Sunday, April 12, 2015

IN DEFENSE OF CINDERELLA


Disney is determined to capitalize on their princess franchise as much as possible these days. Indeed, their current cinematic output is looking more and more like the princess section of their Disney stores. This spring’s CINDERELLA had no less than the estimable Kenneth Branagh directing, and its strong reviews and box office have opened the door for more live action versions of Disney classics to come our way.

It makes sense that BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is next on the docket for two big reasons. First, it’s based on what is one of Disney’s most prestigious animated efforts before associating with Pixar. It was so heralded it was even nominated for Best Picture back in 1991 when only five films made the list. And two, despite the success of the live action CINDERELLA, there has been an inordinate amount of backlash, so Disney likely feels compelled to present one of its most modern princesses for the post-FROZEN audience. 

Much has come under fire in this new version of CINDERELLA, from the slender appearance of lead Lily James’ waistline, to the story’s core conceit that the heroine needs to marry into money to escape her economic misfortunes. The latter is going to be inherent in any version of CINDERELLA and that's a fair criticism in this day and age. Still if this is a caricatured version of women, aren't superhero movies similar cartoon versions of manly men? Maybe we should go after DC or Marvel more, no?

Lily James in FAST GIRLS (2012)
Branagh stressed that there was no digital modification of James’ body in this film. Rather, she is a petite actress who happens to be in remarkably good shape, and the design of the dress accentuated the V of her figure. Also, Branagh said, lighting helped add more to her sleek physique.  

Critics shouldn't deride James for being fit however. She's played athletes on film and if you rent 2012’s FAST GIRLS you’ll see that slim waist of hers again playing a professional sprinter. No matter, James’ Cinderella shows a physical poise and strength throughout the film that should be lauded. She’s not a girly girl, wan and weak. She’s strong and agile, whether she’s taking care of her family and household, dancing at the ball, or riding a horse at full gallop.

Perhaps doing another version of CINDERELLA after the more progressive portrayal of princesses is a worthy criticism. This one is still an “old school” fairy tale in many ways, and shrinks compared to the feminism of FROZEN. Here indeed, a woman needs a rich man to rescue her, but the filmmakers at least do a good job of creating an environment where it's logical.

Screenwriter Chris Weitz and director Branagh explain the dire economics faced by Ella (before she becomes 'Cinder-ella' for doing all the dirty work around the house), along with her new stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and step siblings (Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera). The death of breadwinner Father (Ben Chaplin) renders them without an income. It's hardly 2015, but that's the story. 

Beyond that though, this CINDERELLA has a lot in common with FROZEN or Disney’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, starting with the way Cinderella is written by Weitz, directed by Branagh, and played by the assured and confident Lily James. She’s not a clichéd damsel in distress this time out, but rather a strong, smart, and courageous woman like the heroines from those more admired Disney movies.

Lily James as CINDERELLA, driven to a life of hard labor.
And James demonstrates the same positive and winning slyness whether she’s playing in scenes with men, women or against CGI mice. Isn't that feminist? There’s a maturity to James too that belies her 26 years of age. She’s got that British brevity to her, and her theater-trained grace and gravitas truly add heft to the movie’s motto of “Have courage and be kind.” This is a Cinderella whose hardships have been created for her by the economics of deceased parents and a stringent kingdom, but her pluck and perseverance will get her out of that abysmal state.

This movie doesn’t create a stereotyped prince either. Richard Madden’s Kit, which he prefers being called, is about as modern as a man can be in fairy tales. He’s humble, kind, sensitive, and actually treats Cinderella like his superior. He worries that he isn’t worthy of such a smart and capable woman. And he’s utterly embarrassed by his royal heritage, not wanting to be adored as a monarch, but rather, loved as a person. 

Derek Jacobi as the King and Richard Madden as Kit, the Prince.
He and Cinderella are kindred spirits this time out. They both struggle with domineering parents and want desperately to forge their own way in life. These are a lot of the same themes you'll find in THE HUNGER GAMES and the DIVERGENT series. It's appealing to teens and their justified fear that this world holds few opportunities for them regarding jobs and upward mobility. In that way, this Cinderella is very much a product of our times.

Screenwriter Weitz has always written great younger characters starting with his film ABOUT A BOY, which he also directed back in 2002. It had similar themes of teen outcasts struggling with parental control. And his heroine is certainly post-modern, laughing at her shortcomings and being as fun and feminine running around in flats as she is in glass stemware. 

