Cinderella, directed by Kenneth Branagh, is the first in an upcoming series of re-imaginings of classic Disney animations (Beauty and the Beast and Mulan are up next). Although, perhaps re-imagining isn’t the right word, given that this live-action version is pretty much indistinguishable from the animated original, even down to Cinderella’s affinity with mice. Given that it follows in the footsteps of films like Maleficent and Disney’s juggernaut Frozen, which both mixed up the traditional formula of the fairytale, Cinderella is somewhat surprisingly straight-laced. We live in an era where heroines now are all armed with swords, guns and witty one-liners; the most active thing that Cinderella does is some emotional horse-riding, and her mantra of ‘Be Kind and Have Courage’ means that everything that comes out of her mouth is the verbal equivalent to a sugar-coated cupcake.
But these aren’t necessarily bad things. Cinderella may be traditional but it’s also sweet, charming and damn is it pretty, with impeccable set design and costuming. In fact, there are several improvements on Disney’s original animation. It’s quite a feat to take the animated Cinderella (the blandest of the Disney princesses, and dangerously close to Snow White levels of annoying) and make her bearable, let alone likeable. But somehow, writer Chris Weitz and Downton Abbey’s Lily James manage it. Cinderella may be nice, but she’s not sappy, and she can stand up for herself. In a role that could be irritating beyond belief, Lily James is very likeable and actually quite adorable. Richard Madden similarly manages to bring personality to a potentially bland role. The leads are endearing and the relationship is easy to root for, even if the characters lack depth and are completely without flaws; the worst thing you could probably say about them is that they’re just too darn pleasant.
Among the cast however, Cate Blanchett is the stand-out. She is the only one to truly give her archetypal character depth, transforming her into a femme-fetale figure, worn down by life’s hardships. She’s a compelling villain, and demands your attention when she’s on-screen – partly due to Blanchett’s abilities, partly due to how utterly fantastic she looks in her stunning 1940s-esque fashions, designed by Sandy Powell. Helena Bonham-Carter too, is excellent, on delightfully kooky form as Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother. She brings whimsy to film that, in all honesty could do with a bit more. The film isn’t so straight-laced that it isn’t fun, but, without going down the more subversive route, a little bit more quirk and kookiness is needed to make it stand out, and more imagination could have elevated this adaptation from good to great.
In the end, Cinderella isn’t going to change the world, but for a family outing, it’s perfect. Light, fluffy and fun, the message it delivers to kids – to be kind – isn’t a bad thing to encourage, and makes a refreshing change from other films featuring more ruthless heroines. Still, a little bit more subversion would be welcome, and here’s hoping that the Emma Watson-helmed Beauty and the Beast, up next, has a bit more kick.