Let’s cut-to-the-quick: With its beautiful Art and Set Direction, outstanding Costumes, lush Special Effects (a perfect pumpkin-turned-coach sequence), and a gorgeous waltz-laden score (composer Patrick Doyle a most excellent choice!), the film deserved a superior script. Having chosen “Courage and Kindness” as the film’s central theme, (the values Cinderella embraces from childhood) seasoned screenwriters Chris Weitz and Aline Brosh McKenna could have been far more clever and less heavy-handed in their set-up.* The result: the first third of Disney’s CINDERELLA is ponderous and overly simplistic up to and including the Stepmother and her daughters’ arrival. The early scenes with the child Ella (to become Cinderella) and her parents are superficial. Her mother’s story would have been better served in the form of memory (or even flashback) instead of the short moments provided here to portray her dying words to her daughter. Moreover, the writer’s attempt to convey Cinderella’s apprehension regarding her father’s remarriage lacks sufficient motivation until we actually meet them. With no nuance, no subterfuge –even in the presence of Cinderella’s father!–the characters as written provide no sense whatsoever as to why Cinderella’s father would have chosen them or tolerate their behavior! Worst of all, the script handicaps Cate Blanchett’s captivating performance as the calculating Stepmother with far more caricature than depth. Her two poignant motivational scenes arrive a bit too late and they feel more like inserts than part of an organic whole. Anticipating those scenes, I would have welcomed a little more guile and giddy manipulation from the Wicked Stepmother earlier on. Instead of the abrupt way she banishes Cinderella to the attic, for example, I could easily have accepted Stepmother sending Cinderella on an errand to allow the stepsisters moved into Cinderella’s room! And, alas, in regard to style and pacing, I expected more from Director Kenneth Branagh whose HENRY V and HAMLET remain among the most outstanding modern Shakespeare films. He does a fine job, however, in the scenes between Cinderella and her Prince. Indeed, Branagh makes “Love at First Sight” believable. Overall, once Cinderella’s father is out of the picture, the pace quickens, the performers take flight and the magic begins.
Kudos to all the actors! Lily James is an enchanting Cinderella. We need and want her in every scene. As noted, Cate Blanchett is a wonderfully menacing and wounded Stepmother and I liked Holliday Granger’s and Sophie McShera’s buffoonery as the selfish step-sisters. As the Prince, Richard Madden is fittingly charming and understated. Helena Bonham Carter makes for a most bewitching and fun-filled fairy godmother in both her old lady and youthful guises. Oh, what fun had her role been expanded! Still, what we have in CINDERELLA is, in the end, enough to be good. Once our impatience to “get to the magic” is addressed, a grand time at the ball awaits.
*FYI: Weitz’s best films are IN GOOD COMPANY and A SINGLE MAN; McKenna is best known for THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA.