How charming... how perfectly charming...
The current decade's wave of fairy tale reimaginings has led to mostly mediocre efforts, often times borrowing major elements from the original stories without any semblance of charm and little to no heart. Actually, let's be honest: these aren't new versions of classic fairy tales; they're riffs on classic movies based on fairy tales and old classics. I have yet to view one of these "re-imaginings" that exceeds or even matches the originals they're capitalizing on, and unfortunately, the new Cinderella is no exception. However, I won't deny that I still liked it.
Stop me if you've heard this one: in what seems to be the Victorian Era, Ella (Lily James) is a young woman living with her father in a gorgeous house in a thriving kingdom. Her mother died when she was a child, and years later her father dies on a business trip. She now contends with her horrible stepmother Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett) and selfish stepsisters (Sophie McShera and Holliday Grainger). An opportunity arises for Ella (now degraded and nicknamed "Cinderella" by her step family) to attend a ball where commoners are invited to mingle with the noblemen. Tremaine sabotages her efforts to attend, leaving her feeling truly hopeless for the first time in her life. She gets some help from her fairy godmother (Helena Bonham-Carter), who makes her a carriage out of a pumpkin, fixes up her dress, and sets her on her way to find the prince of her dreams (Richard Madden) and escape her terrible life.
I'll be damned if that isn't beat for beat what happens in EVERY. SINGLE. CINDERELLA. STORY. But I'll also be damned if actually watching and enjoying it yet again doesn't prove just how timeless the story is. When contrasted with its animated counterpart, there are notable elements that get a bit more fleshing out. The loss of Ella's parents is shown to us rather than told, and Tremain's motivations are clear and easy to relate to. There's also a nice touch of humanity given to the prince character that was missing from the original film, being that he's actually a character and all. He actually meets Ella early in the story when she doesn't know he's a prince, and it's one of the most enjoyable scenes in the movie. These changes are all well and good, but they are counterbalanced by things that the animated movie does ten times better.
The biggest emotional moment in the original is when the stepsisters brutally rip Cinderella's dress apart, leaving her (and kids in the audience) emotionally disturbed. Maybe the classic Cinderella story gets a bad rap for its main character being too passive, but I've always seen her as an underdog. She goes through a lot to get her happily ever after, and it's well-earned. In the live-action version, the dress ripping scene is so subdued and brief that it hardly registers; Tremain rips the dress's shoulder and tells her it's outdated. That's what gets Cinderella to her lowest point? That scene needs to be an emotional gut punch, and instead it was more of a poke to the arm. I won't spoil the ending, but I will say that it lacks the "I have the other slipper" moment that really defined the original movie, and while I appreciate the effort to not rehash the same twist, what replaces it falls a bit flat. Add to that the lack of musical sequences, (another part of what makes the original a classic) and you're left with yet another unnecessary remake that can't hold a candle to the original.
Comparisons to the original aside, how does it stand on its own? It's a visual stunner for sure; the costumes and sets are gorgeous, and the acting is great throughout. Aside from a few scenes in the opening with Ella's mother (Halley Atwell, AKA Agent Freakin' Carter!), the film doesn't take on a cheesy tone, mostly because of the actors' commitment to their roles and Kenneth Branagh's spot-on direction. While her evil stepmother could never replace Eleanor Audley's Lady Tremaine, Cate Blanchett puts her own spin on the character and gives her a weightiness I wasn't expecting.
Like The Amazing Spider-Man, the new Cinderella movie tries to justify its existence by changing many little things while leaving major beats from the original intact. That does not mean it needed to exist, but like the Spider-Man remake, the execution is just good enough to give it a pass. Good performances across the board, a sense of fun, and a brisk pace help make Cinderella a nice "turn off your brain" kind of movie, and one that I was content to watch. This isn't a "gritty" retelling like Snow White and the Huntsman, a disastrous misfire like Oz: The Great and Powerful, or a "villain's side of the story" like Maleficent. This is a perfectly nice remake that, despite being 65 years older than the film it's based on, fails to be better than it or countless other Cinderella movies that have come in-between.