Several members of my family decided to go see the recent Cinderella movie from Disney. We quite enjoyed it. This review is full of spoilers, so if you want to be entirely surprised by Kenneth Branaugh’s modern take on this favorite tale, (or if you simply don’t care about movies involving blonde girls) you can stop reading now.
A World of Fantasy
The original Disney Cinderella movie created a fantastical milieu with singing birds and talking mice. As we were considering watching the show, my daughter wondered aloud if Gus Gus would be in this rendition. I honestly couldn’t imagine how. And yet we are introduced to a world where young Ella sees things others don’t, introduced as baby Ella sees images in cloud formations. So it isn’t terribly surprising when we find the child Ella has befriended a handful of mice, to whom she talks. Jacqueline is a slender little mouse and Gus Gus is a rotund mouse.[ref]These mice are magically long-lived. But that doesn’t require as much suspension of disbelief as the idea that Ella is an only child despite the obvious affection between her parents.[/ref]
Lucifer appears as well, a big fluffy cat with dark grey fur who would like nothing better than to munch on the mice scampering about. But there is no attempt to recreate the more adventurous scenes of daring do with which the anthropomorphic mice of Disney’s original cartoon helped save the day.
Ella abiliy to make herself understood by animals becomes most germane when she flees the house, riding bareback on her horse, only clinging to the horse’s mane. This is where she encounters a stag that is being hunted. She speaks to the stag, suggesting he flee. When the hunting party arrives, she dissuades the leader of the party from pursuing the beast, unaware that she is addressing the Prince.
The most amazing bit of fantasy is the arrival of the fairy godmother, complete with transformation of the mice as horses, lizards as footmen, the goose as coachman, and a large pumpkin as an ornate gold carriage.
A new bit of fantasy appears in the glass slipper. Though we do not see it actively refusing to fit the feet of other maidens, it is clear that the glass slipper simply won’t allow itself to be placed on the foot of anyone other than Cinderella.
One welcome note was the thoughtful spell the fairy godmother pronounces on Ella, who by now has been dubbed “cinder” Ella by her step-kin. The reason the step-mother and step-sisters are unable to recognize Ella at the ball is because the fairy godmother’s spell prevents them from being able to recognize her.
Love for Parents
The original Disney Cinderella was significantly lacking in parents. The step-mother was a caricature of evil, and the King was a caricature of silly desire for grandchildren.
This 2015 reboot gives “Cinder Ella” a rich history with both her natural parents. The mother’s death is heartbreaking, given the clear love the three members of Ella’s original family share for one another.
Thus it is surprising when Ella’s father shyly suggests to Ella that he has found a woman with whom he might hope to find happiness late in life. A colleague has died, leaving behind a widow[ref]The grieving widow is played masterfully by Cate Blanchett.[/ref] with two daughters. Ella is delighted for her father. And she attempts to follow her mother’s dying admonition to be courageous and kind as she welcomes the three new additions to the country manor.
Ella continues to be supportive and kind towards her stepmother, though the parties and gambling her new relations so love is not her taste. Ella’s father is her delight, though. When Ella’s father announces another trip, she is downhearted. But she asks that he bring her the first branch his shoulder brushes as he leaves. For then, she explains, he will have to think of her every day until he is able to return to bring the branch to her.
When a servant returns with the branch and news that the father died shortly before completing his trip, Ella’s sorrow is clear.
The Prince, meanwhile, is the child of an ailing king, played by Derek Jacobi. It is the King’s poor health that creates the urgent need for the Prince to be settled. As in the original movie, a fleeing Cinderella encounters the King. But rather than merely charming the older man with her beauty, this Ella tells the king of the deep love his son has for him.
At the end of the King’s life, shortly after the ball, he gives his son leave to find the woman he loves, rather than insisting the Prince marry the princess with whom a marriage has been so strongly suggested. Ella had been devastated by the death of her father, and we see the Prince similarly devastated at the death of his father.
A Proactive Prince
The original Cinderella movie shows us a Prince who is handsome, but hardly even present in a movie that portrays events leading up to his marriage.
Kenneth Branaugh’s Prince, however, is entirely involved in events that eventually lead to the happy ending. Kit, as his father calls him, is entirely taken with the bold young girl riding wild on the horse, the girl who berates him for hunting the stag. He knows she is not royal, so when the Captain of the Guard arrives, Kit forestalls the likely alarm the mysterious girl will feel at learning he is Prince by talking over the Captain, saying “Kit! Kit! I’m Kit!” For anyone who has seen Enchanted April, it’s hard to avoid the comparison to Gerald Arbuthnot’s panicked line, “I’m Mr. Arbuthnot! Mr. Arbuthnot. Rose’s husband. I’m Mr. Arbuthnot!” When they part, Ella bids “Mr. Kit” farewell, thinking him only an apprentice serving in the palace.
We see this active Prince fencing, in a delightful group scene full of vigorous men. Yet Kit’s head is full of hopes that an heir to the throne ought not think, honorable hopes of wedding the girl from the forest. At the very least, he would see her again, and so asks that the ball being thrown to facilitate his match with some eligible foreign princess also be opened to all the local maidens of the kingdom.
Kit is alert at the ball, hoping the mysterious maiden will appear. When Ella arrives (late), he leads her in the first dance. Then he guides her deftly from the hall, where he has to explain himself for leading her to think he was something other than the Prince can clearly be seen to be, in the context of the ball (and the pictures hanging from the walls).
When Ella’s glass slipper drops to the ground, Prince Kit gallantly places it back on Ella’s foot, foreshadowing the future scene where the glass slipper will again be placed on her foot.
