It was the holiday season of 1987. Disney had rereleased its 1950 feature, “Cinderella,” in theaters on November 20th, and my parents decided to take their one-year-old son (full disclosure: me) on his first trip to the movies. According to my mom and dad, it was the moment when I instantly fell in love with cinema. While others kids were fidgeting in their chairs and making a ruckus, I was perched on the edge of my seat for the entirety of the film’s 74 minutes. So taken was I with the picture that on my way out, I tried belting out the lyrics of the Fairy Godmother’s unforgettable incantation, “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo,” but my mother recalls that the words as I interpreted them sounded more like, “Goolah Sing! Goolah Sing!” I was hooked from that day on, as was “Whiplash” director Damien Chazelle, who cited the film on an Oscar questionnaire as his first movie memory.
Looking back on it all these years later, it’s easy to see why the film—helmed by the directorial trio of Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson and Hamilton Luske—served as an ideal introduction to the art form. It has suspense worthy of Hitchcock, slapstick worthy of Chaplin and songs worthy of Broadway, not to mention some truly unforgettable characters. The greatness of any Disney animated feature can be judged on the strength of its villain, and “Cinderella” has not one but two showstoppers: wicked stepmother Lady Tremaine (brilliantly voiced by Maleficent herself, Eleanor Audley) and her devious cat, Lucifer.
It’s a joy to watch the ever-calculating feline weighing the scales in its fiendish mind while attempting to outwit heroic mice Jacques and Gus (both voiced by James MacDonald), as they attempt to gather the materials needed to stitch together a dress for their beloved “Cinderelly” (Ilene Woods). The image of Lucifer’s face poking through a frilly shirt sleeve as it lunges closer and closer toward its prey is both hilarious and terrifying. The same can be said of Audley, whose voice slinks along stealthily like a snake before firing sudden orders (“Hold your tongue!”) as Tremaine’s eyes widen in ghoulish rage. When she’s finally defeated in the film’s applause-worthy finale, her expression (seen above) warrants comparison to Lon Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera.
In contrast, Cinderella may come off as rather bland, but she is the first Disney heroine to display a tangible edge and spunk in her personality. She gets perturbed at the clock chimes signaling yet another day of endless chores, and is cheerfully sardonic when referring to the uproarious “music lesson” held by Tremaine for her two klutzy daughters, whose rendition of “Sing Sweet Nightengale” (complete with flapping hand gestures) is truly one for the ages. Lost in the shuffle here, of course, is the nearly mute Prince, who is reduced to a MacGuffin much like the glass slipper or attic key. His pivotal encounter with Cinderella is viewed in extreme wide shot from the perspective of two more comic sidekicks, the childlike King (a precursor to Triton, Belle’s father and the sultan in “Aladdin”) and his enormously sympathetic Grand Duke—both voiced by Luis Van Rooten.
Perhaps the filmmakers figured that kiddies would be uninterested in the romancing of their titular heroine, but this undercooked approach ultimately renders her a supporting player in her own movie (she’s basically Scrooge in “Muppet Christmas Carol”). That being said, the film still stands as a masterpiece of timeless Disney artistry, chockfull of classic visual gags—the stepsister’s foot springing from the tiny slipper that only the oddly toeless Cinderella can fit; Gus sucking in his stomach to avoid being scalded by a steaming drop of tea; the king getting knocked on the head by his imaginary grandchild. And then there’s the transcendently beautiful moment when the reflections of Cinderella in numerous soap bubbles harmonize to deliver an infinitely superior rendition of the aforementioned “Nightengale.”
I’ll freely admit that when I heard Disney was releasing a live-action remake of its 65-year-old classic a mere three months after its problematic “Into the Woods” adaptation (featuring various faerie tale characters including Cinderella), I was cynical, to say the least. Therefore, I’m pleased to report that, while far from flawless, director Kenneth Branagh and screenwriter Chris Weitz’s version is the sort of old-fashioned entertainment that is hard to come by these days. There’s plenty of nostalgic in-jokes for fans of the original, and while the silent, computer-animated animal companions are often glimpsed on the periphery of the frame, their personalities register in fleeting behavioral nuances (such as when a mouse covers its ears in agony during the stepsister’s off-key singing).
There aren’t any big musical numbers, save for the end credits (which left a big smile on my face), but Patrick Doyle’s score enhances many of the film’s emotional peaks, the most potent of which occur early on. When young Cinderella (Eloise Webb) bids goodbye to her ailing mother (Hayley Atwell), the moment has an emotional rawness that I found startling, and left many people drying their eyes at the screening I attended. Abruptly faced with the inability to be there for her daughter, the mother begs her for forgiveness, leading the child to swiftly sob, “Of course I forgive you,” before embracing her as if for the last time.
If anything, this latest “Cinderella” does the best job yet of making the most sense out of Charles Perrault’s story. We learn precisely why Cinderella believes in magic (it was instilled in her by her mother), why she chooses to stay with her awful stepmother (she refuses to leave her childhood home), how she became a servant in her own house (she’s selfless to a fault) and why she maintains her courage and kindness (in honor of her mother, who valued those traits above all others). It even gives the stepmother (Cate Blanchett, having a ball) a clearer motivation: she needs the prince to marry one of her daughters in order to pay the debts left by her late husband and preserve her extravagant lifestyle. The ultimate irony is that if she had only treated her stepdaughter as if she were one of her own, then all her problems would’ve been solved.
