Disney is currently in the no doubt arduous process of remaking all of their classic princess movies as live action films, apparently shot for shot. No matter how many letters I write to Disney World politely asking for an explanation, they won’t respond. The only possible explanation for this, and for their secrecy, is that they’re covertly planning to bring together all the Disney Princesses in an Avengers-esque expanded universe or, you know, a messy Kingdom Hearts adaptation. Since little boys are responding so well to the Marvel franchise, this seems like the logical stab at the young girl demographic, because Disney famously tends to leave that one unexploited.
The Plot: This should be familiar to everyone. Although she had a happy childhood with her parents, Ella (Lily James) winds up leading an unhappy existence waiting on her cruel stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and obnoxious stepsisters (Sophie McShera and Holliday Grainger) after her beloved father dies on a business trip. Hope comes in the form of a dashing stranger (Richard Madden), who the newly nicknamed Cinderella meets while out for a ride one day. Unbeknownst to her, this stranger is actually prince of the land, and since his father’s (Derek Jacobi) health is dwindling rapidly, the time has come for the prince to pick a bride, so he hosts a ball to find “the one,” even though in his heart he knows it’s Ella. Stepmother doesn’t want Ella to go the ball, blah blah blah, Helena Bonham Carter, true love.
Cinderella is hundreds of years old, and the basic story has appeared in innumerable cultures around the globe. Everyone in the world is familiar with this story in one form or another. If you set out to adapt a narrative like that, you have to have something new and inventive to do with it, otherwise you’ll leave the audience wondering why they just spent two hours watching a movie they’ve seen before a million times. Well… this new Cinderella is not a bad film; it’s competently made, aesthetically pleasing, and generally entertaining, but it’s not new. Not only does it fail to do anything new with the fairy tale, but it even fails to improve much upon Disney’s previous incarnation of it. This is essentially just a live action remake of the classic animated movie. Their greatest innovation is to have Cinderella and the Prince actually speak to each other instead of just dancing for five hours. While this is pretty refreshing, it doesn’t justify everything that’s the same as before. The fairy godmother even still says “Bippity boppity boo.” But enough of that.
The really troubling this here is the fact that Disney has made no attempt to update or improve the princess archetype. Of all the Disney Princesses, Cinderella is among the most useless. Next to Sleeping Beauty, she must have the least amount of agency. She just gets pushed around until an outside force comes to help her out, but does so little for herself. Since they didn’t alter the story at all, they didn’t alter Cinderella’s character. She’s very likable, and has an unflappably good heart, which makes her easy to root for, but I find myself tiptoeing back to that old conversation about the role models Disney is providing for young girls. Cinderella encourages them to be kind to others no matter what and always have faith that things will get better, but also enforces the idea that the things have to get better all on their own, and that you shouldn’t make any effort towards improving them yourself. Perhaps worse than this, though, is that underlying “if you’re pretty you’ll be fine” rule. The resolve to make even the ugly characters pretty helps break this cycle a little bit, but the film still places an incredibly heavy emphasis on outer beauty. The attempts to recover from this with spoken messages like “The bravest thing you can do is just be yourself,” are woefully undercut by the fact that they digitally reduced Lily James’ waistline in the ballroom scenes. So, yeah, that’s sending a great message to little girls.
Let’s talk positive for a moment, though. Fact: Cate Blanchett is the Tilda Swinton of every movie she’s in, meaning she bears a somewhat elevating effect; her presence improves whatever project, no matter how good or bad it was to begin with. Unsurprisingly, this idea holds true through Cinderella. While it perplexes me somewhat that any casting director would read “ugly stepmother” and come up with Cate Blanchett, and while that may very well reflect Disney’s almost allergic aversion to putting any but the most traditionally attractive women on screen, she did manage to lend some depth both to the character and the film, easing as perfectly into this role as into any other. She’s like Willem Dafoe, if he had perfect hair and didn’t look like Willem Dafoe. Whether the project is an Academy Award-winning turn as Academy Award-winner Katherine Hepburn, or a stereotypical communist inquisitor in the worst Indiana Jones movie, she always gives it her all. I have nothing bad to say about Cate Blanchett. I wish I could say the same about the other actors in Cinderella. To be fair, all the young’uns—Lily James, Richard Madden, Sophie McShera, Holliday Grainger, even Nonso Anozie—really played in earnest. Helena Bonham Carter, Derek Jacobi, and Stellan Skarsgaard did not want to be in this movie, and owed favors either to Disney or Kenneth Branagh. Either, I’m told, is a dangerous fate.
I will also say that the costumes are exquisite, especially the dress that Cinderella wears at the end. (Spoiler) That wedding gown was better that Kate Middleton’s. I would wear that thing. The attention and care spent in costuming helps redeem the otherwise blandly spectacular sets and overabundant CGI. I’m getting a little sick of every blockbuster requiring digital effects. In Disney’s case, the CGI often damages the films. I mean, Maleficent sure as hell should not have had so much. Who are we, anyway? Peter Jackson? No. Someone please enforce a quota on these guys.
Cinderella ain’t bad, but it ain’t great, either. Remakes are remakes, and I’m choosing not to take this as a grim sign that originality is dead. Let’s stay positive.