After the King dies, Kit insists that the unknown maiden be found, despite being urged to accept marriage to one of the foreign princesses. Though we have reason to know the Grand Duke has been bribed to ensure the marriage to the foreign princess, the Grand Duke goes through the motions of seeking the girl from the ball.
In the final confrontation, the Grand Duke shows every sign of ignoring the evidence that there is one more maiden at the country manor where Ella’s step-mother and step-sisters have entertained the King’s search party. Unlike the foppish Grand Duke of the cartoon, this Grand Duke turns from the home, ignoring the maiden song clearly coming from the manor tower.
Here the King (once Prince Kit) steps out of disguise and orders the Grand Duke to continue inquiries regarding the maiden.
Several important conversations later, the King leaves the Manor with Ella. Despite Ella’s final resolve to forgive her cruel step-mother, the narrator informs us that the Grand Duke and Ella’s step-kin were banished from the kingdom. Thus it is clear that the King has acted to ensure that he has swiftly made examples of those who would betray the kingdom or the woman he will place on the throne.
I couldn’t help but wonder if this final twist was informed by the recent movie about Princess Grace of Monaco, the real commoner who married the King of a tiny principality. When Charles de Gaulle attempts to force Monoco to relinquish its independence, Grace’s position as a commoner was used to attack the credibility of her husband, King Ranier. Like Disney’s Grand Duke, there were insiders to King Ranier’s court who were colluding to betray the tiny soverign nation. Perhaps it was the other way around in real life, that the hope of creating a Cinderella tale out of Grace’s life informed the makers of the biopic about Grace.
Many Cinderella retellings have made Cinderella victorious by making her Prince ineffectual. Kenneth Branaugh’s Disney Prince, however, is fully a man who seeks his destiny with all the diplomacy, cunning, and charm at his disposal.
A Kind and Courageous Maiden
There are those who have criticized the Cinderella character as a hapless victim who through magic and luck is able to become a princess. Disney’s original Cinderella was pretty and sweet-voiced, but she was also rather stupid.
Kenneth Branaugh’s Ella is the favored daughter of doting parents, a kind girl loved by not just the mice she protects, but the servants of her childhood home. When the death of Ella’s father stops the income that was keeping the step-mother’s creditors at bay, the servants are dismissed, and Ella’s kindness and capability are abused to force her into servile subjugation.
At one point, Ella explains to the former cook why she remains. The manor was the place where she and her parents were happy, the place that remains of the great love her parents shared for one another and for her.
When the ball is announced, Ella continues to hope that her step-mother might be kind. She is delighted to hear that there will be thee gowns ordered for the ball, giving her step-mother every benefit of the doubt that she intends to treat Ella as a daughter rather than merely as a servant. When Ella is ridiculed for hoping, she quietly makes over one of her mother’s gowns, thinking that the simple dress will be sufficient, since all she hopes for is a reunion with Mr. Kit, the apprentice.
The step-mother and step-sisters tear at the gown. The hope is crushed that Ella’s dire servitude might end if Mr. Kit and she meet again at the ball. In the height of her despair, a beggar woman asks for a drink or a crust of bread. Here we see Ella overcome herself to serve the unknown stranger. The stranger, of course, turns out to be Ella’s fairy godmother.
When the fairy godmother suggests a new dress, Ella pleads to be allowed to retain her mother’s gown. The fairy godmother does insist on brightening the gown, doing a bit more than merely repair the damage the step-mother and step-sisters had inflicted. Yet the fundamental structure of the magical gown is the same as the modest dress that had belonged to Ella’s mother.
Ella’s kindness and courage show again at the ball. Mr. Kit might have courted her and lifted her from her subjugation. But when Ella realizes Kit is the Prince, she apparently realizes it is improper for her to ensnare him. When Ella refuses the Prince’s repeated request to know her name, one senses she is willfully deciding to enjoy the night but leave the Prince no information that might endanger his ability to fulfil his royal duties. It is in this same spirit of doing good without expectation of reward that Ella tells the King of his son’s love and regard for him. Her flight is not explained by exposition, but it seems reasonable that she flees to avoid shaming the Prince (he has seen her riding wild in the forest, so must know she’s not royalty) and to ensure that his regard is not allowed to hurt his future (else why refuse to tell her name).
Besides, Gus Gus and Jaqueline are mice, and it would be a far distance for them to travel in their true forms.
Time and again Ella is given the opportunity to punish her step-mother and step-sisters for their treatment. But she continually fails to take advantage of these opportunities (to the point where most casual viewers won’t even notice many of the opportunities). In the end, Ella forgives her step-mother rather than detailing her many (and manifest) faults and abuses. It’s almost as if Ella has read D&C 64, where Christ commands us to forgive all and leave judgement to God.
In Ella’s world, Kit is King. And Kit chooses to protect his kingdom, apparently proceeding to judge his Grand Duke harshly, as well as the step-mother who so abused Ella and the step-sisters who were accessories to the abuse, if not the instigators.
Is the Movie Really That Good?
Some people will not want to see a Cinderella movie. Some who will consume the occasional ‘Cinderella” tale might not want to see a movie that is this faithful to so many cute animal details of the original cartoon. Some will wish the dresses had been more modest. Others might be afraid that a Kenneth Branaugh Cinderella will be burdened with glorious purpose, like Thor.
It is not the best movie ever made. But it is a very good movie, considering the many details intended to delight young children devoted to the original cartoon. For a Disney Cinderella movie, it is surprisingly complex and satisfying. When it comes to Cinderella tales, Kenneth Branaugh’s live-action Disney Cinderella is certainly one of the better examples of the genre.