Retooling a Classic: Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella

Cinderella Palace

When confronted with the question of their relevance in the Twenty-First Century, Disney has made a point to address the matter on a number of different fronts.  By buying out Marvel and Lucasfilm (and subsequently gaining control of Star Wars, Indiana Jones and the Marvel Cinematic Universe), they have secured forward-looking projects that resonate strongly with a majority of the population.  By producing movies like EnchantedFrozen and Into the Woods, they have turned on their traditional image, finding the opportunity to laugh at their storied history with us.  And now with MaleficentCinderella and the upcoming Beauty and the Beast, they remind everybody of why their traditional image has endured in the public mind for so long.

Everybody knows the story of Cinderella.  In the wake of her father’s death, a kind-hearted young girl is turned into a slave in her own home by her mean-spirited stepmother and stepsisters.  When cruelly denied the opportunity to go to a ball at the palace, her fairy godmother uses magic to transform her ragged clothes into a spectacular gown and her animal friends into her escorts for the evening.  Forewarned that the magic would only last until midnight, she was forced to hurriedly flee from the ball, leaving a glass slipper as the only clue to her identity, resulting in a widespread manhunt for the mysterious maiden who stole the heart of the prince.

It really doesn’t get much more traditional to this.  It’s basically prom in Medieval France.  Variations on this story have been permutated throughout film and television for decades, ranging from Ever After to the first season finale of Friendship Is Magic.  The Devil, as they say, is in the details, however, and Cinderella is a far more robust version of the familiar story than most movie-goers will likely be used to.

Although it is narratively very similar to the animated classic, Cinderella throws enough wrinkles into the mix to keep from seeming too familiar.  It is foremost not a musical and steadfastly does not feature any talking animals.  In removing the animal shenanigans that were so prominently featured in the 1950 film, this Cinderella delves far more deeply into the human drama that’s at the core of the story: why Cinderella continually allows herself to be abused by her step family.

Cinderella Father

In that regard, Cinderella plays out far more like a historical drama than as a fairy tale: relishing in the spectacle of gorgeously realized period sets and costumes more than fantastical characters and witchcraft (although the latter two still play an important role in the film).  Director Kenneth Branagh – who is most widely known for his work in Shakespeare adaptations – may have finally found his mainstream cinematic niche of adding an air of cultured historicism to otherwise outlandish films.

The kinds of flourishes that can most readily be attributed to him are the manner in which the characters of the King, Archduke and Stepmother are fleshed out.  While the animated King obsessed over the notion of playing with some royal grandchildren before he died, the new version is far more practical.  Here, the dying king is forced to walk the impossibly fine line between being a responsible monarch and an indulgent father: just as concerned over the well-being of the kingdom as he is the well-being of his son.  The Archduke, in turn, oversteps his bounds by pre-emptively promising the prince in marriage to an advantageous princess.  And the stepmother, far too aware of her role as the “other woman” in her new husband’s home, likewise seeks to advance the social standing of her daughters and her genetic household.

While I normally would try to temper my review with the realities of the film’s shortcomings, there’s honestly nothing that stands out as overtly negative.  The cast, although relatively unknown, is exceptional.  The direction is inspired and the writing more than serviceable.  While its pace might be a touch too slow and its concerns slightly too practical to captivate the very young, those very same aspects are likely to appeal to their parents.   Those who loved the animated classic are goin to enjoy this film about as much, while those who were put off by some of its more childish antics will be afforded a second chance to enjoy this classic story.

Rating:  8/10

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