Cinderella, the new film released by Disney, is destined to become an American classic. It is a gently updated version of the delightful, tuneful, animated epic from 1950. Unlike many subsequent revisions (think Cinderfella or Into the Woods) this Cinderella declines detours. Screenwriter Chris Weitz stays on message.
On many levels, the movie combines beauty with fun, reality with special effects. All the while it seems to grin at itself as various characters confide that a bit of magic helps. With Lily James in the title role, the film hews to the old story. It shows Cinderella's transformation from young Ella, the daughter of loving parents, into Cinderella, a young woman well acquainted with grief, loss, hardship, and deprivation due to her cruel stepmother, Cate Blanchett, and two self-serving stepsisters. Despite this, Cinderella emerges with shining character. The film repeats her dying mother's message — to be courageous and kind — so often that it becomes a takeaway.
Young Ella, a worthy heroine, listens intently, loves deeply, and speaks wisely. She and animals share a special affinity. Out for a horseback ride, she meets a magnificent stag that is pursued by hunters. Commanding it to run, she provides a diversion and thereby meets the hunters’ leader. Although a prince of the realm, he tells her but one of his names, Kit, but she declines to give hers. She convinces him to call off the hunt and let the stag live. He agrees. With that, their romance begins. Director Kenneth Branagh guides their growing love in tactful, nostalgic ways, showing that time, separation, sorrow, and overcoming evil prove good foundations for a shared life.
The costumes dazzle. Cate Blanchett, as stepmother Lady Tremaine, parades in one gorgeous outfit after another. Favoring emerald green and brocades, this evil stepmother looks more like a 1920’s movie star than a matron with two obnoxious, marriageable daughters, but perhaps that’s how Sandy Powell, the costume designer, planned it. Indeed, Disney got the best: Powell and set designer Dante Ferretti are Oscar winners. In choosing them, Disney perhaps portrays another takeaway message: Do your best at all times.
Visually, the film is stunning. The landscapes of a meadow with wildflowers and a bay with sailing ships convey peace. But it’s a mere pumpkin that astounds. Kids will love watching it explode through the greenhouse walls and with a wave of a wand, become a gilded, gold coach. What a way to go travel!
This movie capitalizes on dreams. When Cinderella’s stepmother forbids her to go to the prince’s ball, a fairy godmother, played whimsically by Helen Bonham Carter, takes over. She transforms the girl’s pink dress — purposefully torn by the stepmother — into a blue marvel that sparkles with butterflies and pops with pearls. That dress will inspire young girls to swirl and twirl in front of a full length mirror as they imagine being escorted to the dance floor.
And perhaps Cinderella will forever be a “shoe girl,” thanks to those glass slippers, the fairy godmother’s final magic touch. It’s her riveting dance with the prince that shows dreams can come true.
I found myself smiling as I watched the couple fall in love during the ball’s inaugural dance. They explore moving together, then take advantage of the sweep of Cinderella’s dress and assurance of the prince’s leading. Played by Richard Madden, Prince Charming grows past being initially charming to becoming lastingly his own person. As such, he proves a role model for young men. Not only does he inform his dying father he will seek to find and marry the elusive young woman he loves, but when becoming king in his own right, he continues to describe himself as an apprentice. His humility is as rare as Cinderella’s kindness. It’s a match meant to be — helped along the way with a bit of magic.
Take your children to see Cinderella. You'll be reminded that being virtuous isn't that old-fashioned after all.