[NOTE: I drafted this post right after I watched it the second time on 23 March, but never got around to posting it.]
What better way to kick off my substantive blog than a post combining all three of my blog categories – Christianity, fairytales, and movie reviews?
That’s right, I’m talking about Disney’s live action ‘Cinderella’, which I had the privilege of watching before its official Australian premiere date – twice!
First of all, sorry to my friends who’ve put up with me raving about this film. I really can’t stop. It’s just too good.
Why is it so good? Let me explain in extensive detail. (I’ve already reviewed this film on Facebook, but there wasn’t enough space there for me to pontificate.)
In my humble opinion, ‘Cinderella’ is the best Disney movie I’ve seen in the last 10 – maybe 20 – years. Since ‘The Lion King’. I would go so far as to say that this is the best fairytale adaptation Disney has ever done (yes, even better than ‘Beauty & The Beast’ – which is a big deal because that’s my favourite Disney movie of all time).
I watched ‘Cinderella’ during an exclusive premiere at the State Theatre (kudos to Dad for the heads up!). The theatre had a variety of pre-movie gimmicks happening, including a fairy godmother, a life-sized Lego Cinderella, a wall of glass slippers, a special glass slipper in a case [pictured above], and a red velvet chair complete with prince kneeling and holding a cushion on which nestled yet another glass slipper. (Unfortunately I didn’t get time for a photo with the prince, but in hindsight that would have been weird). There were lots of little girls in the audience dressed in gowns and tiaras. The setting and the atmosphere made it more than just a movie – it was an experience!
A staff member in costume read from a “proclamation” before the movie started. Then ‘Frozen Fever’ came on. Having never seen ‘Frozen’ (*gets rocks thrown at me*) I wasn’t that interested.
Then, the movie. How to describe it? Let’s just say, I don’t remember having had such pure enjoyment from a movie in years. I cried, I laughed, I clapped. I thoroughly enjoyed every moment. It wasn’t just girlhood magic. On an objective level, the movie stands out to me in many aspects.
The 1950s Disney cartoon was based on ‘Cendrillon’ by Charles Perrault, NOT on ‘Aschenputtel’ by the Brothers Grimm. The live-action film is also based on the Perrault fairytale, but incorporates elements of other Cinderella adaptations.
Importantly, Kenneth Branagh understands and respects the Cinderella fairytale with all its nuances. The problem with Hollywood is that commercial filmmakers often don’t respect their source material or their audience. Kenneth Branagh doesn’t have that attitude here, and you can tell. It’s a lovingly crafted film. The film is a great adaptation because it captures the heart of the fairytale. Kenneth Branagh doesn’t opt for shallow messages or idealistic romance, he doesn’t dismiss the fairytale as childish anti-feminist nonsense, yet at the same time he doesn’t modernise the heroine into a kick-ass anachronism. Instead, he focuses on Cinderella’s character: courage and kindness, yes, but also humility, strength, dignity, patience, forgiveness, grace, hope, faith, love.
In an interview, Kenneth Branagh said:
I think that she learns to turn the other cheek with strength. She has no sense of self-pity, no sense of being a victim. She makes her own choices, She doesn’t indulge in her own pain or hardships. She looks at the world with compassion. I find her such good company because she’s so un-showy, and yet she’s so charismatic. I think she really knows herself.
Ella puts others first, even when she herself is hurting. One of the most impacting scenes is when she swallows her own pain to thank the messenger who brings news of her father’s death. (Not a spoiler – seriously, it IS ‘Cinderella’.)
One of my favourite lines in the movie is spoken by Ella: “Kindness is free; love is free.”
“Love is never free,” replies her Stepmother.
Another nuance of the fairytale that Kenneth Branagh touches upon is Ella’s relationship with her stepmother. In some versions of the fairytale the antagonist is her real mother. I love how this film explores the dynamic. This Stepmother shares many attributes with her counterpart in ‘Ever After’, although key plot points are handled differently. A major difference between Ella and her Stepmother here is their reaction to grief; the Stepmother allows it to control her and make her bitter, whereas Ella accepts and moves on. One of the best scenes is when Ella and her Stepmother confront each other in the attic: “Because you are young, and innocent, and good, and I’m…” Flawless acting by Cate Blanchett, as always.
Modern-day critics might consider Ella a pushover for not standing up to her Stepmother, but I think that’s a shallow and narrow interpretation of the film, or perhaps deliberate misinterpretation. Ella’s conscious choices are explained in subtle scenes. She stays at the house because of her father and mother, because it’s her home. She submits to her stepmother not because she is weak, but out of love for her father. Initially she wants him to be happy; later she continues to show kindness to her stepmother because that was her last promise to him. Part of her, I think, also hopes to win her stepmother over through love, to “overcome evil with good”. Hence, her final words to her Stepmother. What a powerful message their final shared scene is; a message I hope more people will take away with them.
What else struck me was the Christian qualities showcased in the film. I’ve already discussed Ella’s character above. Let me now share a verse from the Bible:
Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this in mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
– Phillipians 2:3-11
Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with on another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful.
– Colossians 3:12-15
Although ‘Cinderella’ is not a Christian film, the character of Ella is definitely a model of what a true Christian looks like. Humility, meekness, submissiveness are words that society disdains; but this is exactly what the Bible instructs us to be, and what Christ Himself modelled for us on the Cross.
A second viewing of ‘Cinderella’ revealed more layers to the film than before. To fully appreciate the film’s depth, it’s best to have an understanding of the materials from which it draws. For instance, I’ve since re-read Perrault’s fairytale, and to my great astonishment, there were indeed lizards in it! A small detail, but it tells me that Kenneth Branagh has done his research. And the scene with the swing appears is deliberately reminiscent of the painting which inspired the art direction in ‘Tangled’. As with most texts, you appreciate a text more completely if you are aware of its context.
Anyway, this post is already too long so I should wrap up. I’d just like to briefly mention the excellently music – beautiful, memorable and stirring. The only criticism is that I think the score could have been more exciting in the transformation scene.
The sets and costumes and CGI were balanced, never heavy-handed or over-the-top (well, it was over-the-top because magic and all that, but tastefully so). If I had to nitpick, I would have preferred The Dress to be pale-blue rather than straight blue – promotional and exhibition photos show it in a softer hue, so the dress must have been altered post-production (not a good decision in my opinion). But that’s a small nitpick overall.
In my limited experience, this is the best Cinderella adaptation I’ve ever seen. It’s similar to ‘Ever After’ but better in my opinion (although I haven’t seen ‘The Slipper and The Rose’ – I’ve read from other fairytale bloggers that elements of that film also influenced this one, such as the political storyline). This film feels more like a European production than a Disney one. It definitely ranks up there with ‘Allerleirauh’ (2013) and ‘The Storyteller’ TV series as one of my favourite fairytale film adaptations, ever.
Watching the film in a cinema, or at home when the DVD comes out, won’t be the same as watching it for the first time in the glamorous State Theatre. Nor will it recapture that initial magic. (There was a moment towards the end when everyone in the audience gasped, and started clapping – what fun that was!) However Ella did not expect to live within her memorable night at the ball forever. The idea is not to dwell on the past (as I tend to do), but to accept the past for what it is and move forward despite or because of the past. To see the world not as it is, but as it could be. To shape the world through courage, and kindness, and a little magic called love.