ByBenjamin Marlatt, writer at

As told countless times before, most notably with Disney’s animated classic from 1950, Ella (Lily James), aka “Cinderella”, is the beloved daughter of aristocrats, who’s life is immediately turned into a nightmare by her evil stepmother Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett) following the unexpected deaths of her parents. But after an encounter with Prince Charming (Richard Madden), and the announcement of an upcoming palace ball held by the King (Derek Jacobi), Cinderella awaits a date with destiny that may finally reverse her misfortunes.

With the success of Frozen, Disney princesses, following a long pre-Elsa and Anna drought, seem to be back on top, and considering the box office success earned by last year’s Maleficent, Disney’s live-action, revisionist take on their own Sleeping Beauty, it’s no surprise that Mickey’s employees would be opening up the vault once again to see who else from their pantheon of famed princesses they could revisit.

Now, to those that read my Tuesday’s review of the original animated classic, you know how much I love that film, but I can’t say that I was looking forward to this version. Contrary to what you might be thinking, it had nothing to do with my love for the original and how dare they try to remake it ’cause, honestly, even the animated version is just another adapted retelling. It did, however, have everything to do with Maleficent being that bad of a movie, which in turn left me with very little interest in whatever revisited fairy tale they chose to do next.

But be it the low expectations or the fact that my interest did raise a little after seeing the first few trailers, I was not disappointed at all.

Unlike most of the fairy tales today, whether revisited or new, Cinderella isn’t going for revisionism here. This is simply a straightforward, traditional retelling, which I was perfectly fine with. Sure, I loved Frozen and the spin it gave to the traditional fairy tale, but for God’s sakes, not every fairy tale needs to have some hip, ironic twist. The Bechdel crowd can deal with it for one film. It’s not like your little girls are gonna see this film and suddenly give up all their goals and aspirations to be a strong career woman for being barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen.

Plus, out of all the aspects of Disney’s fairy tales, I’d be more concerned if I had daughters influenced to strike up conversations with rodents and barnyard animals than longing for a man.

Part of why this film ended up working for me is director Kenneth Branagh’s filmmaking touch. After dabbling in the action genre with Marvel’s Thor and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Branagh returns to his Shakespearean-esque wheelhouse. This man knows how to make a 18-19th century classical style setting better than anyone else, and it shows here, especially when it comes to Sandy Powell’s gorgeous costumes and Oscar winner Dante Ferretti’s production design.

Although this is a fairly faithful adaptation (the pumpkin transformation, Lucifer the cat and Cinderella’s mice friends are all present here), Branagh and screenwriter Chris Weitz wisely avoid turning this into a carbon copy of the 1950 film, and add a few liberties, most of which work. What doesn’t is a nefarious subplot involving Stellan Skarsgard’s Grand Duke – who goes from daffy but empathetic and likeable in the animated version to a snake oil politician here – that really adds nothing to the story. Plus, both Skarsgard and Nonso Anozie are two actors playing what was done by just one in the animated film, and having one or the other just play one role would’ve been better. Still, what works is the relationship between the King and his son, Prince Charming, which is expanded upon, and Cinderella and the prince first meeting prior to the ball (their meeting in the woods, as well as him accepting her as his bride despite her status as a lowly servant, were scenes originally meant to be in the animated film, but were cut by Walt Disney).

Of course, no matter how beautiful it looks, this film lives and dies by both its title character as well as the villain, and the lovely Lily James (from Downton Abbey) is more than up to the task, providing much warmth and life to her portrayal of the enduring fairy tale character. A role as persistently kind and good-hearted as Cinderella could border on obnoxiously precious but James shines in a way that has us rooting for her from the moment she appears onscreen. Cate Blanchett has some big shoes to fill in following Eleanor Audley’s terrifying voice performance, but she’s won two Oscars for a reason, and she’s scene-chewing fun. She rightfully doesn’t mimic Audley’s take, who was cold and sinister, making Lady Tremaine here more a high-class, arrogant snob, though there is one moment near the end, when she confronts Cinderella about the glass slipper, where she’s just as much ice in her veins as Audley was, and she hits out of the park.

As the King, Branagh regular Derek Jacobi makes great use of his limited screen time, providing wisdom and heart as the aging ruler of the land. Richard Madden (from Game of Thrones) brings a little more depth to the Prince Charming role, and has great chemistry with Lily James. And, of course, who else can play such an endearingly loopy character like the Fairy Godmother as perfectly as Helena Bonham Carter?

Note: Prior to the film, there’s a mini-sequel animated short, Frozen Fever, featuring the newest inductees to the Hall of Disney Princesses, Anna and Elsa, that’s sweet, funny and contains a catchy song that will drive all parents mad when their kids have sung it for about the millionth time.

Did we need another Cinderella? No, but thanks to Kenneth Branagh’s elegant direction, some splendid production design and top-notch performances, this version avoids being just another ho-hum retelling and is instead a sweet, well-made, mostly faithful nod to the original Disney animated classic that takes a refreshingly traditional approach to the story. Is it as good as its animated predecessor? No, but it also doesn’t have to be, and is still one of the better renditions of this particular fairy tale that we’ve gotten in a long time.

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