Can you tell the same story over and over again without it losing its magic, without it losing that little special something that made it a story worth telling in the first place? Hollywood's answer to this question over the past few years has been a resounding "no." In order to tell a story, you have to take apart the old one, bit my bit, until it's broken into its component parts and then put it back together--Frankenstein style--so that there is some new twist, some new allure. Maleficent becomes the tragic heroine and King Stephan is an evil prick. The Wicked Witch of the West is really a lost ugly little girl who never fit in and Dorothy is an unfortunate interloper. Ursula's crown and kingdom were stolen by her vile brother, Triton. The taglines are all the same, "this is the story you thought you knew!" And so it goes, revision after revision until the story is muddled, the lines in the sand are less clear, and you're not sure from whence you began. But here's the thing: sometimes the oldest stories, those stories with clear villains and heroes, the ones that are as old as time, those stories with their magic wands and wicked stepmothers and enchanting servant girls and charming princes...are still the best. You need not tell me a new story; you just have to tell me the old story well.
Here's the thing. You know this story. I know this story. Everyone in the blessed world knows this story. That's the kind of cultural collateral 'Cinderella' has. It doesn't matter if your version of the story has a glass slipper, a golden slipper, or a slipper made of fur (yes, really). It's the same story and it's a powerful one. There is very little revision in this updated live action Disney version. Everything is as it should be; Cinderella herself is charming, brave, and kind. She works hard for her wicked family; she is kind to animals who are, in turn, kind to her and help her sew dresses and keep her company. Ella is beautiful on the outside but its her inner beauty that shines the brightest. Her prince is handsome and sweet and attentive and all together charming (and played by Richard Madden, who is startlingly beautiful once you get him out of the furs and leathers of North). The wicked step mother is in her trope-tastic glory as she mentally and verbally abuses Cinderella; as sly as a fox, she moves throughout the scene as an ominous black cloud, simply hating Cinderella for being pretty and kind and youthful. The stepsisters, Anastasia and Drusilla, are loud, ridiculous and garish. The fairy godmother is like something out of another world, meaning that she is either quite mad or you are for believing in her bippty boppity boos. Gus Gus the mouse is as chubby and adorable as always. There is a small bit of revision in that the writers do try to flesh out Lady Tremaine a bit more than the classic animated Disney story but not the extent that she suddenly becomes a hero or even anti-hero. Oh, no. Never that far. Lady Tremaine is a sad woman but it has turned her bitter instead of allowing us to be sympathetic. Lady Tremaine is every inch the Wicked Stepmother cliche and the story is the better for it. I don't need her to be tragic and lonesome and heartbroken, leaving my loyalties torn between the kind Cinderella and the "evil isn't born, it's made" Stepmother. I am perfectly comfortable with her classic villainy. The story is supremely old and it fits...well, it fits like a glass slipper on the correct ladies foot.
--Holy smokes, this film is breathtakingly gorgeous. It's as if you have been popped into a color factory where every color is richer and more defined and less tainted by the world. The colors of this film are almost unnaturally and jarringly beautiful. There is a veritable explosion of blues from the soft sky blue of Ella's peasant dress, to the rich deep ocean blue of the Prince's jacket, to the clear almost gem like cerulean or cyan of Ella's ball gown. The costumes themselves complete the story, working to tell the tale you already know. The prince's soft green hues match Ella's light blues; a study in complements instead of contrast. The Wicked Stepmother's first appearance has her in jet black that sucks all the color and energy from the room as she becomes the ominous sign of abuse and neglect. She is later in the darker, energy pulling greens that seek to drown out Ella's blues, just as Lady Tremaine schemes to keep Ella locked in the attic. The step sisters are forever in unnatural colors of pinks and yellows that stand apart from the idilyic country colors that make up Cinderella's world. The warm browns and other spring and autumnal earth tones found on Ella's country estate are at odds with the polka dots and heavily brocaded outwear of Ana and Dru. All of it screams that the two sisters and their mother simply do not belong. See, costume design. It matters.
--Apart from the costumes, though, the scenery itself is mesmerizing. Every angle is carefully set up with light and shadow so that the rooms look appropriately lux or desolate. The castle, home of the king and prince, is grand and felt like something that took hundreds of years to get right instead of the set designers working for a few months to get all the details right.
--The transformation scene, in which Ella is turned into her princess best, is straight up, pure, unfiltered magic. If Walt Disney were to pop up out of his grave and watch this scene, he would nod with approval and say, "Yes. That is what I intended." Those iconic glass slippers might be one of the most gorgeous things I've ever seen on film. I shall require them in my closet, post haste.
--Helena Bonham Carter as the Fairy Godmother. Because of course. Who else would pull off a dress the size of a small moon and be completely absurd but somehow endearing? Her makeup for her small but memorable role was spot on as well. She was the picture of ethereal other-worldly charm.
--Richard Madden as Prince Kit. I spent half the film drowning in his blue eyes and other half cursing George RR Marin for killing Robb Stark.
--Finally, a fairy tale movie that sticks to the actual fairy tale.
--I have very little to say here; as you might be able to tell this is a rave and a gush from me. The problems are few and more nitpicky. Lily James performed adequately as the titular Cinderella. She was spunky and alive but there was something simpering about her that did manage to grate on my nerves toward the end. She has a very low pitch voice that is full of air, and that lends to Ella's delicate nature but also makes me a bit restless, especially when she's expounding the same moral philosophy of being "courageous and kind" over and over.
--Maybe I am becoming overly cynical in my old age, but I found the first 15 minutes of the film--in which we see Ella's perfect childhood and family--a bit too saccharine and sweet. Any more of it and I would probably would have gotten a cavity. Yes, it serves as a contrast to life with the Lady Tremaine but there is something to be said about believability.
--Did I really need 'Frozen Fever' before hand? No, not really. Though, you'll never hear me say no to more Olaf, especially when he has cake.
--Not nearly enough Gus Gus. That mouse was flipping adorable.
A film that sparkles and shines with the magic of yesteryear and reminds us all of what it was to be a child discovering fairy tales for the first time.