He stays faithful to the essence of Charles Perrault’s 17th-century story, inserting sly homages to Disney’s animated version from 1950. Yet he and screenwriter Chris Weitz layer the story with more psychological depth than usual and answers questions we may always have had. (Why can’t Cinderella’s stepsisters recognize her at the grand ball? The fairy godmother disguises her appearance.)
The result will not please everyone. It’s neither animated nor a musical. If you seek a revision or updating of the tale, or need a twist where its point of view shifts to another character (as “Maleficent” did with “Sleeping Beauty”), this is the wrong movie for you. But as a picture that celebrates one of the greatest archetypes in literature while freshening countless familiar details, I doubt it can be bettered.
We begin with a loving family, a mother who dies young of a fatal disease and a father who remarries to provide a surrogate mother for Ella. He dies on one of many business voyages, leaving her in the hands of Lady Tremaine (nuanced Cate Blanchett), and that explains why he doesn’t stop her mistreatment of the girl: He never sees it.
Ella, played with the right mixture of composure and pluck by Lily James, upholds her promise to her parents to keep her courage high and remain kind. When she meets a hunter in the woods, not knowing he’s the prince (wryly appealing Richard Madden), he asks about her living conditions. “They treat me as well as they are able,” she says diplomatically, thinking of her step-family’s emotional problems.
Branagh and Weitz give Lady Tremaine a backstory, too: She deeply loved her first husband, saw him die early, then married Ella’s father for financial security. She’s a bitter, aging woman saddled with stupid, untalented daughters (Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera), and her second husband never loved her for herself.
The fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter), who narrates but appears in just one scene, provides the moral: “Perhaps the greatest risk any of us will ever take (is) to be seen as we really are.” Glass slippers and lizards turned into footmen mean little, unless we’re worth loving after the enchantment evaporates.
Yet this version doesn’t stint on magic, which seems slightly dangerous even when it’s beneficent. The godmother casts her spell on a pumpkin, which rocks and swells so violently it threatens to crush Cinderella before exploding to reveal a golden coach.
Its rapid disintegration at the last stroke of midnight, as the coachman turns back into a goose and the horses into mice, gives us a funny, startling thrill. Costumer Sandy Powell and production designer Dante Ferretti (both Oscar-winners for “The Aviator”) always dazzle but never distract us.
Those mice, who chatter to each other unintelligibly while working to help Cinderella, pay tribute to the Disney version. So do the names of the Tremaine sisters (Drizella and Anastasia), the stepmother’s malevolent Persian cat, the final locking of Cinderella in the attic and familiar songs done over the final credits.
But Perrault has the final say, with his message of forgiveness: Cinderella sends her step-family off in the company of the wealthy Grand Duke (Stellan Skarsgärd), who had opposed her marriage on political grounds. Even they may be entitled to happiness in another kingdom; in this “Cinderella,” everyone has a chance at redemption.
Disney presents a traditional, live-action retelling of the Charles Perrault fairy tale about a girl who’s mistreated by her step-family and falls for a prince.
A STARS: Lily James, Richard Madden, Cate Blanchett, Helena Bonham Carter.
DIRECTOR: Kenneth Branagh.
RUNNING TIME: 112 minutes.
RATING: PG (mild thematic elements).