Disney plays it safe but dazzles with wondrous sets and wardrobe

Once upon a time, in a land without child protective services, lived a fair maiden named Cinderella. The story of the kind young lady who is treated like the house maid by her stepmother and her two step sisters is the latest Disney tale to receive the live-action treatment.

With Shakespeare aficionado Kenneth Branagh at the directorial helm, the magical and monarchical story of Cinderella is in good hands.

Unlike other recent Disney live-action adaptations that try to add to, explain and/or re-tell their classic tales and end up as fantastic flops, Cinderella plays it safe and only places its narrative in the midst of elegant dialogue, stunning sets and a wonderful wardrobe, created by costume designer Sandy Powell, who has won Academy Awards for Shakespeare in Love, The Aviator and Young Victoria.

 As the old tale goes, Ella (Lily James from Downton Abbey) is the heiress to an aristocratic family played by Hayley Attwell (Captain America: The First Avenger) and Ben Chaplin (The Book of Negros). After Ella’s mother dies of illness, her father finds — apparently at the entrance to the first circle of Hell — a fashionable widow who soon becomes Ella’s stepmother.

Played by Cate Blanchett, the insufferable stepmother brings with her two dim-witted daughters played by Sophie McShera and Holliday Grainger, who aren’t inherently evil, but just subject to a skewed sense of entitlement and superiority taught to them by their mother.

The result is the horrid mistreatment of Ella, the likes of which made me excited for the well-deserved comeuppance the stepfamily will receive.

Turned into a glorified house servant, an exasperated Ella rides off into the woods and runs into a dashing young man who introduces himself as Kit, played by Richard Madden (Game of Thrones). The young man is actually the Prince of the kingdom in which they live, a kingdom not really given a name. So the Prince of North “Somewhereland” becomes struck by the beauty and wisdom of the young maiden, enough so that he sends out an invitation to all the women in North “Somewhereland” to come to the royal ball where he shall pick a bride to be his Queen after his ailing father, The King (The talented Derek Jacobi), dies.The story of the Prince and the Maiden is rekindled with Lily James bringing a strong, patient and loving version of Cinderella.

Photo Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures, Inc.

James plays a very strong and independent version of the enchanting Cinderella, which in the original is more doe-eyed and innocent. In this interpretation, Ella is patient and kind, yet never loses her defiant edge.

Basically, it’s the tale as old as time! Wait, that’s Beauty and the Beast — which is also up for an all-human reboot.

But Cinderella is the tale most people are familiar with, only grown up to makes you feel less weird about throwing on the VHS cassette you or your parents have owned since the mid-’80s. It hasn’t been completely devoid of the magic you loved from the original, but instead given a breath of reality that gives it a fresh new vibrancy. Instead of putting Cinderella into a contemporary setting, or drifting too far to the magical, or worse yet, the far-too-real, it tells the story as purely as it can.

The film follows the well-known story of pumpkin coaches, helper mice, fairy godmothers and glass slippers. With a dash of computer generated magic that actually doesn’t look too jarring.
The set design and computer-generated landscapes are actually quite beautiful and mostly seamless. Other than a couple of times where the film was obviously pandering to the younger audience by throwing in some cartoony slapstick comedy that ultimately clashes with the whole film, what you know is what you get in this adaptation.

The liberties taken from the original fairy tale written by Charles Perrault over 300 years ago, and the original Disney animated film, are subtle and I think, make the story better. Even if the film is sometimes bright and corny, you can’t help by smile at the cuteness of the animals and the moment when Blanchett and the daughters eat a hefty spoonful of crow.

2.5/4 Stars

gbarraza@cjournal.com

Thumbnail photo courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures, Inc.