The difficult thing about updating the story of Cinderella is that she’s somewhat of a flawless character, and nothing is more boring to watch than flawlessness. Cinderella, being beautiful of face and kind of heart, is only threatened by external obstacles. As far as her inner life is concerned, she has figured it out, if only the people around her wouldn’t be so mean, she could get all the happiness that she deserves. Putting a character in such a helpless situation generates drama, and gives the audience someone to root for, but making her such a nice person makes watching her almost intolerably boring.
This is a dramatic code that Disney’s 1950 Cinderella seems to have figured out. The idea of a kind princess who could easily pass as the perfect housewife was an idea that couldn’t be passed up at the time, especially by as socially conservative a man as Walt Disney. Thus, the cartoon Cinderella is a seemingly perfect lady, but the people behind the movie carefully shifted the focus of the movie from the young girl to the little mice that she cares for. The mice are not only more entertaining characters, but they let us know why we should care about Cinderella: she cares for these helpless creatures, she protects them from being eaten by an evil cat. We are so grateful she is around to help Jacques and Gus-Gus that we can’t help but be saddened by the fact that there is no one to help out Cinderella.
It’s a pretty clever hierarchy, and an effective metaphor. Cinderella becomes the figure of the good mother, and Lady Tremaine becomes the bad mother. That is why despite being an admittedly old-fashioned movie, the 1950 version of Cinderella speaks to small children as effectively now as it did when it first came out. It generates anguish about the good mother not being present, and it generates empathy for her and her troubles. If I were the mother of a small child, I would show them the 1950 Cinderella.
Anyway, that is not the movie that I’m here to review. I’m here to talk about Disney’s live action remake of their own classic. This Cinderella was directed by notable Shakespeare enthusiast Kenneth Branagh, and is unabashedly influenced by the classic animated movie. This being 2015 instead of 1950, you would expect Cinderella to have a revisionist take on the story, bending the traditional gender norms like Frozen and Maleficent, both of which were recent big hits for Disney. This movie, however, is not only not ashamed of being based on an old-fashioned story (which I appreciated), but ends up somehow being even less progressive than the 1950 version.
There are two moments in Branagh’s Cinderella that hinted at potentially more interesting ways of retelling the story. The first is a shot towards the second half of the film in which the Prince (Richard Madden) curls up in bed next to the dying King. He see him on the bed, in the fetal position, and holding on to the father that is slipping away. The moment is filled with male tenderness of a kind that we sadly rarely see in mainstream movies. The second comes early in the film, when evil stepmother Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett) listens to a conversation in which Cinderella’s father tells his daughter how much he truly loves her. Tremaine’s eyes fill up with tears, and I wonder what the inner life of this woman must look like. I am not advocating for a revisionist version in which Tremaine is the hero of the story, but how about a psychologically complex villain who isn’t just pure hateful evil, but a conflicted woman whose mind has been corrupted by a system that measures women by their pretty faces?
Such a complex dynamic might have been to much to ask from Disney, so I would’ve content for the movie hint at those possibilities while settling for something more traditional as its focus. The problem is that this is a surprisingly static and joyless movie. Lily James looks lovely at Cinderella, but a character can only be so incredibly nice before you want to strangle her. Going back to the 1950 version, the problem with this Cinderella is that there isn’t a human emotional entry into this story. Curiously enough, Cinderella does have mice friends in this movie, but they aren’t nearly as important as they are in the animated version.
The story of Cinderella is so familiar that we can find some satisfaction in recognizing the beats that play out on screen, and thus, the movie is never truly terrible. But the fatal blow, and the main reason why I couldn’t possibly recommend this Cinderella is that the lead character has even less agency here than she has in the 1950s version. Now, it’s always been a problem that the message of Cinderella seems to be that being kind, and enduring all kinds of abuse will magically bring you the happiness that you deserve. I find that notion problematic in both the 1950 and 2015 versions of the story, but the animated version does have the right mind to put the final triumph on the hands of the protagonist.
Josh Spiegel talks extensively about the greatness of the scene I’m about to mention in his review of the movie, which I would recommend you read, but at the end of the original Cinderella, Lady Tremaine “accidentally” breaks the glass slipper, hoping that it would prevent Cinderella from trying it on and marrying the prince. It is in that moment that Cinderella has the bright idea of going back upstairs and presenting the other glass slipper, which she had kept in her room. It’s a wonderful moment of triumph, especially because Cinderella has finally managed to step up to her wicked stepmother, and beat her at her own game of hateful strategy. This new version of the story, however, flips the role of the slippers, with Tremaine finding the slipper Cinderella is hiding, and thus, removing Cinderella’s agency from the final moments of the film.
Cinderella is the latest case of Disney recycling its animated classics into live action movies, and there is no sign of the studio stopping. A live action version of Beauty and the Beast, and even a Dumbo directed by Tim Burton(?!) are currently in production. This all started with Mr. Burton himself, back when is hideous reimagining of Alice in Wonderland made a gazillion dollars. Cinderella may very well be a masterpiece compared to that piece of garbage, but it is still a deeply unsatisfying film. A pointless exercise that feel much more like an Annie Leibowitz promotional photo than a movie.
Grade: 4 out of 10
Correction: This review originally said Disney had a new version of The Little Mermaid in production. There is, indeed, a live action Little Mermaid in the works, but Disney is not involved. The project comes from Universal and will be directed by Sofia Coppola.