This review contains spoilers for the original fairy tale version of Cinderella, as well as the 1950 Disney animated version. It also contains minor spoilers for the short film Frozen Fever.
As both Honest Trailers and CinemaSins have recently shown, there are some problems with Disney’s retelling of the Cinderella story. But it’s such a huge part of the Disney empire that we were bound to get a new one at some point.
Welp, we certainly did.
Cinderella, for those who’ve never read or seen it before, is the story of a girl whose parents have died, leaving her under the yoke of her stepmother and stepsisters. They treat her ill, causing her to sleep near the ashes of the hearth, leading to her name going from “Ella” to “Cinderella”. At some point, the king throws a royal ball so that the prince can be married, and all eligible maidens are invited. Cinderella tries to go, but her stepmother and stepsisters destroy her handmade dress. Fortunately, her fairy godmother steps in, uses magic to create for her a coach, a dress, horses, a driver, and footmen, as well as a pair of glass slippers. She goes to the ball, dances with the prince, captures his heart, and runs off when the clock strikes twelve and the magic wears off. She leaves a shoe behind, and the prince orders that all women in the kingdom try on the shoe. Eventually he discovers Cinderella, the shoe fits, and they live happily ever after.
Great story, huh? Totally empowering for women everywhere — all you have to do is depend on a magical woman showing up out of nowhere, not when you’re being mistreated by your late father’s second wife, but when you really want to go to the ball and have a good time. And because you’re pretty, the prince will instantly fall in love with you.
The 2015 version of Cinderella is a little different. Not a lot — all the main story beats are there — but it’s changed just enough to keep the viewer’s interest. It kept my daughter’s interest, at any rate… but she’s eight, and the target audience. I’m not.
Director Kenneth Branagh (Thor) did a passable job with the material he was given, showing us hugely-sweeping vistas, bright ballrooms, opulent palaces, and deep forests. Everything felt big — Cinderella’s house, the palace, the “small kingdom”. Even… well, I’m sorry, costume designer person, but the pants the male characters wore didn’t leave much to the imagination. Maybe some codpieces? Anyway, Branagh chose to expand the story by making everything feel bigger and broader, and he hit all the marks in that regard. I wouldn’t say there was anything special about his direction; it was better than average, but not super-amazingly-awesome.
Lily James (season 4 of Secret Diary of a Call Girl) played the titular character (for about 75 percent of the film), and she was quite endearing throughout, even though her story went from “a dream is a wish your heart makes” to “have courage and be kind”. The latter message is much better for girls, too. Well, for everyone, although to be fair all of the male characters in the film were reasonably courageous and kind. Even the Grand Duke, who I think had a little subplot that was heavily edited — similar to what some people think happened to Hans’s in Frozen — seemed like a decent enough fellow.
Playing opposite Cinderella was Richard Madden (Game of Thrones) as Kit — nicknamed “Prince Charming” by another character. It was really his character that got the most expansion when upgrading from the 1950 version; we get to see his hopes and desires more clearly than Prince Charming of the 1950 animated film, and while Madden’s performance wasn’t nearly as good as his Robb Stark, he didn’t suck. To be fair, it’s hard to live up to that performance.
The other men in the film — Derek Jacobi (Dead Again) as the King, Stellan Skarsgård (David Fincher’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) as the aforementioned Grand Duke, Nonso Anozie (also from Game of Thrones) as the Captain of the Guard — all seemed to be reasonably nice people, although (and never let it be said that I don’t think Anozie is an excellent actor, because he is) I think the latter got all the “sassy black friend” lines. (Speaking of that — Cinderella is a very white film, although there are a few black and Asian characters outside of Anozie, and at least one Middle Easterner. I’m not really sure how that could have been changed, or even if it should have; just noting it.)
The top billing, however, went to Cate Blanchett (Lord of the Rings) as the Wicked Stepmother, Lady Tremaine. I was ambivalent toward her character; she hit the same notes as in the 1950 film, although now she’s more concerned with money and status, and… well, y’know how in movies today the bad guy tends to devolve in terms of reasonableness and sanity as the film progresses? I didn’t so much buy that with Blanchett. As for her daughters, the stepsisters Anastasia (Holliday Grainger, The Borgias) and Drisella (Sophie McShera, Galavant), they performed adequate comic relief in just about the way that one would expect. (Because this film focuses on Cinderella’s relationship with her step-family, it easily passes the Bechdel test as well. In case you were wondering.)
