If releasing a live-action version of the Cinderella story sounds like a corporate, money-making move by Disney, that’s because that’s exactly what it is. But corporate, money-making moves can still involve good art and entertainment, regardless of what Michael Bay would have you believe. This year’s Cinderella could have been a delightful fairy tale that used filmmaking magic to conjure an empowering story out of the original cartoon’s bare bones. Unfortunately, it gets just close enough to make you wonder exactly what could have been.
Lily James is the titular heroine, forced to be a chambermaid by her stepmother, played by the inimitable Cate Blanchett. Once Ella’s father dies, his new wife and stepdaughters treat Ella horribl…oh, you know the story. They keep the key elements the same. One difference in this version is that Ella meets the prince (Richard Madden) in the woods before the ball, which is nice, because he falls in love with her for what she is, as a beautiful woman on a horse, rather than a beautiful woman in a ball gown.
Actually, the movie really does get their relationship right; it’s one of the main pluses about Cinderella that they emphasize that the prince loves her as she is and not because of one magical moment in a ball room. They also get the stepmother right, largely thanks to Blanchett’s empathetic portrayal. Unfortunately, much of the rest of the movie is uneven, especially the sequences involving magic. Director Kenneth Branagh adds weight where only lightness was needed by extending the transformation sequences so you can see every detail of the computer-animated spellwork. He also could have reigned in Helena Bonham Carter as the fairy godmother; her darker, creepier tendencies are distracting in a movie so dependent on its warmth. With James a delight in the lead role, Blanchett’s superb turn, and the strong central relationship between Ella and the prince, there’s a lot to like here. Too bad Branagh (and, more likely, Disney) didn’t realize it was enough.