Cinderella (2015)


Cinderella in pumpkin coach with fairy godmother.

Cinderella in pumpkin coach with fairy godmother.

(2015) Fantasy (Disney) Cate Blanchett, Lily James, Richard Madden, Helena Bonham Carter, Nonso Anozie, Stellan Skarsgard, Sophie McShera, Holliday Grainger, Derek Jacobi, Ben Chaplin, Hayley Atwell, Rob Brydon, Jana Perez, Alex Macqueen, Tom Edden, Gareth Mason, Paul Hunter, Eloise Webb, Joshua McGuire, Matthew Steer, Mimi Ndiweni, Laura Elsworthy, Ella Smith. Directed by Kenneth Branagh

We all grow up with fairy tales. We’re familiar with all the ones in which courageous and kind young women overcome poverty and the machinations of villains to triumph over adversity and win the love of handsome young princes who whisk them away to a happy ending of wealth and privilege. Most little girls grow up wondering what type of prince is going to sweep them off their feet.

Like most fairy tale heroines, Ella (Webb) wasn’t really thinking in those terms, at least not right away. She was too busy living an idyllic childhood on a country estate with a loving mother (Atwell) and a doting father (Chaplin) who’s often away on business. She doesn’t have many human friends but she has companions in a trio of mice that she feeds and also the farm’s goose. It’s a lovely, sun-dappled existence.

But all good things must come to an end and Ella’s golden childhood does when her mother takes ill and dies, lingering long enough to make her daughter promise to have courage and be kind in life. She takes comfort in that she still has her father but life isn’t quite as golden, not nearly as idyllic. Thinking that Ella needs a mother around her, her father decides to remarry, bringing into the household Lady Tremaine (Blanchett), the widow of an old friend of his, and her two spoiled, cruel and stupid daughters Drisella (McShera) and Anastasia (Grainger). None of the three are very pleasant but Ella treats them with kindness.

Then on a business trip her father also takes ill and dies, leaving Ella alone with these three monstrous females. Reduced to being essentially a servant in her own home, the newly rechristened Cinderella (James) – so named because of the embers staining her cheeks – tries to cope with being an orphan and being so cruelly used.

After a chance meeting with young Kip (Madden), who claims to be an apprentice in the castle of the King, in a forest during a hunt, Cinderella has hope that things might get better for her. What she doesn’t know is that Kip is actually the Prince who is apprentice to be the next King and with his father (Jacobi) in poor health, the pressure for him to marry is becoming intense. Traditionally, the royal family throws a ball at the castle in which all the eligible princesses from around the world are invited so that the prince of the castle might choose from one a bride to become the future Queen, but he has fallen deeply in love with Cinderella, although he doesn’t know her identity or her station in life. Desperate to see her again, he manages to convince his father to allow all the women of the kingdom to come to the ball as well, while the Grand Duke (Skarsgard) manipulates behind the scenes a match with the lovely Princess Chelina of Zaragosa (Perez).

Of course, everyone in the land is all aflutter over the prospects of attending a royal ball and Lady Tremaine knows that to get out of the financial bind she is now in due to her husband’s death that marrying off one of her daughters to the Prince would solve everything. Cinderella in the meantime longs to attend the ball so that she might see Kip again, whom she is quite taken by. She even finds an old dress that was once worn by her mother to wear, but the spiteful stepmother tears the dress and forbids her from attending, fearing the competition to her daughters.

Distraught, Cinderella sobs in the garden, realizing that her life will never change but her breakdown is interrupted by the appearance of an old crone begging for something to eat and drink which the compassionate Cinderella gives her. Turns out the old crone is her Fairy Godmother (Carter) who says “Hell YES you’re going to the ball,” or words to that effect. She conjures up a fabulous coach out of a pumpkin, footmen out of a pair of lizards and a driver from the goose. She also transforms her mother’s now ripped and ragged old dress into a beautiful gown and a pair of glass slippers – which are surprisingly comfortable – for her to wear. All the better to win the heart of a prince, although she has until midnight before the enchantments wear off.

For hordes of little girls, the princess fantasy is one that is central to their lives, the belief that a better life and a handsome princess who will adore them and see to their every happiness is just around the corner. How healthy this fantasy is can be debated as to whether it raises unrealistic expectations – not every handsome man is a prince, after all, and maybe the expectation that their own personal happiness is wrapped up in finding one. But that’s a debate for another time or place.

