The Lessons of Cinderella, or: Don’t Be Afraid to NOT Be a Jerk

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Another day, another remake. Should you jump in your giant pumpkin and head to the theater to check out Cinderella? Of course not—giant pumpkins are not a viable means of transportation.

B: Accompanied by my husband to a showing of Cinderella (now, that’s true love), I was open to appreciating this live-action Disney remake directed by Kenneth Branagh. As a person who attended a college somewhere, I’ve been taught that fairy tales have likely contributed to a collective boy-crazy psychosis in young women, and that their Disney adaptations focus too much on being beautiful, cute animals and happily ever afters. Nonetheless, fairy-tale fans point out many redeemable qualities in the stories, and since Branagh is proven in adapting Shakespeare for the screen, I figured this film would be in the hands of a director who knows how to modernize a classic love story without bastardizing it.

How disappointing then, that the actual movie is not the example of high-quality adaptation it’s advertised to be. Aside from some well-executed visual effects and a fun turn by Helena Bonham Carter as the fairy godmother, Cinderella is a boring, one-note and empty experience, lacking the vintage charm that insulates so many early Disney films from the expectations of modern storytelling. And with her mantra of “have courage and be kind,” Lily James’ Cinderella is more a vessel of banal Barbie goodness than a character who young girls should strive to emulate. Branagh’s camera too-often lingers on her, especially at the ball, as if to say, look, pretty! than does the script give her anything interesting to do or say. (Also, I reject the notion that since this is for preteens, it shouldn’t have memorable, smart characters—let’s give kids more credit than that.)

For comparison purposes, I rewatched Drew Barrymore’s 1998 Cinderella vehicle Ever After, which, despite its tacky ’90s sheen, is a film many women of my generation stubbornly defend to the death. Sure, it has its deficiencies—Barrymore has a heinous British accent, wields a sword, quotes Utopia, and, yes, the movie actually makes none other than Leonardo Da Vinci himself show up to play the role of “fairy godmother.”

But you know what? For all its batshit energy, it’s better! It’s more watchable, funnier, and its heroine, still uniformly good, at least gets to display courage and kindness in interactions instead of relying on clunky exposition. It establishes dynamics in its first few minutes that this new film needs an hour to do. Also, Angelica Houston’s stepmother overshadows Cate Blanchett’s turn, in part because the shades of complexity Blanchett attempts to give were all fleshed out by Houston at her icy best almost two decades earlier.

This new version, sadly, is the greater hit, validating the next string of live-action remakes on Disney’s docket, including an as-yet-unfilmed Beauty and the Beast, which will star Hermione Granger herself in the plucky main role with Downton Abbey’s Matthew/his killer baby blues as the Beast. While I look forward to that film more—Beauty and the Beast is just a better story than Cinderella and might translate better—the lack of artistic creativity on Disney’s part is alarming, like our childhoods are being mined for profit (part of a bigger remake problem in Hollywood, I know). But there’s still hope that this plays out like Shakespeare adaptations have after all; that this one adaptation isn’t the empty standard by which new entries will be measured, and that maybe the next one will have a little more life, will hew a little farther from its source material in style and execution. I’m not asking for a total deviation from the original story, Maleficent style, but at least something that doesn’t smack of unoriginality.

What do you think? Did Branagh miss the mark? And were you as distracted as I was by the Prince’s (Game of Thrones’ Richard Madden’s) lack of facial hair?

R: To say that Richard Madden—who, by the way, has my eternal respect for being really talented AND dating Jenna Coleman—has a square jaw is an understatement. Most of the time, “square jaw” is a colloquialism we use to describe someone whose jawline is kind of angular. Richard Madden, as it turns out, has a jawline that literally consists of two 90-degree angles. I assume nobody noticed on Game of Thrones because his face, like every other male face on that show, was covered by an impressive amount of perpetual stubble. So yes, his princely, clean-shaven visage was a little jarring at first. Also, I hope he never reads the preceding paragraph.

Your point about our childhoods being mined for profit is well said, because it’s becoming an increasingly common practice of late. Granted, remakes and adaptations have been an integral part of Hollywood for almost as long as Hollywood has been a thing. But films like Cinderella, or the forthcoming Beauty and the Beast, are emblematic of new variations on that theme. Adaptations are being remade. Remakes are being adapted. Remakes are being remade. We have de-makes (that’s where a remake is less extravagant then the original), remaquels (that’s a remake that’s also a sequel), presequels (that’s a sequel that’s also a prequel, somehow) and threemakes (I just made that one up).

And here’s the thing: I’m not opposed to any of these twisted chimaera on principle. You want to remake Cinderella? Fine, go ahead. Remake it five times, for all I care. But kindly do something interesting with that fabulous budget. The best remakes justify their existence by changing up the execution in some fashion or another, to make an old story feel fresh. Cinderella, if we’re being real, is particularly amenable to a refresh, on account of how … well, bland it is. Or at least, it feels that way. The fact that it exists today as this foundational piece of fiction, one that’s been adapted, referenced and satirized to high heaven, has rendered it positively uninteresting as an entity unto itself. Which means that someone intent on remaking Cinderella has carte blanche to take it in any number of new directions. That’s how you get something like Ever After‘s Da Vinci-laden antics.

One of my favorite adaptations, Branagh’s 1996 adaptation of Hamlet, didn’t need to work nearly as hard to be interesting. The most readily apparent change Branagh made in that instance was to eschew the medieval aesthetic of prior adaptions by Franco Zeffirelli and Laurence Olivier in favor of a Victorian look. Hamlet is already a rich work; little embellishment is needed. And Branagh’s adaptation was otherwise notable for being a fuller adaptation of the play, clocking in at an intimidating 242 minutes (all of which are entirely worth it, by the way).

Branagh brings a similar aesthetic to Cinderella, and I actually think the film represents his best work as a director in years. Apart from a few ill-conceived attempts to broaden the film’s appeal, most notably an action-packed (?), CGI-heavy chase sequence (?!) involving the pumpkin stagecoach, he seems to be much more at-home here than, say, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. Wisely, he fills the screen with actors possessing the necessary gravitas to sell such a conventional, borderline-milquetoast saga. Many—like Madden, Cate Blanchett, or past Branagh acquaintances Derek Jacobi and Helena Bonham Carter—do so adequately. Lily James seems like a talented actress (I haven’t seen Downton Abbey—oh my God put that pitchfork away), and does the best she can as fairy tale literature’s Most Perfect Angel, though as you say there isn’t a ton to work with. And then there’s Stellan Skarsgard as “The Grand Duke,” who sells the absolute shit out of his part in the story. His twirly mustache and hamtastic, scenery-consuming growl are the most consistently entertaining things on display here.

So, there are some things to like about Cinderella. But Branagh’s skill with period pieces (even when the period is pretty murky … this Cinderella clearly takes place in Europe, but is it Luxembourg or something? Wait, why am I asking you?) and the enthusiasm of his cast are mostly wasted, because the movie they had to make was too middling and inoffensive to be truly memorable. Next time, Disney? Set it in space.


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