“Have courage and be kind,” is the title character’s credo in Cinderella. Kenneth Branagh’s film is neither courageous nor is it particularly kind, but it’s nice. It’s a gorgeously made, live-action version of the animated film we all know and love, and surprisingly, that’s enough. What’s most admirable about Branagh’s film is how it avoids any modern spin, and tries to capture what’s most pure-hearted about its protagonist and her story. It’s less than magical, but for yet another live-action adaptation on a beloved animated classic, Cinderella is far from wicked.
Branagh’s live-action Cinderella takes the classic beats of the 1950 animated film and expands on them. An extended prologue goes in depth about Ella (Lily James) loving her parents, the heartbreak of losing her mother (Hayley Atwell), trepidation about her father (Ben Chaplin) marrying the nefarious Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett) and bringing in her vain, stupid daughters Drisella (Sophia McShera) and Anastasia (Holiday Grainger), and then the pain of her father’s death all leading up to being reduced to a servant in her own home. Pushed to her breaking point, Cinderella rides out and meets “Kit” (Richard Madden), the Prince masquerading as an apprentice at the castle so that she won’t be put off by his title. When she rides off without giving her name, Kit throws an open ball in the hopes of having her attend. From there, it goes exactly where you expect.
In many ways, Branagh’s Cinderella is a live-action cartoon. The costumes and sets are big and bold; the color correction is vibrant, and the special effects are grand. The characters fit with their surroundings by being just as two-dimensional, but purposefully so. Almost no one in the movie has any depth—Ella is good; Drisella and Anastasia are awful; Kit is charming. Tremaine feints at some depth by showing that she didn’t wake up evil, but rather she’s the product of grief and neglect. But she can be just as cackling and bombastic as her daughters. Blanchett plays both sides of the character beautifully, but it’s odd that she has the only character who stretches the film’s simplistic, gilded boundaries.
The design of Cinderella is stunning, and even though we’re only in March, it’s an easy Oscar frontrunner for Sandy Powell’s costumes and Dante Ferretti’s production design. This is a lush, vibrant film that has just enough nods to the 1950 animated film to pay homage, but also has a distinct look that sets it apart. The movie also features a scene between Kit and the king (Derek Jacobi) that leads to an incredibly emotional, powerful shot. Branagh once again proves that when it comes to directing, he’s better kept in a royal past than the slick future (e.g. Thor, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit).
All of this glitz and glamour perfectly aligns with its dazzling eponymous character: pretty and uncomplicated. It’s a fairy tale with a simple lesson—have courage and be kind—but never shows what that means in practice. Courage and kindness are depicted as nothing more than tolerance and politeness. Courage and kindness are proactive, and Ella’s strength is passive. She has no courage because she has no fears to overcome. She only displays one true act of kindness—giving milk to an old beggar woman who turns out to be her Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter).
There’s nothing wrong with being nice, and Cinderella is a nice movie. It eschews cynicism and doesn’t try to inject a narrative twist like its recent live-action Disney brethren Maleficent and Alice in Wonderland. It’s an ornate decoration on a design you already loved, and while there may be no courage in Branagh’s Cinderella, it does a small kindness to Disney’s classic film.