Branagh has always been a terrific director but as of late he has moved from Shakespeare and art house films to big budget event movies and this one continues in the series of live action reimaginings of classic Disney animated features. Inevitably, Cinderella will be compared to its 1950 predecessor but surprisingly it doesn’t fall as short as you think it might have.

The costumes and set design are lush and detailed, from the gilt on the pumpkin coach to the sumptuous ball gowns to the rustic charms of Cinderella’s home. This really looks like you’ve always imagined the fairy tale to be and I wouldn’t be surprised if down the road it got Oscar consideration for costume design and/or production design.

The acting is another matter. James is certainly as beautiful as a fairy tale princess, but her smile seems forced at times and her acting seems a tad stilted. Julia Roberts was a more believable fairy tale princess in Pretty Woman, that most modern of fairy tales, and more relatable. Not that Cinderella has to be a hooker mind you, but there was more genuineness coming from Roberts, although to compare James whose career is fairly nascent with one of the most glittering stars in the Hollywood firmament may be a trifle unfair.

One of the main attractions of the movie is that it is a retro fairy tale, which in this case is a good thing. This isn’t a re-working or a re-imagining; this is Cinderella exactly the way you remember it and the way your little girls envisioned it. This is the kind of movie that puts to the lie the old adage that “they don’t make ’em like this anymore,” because clearly they can and occasionally they do.

REASONS TO GO: Lush costumes and sets. Beautifully shot. Retro in a good way.
REASONS TO STAY: James’ performance a bit forced. Princess porn.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for most audiences except the very wee and impressionable.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: James and McShera both appear in the hit PBS series Downton Abbey although their roles are reversed; in the show, James plays an aristocrat and McShera a servant.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/29/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Maleficent
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Divergent Series: Insurgent

Maleficent


Angelina Jolie in full-on Maleficent mode.

Angelina Jolie in full-on Maleficent mode.

(2014) Fantasy (Disney) Angelina Jolie, Sharlto Copley, Elle Fanning, Sam Riley, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, Lesley Manville, Brenton Thwaites, Kenneth Cranham, Hannah New, Sarah Flind, Isobelle Molloy, Michael Higgins, Ella Purnell, Jackson Bews, Angus Wright, Janet McTeer (voice), Oliver Maltman, Eleanor Worthington-Cox, Vivienne Jolie-Pitt. Directed by Robert Stromberg

Little boys everywhere know this to be true: never mess with a Disney princess. That’s a war in which there is no winning. Of course, little boys grow up and forget the lessons they knew when they were young.

Most of us know the story of Sleeping Beauty, the fairy tale in which Princes Aurora, daughter of a greedy king, is cursed by a wicked sorceress to sleep for eternity, only awakening with true love’s kiss. Of course, that’s just one side of the story.

Maleficent (Jolie) is the aforementioned wicked sorceress, but she wasn’t always that way. Once she was a young woman in the enchanted land known as the Moors, adjacent to a human kingdom ruled by a greedy king (but not the aforementioned one). Reacting to rumors of wealth in the Moors, the King (Cranham) brings his army to bear on the Moor. However, Maleficent isn’t just any ol’ young woman; she’s charismatic, a leader of the denizens of the Moor and she rallies her people to fight off the invasion, personally humiliating the King and sending him back to his castle with his tail between his legs (figuratively; the only tails in this war belong to the people of the Moor).

Furious, the King promises his daughter and the crown of the land to whoever kills Maleficent. Stefan (Copley), an ambitious pageboy in the service of the King, overhears this and realizes an opportunity is at hand. He alone of anyone in the Kingdom has the best chance of accomplishing this; that’s because he has had a relationship with Maleficent since boyhood and the fairy-born sorceress has feelings for him.

He steals out to the Moors and canoodles with Maleficent, slipping her a sleeping draught in the process. While she’s out, he can’t quite bring himself to kill her but still manages to do something dreadful, enough to win himself the throne and the princess as well as the enduring hatred of the sorceress and every big boy knows never to mess with a woman scorned.

She waits for Stefan to have a child of his own before leveling her terrible curse – that the newborn babe will live to her 16th year, growing in beauty and grace, beloved by all. Before sundown on her 16th birthday she will prick her finger on a spinning wheel and fall into a sleep like death, never to awaken again. Only true love’s kiss will awaken her.

