Cinderella – Review: Disney Still Has the Magic Touch

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Be kind and have courage. That’s all it takes to succeed in the Disney world, and Disney itself succeeds with this live action version of their 1950 animated film Cinderella.

True to the original story, Cinderella is the fairy tale (for those of you who have lived deprived lives) of the beautiful orphan girl, subjected to cruel treatment by her plotting stepmother and simpering stepsisters. But she triumphs in the end, capturing the heart of the prince, while seeing her stepmother taken down several pegs.

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all images copyright The Walt Disney Company

This is no edgy retelling, no revisionist history. What it is is a beautiful,  sweet, funny, updated film featuring several well-known actors. Cinderella (Lily James, Downton Abbey) is stronger and more modern than the animated Cinderella, tolerating what she has to for her father’s sake, and in the end, a flicker of a desire for revenge crosses her face, but is replaced by the kindness and understanding that shapes her character. There are very few departures from the original story line in this film, but one I really liked gave the Prince (Richard Madden, Game of Thrones) a reason to fall in love with her as a person, and not just a beauty – Ella, escaping her unhappy home for a while, comes across a stag, and, hearing the horns of a hunting party, urges the majestic animal to run.

Her horse (I saw this film with Alyson Bailey, a fellow TiBS staff writer, who said more than once how beautiful the film’s horses were) shies as the stag flees, and the prince chases after her to keep her from harm. He doesn’t want to let her know who he is when he realizes she doesn’t recognize him, and is impressed with her care for the animal. “This is a hunt. It’s the way it is done,” he tells her. “Just because it is done doesn’t mean it should be done,” she replies, and he begins to see that perhaps there are different ways of viewing the world than the way he has been raised. He tells her he lives in the castle as an apprentice, and that his name is Kit – “it’s what my father calls me, when he is being kind,” he says.

When Kit’s dying father, the King, urges him to hold a ball and invite princesses from near and far, the Prince suggests that they make this an event for “the people” and invite everyone. His Captain (Nonso Anozie) understands the reason for Kit’s request, and approves of his attempt at independence. Of course, Ella’s stepmother, Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett, in a wonderfully stylish performance) won’t even entertain the notion of Ella attending with her stepsisters Drizella and Anastasia. She goes so far as to destroy the dress Ella has refashioned for herself – one of her mother’s old gowns. In the earlier movie, Gus Gus and Jacques, Ella’s mouse friends, and a handful of cheery bluebirds, helped her with the tailoring – the animal friends, and their nemesis, Lady Tremaine’s cat Lucifer, are in this version, and are still quite cute, but thankfully are still more animal than people (sorry, I’ve never been fond of talking animal characters…).

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Of course, Ella is distraught, finally giving in to the hopelessness of her situation – when her Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) arrives! While her role is small, and you’d think that initially that Bonham Carter and Blanchett should have been switched in their roles, she’s delightfully ditzy, introducing herself as “your hairy dogfather… I mean your fairy godmother!” And her work – the dress, the shoes, and especially the pumpkin-turned-carriage, are exquisite. The transformation of the mice and other animals is one of the sweetest pieces in this adorable film.

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The stepsisters are terrific (Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera) – argumentative, vain, selfish, and as their mother remarks more than once, stupid. When they first arrive at Ella’s beautiful country home, after their mother marries Ella’s father, they ask, “How long have you lived here?” Ella answers that their family has lived in this home for more than 200 years. “And in all that time you didn’t think to decorate?”  Their mother has no illusions about their lack of talent, telling one as she sings horribly off key, “Shut up.”

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A reviewer in my local newspaper wrote that Lady Tremaine was thoroughly evil – I have to disagree. In this version, the stepmother is not so much evil as immensely realistic, overly involved, and highly calculating, wanting to return to her former position of comfort and respect, and ensure the futures of her daughters. When the Prince’s retinue finally makes it to their home to try the abandoned glass slipper on every woman in the kingdom, Lady Tremaine confronts Ella in her attic, and says that she wants to tell her a story – of a woman who married the love of her life, only to have him die, leaving her with two beautiful, but stupid daughters. Her second marriage, to Ella’s father, was meant to provide them with financial stability, but he also died, leaving her penniless. It wasn’t so much that she hated Ella – although she did, because of Ella’s beauty, intelligence and kindness – but that she felt that Ella was a major rival to her own daughters’ chances of marital success. “It would mar their prospects,” the Lady tells Ella before the ball, “to be seen arriving with a ragged servant girl.” And it’s obvious that she really means that she knows her daughters would fall quite short in comparison to Ella.

In the end, true love prevails over responsibility, as we knew it would. The slipper fits, the citizens cheer, Lady Tremaine and her awful daughters are never seen again. And Disney has a success.

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Set design, by Dante Ferretti, throughout the film is stunningly romantic. The sweeping views of the palace, as the guests arrive for the ball, show huge flights of stairs – making us wonder if the guests won’t be exhausted by the time they get to the ballroom. Sandy Powell’s costumes are truly amazing – gowns and royal wardrobe alike, even the over-the-top stepsisters’ ball dresses.

Disney’s promotion for this film included asking several well-known designers to do sketches of their vision of the glass slipper – here are a few of those. You can see all of them on the Cinderella Facebook page.

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The only slight disappointment for me was Lily James, Cinderella herself. I felt that her look was too modern, and not romantic enough for this fairy tale. James is not a traditional beauty, although she is quite lovely, and her dark eyebrows and longer face were at odds with the amazing look of every other actor, including her handsome Prince.

Before the showing of Cinderella, the audience is treated to a short feature, Frozen Fever, which was also very cute (and will spawn another round of Frozen merchandise, I’m sure). Here’s a little teaser on the feature:

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Erin Conrad