I do not usually post movie reviews. In fact, I do not think I have ever reviewed a movie in this space, though it is possible that I have forgotten one. In this post, though, I am going to review one, primarily because I find it interesting how different two people can view the same thing.
Last Friday my wife and I went to see Disney’s new live-action movie Cinderella. I was not quite sure what to expect; I was hoping for a well-done film that did not stray too far from the classic storyline or get too “cutesy” in its presentation. I was not disappointed, because Disney and director Kenneth Branagh stayed very true to the storyline we all know. That pleased me. Interestingly enough, it disappointed Jessica Gibson, who reviewed the movie for Christianity Today. I did not read Gibson’s review until the day after I saw the movie, so I was a bit surprised to read the heading on the online version of the review: “When it comes to remaking classics, Disney shouldn’t try so hard.” Gibson opens her review announcing that she is a big believer that the original is almost always better. With that in mind, she said that she has been noncommittal on her opinion about Disney’s plan to make live-action versions of their classic animated versions of fairy tales. “Should Disney mess with success?” Gibson asks, to which she responds, “Cinderella gave the answer I hoped I wouldn’t get: they shouldn’t.”
Gibson goes on to write, “To its credit, the movie is remarkably faithful to the plot and characters of the 1950 animated original; thus, it doesn’t have much material with which to distinguish itself. Director Kenneth Branagh and the filmmakers tried to make the story feel new again, and for the most part they succeeded. But oddly, the movie’s best moments are the ones that didn’t change at all.” What I find so fascinating is that in Gibson’s mind this is a negative, whereas I found it refreshing. Far too often those who remake movies feel the need to put their own unique twist on the story we all know, with the result being that we are not watching the story we expected to see. I never find this satisfying or even enjoyable. (In fact, as I write this, it occurs to me that if I have reviewed a movie here before it was quite possibly to take to task the makers of the most recent Alex Cross movie, based on the novels by James Patterson, since the movie bore almost no resemblance to the book).
Oddly enough, one of the things Gibson complains about (though complain might be too strong a term) is that the Grand Duke in the latest version apparently needed to improvement for his eyesight. Gibson bemoaned the fact that in Branagh’s version the Grand Duke “did not have his trademark pince-nez and it was very wrong.” This actually struck me too, but only in an “I wonder why they didn’t include that” moment, not because I found it “very wrong.” (And, if I may politely correct Gibson, the Grand Duke in the animated version wore a monocle, not a pince-nez). The other difference that struck me is that Cinderella has no dog in Branagh’s version, meaning there is no Bruno when it comes time to get Cinderella to the ball. The result is that the fairy godmother makes footmen out of two lizards, an odd twist in my opinion. Branagh also makes the Grand Duke a conniver and schemer with his own designs on whom the prince should marry, whereas the original version makes him out as more of a bumbling sycophant.
It turns out that my opinion of the movie was much more in line with that of Emily Whitten, who reviewed it for WORLD. In Whitten’s words, the movie “is a visual feast with a moral center that will delight and edify children of all ages.” Branagh’s Cinderella is, outwardly, incredibly patient and tolerant with her step-mother and step-sisters after the death of her father, yet the film also gives us a glimpse into the struggles she deals with internally (emphasis on the word “glimpse”). Cinderella confronts her step-mother and step-sisters when they destroy her gown before the ball, asking them why they are so mean. She gets no response, but I also thought it interesting that Branagh had the step-mother make the first rip, whereas in the animated version Lady Tremaine slyly points out to the girls that Cinderella’s dress utilizes some things they had discarded and lets them inflict the damage. Equally interesting is that Branagh gives no indication that Cinderella used any of her step-sisters castoffs. The result of Branagh’s approach is, in my mind, the realization that the step-sisters are modeling the behavior they see their mother display, as well as that the behavior of all three is motivated purely by envy, jealousy and fear. Yes, that’s right, fear. Branagh also allows us to see a bit more into the heart of Lady Tremaine and to understand that no small part of her treatment of Cinderella is jealousy and that no small part of her efforts to get her daughters married off to the prince is her fear of having no income and nothing to provide for her and her daughters in the future after the death of Cinderella’s father. (Branagh does not attempt to explain why Conderella’s father would choose Lady Tremaine of all the women in the world he could perhaps have pursued as a second wife, and this is an aspect of the tale that has never made sense to me).
From the time of her mother’s death, Cinderella is driven by her mother’s last instructions, to “have courage and be kind.” These are, even if a bit trite, excellent instructions for all of us, and often easier said than done. When the glass slipper is finally placed on Cinderella’s foot–by the prince himself, in Branagh’s version–following a kingdom-wide search for the slipper’s owner, Cinderella turns to her step-mother for one final remark before leaving for her “happily ever after.” We see Lady Tremaine standing on the staircase, realizing that the one she has so despised is about to get everything she has always wanted for herself or, at the very least, her daughter. Cinderella turns and the two lock eyes–leaving the audience wondering what she is about to say. There are many things that she could say, and no doubt many of them would be deserved and justifiable. Cinderella, though, chooses three simple but incredibly powerful words: “I forgive you.”
I am not suggesting that Branagh intentionally incorporated a biblical worldview into this version, and as Whitten wrote of the movie, “In typical American fashion, belief here is a force on its own”–and this is perhaps true for much of the film. However, Lady Tremaine did not ask for Cinderella’s forgiveness and she certainly did not deserve it. I find some powerful biblical principles in that, and it is low-hanging fruit for anyone who wants to use the movie as a catalyst for deeper discussions with their children.
If you want a dramatic remake of the Cinderella story you know so well, you will not find it here. If, instead, you want a well-crafted live-action version of a classic fairy tale, without even a hint of black magic or content otherwise inappropriate for children, then this is the movie for you.