The good news is that this is a solid, winsome live-action rendering of the classic Disney animated version. Those of us who have read this familiar story to our children, and then our grandchildren, will delight in how “faithful” it is to the original (OK, technically, the real “original” is more than 400 years old, and even the Grimm Fairy tale version is more than 200 years old, and there are, by last count, 345 variants to this classic myth, but for most of us, the 1950 Disney animated version is the real “original.”) But the bad news is that it’s so predictable that there are no surprises, which will disappoint viewers expecting some creative fresh approach.
Lily James (of “Downton Abbey” fame) plays Cinderella like a good veteran actress: from buoyantly happy to sadly resigned, she conveys to us that her basically kind spirit cannot be broken, even by an evil stepmother and her two selfish shallow, mean-spirited daughters. But what we like about Cinderella, her placid demeanor regardless of her circumstances, also makes for a main character that is something less than fascinating. And of course Prince Charming (Richard Madden) is so consistently a nice guy that he’s not that interesting, either. It’s the indomitable Lady Tremaine, as the wicked stepmother, who steals the show. The Oscar-winning Cate Blanchett obviously relishes this nuanced role. She first appears as the lovely new bride of Cinderella’s widowed father, but gradually, her true colors start to show, particularly as her husband travels and when he dies. Then she begins to treat her stepdaughter, Cinderella, like a servant. Her spoiled daughters, instead of coming to Cinderella’s defense, are only too happy to consider her beneath them. So much for one big, happy family. And anyone who has ever chafed under any stepfamily circumstance will find points of identification here.
The other good news is that there is a really strong moral undertone to the entire film, as Cinderella’s dying mom imparts her memorable advice to her young daughter: “Be courageous and be kind.” That becomes a kind of mantra for Cinderella, even in her descending circumstances. They take a slight liberty with the story line since they have a little time to play with it: Cinderella actually meets the Prince before the big ball, out in the woods, where she’s riding her horse and he’s on a stag hunt; he’s already enchanted by her and looking for her to appear at the royal ball. The fact that his dying father (lots of absent fathers here) gives him permission to marry – not for political advantage, but for love – helpfully clears the way for our climactic romance.
Ah, but there’s a kind of works-righteousness element introduced here, and that’s the other bad news: the fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) appears initially as a raggedy old dirty beggar, asking for a handout, which is really a test to see if Cinderella truly has a good heart, even when she is grieving and distracted. Of course she passes the test, and the fairy godmother than transforms into something like the Good Witch of the North in The Wizard of Oz: sweet and lovely and helpful and magical. The CGI tricks are practically worth the price of admission all by themselves: the pumpkin transforming into the carriage (and back again), the mice into white horses, the goose into the driver, the lizards into footmen. Fun stuff on the big screen. And exceptionally well done here.
Of course, we all know how it ends, but at least we don’t get the Grimm Fairy Tale version of the wicked stepsisters getting their eyes pecked out by birds (grim, indeed). Suffice it to say that wickedness gets its comeuppance in a way we’d all like to see: by simply being excluded from the happily ever after (wait, doesn’t that sound like the Christian conviction regarding The Kingdom of God?).
My grandkids loved this one. So did I. Though it’s rated PG for “mild thematic elements,” really, kids of any age can enjoy this one.
RONALD P. SALFEN is the supply pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Kaufman, Texas.