“Hey Mouse, what do you think about all these live action Disney remakes?” is a question I have never been asked because I am a relic of the 2010s internet and have been irrelevant to fandom discourse for quite some time.
But if they did ask for those opinions, boy, do I have opinions! Nuanced and interesting opinions? Not really, by and large I think they’re hot garbage at best and actually morally reprehensible at worst.
I hate the whole scene, man. I hate the lazy nostalgia milking. I hate the rehashing of old songs and characters in ways that are always inferior to the originals (the 2016 Jungle Book is, I admit, a pretty fine movie but I’ll be deep in the cold ground before I say it’s an improvement on the ’67 cartoon.). I am real sick of Disney cynically trumpeting minor gay characters whose presence would have been real daring thirty years ago to earn gushing publicity. And I really hate that the biggest entertainment company in Western history is apparently unable to understand the simple fact that just because a character is a great villain doesn’t make them a great protagonist. In fact, it means the opposite of that.
That said…I’ll admit the announcement of 2015s Cinderella provoked a lot less bile and profanity to gush forth than it usually would. Mostly that’s a lack of skin in the game. The 1950 Cinderella is a film with which I am on perfectly cordial terms, but it’s not and never will be as important to me as something like The Little Mermaid or The Lion King. Plus…it’s Cinderella, you know? The Disney Cinderella may be the most famous film version but it’s certainly not the definitive version, because there isn’t one and never will be. Cinderella is one of the absolute pillars of world folklore, with versions spanning thousands of years across the breadth of Europe and Asia. And there have been Cinderella movies as long as there has been film. The earliest version I found was from 1913 (called, hilariously “A Modern Cinderella”). Cinderella has been played by everyone from Julie Andrews to Brandy to Betty Boop to Jerry Lewis. It’s a timeless story that’s remained popular despite decades of bad, pseudo-feminist critique (the story is not, and never has been, about marrying a prince. It is, and always has been, about escaping poverty and domestic slavery). So, whatever, I say. Disney want to make another Cinderella movie? Fine.
I am willing to acknowledge this movie’s right to exist, Disney. All you gotta do is make a good movie.
Here’s a question. How much narration does a movie about Cinderella need? I would argue very, very little, if any. True, most versions of the story will be aimed at young children so it might not hurt to have a little soothing voiceover at the beginning to set the scene. But the amount of wittering that the Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) does throughout this joint leaves me with the inescapable conclusion that either the screenwriter or the director did not trust the audience to follow the plot of Cinderella. Why would you think that, Kenneth Branagh?
So the movie introduces our heroine as a baby and is at pains to tell us that she had “no rank, no title, no crown”. It then pans away to show us the palatial rural mansion where Cinderella lives with her father and mother.
Little Ella is sweet and kind and ever so wonderful and her mother teaches her to look after all animals just as fairy godmothers look after human beings. Ella asks her mother if she believes in fairy godmothers and she replies that she believes in everything. Which…that’s a fucking terrifying thing to hear anybody say.
By the way, Hayley Atwell’s bleached eyebrows will haunt me to my dying day, so there’s that. So, during a fairly long and heavily narrated sequence that could have been done in half the time with twice the impact with a wordless montage, Ella’a mother comes down with a terminal case of Disneymomitis and kicks the bucket, pausing only to tell her darling daughter to have courage and be kind and probably something about Freemasons.
Flash-forward a few years and Ella has grown into Lily James and her father tells her that he’s fallen for the lovely widow of Lord Francis Tremaine.
Anyone remember that Robin Hood movie from back in 2010? I remember a great line from a review about Cate Blanchett’s performance as Maid Marian: “She looks like a Master Carpenter who’s been asked to assemble an IKEA table”. Let me not mince words. This movie is bland as all hell. It’s not terrible, but it’s so depressingly rote and minimum effort competence that it almost feels like it’s terrible. But there are moments when you see the much better movie that this could have been and I do not think it a coincidence that virtually all those moments involve Madame Blanchett. The scene where Lady Tremaine first arrives at the manor, her face covered with a great black hat that resembles the snout of a shark is excellently done.