You may also have noticed Hayley Atwell (Agent Carter) and Ben Chaplin (The Truth About Cats And Dogs) as Cinderella’s parents. Atwell looks weird with blond hair, and Chaplin has an almost Joker-like smile. That’s about all I remember. And of course who can forget Helena Bonham Carter (Fight Club), playing Helena Bonham Carter in a white dress with a magic wand and saying “bippity boppity boo”?
I also want to call out Patrick Doyle’s music — though this film didn’t have as many songs as the 1950 version, Doyle wove in the original music cues from the animated film, sometimes in unexpected ways (such as when Cinderella leaves the ball). Unexpected, but pleasant. Good job, sir.
I do feel that I got my money’s worth from this film (it was 110 minutes long, plus about eight trailers and a short film preceding the feature), and as I said my daughter liked it. Writer Chris Weitz (The Golden Compass) changed enough from the 1950 film to be fresh, and it was pretty to look at… but I didn’t really like it that much. I felt myself getting critical, especially as the first act wore on. I mean, it’s a film about a girl whose parents died, and you can’t exactly have cartoon mice outwitting cartoon cats if you’re going to make a more serious movie, so you have to fill the rest of it with something. I also think there were so many emotional gut-punches (one of them that seemed to literally come out of nowhere) in the first act that when we got another one toward the end we were inured to them. It made me like the film less for it, which sucks, because there actually was a plot through-line for the last one and it was cheapened.
It may be that I’m a bit harsher on Cinderella in general than I ought to be because I’m a divorced dad now, and at some point my daughter is going to have a stepmother. Many people I know have great relationships with their step-parents; sure, there are some bad apples out there, but I’d like to think that most parents who remarry have chosen someone who will do right by their kids. Maybe things were different when the original story was written; I wasn’t there. Maybe the Brothers Grimm just needed a convenient scapegoat. But every time Lady Tremaine mistreated Cinderella, I cringed inwardly because my girlfriend was sitting right on the other side of my daughter. My daughter can differentiate fiction from reality; she’s old enough, and intelligent enough. My girlfriend is nothing like Lady Tremaine; she treats my daughter as if she was her own child. And, I mean, clearly Tremaine loves her biological children. It’s just… if you’re concerned that your child might have issues with a stepmother (or potential stepmother), you might want to skip this film.
Disney doesn’t put out terrible films. They just don’t. I don’t think Cinderella was their best ever, but it could’ve been worse. At least we got some amazing trailers on the front of it.
In addition to the feature film, if you bought a ticket for Cinderella you also got to see Frozen Fever, a seven-minute short film bringing back all your favorite characters from the original Frozen — that is, unless you liked the Duke of Weselton, because he wasn’t there. In the short, Princess Anna’s birthday has come, and after all the time she ignored her, Queen Elsa wishes to give Anna the best birthday ever.
Unfortunately, Elsa has a cold, and as she brings Anna on a birthday scavenger hunt around the entire capital city of Arendelle, Elsa only feels worse and worse, causing hijinks galore.
The birthday song isn’t that great. I don’t foresee kids singing it like they sang “Let It Go”, and I’m pretty sure that, no matter how much Disney Channel pushes it, it’s not going to be a big hit. It’s a story song, not a power ballad, and it feels shoehorned into the short just to give us a song and abridge the necessary rising action leading toward a pretty amusing climax.
Speaking of shoehorning… yeah. Everything made it into this short — Kristof talking to Sven, Olaf’s segmented body, Wandering Oaken, Hans’s boat, and, yes, sandwiches.
Compared to Feast, Frozen Fever leaves something to be desired. I chuckled, and the kids in the theater loved it, but it’s barely a morsel, especially given that every kid with Disney Channel now knows that Frozen 2 is coming in 2017.
About the Author
Josh Roseman (not the trombonist; the other one) lives in Georgia. His fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Escape Pod, and the Crossed Genres anthology Fat Girl in a Strange Land. His latest story, “Return to Waypoint 5”, can be read at Black Denim Lit. Find him online at roseplusman.com, or on Twitter @listener42, and check out his column “Six of the Best” over @nerderypublic.