a chipper, cheerful movie.  Branagh is an old hand at this point in making medieval/early modern period pieces with his long run of Shakespeare productions.  I'm reminded most of Branagh's sunny multi-ethnic "Much Ado About Nothing", only with far more expensive set designs and costuming.  "Cinderella" is not a deep movie, but it just the kind of movie that makes you happy.  I do wish there had been more bite somewhere, but that would have probably ruined the mood of being swept off your feet that a proper old-timey fairy tale needs to inspire.  It is feel-good entertainment.

I mean, don't you sometimes just want to go to the ball?  No?  Neither do I, but it is pretty.
No, "Cinderella" cannot be made into any kind of 21st century feminist statement like "Frozen"**.  It does not have anything new to say about fairy tales like "Enchanted" or "Into the Woods" did.  I cannot really judge this movie for what it isn't.  Its goals were to make a simple little charming fantasy and it managed to do that very well.  I was not in the mood for this kind of movie and disagree with the ultimate goal of the production, yet I still wound up loving the film - that's just how effective every element of this movie was.

This was not the review I intended to write, but maybe I should be happy about that.  There is something to be said for keeping it old school.  If Branagh and Disney had intended to reboot Cinderella into something more modern, I'm sure they would have somehow found a way to shove a big stupid "Lord of the Rings"-style war scene into the mix.  Or had a Young Adult love triangle thrown in for no good reason.  Think of "Cinderella" like a Broadway revival of a 1940s musical.  It isn't going to be new, it isn't going to be controversial, but it may just be a good night's entertainment.  You may wind up coming home with a nice happy feeling in your heart, like the world is just alright.

Still, as history has shown us, this moral of marrying for love is complete crap.  Remember children:  marry for political advantage.  Otherwise you might just wind up getting your throat slit by a guy whispering in your ear "Jaime Lannister sends his regards" while the band plays 'Rains of Castamere'.  That will probably ruin your Disney Princess fantasy.

* I have not seen that but reading its Wikpedia entry really makes me want to.

** "Cinderella" came packaged with a "Frozen" short film called "Frozen Fever".  For most of my Disney reviews I package that together with the main film.  I have decided that is not the best way to handle it.  The short film is really a separate artistic entity, I should not lump it together with the film with which it came packaged.  I'll give "Frozen Fever" its own post very shortly.  Like within the next 24 hours.


  1. I do not watch Game of Thrones, but I chuckled with the last paragraph.

    I may watch this movie tomorrow, and it will not bomb, contrary to what I said it would.

  2. It's not "Jaime Lannister sends his regards", it's "The Lannisters send their regards".......oh, fuck it.
    What am I even doing here? Oh well, if Kenneth Branagh-directed reboot!Cinderella is good, I'll keep that in mind.

    1. No, that is the TV show version. In the book he says "Jaime Lannister sends his regards." It was changed because the TV producers didn't want to confuse the audience into thinking Jaime set the wedding up.