Friday, April 17, 2015

Thoughts on Disney's Cinderella (2015)

A few weeks ago, at the behest of some overwhelmingly positive reviews from friends, Madame and I went to a movie theater for the first time in nearly a year to see Disney's Cinderella (2015). I'm normally the sort to lambast Hollywood's lack of new ideas and the endless onslaught of remakes, but I have a confession to make: I've never actually seen the classic animated Cinderella from 1950, or any other cinematic treatment of the story. So for me, along with millions of little girls around the world, I experienced the story of the magical glass slipper on the silver screen for the first time.
The story of Cinderella, in its basest elements, isn't unique to any one time period. As with so many other fairy tales, the main theme of the suffering heroine under abusive family members recurs throughout the ages, from Rhodopis in ancient Greece, to Cordelia (daughter of King Lear) in Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain, to Bawang Putih in Indonesian folklore, and of course, the first appearance in print of Cinderella herself under the name Cenerentola in Naples, in the Pentamerone (1634).
The latest film iteration is directed by Kenneth "the Shakespeare guy" Branagh, with a cast of actors from every popular British television series on right now. Lily James (Rose from Downton Abbey) is the title character. Her dad is played by Ben Chaplin (Edward II in World Without End; sorry for the spoiler). We've got sophie McShera (Daisy from Downton) as one of the evil stepsisters, Richard Madden (Robb Stark from Game of Thrones) as the prince, and Stellan Skarsgård (Dr. Selvig in one of Branagh's other hits, Thor and its sequels) as the grand duke. Of course Helena Bonham Carter is the fairy godmother, and who else but Derek Jacobi be the wise old king?
But of all these well-known faces, it's Cate Blanchett as the wicked stepmother, Lady Tremaine, who steals the show. The moment she steps out of her carriage onto the grounds of her new home, clad in her official, severe, stepmotherly garb, you know we have a villain we love to hate. And yet, this isn't a modern-minded retelling of the tale. It's not Maleficent's side of the story, nor one about the triumph of sisterly love and girl-power (though Cinderella does open with a short sequel to Frozen). The plot is refreshingly straight: once upon a time, a common girl falls on hard times when her parents die, but by the power of courtesy and kindness (and a little bit of help from magical Helena Bonham Carter), the heroine goes to a royal ball in style, dances with a prince, leaves her slipper behind, and eventually gets a major upgrade in social status and lives happily ever after, just as you expect it to. (And no, for the fairy tale-literate, there isn't any cutting of toes to fit into the slipper, gouging of eyes by doves, or other such Teutonic embellishments.)

Costumes are lavish in true Branagh style. They capture the courtly style of the later 19th century, channeling in part Branagh's Hamlet (1996), and two more parts "fairy tale days" as imagined by 1950's directors. The musical score, composed by Patrick Doyle (from Henry V, Hamlet, and Thor, among others) is also suitably grand, though I'm disappointed that there weren't any true musical numbers. You'd think that the guy who wrote the stirring Non nobis from Henry V could whip up a good tune or two.
Perhaps this is just the first step in getting old, but I was a bit annoyed by the overly bombastic CGI effects surrounding the transforming of the pumpkin to a carriage and back. I'm glad I at least watched it in theaters, for if I had seen the movie at home for the first time, even though my home theater setup is better than some cinemas I've gone to, I would have probably been visibly irritated by all the sparklies. I need to step back for a moment and chant to myself over and over: I'm not the target demographic for this film. I'm not the target demographic for this film.

I'm out of time for today, so I won't bother to end this entry with a proper analysis, but at the time I'm writing this, Cinderella is still playing in most theaters. If you haven't seen it already and you need an idea for a simple date night, go ahead and check it out with your loved one tonight. You can thank me later.

Cinderella, by pre-Raphaelite painter Sir Edward Burne-Jones


  1. Disney's Political Correctness knows no limits. I seriously doubt African men would be escorting European women to the is utterly absurd and Historically Incorrect.

    1. How much historical accuracy should we expect from a fantasy kingdom with a vague 19th century aesthetic and exploding pumpkin-carriages?

      I'm not sure that the Vikings would have imagined Heimdall as looking anything like Idris Elba (Branagh's Thor, 2011), or that Shakespeare imagined Don Pedro as looking like Denzel Washington, much less being even a half-brother of someone who looks like Keanu Reeves (Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing, 1992).... much less that Hamlet could take place in the 19th century, filmed at an English estate when the budget was certainly big enough to film on location in Denmark, with blacks and Asians as random courtiers (Branagh's Hamlet, 1996).

      Perhaps we can even reason that the Roman soldiers guarding Christ's tomb weren't actually wearing the sort of 16th-century plate armor illustrated on a handsome picture I was admiring in an Edmund Campion Missal last Sunday. I could be wrong, but it's just a hunch:

      Perhaps we could take a cue from our medieval forebears in understanding that questions of historical accuracy aren't quite that important in the larger picture of myth.

    2. Speaking of the Roman Soldiers, St. Maurice was traditionally portrayed as a black African, and he was a popular patron saint of Northern Medieval Europe.(The Medievals were more concerned with your religion, than your skin color, rightly so).

  2. I think that is more of a Branagh thing than anything really. All his movies have a racially diverse class, even movies such as Hamlet of all things.


  3. I demand high levels of historical accuracy in my magical stories of fairy godmothers and mouse-drawn pumpkin carriages.