Has there ever been a movie as sugary as the live-action Cinderella? It's like stuffing your face with cake, until cake is all up inside your nostrils and you have a frosting-beard. And yet, this movie also has moments of actual emotion and believable characterization here and there, which make it surprisingly great.
Spoilers for people who don't know the story of Cinderella below...
Cinderella is such a pure wish-fulfillment fantasy, it's hard to make it much more than that. And its heroine, especially in the Disney cartoon, is one of those lovely sweet girls who's kind of a doormat, and needs other people to rescue her. So it's especially difficult to turn Cinderella into anything other than a panto, where overqualified actors flounce around in fancy costumes and declaim ridiculous dialogue.
So some credit needs to go to director Kenneth Branagh and writer Chris Weitz, who manage to create something that holds up as a story, with moments of real emotional honesty in it. They take the sweet and somewhat passive Cinderella (Lily James) and give her a bit more agency, along with a real character arc.
In the movie version, you can sort of believe the way that the orphaned Cinderella becomes a servant to her stepmother and stepsisters. The film sketches out the ways they take advantage of her sweet nature and her promise to her dead mother always to be kind, and use those things to railroad her and inflict drudgery and humiliation o her. And over the course of the film, you see Cinderella coming into her own a bit more, and slowly learning that kindness doesn't mean just going along with whatever people want.
And meanwhile, Cate Blanchett takes the role of the Wicked Stepmother, which is an invitation to vamp like a 20-piece jazz band, and actually gives her a few little moments of vulnerability amongst her larger-than-life villainy. Blanchett shows us just enough of the Stepmother's calculation and cynicism, too, that we get why she's willing to walk all over her step-daughter to help her own daughters survive.
Game of Thrones' Richard Madden brings just the right level of good nature to the role of the Prince, and his relationships with his father (Derek Jacobi!) and his guard captain (Nonso Anozie, also from Game of Thrones) help make him feel like a real person with real relationships — so we sort of buy it when the Prince meets Cinderella randomly in the forest and immediately gets smitten with her.
And seldom has Helena Bonham-Carter's penchant for camp been more warranted than in her appearance as the Fairy Godmother. When she shows up, roughly halfway through the movie, it's like the floodgates are finally opened wide and the full measure of Disneyfied spectacle is unleashed. Bonham-Carter embraces the silliness of her role so whole-heartedly, it's just kind of beautiful.
So the point of all this is to admire the awesome costumes and lavish surroundings, and to cheer for Cinderella, as she gets the greatest makeover in the universe. That ginormous dress! The golden carriage. The fabulous Ball that you SHALL go to. It has to be lavish and spectacular, or it'll all fail horribly. And the tiny CG mice who befriend Cinderella need to be totally adorable and ridiculous.
But the surprising thing about Branagh's Cinderella is actually how lived-in the world feels. The setting remains cartoony as heck, but there's a neat attention to detail, including a sense of how things work in this world. And the world also feels somewhat populated — there are minor characters who keep cropping up, and seem to have their own lives beyond the confines of the story.
In some sense, this new Cinderella continues the trend of movies like Maleficent and Snow White and the Huntsman, of adapting Disney fairytales for the Hunger Games era. Cinderella doesn't slap on a suit of armor, the way Kristen Stewart does in Huntsman, but she's given more choices to make, and has more of a clear Rise to Awesome. If Cinderella's superpowers are extreme femininity and niceness, then this movie sets out to create a parable about her learning to use them responsibly.
But most of all, and I want to stress this, this new Cinderella is fun. It gets completely carried away with the dress porn and the sparkly makeup and the nine-billion-layer cake of romantic fulfillment, but it never loses the sparkle in its eye. I found myself giggling a lot while watching Cinderella, but it was pretty clear the movie was laughing along with me.
There's a lot of candy-coated candy, with a candy center and candy on top, in Cinderella — but also, a lot of heart.