Disney are a multi-billion-dollar movie-making monopoly, with more films being made than one realises, but they’re also producing many of the better ones, for instance in the case of Marvel Studios. Disney are responsible for two of the biggest modern pop culture sensations: the nostalgia we have for Disney animations, and superheroes. If the latter are our modern myths and demigods, the cartoons are the new Shakespeare.
While the Disney remake production plan – this year’s The Jungle Book and Pete’s Dragon are both live action versions of “classic” Disney animations – is easy to see as a cynical money-making scheme (which is definitely part of it), they’re also being remade, reimagined, and retooled just like Shakespeare. Once we see the remake plan like this, and we stop judging Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella for not being “original”, it’s far easier to see why it’s a great film.
It hinges on understanding what Cinderella’s (Lily James on phenomenally charming form) power is. Against the machinations of her wicked stepmother (a brilliant Cate Blanchett), she resists by being optimistic. It’s easy to see her as a doormat in the film, but it’s what enables her to triumph every time. When she’s locked in her room, it’s her singing as she keeps her spirits high that saves her. When she runs away from home, and first encounters Kit (Richard Madden), it’s her kindness and her honesty with her values that endears her to him. And at her most broken, she readily helps a stranger: Helena Bonham Carter as the Fairy Godmother. This isn’t an easy thing to do, to manage one’s emotions. Yet empathising and being courageously optimistic is consistently what enables Cinderella’s success.
It’s true that the idea of encouraging girls and women to “smile” and to stay happy even if they’re angry and sad feels antiquated, but I think that Branagh is smart enough to subvert it. It’s the other women of the film who so often cause Cinderella pain, who actively want her to be unhappy. Her response is to show them kindness and to find the positive things in her own situation, rather than lash out. If anything, Madden’s Prince is surprised that she is not angrier, more hurt. Her refusal to let the darkness surrounding her break her is what he loves about her, but one can tell that he would never begrudge her feeling angry.
Even besides this powerful message, Branagh’s film is still impressive. He makes every scene big, beautiful, and bold, filled with colour and exceptional craft. The costumes and production design are astonishing, while the performances fit into this exaggerated reality. The sincerity with which the film delivers its corny moments is what prevents it from turning into unwatchable sap, because that cheesiness is earned. Whilst it may be unrealistic for a man and a woman to fall in love so quickly as the leads here do, the audience can be convinced of their passion and the intensity of their feelings by the purpose driven camerawork. From their first encounter, to their first dance (a brilliant sequence, shot in agonisingly gorgeous long takes, which sell the magic and the intimacy of that moment perfectly), right up to when they finally see each other for who they really are, Branagh is committed to mining the scene for truth. Rather than tell us that they love each other, and have a huge cheesy wedding that we in no way believe, he shows us in the most visual way possible, and then has a huge cheesy wedding. Just as it should be.
Cinderella (2015), directed by Kenneth Branagh, is distributed in the UK by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.