No surprise that Disney is now fully invested in bringing live-action versions of its animated fairy-tale classics to the big screen. Nor is it a shock that the latest is “Cinderella.” Since the days of Uncle Walt, the company has always recycled its legacy – whether re-issuing popular titles in theaters or turning cartoon productions into Broadway musicals.
Most of its big-screen reinventions of storybook favorites – including “Enchanted,” “Alice in Wonderland,” “Oz the Great and Powerful,” “Maleficent” and even the Sondheim musical “Into the Woods” – infuse princess myths with 21st-century attitudes and empowerment messages, turning the heroine into a warrior or making a misunderstood villain into the star.
That also includes Disney’s recent crop of animated features such as “Tangled” and “Frozen.”
So it is rather startling how straight-forwardly the House of Mouse presents this sumptuous retelling of how an downtrodden young woman is turned into the glass-slipper-sporting belle of the royal ball. This Cinderella is no sassy lass, but a properly raised young lady who steadfastly sticks to following her late mother’s mantra in life, even when she is horribly mistreated: “Have courage and be kind.” In fact, showing others respect turns into a kind of super power that allows her to undermine those who are otherwise inclined. Whereas such female passivity might have previously been criticized as a passé notion, now it is being presented as a prized virtue.
As director Kenneth Branagh explains in the official press notes, “Cinderella has a strong sense of humor and maturity. She assumes people don’t necessarily mean to be cruel and aren’t necessarily evil. She is not a helpless or self-pitying victim. She can find things funny. These things are presented as expressions of strength, not weakness.”
Adds fairy-tale fancier Cate Blanchett, who plays Cinderella’s stepmother: “So many stories that children are told now make them feel that they are heroes who can overcome anything and that the world is a perfect place. But the classic tales, like ‘Cinderella,’ remind us that the world can be a nasty place and require a good deal of courage and resilience to survive.” As a mother of three boys ages 6, 10 and 13 who just adopted a baby girl, the Oscar-winner puts forth a strong case for such an approach, especially when movie screens these days are overrun with fantasy superheroes (in no small part because of Disney’s partnership with Marvel Comics) who rarely deal with foes in a realistic fashion.
Kids might not be able to fly away from a threat or blow up monstrous creatures. But they could attempt to subvert those who stand in their way with kindness. This pleasantly retro philosophy is just one surprise found in Disney’s new “Cinderella.” Here are nine others. Warning: Possible spoilers ahead.
1. Helena Bonham Carter and Kenneth Branagh, together again. A whole generation of kids has grown up watching Bonham Carter cavort in director and ex-partner Tim Burton’s gothic adventures. What they probably don’t know? Before she and Burton were a pair, the actress and Branagh became an item in 1994, after he split from Emma Thompson and directed Bonham Carter in “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.” Bonham Carter and Branagh would co-star in 1998’s “The Theory of Flight,” an unusual story about a woman with ALS and her caretaker, before breaking up the following year. They both were among the large troupe of British actors who appeared in the Harry Potter series – he as Gilderoy Lockhart, she as Bellatrix Lestrange – but never in the same films. Apparently, their parting was amicable, as Bonham Carter portrays Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother as well as narrating the film.
2. Prince Charming’s kingdom is integrated. Not too many depictions of Old World fairy tales include people of color and non-European nationalities. But this “Cinderella” is quite inclusive. Not only is Captain, the prince’s best friend and adviser (Nonso Anozie, a London-born actor of Nigerian descent) black, but so are several of the palace guards. Meanwhile, among the princesses invited to vie for the privilege of becoming the prince’s bride, there are those who are Latin, Asian, Indian and Arabic. Several of the ball guests are black as well. Branagh also added a varied cast to his film production of “Much Ado About Nothing.”
3. There are two cast members from “Game of Thrones.” Many already know that Scottish actor Richard Madden, who plays Prince Charming, was the ill-fated ruler Robb Stark on the popular HBO fantasy series. But Anozie, who previously worked with Branagh on “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit,” appeared on the second season as Qartheen merchant prince Xaro Xhoa Daxos.
4. There are two cast members from “Downton Abbey.” Cinderella’s rising star, Lily James, is best known as Lady Rose, the onetime flirtatious flapper who has since become one of the more open-minded characters on the British series. But one of Cinderella’s petty stepsisters, Drizella, is a member of the serving staff at Downton. British actress Sophie McShera, who is kitchen maid Daisy, comes bearing fairy-tale experience, having once performed the title role of “Cinderella” in a pantomime production on stage.
5. A familiar tune. This “Cinderella” isn’t a musical like the 1950 animated version, but there is a signature song that is heard being sung by Ella’s mother early in the film that is reprised during the movie’s climax. It’s the 17th century English folk melody “Lavender Blue. “ At least one set of lyrics are quite appropriate given the plot of “Cinderella”: “Lavender blue, dilly, dilly/ Lavender green/ When you are king, dilly, dilly/I will be queen.” Actually, “Lavender Blue” has long been part of Disney lore. It was performed by Burl Ives in 1949’s ”So Dear to My Heart,” a family film that combined live action and animation, and was Oscar-nominated for best song.
6. Lady Tremaine channels ‘40s silver-screen queens. Blanchett won her first Academy Award with her dead-on rendition of Katharine Hepburn in 2004’s “The Aviator.” That film’s Oscar-winning costume designer, Sandy Powell, is once again her collaborator. But instead of dressing Blanchett in fussy mean-old-lady attire, Powell gives her character an anachronistic penchant for fabulous frocks inspired by the likes of Joan Crawford and Marlene Dietrich, usually in black and shades of green. In fact, these throw-backs to Hollywood’s golden age look so swell on the actress, it might be great if she would she would consider a remake of “Mommie Dearest” or tackling Dietrich’s role in a new take on “Morocco.”
7. The script’s main writer co-directed “American Pie.” You wouldn’t know it from “Cinderella’s” old-school gags as the slipper joke that involves stinky feet or how the lizard coachman can’t help but eat a bug. But Chris Weitz, along with brother Paul, was responsible for the raunchy antics — including the classic scene of pastry fornication — found in the taboo-breaking R-rated 1999 comedy.
8. Another familiar tune. If you listen carefully when the Fairy Godmother performs her magic, you will hear her say as she waves her wand, “Bibbidi-bobbibi-boo.” That is the title of a song from the animated “Cinderella,” that was sung by the same character. The first full line of the lyrics: “Salagadoola mechicka boola bibbidi-bobbidi-boo/ Put ’em together and what have you got/ bibbidi-bobbidi-boo.”
9. Bless you, Elsa! In case you didn’t know, screenings of “Cinderella” include an animated short, “Frozen Fever,” that continues the adventures of “Frozen’s” royal sisters Anna and Elsa. While preparing for Anna’s birthday celebration, Elsa catches a cold. Every time she sneezes, she loses control over her icy powers and causes little frozen balls to pop out. These energetic beings are officially called “snogies” – aka snow boogers — and will apparently be selling out on store shelves soon.