Oh, the things we tell our daughters. All those princess stories, for example — the ones that promise the little girls that they’re special, that a prince awaits, that dress-up is destiny and can be purchased for $12.99 at iParty. What once were folk tales is now a billion-dollar industry; the Walt Disney Company leads the charge and has for decades, but narratives of princesses beleaguered and triumphant are everywhere in our culture. What’s “50 Shades of Grey” but a “Beauty and the Beast” fantasy for grown women, the maiden leading her Prince Charmless out of the Forest of Kink and into the Land of the Loving?
Ironically, it’s Disney itself that’s currently working the most interesting changes on the classic princess formula. In 2013’s “Frozen,” the prince turned out to be a rat and the focus was on the bonds and seething rivalries of sisters — the movie was not only a box office bonanza but an intensely powerful psychodrama for a generation of girls. And “Cinderella” — the new, live-action “Cinderella,” that is — is an attempt by the Mouse House to revive one of Walt’s oldest fairy-tale adaptations with care and class and modernity and timelessness.
That sounds like a recipe for disaster, a pumpkin that should resolutely refuse to become a coach. Yet the movie works, or stirringly enough that the studio should have another hit on its hands. With a script written by Chris Weitz (the “American Pie” movies, yes, but also “About a Boy” and the valiant but hobbled 2007 adaptation of “The Golden Compass”), the new “Cinderella” de-animates and then re-animates the 1950 Disney cartoon, adding genetic strains of movie Britishness. The director is Kenneth Branagh (“Henry V,” “Hamlet”), the production values more lavish Jane Austen than glitzy Magic Kingdom. There are not one but two “Downton Abbey” actresses in the cast. This seems less like snob appeal than a desire to take the story closer to its old-world roots while broadening the audience to include young women pining for an uncynical fairy tale in this world of 140-character snark.
The tone, then, is straightforward and open-hearted; with one exception — Helena Bonham Carter’s Fairy Godmother, a welcome dose of lunacy — there’s nothing in the movie that’s trying to be hip. Lily James embodies the movie’s approach as Cinderella: She’s sweet without being saccharine, simple without seeming like a muttonhead (as her “Downton Abbey” character, Lady Rose MacClare, often does). The mantra of this “Cinderella” — its version of the Golden Rule, passed to the girl by her dying mother (Hayley Atwell) — is “Have courage and be kind,” and there are worse messages for a young person to absorb.
Right, the dying mum; this is a Disney film, after all, which means no mother makes it past the first 10 minutes alive, and dad (Ben Chaplin) had better have his insurance paid up too. Cinderella is left in the care of her stepmother, Lady Tremaine, who is played by Cate Blanchett as one of Joan Crawford’s more magnificently delusional late-career heroines, swirling hemlines and all. The stepsisters are comic twits named Anastasia (Holliday Grainger) and Drusilla (Sophie McShera, Daisy of “Downton Abbey” jumping at the chance to get out of the kitchen and play the clown).
There are a few too many nods to the de-Grimmification of the 1950 original: digitized mice companions (they almost speak English in squeaky chitters), a nasty cat, a stray “bippity-boppity-boo.” All unnecessary except for the mice, which are cute enough to charm the kiddies. The prince, though, is a major upgrade. As played by Richard Madden (Robb Stark on “Game of Thrones”), he’s a mensch with something approximate to an actual personality, and the scenes between him and Cinderella are charged with an artlessness and affection that is, for lack of a better word, charming.
“Cinderella” does get its CGI on with the arrival of Fairy Godmother and the transformation of mice, lizards, and goose into horses, footmen, and coachman. For a few scenes, the movie’s delicate balance of bedside classicism is in danger of becoming just another ride at Disney World. But the first dance at the ball is the film’s emotional center, the camera twirling, the couple alone in the crowd; it’s a rapturous sequence and one that will probably set most little girls up for a lifetime of romantic disappointment. (In fairness, a steady diet of Cary Grant movies did the same for their great-grandmothers.) Weitz’s script is canny enough to stick with the glass slippers while having Fairy Godmother assure Cinderella (and every woman in the audience) that “they’re really comfortable.” Weitz also gives the prince an inner life and a secret garden to which Cinderella is escorted at one point. Sorry, no whips, but there is a swing right out of a Fragonard painting.
It ends as it must, an old tale made appreciably new and a fantasy refurbished for new resonance and fresh profits. “Cinderella” has been made with enough skill and sincerity to disarm all but the most jaded viewers. It’s a happy ending for everyone — Disney’s accountants most of all.
(Note: “Cinderella” is preceded by the seven-minute short “Frozen Fever,” which reunites princesses Anna and Elsa, Kristoff, Olaf, and Sven, and introduces an army of what can only be called snow-boogers. It is fast, brief, and hilarious.)
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