You really get the sense of a predator entering a completely defenceless space. Everything about this scene, the staging, the lighting, the cinematography and of course the presence of Blanchett herself is leagues ahead of the movie surrounding it.
Anyway, Ella meets her new stepmother and we get a really nice exchange that sums up Lady Tremaine’s character perfectly.
TREMAINE: You did not tell me your daughter was so beautiful!
ELLA’S FATHER: Oh, she takes after her…
LADY TREMAINE. Her mother. (icy pause) Just so.
And it’s not the terrifying smile that makes it work. It’s not the hatred in her eyes before she throws up the mask. It’s the hurt. It’s the knowledge that she will always be second best to this man that you see just for a moment. It is phenomenal acting. First rate. By GOD I wish it was in a better movie.
Having unwittingly made a blood enemy for life, Ella also meets her Conventionally Attractive Step Sisters because they are ALWAYS Conventionally Attractive Step Sisters. I don’t think there have ever been actually Ugly Step Sisters in a live action Cinderella Movie (I imagine it’s a difficult role to cast).
Ella’s father goes away on a business trip and Lady Tremaine manipulates her into giving up her room and moving into the attic. And, because her mother taught her to always be kind, she just goes along with it.
Now, here’s a question. What does a modern audience want from a Cinderella movie? Now, speaking for myself, I know what I don’t want. I don’t want Cinderella re-imagined as some kind of asskicking girlboss because, y’know, the story doesn’t happen. It’s not Cinderella anymore. And, I’ll admit, in this era of constant re-imaginings, re-inventions and re-bootings there is something very appealing about a movie that says; “We’re doing a classic Cinderella movie. That’s it. That’s the pitch.” All well and good.
But, because an hour-and-three-quarters live action film is supposed to have more character development than a 74 minute cartoon, they obviously were going to have to deepen the character of Cinderella and what they went with is frankly weird and a little worrying. Now, I’m not going to claim that Cinderella 1950 is some kind of radical feminist masterpiece (that’s the other one) but Cinderella in that movie is not the smiling doormat she’s often painted as. I always took her as more of a quiet, resilient soul who knew she was in an awful situation but found her joy where she could and refused to let her spirit be crushed. And yeah, it’s not the most dynamic character but I think there is a kind of heroism in that. Cinderella 2015 though…is kind of heart-breaking. Because she’s smiling and singing as she’s slowly turned into a domestic slave by Lady Tremaine because her darling mother basically told her to always just smile and do whatever she can to make other people happy. To the point that she seems less stoic and patient and more…unhinged. And yeah, I guess I am saying that Cinderella 1950 has more agency than a movie made in the second decade of the 21st century. And you may do with that information what you will.
Ella’s father dies on the way back to his home planet, and so the family are thrown into near financial ruin.
To cut costs, Lady Tremaine fires the servants and replaces them with Ella. When it’s cold, Ella sleeps in the cinders of the fire, which leads to the following dialogue.
DRUSILLA: I’ve got a knew name for her! Cinder-wench!
ANASTASIA: Oh! “Dirty-ella”!
Distraught, Ella saddles a horse and rides off into the forest where she encounters a stag, who she helps escape from some hunters. We get another example of the movie’s addiction to superflous narration as the fairy godmother solemnly opines that “perhaps it was fortunate that Ella’s sister’s were so cruel, for if she had not run into the forest, she would not have met the prince”. Which firstly, yikes. And secondly, exactly what information is being imparted here? We know we she ran into the forest, we just saw it. And we know this guy is the Prince because who the fuck else is it going to be, Sebastian the crab?
Anyway, “Kit” is played by Richard Madden who, unbeknownst to Ella, is actually the Prince. Cate Blanchett may be the best thing in this movie, but Madden is actually the one element that I’d actually consider an improvement on the original. Granted, that’s not saying much. The Original Prince Charming is the blandest of all the bland Disney princes and it’s not even close. But Madden’s cut a niche for himself giving depth and gravitas to “generic handsome dude #1” and I do genuinely like his work here. Anyway, his heart is immediately one by her simple peasant girl purity and he returns home to the palace to tell his father the King, played by Derek Jacobi. Jacobi, like Blanchett, is also assembling IKEA furniture with the hand of a master but, dammit, there’s only one Otto Von Bismarck.
