Warm, Fuzzy Slippers
It’s strange to say, but I wasn’t conscious of spring’s importance, weather-wise and film-wise, until this week. A month ago, fifty-degree temperatures were a half-remembered fiction, and my mental movie projector looped good films from the fall to warm against January’s avalanche of frigid studio stepchildren. Movie lovers anxious for those few remaining exhaust-stained snow piles to melt need look no further than Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella. It's a full-bloom beacon of warmth and whimsy that promises brighter days ahead.
Disney has an official Re-Imagined Fairy Tales trilogy on its hands with Snow White and the Huntsman, Maleficent, and now Cinderella. I’m a big fan of all three, but the studio really found its footing here. No CGI battles; no grown-ups-only tinges of oddball darkness; just an exquisitely executed family film that fleshes out a narrative we all know, through great acting and playful visual storytelling.
Instead of re-hashing the trials of Cinderella (Lilly James), her wicked stepmother and stepsisters (Cate Blanchett, Holliday Grainger, and Sophie McShera, respectively), and a dashing Prince (Richard Madden), I’d like to explain why this film is worth seeing in a theatre.
People give Disney a lot of crap for being an IP-devouring cartoon conveyor belt, and I won’t argue that—in some cases. Every company has gray-cubed departments devoted to global release strategies and branding synergies. But blanket critiques against the Mouse House fail to recognize that the movies themselves aren’t literally produced by committee. With Cinderella, Branagh oversees an army of artisans who use real-world locations from around England (and some Pinewood Studios sets) to create a tangible fantasy realm. Seeing this film on the big screen is transportive. From the lush palace gardens; to the always striking, sometimes outrageous costumes, hair, and makeup; to the practically realized props and sets with a drool-over factor of twelve, there’s nothing cartoonish or airy about the way this film looks.*
Branagh brings a serious filmmaker’s eye to the table, treating this multi-gazillion-dollar franchise opportunity with the intensity and intimacy of a period drama. One could remove the fifteen minutes of magic from Cinderella and be left with a luscious costume drama about family, class, and perseverance.
That said, the magic is pretty terrific. When Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) pops up and starts transforming garden critters into horses and handmen, the animators go all out. The spells are a little “off”, just like the kooky witch who casts them, resulting in what I can best describe as a more polished version of the lizard-lounge scene in Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, crossed with Return to Oz’s smudgy fantasy world.
Even more fantastical is the depth and chemistry Branagh’s performers wring out of Chris Weitz’s screenplay.** The writing is good, but the film becomes the stuff of modern children’s classics thanks to James, Madden, and Blanchett’s between-the-lines wizardry. In several non-propulsive story moments, the actors hope and mourn and breathe; they become human beings that desire things, rather than story puppets. Cinderella’s relationship with the prince sparks and grows into a tender friendship on the way to full-blown romance, even though we can see the giddy anticipation of new love in James and Madden’s eyes.
Also worth noting is Ben Chaplin’s heartfelt turn as Cinderella’s doomed father. In a few brief scenes, and primarily through a nuanced facial acting, he paints a full picture of a man who wants the world for his daughter, and maybe a bit of happiness for himself; his methods for achieving both prove disastrous, but he imbues Cinderella with the tools to persevere and learn from his mistakes. These moments recall some of the strongest moments in Saving Mr. Banks, wherein a child must grapple with her parents as fallible people. In both instances, Chapman and Collin Farrell leave their mark on Disney’s historically generic Dead Dad’s Club.
In art, the divisions between theft, homage, and creative re-interpretation of existing work is indescribably fine. I’ve long suspected that Disney made Frozen as a way to cash in on Wicked’s success, while avoiding the hassle of raising another stink with Warner Brothers. Yet audiences the world over don't seem to notice or care. From the outside, Branagh’s Cinderella is just an update of someone else’s material, which plugs into a winning market formula. The film is its own animal, however, and deserves the dignity of standing on its own two feet. I can’t wait to see it again, and am grateful to Branagh for giving my brain something else to loop as it prepares for the scorching, bone-headed blockbusters of Silly Season.
Note: Yes, the new animated Frozen short, “Fever” precedes Cinderella. No, I didn’t care for it. The music, voice acting, and animation are, once again, top-notch. But the slight story refuses to acknowledge its own death three minutes in (leaving another four during which to smell the corpse).
I enjoyed one moment of originality, only to have the gag repeated incessantly until the very end—in much the same way Jay Leno used to make an unfunny joke of explaining his unfunny jokes. Don’t be confused: this is the kind of uninspired, brand-recognition cash-grab people are thinking of when they wonder “Why another Cinderella?”
*It helps that Branagh’s team includes Oscar-winning Scorsese collaborators Sandy Powell and Dante Ferretti. On a related note: I can’t be sure this is intentional or not, but pay attention to the outfit Blanchett’s scheming stepmother wears to the ball. It’s a bright green dress with long yellow gloves and sharp yellow feathers jutting from the top of her head, which immediately recalls the image of Marvel’s horned God of Mischief, Loki. Cross-pollination or coincidence, it’s a striking image and thematic kismet.
**Weitz has had a fascinating career: co-creating the American Pie franchise, and directing pictues as diverse as About a Boy, The Golden Compass, and The Twilight Saga: New Moon.