Weitz also writes throughout with a nod to modernity. The Fairy Godmother (a hilarious Helena Bonham Carter) has an AB/FAB brusqueness to her that is anything but noble. And he creates plenty of dark-humored fun by having the animals turn into men that aren't fully human for Cinderella’s big night. The two lizards that become coachmen courtesy of the Fairy Godmother’s wand don’t lose their reptilian origins. Their skin keeps a greenish cast, and the tails of their coats swish back and forth suggesting their true appendages. These winks are cheeky and knowing and play well with the adults in the audience. Weitz has modernized the old tale as much as humanly possible.

Director Kenneth Branagh with his leading lady Lily James.
Branagh was an inspired choice to direct too as he’s always worked wonders making stories from yesteryear seem fresh.  Look what he did with HENRY V, MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING and HAMLET, let alone THOR. All that royal family drama between Anthony Hopkins, Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston could have been stoic and stuffy, but it was utterly relatable. Branagh does the same here.

He’s respectful and reverent to the fairy tale tropes, yet he doesn’t let the clichés bog down the fun. He keeps the pageantry from overwhelming the story. And the actors’ director gets marvelous performances from his entire cast. Royals like the King (Derek Jacobi), the Grand Duke (Stellan Skarsgard) and the Captain of the Guards (Nonzo Onosie) could have been mere stuffed shirts, but Branagh gets three-dimensional turns from all of them. Even comic Rob Brydon shines in a brief but hilarious cameo as an artist whose tongue paints more vivid pictures than any of his brushes.

Of course, top-billed Blanchett registers vividly, as one would expect, but we understand why her Stepmother feels such spite, and her villain is quite sympathetic. She’s a widowed woman with two children to support and that’s never easy in the best of times, let alone during those years that were practically Medieval. And Branagh ensures that her character’s pain registers in every word, gesture and longing look. He’s even gotten his splendid costume designer Sandy Powell to drape Blanchett in green, ensuring that she always wears her envy of a better life on her sleeve.

One could find more spectacle in the average episode of THE BACHELOR than there is here, and the episode where Farmer Chris took Jade on a “Cinderella date” was more sugary sweet than anything here. Not only does Branagh move through the showy ball scenes quickly and deftly, but he plays them more for humor than romantic idealism. When the pumpkin turns into the golden carriage, it’s played as a burgeoning obelisk, not a spiffy ride, as it nearly smothers Cinderella and her Fairy Godmother while transforming in the pumpkin patch.

Cate Blanchett as the Stepmother in CINDERELLA.
And Branagh doesn’t make too big a deal out of that glass slipper either. Kit knows who he’s looking for; the search for the right maiden's foot is mostly for his Kingsmen, who don’t know what she looks like. And when he finally places the shoe on Cinderella, it’s shot modestly. Even the beautiful score by Patrick Doyle doesn’t overdo the strings at that moment. 

Kit is a character who knows what he’s looking for, and he’s already found her, shoe or no shoe, at that juncture. Has any CINDERELLA ever made so little out of the story's big show-stopper? Doubtful. And yet underplaying the symbolism of the glass slippers is, dare I say, perfectly fitting to the tone and style of this much smarter than usual adaptation.

So why is there so much backlash online? The Cinderella story has been derided for years as being sexist, so what's new? The same criticism was levied at Hollywood’s versions that starred Julie Andrews, Lesley Anne Warren and Brandy, respectively, when they took on the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. The trouble lies in the dated story, but it’s let's cut it some slack. After all, it is a fairly tale. 

Or should we condemn any work that has an antiquated view of women, or portrays women as subservient figures in a male hierarchy? Should we then condemn Jane Austen for writing about women needing to marry to survive in the nineteenth century? Is it fair game to slander feminist icon Gloria Steinem for choosing to play up her curves as a Playboy bunny to study men? Should something like “Dancing with the Stars” be taken off the air for the revealing outfits that showcase Peta Murgatroyd’s thighs or Kym Johnson’s toned stomach? Sometimes, critiques can go a bit too far.


It certainly is fair for critics and audiences to expect fairer presentations of female leads in movies than something as overdone as the saga of Cinderella. But can’t we applaud this new version of that heroine who equals the Prince in every way accept economically? Can we not admire its portrayal of a young person whose life approach promotes courage and kindness? And while she’s attractive, isn't the fact that this movie makes more of Cinderella’s inner beauty worthy of great praise? 


Let’s remember as well that for all of their strengths, FROZEN traded on cliched issues of frigidity, and BEAUTY AND THE BEAST had a heroine named for her looks. Branagh, Weitz, James and team have done wonders with CINDERELLA and it doesn’t deserve its berating. At least Cinderella never gives up her voice to land a prince like Ariel did in THE LITTLE MERMAID. Let’s see how Disney gets out of that one when they attempt a live action version of it.

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