Anyway, the King this go round has been diagnosed with Disneydaditis and wants to see his son matched up and pumping out heirs before he goes to the big burger restaurant in the sky. To that end, he commissions a portrait of his son to be sent to all the marriageable princesses of Europe who will be invited to a ball. Kit asks why he can’t just marry a simple country girl and the Grand Duke (Stellan Skarsgard, dutifully assembling a Hurdal) asks how many divisions such a country girl would bring to help secure the nation. That’s right children, this monster has an understanding of royal marriage in the pre-industrial period based in logic and the politics of the time!
As a compromise, Kit agrees to the ball on the condition that everyone in the kingdom is also invited. And I’ll give credit for a nice little piece of characterisation here; the Duke doesn’t splutter indignantly at the idea of commoners coming to the palace. His reaction is “awesome, great PR move, everyone’s happy, let’s do it”. It makes him come across as a more nuanced and pragmatic villain, I dig it.
So, guess who I haven’t mentioned at all yet? The mice. You know, the characters who get probably more screentime in the original movie than any other character barring Cinderella herself?
So you might assume that this means that they’re not in Cinderella 2015. Well no, they are, but their parts and role in the story have been trimmed down to basically nothing and that (in my opinion) ends up hurting the movie in quite a big way. Gather around children, and I will demonstrate how one seemingly minor change can weaken your story dramatically.
Now, I never really liked the mice in the original movie. In fact, as a rodent, I find the portrayal deeply offensive. But, let me refresh your memory on one point. The Tremaine ladies are informed of the ball and Cinderella insists that she be allowed to go too. Lady Tremaine agrees that she can go, as long as she completes her chores, and then ensures she is worked so hard that she has no time to prepare her dress. But then, exhausted and dejected, she goes upstairs to the attic and sees this:
So suddenly she goes from weary resignation to euphoric joy. In gratitude for her kindness to them, her friends have worked through the night to ensure that yes, she shall go to the ball. Yes, she shall have one damn night of happiness. Yes, for once, she gets to win. So when you go from that euphoric height to THIS:
The cruelty and the unfairness of it hits so much harder. And when we finally end up HERE:
It feels earned and then some. By contrast, 2015 Cinderella never has that moment of reversal and euphoria. She just makes the dress herself, with a little help from the mice. I guess they were concerned that the mice making the dress for her makes Cinderella seem passive but I would have kept it unchanged. Anyway, Tremaine and the step-sister tear her dress a little (it is so tame compared to the original) and flounce off to the ball. Distraught, Cinderella runs outside into the garden where she meets Sheev Palpatine, Galactic Emperor and Dark Lord of the Sith.
Palpatine asks her for some milk and Cinderella of course, gets some, which causes Palpatine to transform into the Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter). Okay you know the drill; Pumpkin, Coach, Lizards, Footmen, Mice, Horses, Glass Slipper, you shall go to the ball. We don’t get “Bippity boppity boo” but we do get awful rubbery CGI so who’s the great movie-maker now, Walt?
Cinderella arrives at the place and confides to one of the lizard footmen that she’s nervous and he replies something on the lines of “I’m a lizard forced into a human body struggling to cope with thoughts and emotions literally too alien and advanced for me to comprehend, fucking suck it up”. Here the movie makes the classic mistake of introducing a minor character far, far more interesting and compelling than the protagonist.
At the ball, Cinderella meets up with Kit and is shocked to learn that he is actually the Prince. He assumes that she’s actually a Princess because she has a beautiful dress and all her teeth and she notably does not correct him which is shady as fuck. The clock strikes 12 and Cinderella has to amscray out of there but she leaves her…sigh…glass slipper behind…you know all this, WHY AM I RECAPPING THE BEST KNOWN STORY IN THE OLD WORLD?
