The Charges: Unwanted corporate navel-gazing evoking a long-dead Golden Age, shot-by-shot remake, evidence of creative bankruptcy.
The Verdict: Not Guilty!
The Findings: This movie snuck up on me. Suddenly, there was this new version of Cinderella coming out, which was no surprise, lately. But another Cinderella by Disney? The company that made the definitive version decades ago? Why would Disney make another? Was it going to compete? Be a simple remake? A reboot? Does that even make sense? The idea that this version wouldn't be compared the the previous Disney version was ludicrous, so how does it compare?
Very well, actually.
The opening moments of the film are a somewhat strained, since everything is so very perfect, it's hard to relate to. But soon the tone settles down, and the characters begin to carry their own weight.
You heard that: this movie has characters. Actual fictional personages. It takes some doing, when dealing with a story everyone already knows, to establish the cast as anything other than placeholders and milestones in the plot. Not everyone gets this careful treatment (we'll get to that in a moment), but, in general, the main players are very well drawn.
Hats off, as always, to Cate Blanchett, whose turn as the Stepmother is truly great. She lets her beauty be part of how evil she is, and the story hints at more depth than her role usually receives. And the greater sophistication of the storyline lets her character do additional scheming, making her realistically selfish and manipulative, not simply mean, mean, mean for no reason. From her first introductory shot to the final image of her in defeat, Blanchett's looks are perfectly framed, allowing her acting abilities to carry a lot more power than I was expecting from this movie. The final shot of her on the staircase is so classically lit and saturated with color, it's almost unearthly how well the movie evokes film-making from another age, and Kate Blanchett is one of the few modern actors able to pull that off.
Lily James, too, puts in a surprising turn. Her look in this movie is strictly pretty, without trying for the supernatural perfection Snow White and the Huntsman tried (and, it must be stressed, failed (badly)) to imbue Kristen Stewart with. The writing, here, is also well tuned, allowing Ella to be kind without being so schmaltzy and saccharine you wish bad things upon her. The story is actually satisfying to watch because of the level-headed kindness of Ella, and the writing allows that to happen, and Kenneth Branaugh's direction allows James to just be a person. I was surprised by this, girding myself for a cinematic death-by-a-thousand-cuts of over-done niceties.
But all is not well in fairy-tale-land. The mice, thankfully sans clothes in this version (a change directors should apply to a great many future characters), are nestled just within the uncanny valley. They look real enough, and move about as you'd expect a mouse to do, and yet they are pretty distracting, as they are just too stage-directed, somehow.
And now for the bad news. The Fairy Godmother. Sigh.
Why must Hollywood insist on aging actors to look like super-old people? It never works. Hey, makeup artists: IT DOESN'T WORK. EVER.
Simply making young actors all spotty and wrinkly doesn't evoke age. It evokes layers of makeup. The Uncanny Valley has a whole village inhabited by actors trying to look older than their age through makeup. Are there no old actors? Oh, wait, we need someone who is comically super-old, for some reason. And an genuinely aged actor would demand more respect than the one minute the aged Godmother receives before transforming back into her true form, which is that of the slightly addled beauty that is Helena Bonham Carter.
Now, the sequence with the Godmother lends the story a needed dose of the whimsical, and she doesn't overstay her welcome, doing her duty and vanishing as quickly as she arrived. Once she's young and hot again, the Godmother moves the story along well, but I can't help but think that the feel was partly relief that the god-awful aging-makeup effects were over.
The character of the Prince is another minefield. I mean, having a male character be sensitive and good without coming off as entirely unbelievable and unlikable is not easy. Kit, as he's named here, somehow allows himself to be a nice guy and still be believably heterosexual. Wait, did I just write that? Yep. Huh.
As another strange aside, this movie also makes is seem as if adult humans often just weaken and die without visible cause, as the bodies hit the floor with alarming regularity. I count three people who keel over without obvious cause (one off screen, and allowed a sudden illness to waft them to a better place). I suppose it serves the purposes of the story, but it seems odd that a person can be talking one second and fade away the next. But that's the benefit of living in a fairy tale: death is as it should be. Either that, or the kingdom employs a standardized euthanasia program for the mildly ill.
In the end, this retelling of Cinderella makes use of the skills of the actors, the talents of the writers, and the intelligence of the audience, and that's worth a lot. It's a genuinely good movie that had a lot of tripwires to avoid, and does so while making it look easy. But it's also easy to see how badly it could have gone. This movie manages to avoid traumatizing a generation of children, damaging dozens of Hollywood careers, and embarrassing, annoying, and/or insulting and angering thousands of adults.
Now that's magic.