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Unlike recent Disney movies Maleficent and Into the Woods, director Kenneth Branagh’s live-action Cinderella (rated PG for mild thematic elements) is a visual feast with a moral center that will delight and edify children of all ages.
Yes, you know the story. The plot largely follows Disney’s animated classic from the 1950s, with Cinderella (Lily James) losing her parents to disease and weathering abuse by her stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and stepsisters.
One day, she meets a handsome prince (Richard Madden), and with her fairy godmother’s help (played hilariously by Helena Bonham Carter), she attends a ball and the two fall in love. After a kingdom-wide slipper-fitting contest, Cinderella and the prince are married and live happily ever after.
Branagh’s iteration, however, will resonate far beyond tiara-wearing 2-year-olds. First, Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of the evil stepmother is itself magical, evoking just the right amount of sympathy and irony, while her green dress on the night of the ball is a vision of envy. Computer-generated talking mice and English farmhouses, castles, and countryside are filmed with such richness that they seem to blur the line between fantasy and reality.
As for Cinderella, she is the epitome of feminine grace, a living, breathing Jane Austen–like heroine of outward and inward beauty. At times, she is overdramatic and unsure of herself, but what teen isn’t? In contrast, her stepmother and stepsisters have stunning smiles and clothes, but their selfishness and jealousy belie an emptiness on the inside. Eventually, Cinderella’s reversal of fortune brings about justice and redemption, while her mantra “have courage and be kind” forms the story’s moral center.
That’s not to say the film is perfect. In typical American fashion, belief here is a force on its own, not merely clinging to someone who can be trusted (i.e. Christ). And at times, Cinderella seems too perfect and too trite. But on the whole, in a society largely in denial about gender differences, Branagh here gives families a rich picture of the peculiar joys of femininity.
Listen to Emily Whitten discuss Cinderella on The World and Everything in It.