Okay, let’s talk about something new. Cinderella arrives home and hides her one glass slipper under the floorboards of the attic. But Lady Tremaine realises that she was the mysterious princess and finds the slipper. We now get a monologue that is one of the better pieces of writing in the script, and which Cate Blanchett just knocks out of the park, showing us how Lady Tremaine sees herself as the tragic, perpetually wronged heroine of her own story. Lady Tremaine now offers Cinderella a deal; she will support her in her efforts to marry the Prince as long as she (Tremaine) gets a position in the royal court and good marriages for her daughters. Cinderella refuses, rather stupidly if you ask me. And Tremaine smashes the slipper.
Now, I have talked a lot of trash about this movie but this is genuinely good stuff. The movie banks on your familiarity with the original and knows that you know that that movies is resolved with…
By talking the second slipper off the board early, the movie creates tension. How is Cinderella going to get out of this?
Very easily, as it will turn out, but that’s not the point.
Another strong scene, Tremaine travels to the palace to confide in the Duke and succeeds in negotiating a title for herself and marriages to eligible men for her daughters in exchange for her silence on the matter of the Prince falling in love with a filthy peasant girl. Really nice little bit of dialogue here:
Grand Duke: You’ve spared the kingdom a great deal of embarrassment.
Lady Tremaine: And I should like to keep it that way.
Grand Duke: Are you threatening me?
Lady Tremaine: (with just the sweetest smile) Yes.
And the Duke’s reaction is just to laugh gently at how well she’s playing the game.
Kit is now King after his father passes on, and commands that every woman in the kingdom try on the slipper so that he can find Cinderella. Tremaine locks Cinderella in the attic while the step-sisters try and fail to put the slipper on and Disney once again omit the part where they cut their feet in half to make them fit because apparently that’s “awful” and “traumatising”. Pff. Oh, what happened to the studio that shot Bambi’s mother in front of us and licked the very tears from our faces? You ruin everything, millennials.
Anyway, just as the Duke and the Captain are leaving, the mice open the window to the attic which allows everyone to Cinderella singing the old English lullaby Lavenders Blue. Fun fact, this is actually the second Disney movie to use this particular song after So Dear to My Heart all the way back in 1948. And I will concede, Lily James has a beautiful singing voice. The Captain wants to investigate but the Duke is all, nah, it’s just the pipes singing wistful lovelorn dirges and then one of the soldiers takes off his hat and , oh shit look who it is…
The King orders this mysterious maiden to be brought forth and brought forth she be. They recognise each other and leave arm in arm. Cinderella stops only to tell her step-mother that she forgives her. However, the narrator is quick to tell us that “Forgiven or not, Cinderella’s stepmother and her daughters would soon leave with the Grand Duke, and never set foot in the kingdom again” which…yeah, that’s code for “they were all fucking hanged” and you can’t convince me otherwise.
And they all, as the saying goes, lived happily ever after.
There have definitely been worse atrocities committed by Disney against their own properties. It’s not the worst live action remake, but for the most part it’s just rote, safe and competent. I can’t imagine this being anyone’s favourite version of this story, but it’s harmless enough I suppose.
Ways this improves on the original: This is a tricky one. Cate Blanchett is giving a wonderful, very compelling performance as Lady Tremaine. But can that really be said to be better than the glorious original design and Eleanor Audley’s iconic vocal turn? Let’s just say they’re both wonderful in different ways. Skarsgard is playing a completely different character to the original hapless Duke but I do like him a lot. Richard Madden doesn’t have to work particularly hard to improve on the bland cipher that was the Prince in the original movie but he does do it, so points there.
Ways it doesn’t: Cinderella herself, I’m afraid. The quiet, kind-hearted, ordinary girl of the original is here some kind of avatar of saccharine sweetness who genuinely can’t understand the concept of people not being nice. Pop culture’s parody idea of a Disney Princess played perfectly straight. Also, some butt ugly CGI here.
How angry did this movie make me?: Not angry. Mostly bored.
SCORE: I’m going to take the original’s score of 57% (man, I was harsh back before I’d seen real shit) and subtract…let’s see. 8%.
FINAL SCORE: 49%
NEXT UPDATE: 28 July 2022
NEXT TIME: We’re all mad here. In the sense of being “furiously angry”.