A Fun, But Disappointing, Take on Cinderella

Should I file this as “Too Little, Too Late”? Perhaps—you’ve probably already read about a zillion reviews of the new live-action Cinderella, but I decided to add my two cents to the pot anyway. I try to keep these non-spoilery, but we all know the story of Cinderella, so … read at your own risk if you hate to be “spoiled.”

Yes, my review is a little “late,” but I actually saw Cinderella in the theatre the night before it opened. I was excited to see the first live-action retelling (not a reimagining) of a classic Disney princess movie. But afterward, I just couldn’t seem to bring myself to write about it. I didn’t want to trash it. And I thought giving myself some time and space to think about the film might bring it into perspective. But, ultimately, after a little over a week, I don’t feel any less disappointed. Do let me explain …

To start with the good: It is an absolutely beautiful movie. Everything from the actors to the settings to the costumes is exquisitely perfect. But it’s not self-indulgent, and not a second of film is wasted. The aesthetics—every single pot and pan and every single lingering exterior shot—the lighting and the camera angles all play an integral part in telling and enhancing the story. There’s an ironic economy of narrative in the expansive direction and lush settings.

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I don’t know how much of the movie was faked with CGI—I really couldn’t tell … except for the parts that were obviously done with effects, of course. Those portions of the film—and so there’s no mistake, we’re talking about Ella’s fairy godmother and pumpkin coach here—are both breathtaking and deft. Again, there’s nothing wasted. Every second of the bibbity-bobbity-bewitchment was delightful. (Well, I quite dislike Helena Bonham Carter … so I could have done without her sneering self-satisfaction but I’m not sure how much of that is my own confirmation bias.)

And the cast! My goodness. For me, Cate Blanchett totally stole the show. Her self-important smugness is played for maximum horribleness, and she acts it with her entire body. It’s really a sight to behold, especially when combined with the impact of the absolutely stunning costumes that become an extension of her aloof and scornful demeanor. Her daughters, if not quite as elegantly coifed or graceful, are also dressed in perfect reflection of their hilariously over-played characters. The three of them are so perfect.

Cinderella still

As for the leads, I have a soft spot for Richard Madden, it’s true. But he leverages his impish smile, high cheekbones and expressive deep blue eyes to great effect as Prince Charming … or Kit, as I’ll now think of him forever. He brought such fun and rebellious personality to a pretty flat character. I could still take-or-leave Lily James—as Ella or in any other role … she’s just so milquetoast—but that’s part-and-parcel of why this movie really failed for me.

To wit: I can’t consider Cinderella without considering Ever After. And, I think, to a certain extent, Disney made that connection, too. The story took cues from the 1998 film, especially as it pertains to Cinderella’s younger years—a time that isn’t explored in very much depth in the 1950 animated classic—and the structure of how Ella and Charming first meet. But here’s the thing … Cinderella is vastly inferior to Ever After. It just is. It’s not as smart or as funny, and the characters simply aren’t as real or relatable. And, somehow, even though Ever After is only 10 minutes longer, it feels so much more immersive.

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Ultimately, Lily James just can’t hold a candle to Drew Barrymore. I honestly don’t think any version of Cinderella is ever, ever, ever going to have enough agency for me. You could argue that Lily’s character is stronger and more of-her-own-mind than the Cindy in the animated film (although I’m not entirely sure I agree) … but she doesn’t even begin to compare to the radical, free-thinking, self-sufficient princess played by Barrymore. Is Ever After perfect? Not by a long shot. But at least it has got spirit and a heroine worthy of ascending to power. I trust Barrymore’s Ella will do great things. I trust James’ Ella will talk down to her prince in a very twee and unappealing manner. She’s not as smart, not as strong and not as interesting. And she’s certainly not courageous.

Which leads me to the film’s moral. Have courage and be kind. NOPE. Not only is that not inherent in the original, but it’s also completely nonsensical. Indeed, there’s a big difference between being kind and being an idiotic doormat. As someone who struggles with that fact and measures her own actions regularly, I really took offense at the idea that Ella is driven by kindness. Was it really kind to drag her stepmother before the court to embarrass the broken woman? Was it really kind to “forgive” her chief tormentor in such a public and humiliating fashion? I don’t see it that way.

Filmmakers, take note: Even if you decide to give your film a completely silly theme, at least respect your audience enough not to brandish the exact same phrase like a heavy, blunt object over and over and over. And over. By the end of the film, Dan and I were literally groaning every time any character uttered the words courage or kind. It became distracting to the point of being laughable.

Cinderella still

Another big problem I have with Cinderella is the music. It’s fine and appropriate. But there’s not even a nod to “So This Is Love”. Not even a melodic theme inspired by the original music. Nothing. To me, the music—and that song in particular—is a vital touchstone of the animated movie. It is, in fact, what makes it uniquely Disney. But this new film really thumbs its nose at the power of sound on sense memory. It’s a serious misstep. Then again, given the lack of chemistry between the romantic leads, maybe the decision to avoid the obvious love theme was smart (but still disappointing).

Overall, I’m glad I saw it, and I’m even glad I saw it in the theatre—I think a lot of the beauty would have been lost on my 32-inch TV. But will I see it again? Nope. There’s no reason to. It’s the Cinderella story, plain and simple, without any appreciable twist or emotionality that would make it worth revisiting. So I won’t. But I definitely do recommend that you see it at least once, if only for the visual candy and to drool over the fabulous costumes. That really is worth the price of admission.

Did you see Cinderella in theatres? If so, let us know what you thought. If not, why not–I’m really curious!

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