Sometimes you go into a movie knowing full well that you are not its target audience, which simply makes you all the more impressed by it when you end up enjoying the ride. Such was thankfully the case with Disney’s Cinderella update in which, Lily James plays the title character. James is a relative newcomer and has never headlined her own film before. On paper this might be a bit of a head-scratcher, especially since Disney was also in talks with stars such as Emma Watson, Saoirse Ronan, and Margot Robbie to take on the role. Such confusion is only compounded when you consider that Maleficent and Alice (who’s success undoubtedly led to this update) were action heavy, star-driven event films. In all honesty, they were essentially the pre-teen girl equivalent of a Transformers film. I’m not immediately sure how a similar approach could have been taken to Cinderella (which is probably the least action packed of any of Walt’s Golden era films), but Disney is a resourceful enough studio that I’m sure they could have found a way, if that’s what we had wanted.
Any doubt as to why James was cast disappears the moment you see her on screen. It is entirely cliche to say that an actress lights up the screen, however, in this case it is also entirely true. She exudes so much sincerity and charm that we become genuinely invested in her character, regardless of the fact that we already know beat-for-beat how this story’s going to go. The film could’ve gotten by on the good-will we feel toward this character alone. Fortunately for us, it also has a host of other factors working in its favor.
The film’s minor roles, while not as scene stealing as James’, are also handled well. The king, his scheming adviser, the stepsisters – even Prince Charming himself – are all more or less what you expect. However, they do “more or less what we expect” well enough, and have such obvious fun doing it, that we’re willing to go along with it. There are a couple of standouts: Ben Chaplin and Hayley Atwell play Cinderella’s birth parents and, while their roles are slight, you could swear that James’ character inherited her charisma straight from them. It’s also a testament to the talent of Cate Blanchett, that her wicked stepmother is probably the most familiar archetype on the screen, yet she’s able to transform her into an engaging character.
Aside from the cast, there are other nice little touches where the studio probably could have gotten away with slacking off, but instead decided to put in a real effort. The cinematography is lush and lends the film a truly timeless, magical look. Equally impressive (if less surprising) is the elegant costume design. Sometimes super hero costumes look much cooler on the page, or in animated form,than they do in real life. The same can be said for fairytale outfits, yet designer Susan Powell manages to pull them off with an appropriate, though not overbearing, amount of whimsy.
Even the voice over narration is handled well. Narration is such a basic thing, but it’s so often handled in a shoddy manner. Either it’s inconsistent – disappearing midway through a film only to jarringly reappear later on – or it’s didactic, overly obvious, or just plain unnecessary. Here, it feels completely natural and creates the illusion that we’re being told a story by our very own Fairy Godmother.
Kenneth Branagh is a talented director, but he’s been a bit hit and miss lately. His Shakespeare adaptations are acclaimed, but his recent ventures into more overtly commercial work haven’t fared as well. Here he’s managed to find a sweet spot between the two, combining the pageantry and romanticism of Shakespeare with the box office appeal of an established franchise. His retelling of “Cinderella” could have been a completely by the numbers affair. Instead this is a faithful retelling of a beloved tale made with obvious affection.