Feminism has a crucial role to play in modern life, but I sometimes wish it would leave our fairy tales alone. The results of its revisionist meddling are too often unconvincing and unsatisfying.
Remember last year’s Maleficent? It turned an age-old story on its head by revealing that the fairy (Angelina Jolie) who turned a princess into a “Sleeping Beauty” was not evil at all. No, she was merely wronged and misunderstood. Worst of all, we learned that the somnambulant princess could not be awakened by a kiss from the handsome prince, but only by a motherly peck from that same fairy.
How heartwarming. And how utterly unromantic.
Thank goodness Disney’s new live-action version of Cinderella doesn’t wear its feminism on its sleeve. It has nods to modern sensibilities, to be sure, but they’re handled with a lighter touch.
As a result, Cinderella (Lily James) does not link arms with reformed versions of the bratty Drisella and Anastasia and shout, “Step-sisterhood is powerful!” Instead, she responds to their meanness by refusing to abandon the principles she learned from her late mother: to face life with courage and kindness.
This Cinderella is a plucky heroine who relies on her inner strength and her animal friends, including a bevy of cute (and subtly CGI’d) mice. She’s in dire straits, but she’s not looking for the rescue we know is coming. She stands on her own two feet.
Also slightly altered in this version of the tale is Cinderella’s stepmother (Cate Blanchett). She’s as mean as ever, but director Kenneth Branagh and screenwriter Chris Weitz don’t treat her as a standard movie villainess.
They make it clear that she’s jealous of the love her new husband (Ben Chaplin) still bears for his late wife, and of the bond he shares with his daughter, Ella. (The “Cinderella” moniker turns up later on.) It’s not hard to see why she lashes out at her stepdaughter once the girl’s father is out of the picture.
Given the number of blended families there are in the modern world, it’s important to stress that stepmothers are not automatically malevolent. The flick’s balanced portrayal suggests this while still allowing Blanchett’s character to be as evil as she needs to be.
Another neat revision Branagh and Weitz make to the fairy tale involves the relationship between Cinderella and the prince (Richard Madden). They’re allowed to meet as equals in a forest glen, the prince hiding his true identity by claiming he’s an “apprentice” who works at the palace. The ball then becomes his attempt to find this mysterious, kindhearted lass, even though his ailing father (Derek Jacobi) insists that he marry someone of equal birth.
True to tradition, Cinderella manages to get to the ball only because her fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) finds a creative use for a certain large pumpkin.
The uniformly spot-on cast sells every moment of this subtly revised tale, while the design team—including cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos and composer Patrick Doyle—surround it with the requisite amount of beauty.
Their combined efforts create a film that is every bit as uplifting and romantic as the original story was for our ancestors.
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Cinderella, rated PG, opens Thursday or Friday (March 12-13) at theaters nationwide.