Kenneth Branagh and Disney have teamed to breathe new life into an old story but instead of giving it an edgy twenty-first century sheen—no step-sisters toes are amputated in this version—the new “Cinderella” is coated in shimmering fairy dust.
Young Ella (Eloise Webb) has the perfect life. Her loving parents (Hayley Atwell and Ben Chaplin) treat her like a princess, the farm animals talk to her—and she can talk back to them—and all is sunshine and light. Darkness comes as Ella’s mother falls ill, leaving her with the words, “Always have courage and be kind.”
Ella (played as a teenager by “Downton Abbey’s” Lily James) tries to keep those virtues top of mind, but her resilience is severely tested when her father marries Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett) and she suddenly finds herself with two self-centered and mean stepsisters (Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera). After the death of her father Ella’s new family see her as less a sister and more a servant, even dubbing her Cinderella because her house chores leave her covered in soot.
A chance meeting with Kit (Richard Madden)—known to everyone except Ella in the village as the Prince—leads her and a magical pair of glass slippers to the palace of the king and possibly into the arms of the prince.
The newest “Cinderella” takes some liberties with the 1950 animated Disney film, the most famous version of the story. In Branagh’s world Cinderella and the Prince meet before the ball, his royal highness is nicknamed Kit and the Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) has an expanded role.
What Branagh hasn’t changed is the idea that physical beauty and marriage are the keys to having a happy and fulfilled life. It’s the kind of retrograde thinking Disney has been moving away from in their recent movies, and yet, here it is at the heart and soul of “Cinderella.” It doesn’t feel particularly progressive, but I’m not sure you can change the story and still honestly call it “Cinderella.”
On the upside, there is strong messaging regarding being comfortable in one’s skin—“The greatest risk anyone can take is to be seen as they really are.”—and the merits of courage and kindness. “They treat me as well as they are able,” Cinderella charitably says about her step-family.
Sexual and familial politics aside, “Cinderella” is a classic and beautiful movie that feels like old-fashioned Disney. There’s an emphasis on the storytelling and fantasy, on good and evil—Blanchett scales new heights in wickedness and looks remarkable while doing so—all supported by sumptuous costumes and set decoration.