I’ve been very vocal in my disdain for Disney’s latest scheme to mine recognizable brands for new products by taking some of their most beloved animated classics and giving them live action remakes. It plays into the larger, ugly Hollywood trend of remaking old movies not because a new filmmaker has a burning passion to retell this story, but because a corporation needs a new product with a familiar title to sell to the masses. This is made worse by the fact that their two previous attempts have been unwatchable piles of filth – famous actors playing poorly characterized versions of familiar faces amid a muddy mess of computer generated scenery. Their stories refute and spit in the face of the beloved source material, not to achieve anything interesting or profound, but merely to appear hip and postmodern. To say I had little enthusiasm going into this movie would be an understatement, but there’s nothing I love more than a movie exceeding my expectations, and that’s exactly what Cinderella did.
If you’ve seen Disney’s original 1950 film, you know what to expect. Cinderella’s parents have both died and she now lives with her cruel stepmother and her two self-obsessed step-sisters. There is a royal ball to find a suitor for the prince, but Cinderella is forced to stay at home. Her fairy godmother comes to the rescue, stroke of midnight, glass slipper, happily ever after, etc. The plot of this film hews very close to the original, and while that’s not often the best approach for a remake, it works wonderfully here.
Popular wisdom dictates that you shouldn’t remake a classic film because the new film will inevitably live in its shadow, but Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella realizes that it cannot hope to escape the legacy of the original film, and so instead embraces it. Unlike Alice in Wonderland and Maleficent – each of which tried to refute the story and themes of their source material – Cinderella instead uses its familiar story as a framework to explore who each of these characters are in deeper, more meaningful ways than was attempted in the original. Having just recently watched the 1950 film, I was a bit disappointed by how thinly sketched many of its characters are. Cinderella herself mostly reads as a real person, but the film seems reluctant to really let us feel the sadness of her situation – constantly cutting away to comic relief antics with the mice and never letting us dwell on how terrible things really are for her. Then there’s Lady Tremaine and her daughters, Anastasia and Drizella. These are characters who are as evil as the likes of Maleficent and Cruella de Vil, but their cruelty manifests in a way that is much more grounded and realistic than perhaps any of the other Walt Disney era villains. For all its fairy tale trappings, it’s a story that’s more mature than many of Walt’s other films up to that point, and I think the film fails to have the nuance required to convey such a story. It’s similar to the problem that would later plague The Hunchback of Notre Dame, though here it doesn’t sink the movie in the same way.
Kenneth Branagh’s remake adds a lot of the nuance that was missing from the original. We spend lots of time getting to meet Cinderella, meet her parents, watch her grow up, and witness the dynamic between her and her stepfamily change over time. These characters become real people in a way they never quite were in the original, but they also never betray the classic image of who we know them as. Cinderella is just as kind and optimistic as she was, but we see much more clearly how that optimism is at odds with the tragedy of her situation and feel the struggle she has to stay true to what she believes. On the same token, Lady Tremaine is just as wicked and cruel as ever, but we understand why and, in some small way, empathize with her, which makes it resonate that much more strongly. We even meet the prince much earlier on in this version, which is something I was afraid would irritate me, but it allows Cinderella and the prince to have a real relationship in the way the 1950 film never did.
The downside to this, though, is that it all makes the movie feel long. The total running time of the film is less than two hours, but when you compare that to the brisk 75 minutes of the original it feels slightly bloated. I appreciate the time the film takes to bring us inside the heads of these characters, but I think it takes just a little bit too long to do so. The prologue, for instance, is very long, and there’s some extra plot business with Lady Tremaine that they throw in near the end that feels somewhat unnecessary. The brevity of the original film is a large part of what allows it to work in spite of its lack of nuance. It moves quickly from memorable moment to memorable moment, and the audience can’t help but to be caught up in its momentum. It’s a quality that the remake lacks, and would have benefitted from.
Still, the film is a joy to watch. The movie looks amazing, shot with crazy things like physical sets and real props instead of merely watching actors float around inside a murky cloud of computer generated fluff. It also benefits from a really great cast who do a tremendous job selling the added nuance we already discussed.
Lily James is great, playing Cinderella with a genuine earnestness that never feels too cloying or saccharine. It’s a tricky balance with a character who can easily come across as either too weepy or unaffected by her situation, but James walks that line perfectly. Then there’s Cate Blanchett, who is absolutely incredible is Lady Tremaine. In Maleficent, Angelina Jolie did a solid impression of Eleanor Audley, but that’s all it was – an impression. Here, Blanchett is given a much better script to work with, so not only does she channel Audley just as well as Jolie did, but she combines that with a real, fully formed character.
There are some other comparisons between these two films that I can make – for instance, the most emotional moment in the original film comes when Cinderella’s step-sisters destroy her dress yet the same scene feels somewhat perfunctory in the new film and instead the understated dance at the ball from the original transforms into the emotional highpoint of this film – but the key thing to note is that this movie has no desire to refute or replace the original. It’s a companion piece – a film that wears its fondness for the original on its sleeve and seeks only to understand this world and these characters in a more intimate way. If you want to be cynical, you could say that this makes the new film unnecessary, and sure, if you can only watch one, the 1950 original is still the one that is essential, but the truth is you can and should watch both. Neither film is perfect, but both films are very good, and they complement each other in really lovely, meaningful ways. It took them three tries to figure this out, but if Disney must remake their classic films this is the way it should be done. Embracing our collective, cultural fondness for these films and commenting on them in meaningful ways without refuting them. Sure, the whole idea of remaking the Disney classics is by its very nature unnecessary, but the box office sales on these things means they’re not going to stop any time soon. Cinderella represents the best possible version of a Disney remake, and I hope they continue making them like this.