Much of the script’s character depth seems to have been borrowed from Andy Tennant’s wonderful 1998 gem, “Ever After,” which is arguably the most affecting film version of “Cinderella” to date. As in that film, Prince Charming (Richard Madden of “Game of Thrones”) and Cinderella (Lily James of “Downton Abbey”) meet prior to the ball on not entirely honest terms, though in this case, both characters conceal their true identities from one another. Yet whereas this deception carries great dramatic stakes in Tennant’s film, here it’s shrugged off with the same nonchalance that characterizes the Fairy Godmother played by Helena Bonham Carter, clearly delighting in the chance to perform without a Burton fright wig (interestingly, both Carter and the previous film’s Godmother, Verna Felton, also played the Queen of Hearts, though Felton’s was the one that made me lose my head—with laughter).
In the title role, the 25-year-old James is positively beguiling. It doesn’t hurt that she has the loveliest smile in many a moon (see below), and exudes goodness in a way that doesn’t feel pretentious. She lacks the feminist spunk and exhilarating anger that made Drew Barrymore’s Danielle such a kick in “Ever After.” I’ll never forget when the entire audience erupted into cheers after Danielle socked her wretched stepsister in the face. James’s heroine is closer in spirit to her animated counterpart, making good on her promise to bring no harm to anyone—even the ones who deserve it. In a pointed homage to Walt Disney’s 1922 silent version of “Cinderella,” which is available on the film’s Blu-ray edition and contains a scene where the Prince hunts and kills a pack of bears (taking the form of racist caricatures), Cinderella urges the Prince to quit hunting, and he complies with smitten zest.
For me, the single most touching moment in the entire film occurs when Cinderella is informed of her father’s death. A man delivers the grave message on her doorstep, as Tremaine and her daughters look on in the shadows. Tears start softly flowing down Cinderella’s face, while Tremaine’s eyes well up—but for a different reason (“We’re ruined,” she groans). Yet instead of slamming the door and collapsing in grief, Cinderella turns to the man and thanks him, replying, “That must’ve been hard for you.” Even after learning such devastating news, she still manages to feel compassion for those around her, and James brings the scene a vulnerability and poignancy that is absolutely heartbreaking. It’s enough to make you want to weep.
If there’s a major problem with the new film, it’s the same one that pervaded “Into the Woods” and the vast majority of modern mainstream Hollywood blockbusters. Practically every aspect of the production is designed to serve a single purpose: to move the plot forward. A great deal of work has been put into giving the film a strong narrative skeleton, complete with a narrator who turns out to be a key member of the story (as in “Into the Woods”). Yet little effort has been put into the storytelling technique itself, which is workmanlike at best. Rather than milking set-pieces for their maximum impact, events are treated as obligatory story beats that must be hit in order to get to the next one. The inevitable ending feels disappointingly anticlimactic, especially when compared to the nail-biting tour de force that concludes the original film, with Jacques and Gus dragging a key up a vertigo-inducing staircase to rescue Cinderella, only to be thwarted by Lucifer. Even though Branagh’s remake runs nearly 40 minutes longer than the original, it feels more rushed, never exploring a scene with enough intricacy and detail to make it resonate in the long-term.
Consider the sequence where Cinderella presents her custom-made dress for the ball to her stepmother and stepsisters, only to have them tear it up before prancing off to their carriage. In the new film, this scene happens quickly, as if anticipating the Godmother lurking around the corner. In the original, the scene is not only wrenching, but violating (my colleague, Rob Walker, likened it to a rape scene), with the stepsisters lurching at the camera, tearing off handfuls of clothing, as Cinderella cries out in protest. She soon finds herself standing in deadening silence, surrounded by fragments of her carefully constructed gown, which is now nothing but tatters hanging off her crestfallen body.
What makes this moment all the more effective is the way in which the film built up to it, getting us involved in the dress’s creation, as the mice and birds struggle valiantly to pay back the woman who has fed and clothed them, asking for nothing in return. It all begins with the infectious “Work Song (Cinderelly, Cinderelly),” leading to the comedic war with Lucifer to obtain accessories thrown to the ground in distain by the stepsisters (who, of course, have a renewed interest in them once they’re seen on Cinderella), and culminates with the dress being presented to the awe-struck maiden, who is overwhelmed with gratitude and renewed hope. All of these sequences move the plot forward only a hair, yet they earn our investment in a way that gives the entire story more life and vitality than it would have otherwise.
It’s worth noting that the 1950 “Cinderella” was made at a time when the studio was in crisis. None of their features after “Snow White” had been all that financially successful, and they were sorely in need of a hit. It’s apparent how much care was put into every frame of the film, and the effort paid off spectacularly well, resulting in a commercial and critical success that saved Disney. The 2015 “Cinderella” was made on the heels of the phenomenal success of “Frozen,” and is preceded by—surprise, surprise—a short starring Anna, Elsa, Kristoff, Olaf and lots and lots of miniature Olafs. A stroll through the Disney Store serves as a reminder of just how many profitable franchises the studio has monopolized. Muppets and Marvel superheroes are on the same shelves as Disney princesses, though the most unsettling sight of all may be the action figure of R2-D2 with Mickey Mouse ears.
At least with “Cinderella,” Disney is rebooting one of its own franchises, and though it has its share of inspiration and power, the overall production feels more than a touch generic. My advice to Disney, in a nutshell: use your classics as a blueprint for how to move forward. They understood that if audiences don’t care about a plot, it doesn’t matter how easily they can follow it. At one year old, I couldn’t make head or tails of the plot in “Cinderella,” and it still cast its spell on me—and my life was changed forever. For that, all I can do is quote the film’s leading lady: “Thank you. Thank you so much for everything.”
Kenneth Branagh’s “Cinderella” opened in wide release Friday, March 13th. Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson and Hamilton Luske’s “Cinderella,” as well as Andy Tennant’s “Ever After,” are available on Blu-ray and DVD.