Friday, 17 April 2015

Cinderella (2015) - Movie Review

Choosing to remake one of the classic Disney Princess films was a risky decision, bordering on suicidal considering how poorly the last attempt at this was taken. Sure, I may not have disliked Maleficent as much as other people, in fact I honestly think it was pretty decent, but in terms of the bottom line that is the almighty dollar, this is kind of lopsided. It is also completely understandable: Cinderella is one of the most recognisable fairy tales of all time, to the point where Cinderella as a term is fully ingrained in the human lexicon, and releasing a new version of the tale is always going to draw attention. But just because they are able to convince a lot of people to see their movie doesn’t necessarily mean that they will be fulfilled upon leaving the cinema. So, time to see what a person in the completely wrong demographic for this film has to say about it to help you make your mind about it, because that makes all kinds of sense.

The plot (for the two people out there who have never heard this before): After the death of her parents, Ella (Lily James) is left in the care of her stepmother Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett) and her daughters Drisella (Sophie McShera) and Anastasia (Holliday Grainger) who turn her into their personal servant. Upon hearing that Prince Charming (Richard Madden) will be holding a ball where he will pick his bride, Tremaine and her daughters go while Ella is forbidden to. But with the help of her Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter), she goes to the ball in the hopes of winning over the heart of the Prince.

This is a Kenneth Branagh film, which means two solid things when it comes to the casting: Colour-blind and stellar. The role of Cinderella is a difficult one to pull off without making come across like a completely wilting flower, but Lily James imbues it with so much life that her naivety becomes realistic through the performance. Cate Blanchett, by absolute contrast, plays Lady Tremaine as venom-filled and spiteful as it is possible for a human to be without just exploding under their own power. This is another example of an actor being too good in a villainous role but, since Tremaine is one of the archetypal bad guys when it comes to these classic fairy tales, it only serves the production well. McShera and Grainger are grating as their roles required, only it never ventures into the realm of annoying to see on-screen bizarrely enough. Hell, I’d argue that they act exactly how a younger version of Lady Tremaine would.

Prince Charming is a bit of a punchline for cocky but bland romantic interests but Richard Madden, along with having good chemistry with Lily James, isn’t so naïve as to be completely stupid as so many iterations of him are, which greatly helps making his portrayal of the character work. Helena Bonham Carter as the Fairy Godmother is exactly how it sounds: She’s a little annoying but thankfully her appearance on-screen doesn’t run for too long and the time she does spend on-screen is well used; although, I will admit that it’s a bit distracting how different her screen persona is to her narrative persona, considering Carter also narrates the film. Nonso Anozie as the Prince’s best friend and Captain works really well alongside Madden and makes for one of the few times I could ever stomach the word 'bromance' to describe a pairing because these guys have certainly got it. Oh, and Rob Brydon as the painter just steals every frame he’s in, which may only be in a single scene but he easily makes for my favourite character because of how smugly he plays it.

Branagh may not be making Shakespeare like he did way back when, but the man still has a certain flair for films with more flowery language; it’d take a very persuasive person to convince me that picking Branagh to helm the eloquent Asgardian tale of Thor in 2011 wasn’t the best option possible. Thankfully, his bread-and-butter with more opulent works serves him well here as this is a gorgeous looking film; the costume and set design are that good that even the more poverty-stricken areas of the kingdom looked great, the cinematography is tight and stays on point and the music is grandiose as both the fairy tale story and the royal setting call for. That is, the music that is heard in the film proper and it is here that I make a slight addendum to my review of The SpongeBob Movie. During the credits of that film, we had not one but three N.E.R.D. songs written specifically for the film and all of which were pretty damn good. We get a similar situation here, where two pretty big songs are delegated to the end credits for one reason or another: A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes as sung by Lily James, which despite the hokey title is a rather beautiful song, and Bibbity Bobbity Boo performed by Helena Bonham Carter, which is cute but not exactly something that warrants repeated listens.

As I mentioned earlier, this is an extremely well-known story but also one that is difficult to tell in a way that is still interesting, given how many iterations of the story and allusions thereupon exist out there. It is also, in my humble opinion, a fairly vapid story as well; even if the main character didn’t come across so much like a commentary on 1960’s hippie culture with how into peace and love she is without irony, there’s also a certain holier-than-thou attitude to be dealt with concerning the story as well which I can easily see rubbing people the wrong way. However, even with all this in mind, I have always kept Cinderella in a certain place within the Disney Princess canon mostly because of its villain, the step-mother Lady Tremaine. The reason why is because, more so than Cruella De Vil, more so than Jafar, even more so than Maleficent, Lady Tremaine is my pick for the greatest of the Disney villains. But why, I can already hear readers question: She has no special powers, no great plan, not even that defined of a motive; what makes her better than all those other great antagonists? Honestly, exactly those things.

This isn’t a villain that uses magic spells to do their bidding; this is a person who uses her sway and hold over another person to, essentially, crush them under her foot and make them subservient to her. This is an evil that actually exists in the world and shows the evil that people are more than capable of doing themselves, if they aren’t already; Lady Tremaine is evil because she shows what jealousy and spite can do to a person, and the sheer depths that they can sink a person to. Having a story where not only is that side played expertly well by Blanchett, and not only is her opposition done well thanks to Lily James, but the story itself has a surprising amount of meat to it considering the original subject material that makes their conflict have that much more impact. Don’t get me wrong, this is still the archetypal wish fulfilment princess fantasy, but the relationships developed between the characters do a lot to help anchor this film’s premise in a weird state of reality. It doesn’t hurt that seeing Lady Tremaine get the verbal put down from Ella might be one of the most cathartic cinematic moments I’ll get all year.

All in all, this is feel-good fulfilment at its core but it is exceptionally good at doing that. The acting is great, the production values are up to Branagh’s standards and show that his Shakespearean days aren’t as far behind him as it may seem, the music is good even if one of the better songs is hidden in the end credits (Good reason to stick around for them, then) and the writing, while still carrying Disney princess vanity slung over its shoulder, provides enough weight to both the dialogue and the actions of the characters for it to ultimately work out. This is may not be the most clever or nuanced film out there, in fact it can be extremely shallow at points, but as a bit of pretty escapism, it gets a decent recommendation.

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