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Film review: Cinderella **

By Preston Wilder

Going in, I wondered why Disney were making a new live-action version of Cinderella, one of the most archetypal (i.e. over-familiar) stories in the Western canon – but the first thing I saw was a short cartoon called Frozen Fever (it’s playing with the main feature), and now I don’t wonder anymore. The short is a riff on Frozen, of course, with Anna trying to organise Elsa’s birthday party and the birthday girl getting serenaded by Olaf and myriad mini-snowmen – and Frozen is now the most successful cartoon of all time, so a market has clearly opened up for tales that combine girlish suffering with princes and princesses. Enter Cinders, not quite as spunky as Anna but equally adept at smiling through her tears.

There are other good reasons why Disney should produce a new Cinderella. The studio works with long-term plans (it owns both Marvel and Star Wars) and one long-term plan is to make live-action versions of its old cartoons – not such a crazy idea when you consider that Beauty and the Beast became a Broadway musical that grossed over $1 billion (a movie version is coming out next year). Then there’s the fact that Cinderella is big in the West but maybe not so well-known in China – and anyone who thinks that’s unimportant has missed a memo on how the bean-counters operate nowadays.

It’s more fun to speculate on why Cinderella exists than to talk about the film itself, which is handsome to look at – the cinematography is by Our Man in Hollywood, the Cypriot DP Haris Zambarloukos – but shockingly unimaginative, and no less cartoonish than Frozen Fever. The opening is almost self-parody, a family so idyllic that Dad grins like a madman (Ben Chaplin is a bit too manic) and Mum sings little Ella to sleep every night. Mum dies, of course, and Dad gets married to a wicked stepmother (Cate Blanchett, in the ‘Oscar-winning actress does panto’ role) – though she’s more passive-aggressive than outright wicked, suggesting, like Lumbergh in Office Space, that Ella should go ahead and sleep in the attic from now on. That’s a nice touch, and I also liked the hint of something almost sexual in Ella and Dad’s relationship – emphasis on her heaving bosom as she cries “Come back to me!” – spurring the stepmum to jealousy, at least if I thought for a moment that director Kenneth Branagh did it on purpose.

The plotting isn’t quite as I remember it, though it may come directly from the 1950 Disney cartoon. There are mice, and a cat named Lucifer, which is all I know of said cartoon (never seen it) – but Cinderella also meets her prince in the woods, not at the ball, which creates some insoluble problems. If the prince throws the palace shindig specifically so he can meet her again, why does he allow her to remain mysterious? Why not say straight away ‘You’re the girl I met in the woods. I think you’re hot. What’s your name?’. Admittedly, it’s implied that the magic makes Cindy unrecognisable, so he doesn’t know it’s her (which would seem to defeat the purpose) – but then, what, he organises a ball just to meet some random girl then instantly falls in love with some other random girl? And why not just send out his soldiers to track her down after that meeting in the woods in the first place?

The film only really comes to life at the climax, which works beautifully. The worm turns, as we know it will – Lily James, a likeable Cinders, brings down the house with her dignified “You never have been, and never will be, my mother!” – and the happy ending is properly heartwarming. There’s a reason why this story has proved so durable – and in fact there are other little pleasures, like the Fairy Godmother settling on pumpkins when she can’t find watermelons, or indeed kumquats. Yet the question remains, why a new version? Can’t parents just watch the cartoon, or read the storybook with their children?

Yes, they can – but the old versions are old, not updated for modern sensitivities. The Captain of the Guard is a black man in Cinderella (Nigerian-British actor Nonso Anozie), which is obviously anachronistic but makes the film multi-cultural, especially since his coolness is contrasted with the coldness of the (white, middle-aged) Grand Duke. More importantly, Disney make all the right noises about girls and boys in an egalitarian society: Messages include ‘be yourself’ (“Love me for what I am,” says our heroine) and the importance of being classless, a commoner being as good as a princess. Hopefully the film can be a hit in the Age of Frozen, allowing the studio to cross-breed the two franchises; may I suggest ‘Olaf Meets Cinderella: There’s No Man Like a Snowman’? You’re welcome, Disney.

 

DIRECTED BY Kenneth Branagh
STARRING Lily James, Cate Blanchett, Richard Madden
US 2015 112 mins

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