Horrified, Stefan orders all the spinning wheels in the kingdom collected and broken into pieces and then burned, their remains stored in the castle. He sends the infant to a remote corner of his kingdom, a bucolic cottage where she will be raised by three fairies in human form; Knotgrass (Staunton), Fittle (Manville) and Thistlewit (Temple).

The infant grows into a beautiful young girl (Fanning), beloved by the women she knows as her aunts but also observed by Maleficent and her minion, Diaval (Riley), a crow that Maleficent changes into human form from time to time (among other things). Maleficent, somewhat curious about the girl she has cursed, brings her into the Moor and soon becomes enchanted herself by the girl’s love and beauty. She slowly begins to regret her actions because Maleficent knows why her curse is so terrible – that there is no such thing as true love.

Stromberg made his name in Hollywood as the production designer for such films as Avatar and Oz, the Great and Powerful. This is his first feature film as a director and given his expertise, he was given the largest budget ever for a first-time director. To his credit, you can see every penny on the screen. This is a visually stunning movie and the Moors is as enchanting an environment as you’re likely to see at the movies this year.

But even given the gorgeous effects, the best thing about the movie is Angelina Jolie. I don’t know if she’d consider this an insult, but she was born to play this role. Her intimidating stare, her malevolent smile, her ice-cold eyes make for a perfect villain, and to make matters even better, she resembles facially the cartoon Maleficent quite closely (in fact, most of the actors were cast for their physical resemblance to the characters of the Sleeping Beauty animated feature).

Jolie gives the character depth, from the anguished cry when she is betrayed by Stefan to the evil grin as she throws soldiers around in the air like she’s juggling bowling pins and to the softening of her heart as she begins to fall under Aurora’s sway. This isn’t the kind of thing that wins Oscars but it is nonetheless one of the better acting performances that you’re going to find at the movies in 2014. She nails this role.

Which is where we come to the big question about the movie. Disney purists have howled that the new movie messes with Maleficent, turning her into a sympathetic character rather than the deliciously evil villain of the original 1959 film and of course they have a point. The movie takes a page from Wicked not only in looking at a classic story from the point of view of its villain, but in explaining the villain’s motivations for her actions and in the end, making other characters the true villain while making the original villain somewhat heroic. Wicked has been in film development for a decade and perhaps we’ll see it on the big screen someday but for now, Maleficent does the same thing for Sleeping Beauty. While some will find it intriguing, others may be less sanguine about seeing a beloved story messed with.

I liked Riley in the role of Maleficent’s flunky. He is courtly and occasionally sour; “Don’t change me into a dog. Dogs eat birds,” he grouses at his mistress at one point. He makes a fine foil for Jolie. Fanning’s role has been described as a “happy idiot” which isn’t far from the mark but her character doesn’t give Fanning, who has shown tremendous skill in meatier roles, much to work with. She’s mainly here to be cursed and the source of Maleficent’s regret and she does both solidly.

There are some logical lapses here. For example, Stefan orders all the spinning wheels destroyed and yet at the crucial time there’s a bunch of them (broken apart to be sure) sitting in the castle, waiting for Aurora to come and prick her finger on them. Why wouldn’t you burn them to ash and then bury the ashes to be sure? Nobody ever accused King Stefan of thinking clearly however.

In any case, I will say that Da Queen has always been a huge fan of the character – it is her favorite Disney villain – and she felt let down by the film. To both of our surprise, I wound up actually liking the movie more than she did and I’m not the Disney fan she is. Take that for what it’s worth. Still, if you don’t come in with expectations that this is going to be a live action version of Sleeping Beauty that sticks exactly with canon, you’ll find that this is another solidly entertaining summer movie that may not have a ton of substance (although there are some subtexts here that are intriguing, though not terribly developed) but will take you away and out of your lives for a couple of hours and that’s never a bad thing.

REASONS TO GO: Jolie is perfect for the role. Incredible production design and special effects. Well-cast.

REASONS TO STAY: May offend Disney purists. Maleficent not evil so much as throwing a tantrum. A few logical holes.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of action, battle violence and some pretty frightening images. The really little ones will probably be terrified of the dragon and of some of the Moor creatures.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Jolie’s first film in four years.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/4/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Man Without a Face

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Copenhagen