Parents drop like flies but the divine, downtrodden Ella (Lily James) and her noble-hearted Prince Kit (Richard Madden) live to see another day in "Cinderella," a winsomely lavish live-action adaptation of Disney's 1950 animated feature. Broadening the backstories and relationships of its characters while otherwise remaining true to the revered original material, director Kenneth Branagh (2014's "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit
") and screenwriter Chris Weitz (2007's "The Golden Compass
") have fashioned a remake that holds up enormously welland may even be slightly preferable since they have refocused their attention on the title heroine and cut down on the cartoon's padded antics involving helpful rodent sidekicks Jaq and Gus-Gus. Moving away from the occasionally garish CG creations found in 2014's "Maleficent
," this superior effort proves heartfelt and technically dazzling in equal measure, its bewitching landscapes and fantastical happenings more comfortably blending with the human actors. Those ill-fated parents, though; between Ella, stepsisters Anastasia (Holliday Grainger) and Drisella (Sophie McShera), and Prince Kit, live mothers and fathers are in fretfully short supply by story's otherwise chirpy end.
When her beloved mom (Hayley Atwell) passed away when Ella was just a child, she and her merchant dad (Ben Chaplin) trudged on together, making the best of a sad situation. Ella was happy for him when, years later, he delivered the news that he would be marrying fellow widower Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett) and moving her and daughters Anastasia and Drisella into their home. When tragedy strikes once more, Ella is left alone under the nonexistent care of Lady Tremaine, a vindictive, status-obsessed woman who aims to save money by firing the help and turning her stepdaughter into their cook and housekeeper. When word comes that a grand ball is being held for the people of the village where the royal prince will choose a bride, Ella is determined to attend in the hopes of reuniting with the dashing young man she briefly met in the forest days earlier. What she does not expect is that the charming gentleman she ran into is actually the prince himself, and the unexpected night of magic and hidden identities she is about to have could very well change the course of her life.
"Cinderella" (a nickname, it turns out, coined by one of Ella's wicked stepsisters when they spot her with blackened soot from the fireplace on her face) gives viewers precisely what they will be looking for, and might even surpass expectations. The added character details bring shading to the script, better exploring motivations and the dichotomy between our protagonist and her rotten stepfamily. Whereas the animated movie skimmed over what happened to Cinderella's parents and provided her and the prince with little interaction before they had fallen in love, Branagh and Weitz bring a wistful insight to the circumstances that have led to Ella's unlucky present and build up her romantic chemistry with Kit prior to their fateful dance at the ball. Best of all, Ella is still conceived as inherently good and mild, but she is no longer a pushover. She avoids sinking to Lady Tremaine's level, but still finds a way to stand up for herself in time for the finale.
Lily James (2012's "Wrath of the Titans
") is a beatific Cinderella, blessing this plucky fairy tale icon with all of the grace, radiance, strength and empathy required for the role. It is her film all the way, and her journeyfrom a happy-go-lucky young girl, to a neglected orphan forced to live in the attic, to a newly blossomed young lady who finds happiness not through manipulative means, but by naturally earning itfor which the audience comes to root. As Prince Kit, Richard Madden gives his love interest a down-to-earth quality that establishes his disinterest in money and prestige, and all the old-fashioned rules that go along with being a member of royalty. "Just because it's what's done doesn't mean it's what should be done," Kit tells his father, the King (Derek Jacobi), and it is a truthful notion that resonates far beyond this particular story in question.
Bursting onto the scene and having fun with the small but colorful part of the Fairy Godmother, Helena Bonham Carter (2013's "The Lone Ranger
") makes a winning impression while whipping up a lovely dress, glass slippers and a pumpkin-made stagecoach that she warns Ella can only last until the stroke of midnight. As luminous as James is as Cinderella, it is Cate Blanchett's (2013's "Blue Jasmine
") ferocious turn as conniving stepmother Lady Tremaine that threatens to steal the show. Her antagonistic nightmare of a character is bitter and emotionally frosty, but from these traits and Blanchett's stunning embodiment come an unexpectedly stirring, even poignant, undercurrent of envy and desperation.
"Cinderella" kills a staggering amount of parents (on and off screen), but not to worry: the losses that Ella and Kit experience make them stronger and their ultimate triumphs all the sweeter. Despite this one observation and a long-winded third act that could have afforded a little tighteningthe film is a joy as it washes over the viewer. The costumes and production design are overflowing with ornate splendor and aesthetic detail, while the visual effects beautifully blend into the frame rather than call attention to themselves. Inspiration for the look of the royal palace and surrounding mountainside vistas are obviousthis is basically a live-action version of Arendelle from 2013's "Frozen
"but it is a delight all the same to see it come to life. Sweeping, intimate and whimsical, "Cinderella" does the Disney brand proud with a faithful yet expansive retelling that never misplaces its heart in exchange for shallow extravagance. This is one happily ever after worth believing.