Disney's live-action Cinderella begins in impossible bliss, with bluebirds, butterflies, and beams of light bearing down on an English country garden. A family basks in contentment: he a handsome, loving businessman, she a beautiful, loving wife, and, lo, their little child, Ella, with her curly blond locks and heart of gold.
"But sorrow can come to any kingdom," cautions a narrator as storm clouds gather over this sunny prologue. Indeed, as those familiar with the story of the scullery maid, the glass slipper, the prince with the foot fetish, and that splendiferous ball can attest, our heroine is in for rough times. Floors must be scrubbed, ashen hearths swept, laundry hung to dry, meals served, belittling and abuse endured.
Directed by Kenneth Branagh with a sprinkling of stardust, dashes of good humor, and a respect for the corniest kinds of romance, Cinderella is a winning re-do of Disney's 1950 animated classic. Generations weaned on the Mickey Mouse studio's cartoon feature will find comfort in Branagh and company's grip on the essentials: a truly wicked stepmother (a decked-out Cate Blanchett, merrily cold and cackling), two dithering and demanding stepsisters (Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera), a magical transformation of rodents into horses and a gourd into a luxury coach, and a beneficent, wand-slinging fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter, close to unrecognizable in her haggish incarnation, and her glammy one, too).
Chris Weitz, credited with the screenplay, and Branagh, who lately helmed a Marvel superhero origin story (Thor) and a Tom Clancy spy caper (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit), have given their leads a tad more depth and dimension than the 'toon's leading gal and guy.
The mantra that guides Ella through her life, and through her cruel subservience, was relayed in a whisper from her dying mother (Hayley Atwell): "Have courage and be kind." And, truly, Cinderella - played with pluck and charm by Lily James (Lady Rose of Downton Abbey) - lives by the credo. She also has a mind of her own, and an ability to ride bareback through the woods, which is where she first encounters the Prince (Richard Madden), whose blue eyes gleam from manly brows and whose smile could smite a legion of Orcs. His dentition dazzles.
The Prince, too, comes from solid stock: His father is played by the great Shakespearean actor Derek Jacobi. The Queen has shuffled off this mortal coil, and so the Prince understands Ella's sense of tragedy and loss. The royal court is peopled by good souls, such as the captain played by Nonso Anozie, and not-so-good ones, such as the scheming Grand Duke played by Stellan Skarsgård. (Lars von Trier alert: There is a moment when actress James dashes into the palace's moon-bathed formal gardens that the Danish director's Melancholia - likewise costarring Skarsgård - seems to be echoed. Coincidence?)
Although James and Madden are no Fred and Ginger when it comes time for the fabled ball, her breathy swoons and glitter-splashed décolletage and his personable imperviousness bode well for the couple's future. Sure, the midnight bells begin their urgent clang, and footwear is abandoned in haste, and a grand coach and its white steeds begin to morph back into humble pumpkin and squeaky mice, but we know how this is going to end, and Cinderella doesn't disappoint. Happily ever after, and all that.
If a few kids (and parents) come away whispering, "Have courage and be kind," there's nothing wrong with that message either.
Cinderella *** (Out of four stars)
Directed by Kenneth Branagh. With Lily James, Richard Madden, Cate Blanchett, Helena Bonham Carter, Derek Jacobi, Sophie McShera. Distributed by Walt Disney Pictures.
Running time: 1 hour, 52 mins.
Parent's guide: PG (adult themes).
Playing at: area theaters.EndText