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"CINDERELLA"
(2015) (Lily James, Cate Blanchett) (PG)


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QUICK TAKE:
Fantasy/Romance: A kind and brave common girl falls for a handsome prince, but runs afoul of her evil stepmother and wicked stepsisters who are repulsed by her goodness.
PLOT:
In a land far away, Cinderella (LILY JAMES) lives with her good-hearted mother (HAYLEY ATWELL) and adoring father (BEN CHAPLIN), occupying a lovely country estate in the forest. Their days are spent laughing and playing and caring for animals. But this idyllic existence comes to an end when Cinderella's mom takes sick and dies. A few years later, her dad remarries and his new wife is a cold-hearted schemer named Lady Tremaine (CATE BLANCHETT), who comes to the manor with two snide, bickering teenage daughters, Anastasia (HOLLIDAY GRANGER) and Drizella (SOPHIE McSHERA).

During one of her father's frequent business trips, he also becomes ill and dies. Left destitute, Lady Tremaine dismisses the home's hired hands and instead makes Cinderella wait on her and her two daughters hand and foot. She even banishes the young woman to the cold attic where her only friends are some mischievous mice. Life is grim for Cinderella until one day she goes horseback riding in the forest and meets Kit (RICHARD MADDEN), literally her Prince Charming. Kit is indeed the son of a dying king (DEREK JACOBI), who wants his boy to marry a princess from a nearby land to ensure the security of his small kingdom after he is gone. Kit, though, is instantly smitten with Cinderella and wants to marry her. Only she has disappeared back into the forest without telling him her name.

Kit puts a call out to the land that all fair maidens are welcome at the next palace ball. Lady Tremaine instantly angles to have the Prince fall for either Anastasia or Drizella so she and they can return to a life of privilege and comfort. The King's Grand Duke (STELLAN SKARSGARD), meanwhile, tries to strong-arm Kit into falling for one of the real princesses attending the gala. But Cinderella is visited by her Fairy Godmother (HELENA BONHAM CARTER), who magically provides her with a gown, glass slippers, a carriage, horses, and footmen to ensure that she will be on equal footing with everyone else at the big event.

OUR TAKE: 8 out of 10
I know some people have issues with showing little girls "princess fantasies." Why set your daughters or your granddaughters or your nieces up to believe that there is a Prince Charming in their future, that true love is possible, that they can live happily ever after? The new live-action version of "Cinderella," directed by Kenneth Branagh, rather brazenly and open-heartedly asks ... "Uh, why not?!"

Sure, little Mary may not grow up to live in a palace or sit on a throne or marry some handsome guy on a horse with the perfect teeth. But Branagh and screenwriter Chris Weitz contend that that is not what the "Cinderella" fantasy is about. To them, the story is about persevering. It's about being rewarded for one's kindness, decency, and bravery even when life has dealt them some terrible blows. It's about protecting your sense of wonder, your belief that things will get better. It acknowledges the ugliness of the world, the threat of loss, the pessimism. It concedes that one might have to go through long periods of toil and hardship. But it also shows the virtue of getting through such difficult times and not letting them change who you fundamentally are.

Yes, Branagh's Cinderella IS a Disney princess. Little girls are certainly going to want her wardrobe, her shoes, her accessories, her hair, and her man. But his Cinderella is also a role model, a person to look up to, a heroine. I would much rather have my daughter -- I have a 10-year-old -- look up to Lily James' title character here than most all of the snarky, entitled teen characters on the various Disney Channel or Nickelodeon shows. And, certainly, Cinderella is someone who should stay in a young girl's heart and mind longer than Dakota Johnson's pathetic character in "Fifty Shades of Grey" playing in the next theater down at your local cineplex this weekend.

Branagh doesn't try and reinvent the wheel here. Instead, he takes that wheel, polishes it up, bathes in golden sunlight, and invites us all to marvel at what a grand old tire it is. If there is any disappointment here, it's that he doesn't throw in any new significant new wrinkles to the classic fairy tale. He fleshes out the Prince a bit more. Here, he is not labeled Prince Charming, but is instead known as Kit and played with swooning perfection by "Games of Thrones" star Richard Madden. And he's just as in need of saving as Cinderella is, fighting against tradition and standing to champion true love.

While I do have a lingering question as to whether Cinderella knew she was going to the palace on her fateful night to meet Kit specifically or a Prince in general, I was able to get past this flaw in Weitz's script and stay in the moment for the most part. And the big moments that Branagh has to get right in this film, he gets absolutely right. That first appearance of Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett), the wicked stepmother who slinks out of her carriage and immediately takes over Cinderella's family household? Nailed it. The meet-cute in the forest between Cinderella and her prince? Your little girl -- and probably your wife -- is going to swoon. Their first dance in the palace as the entire kingdom watches? Pure movie magic!

All concerned here really believed in this project and put a lot of love in it. Sandy Powell puts on a veritable clinic in costume design here. Wow, wow, wow is all I have to say! Similarly, Dante Ferretti's production design is truly storybook, and composer Patrick Doyle lets it all hang out with his sweeping musical score. After "Enchanted" so thoroughly and gently sent up all of the conventions of the classic Disney princess tales, I didn't think we'd see another movie like this. I didn't think it could be done in this cynical age. But after the success of "Frozen" (don't get to the theater late and miss the wonderful "Frozen Fever" short film that precedes "Cinderella" featuring Elsa, Olaf, and the other favorites), this kind of warm, open-hearted fantasy can be made again if the talent involved is up to task. Branagh and Co. certainly are here.

No, it doesn't break new ground. But I'm glad it didn't. The world doesn't need a "Cinderella" for the 21st century. It needs a "Cinderella" for any century. What the world loves about this tale is intact here. This is the story that deserves to start with "Once upon a time" and end with "And they lived happily ever after." I give it a strong 8 out of 10. (T. Durgin)




Reviewed March 5, 2015 / Posted March 13, 2015


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