Jean-Luc Godard famously said, “In order to criticize a movie, you have to make another movie.” In the span of three short months, Walt Disney Pictures has illustrated that theory, only in reverse. Last December, the studio released Into the Woods, which skewered – sometimes playfully, sometimes savagely – the conventions of the traditional fairy tale story. Even for a film so ultimately dark, the point-of-view was like a breath of fresh air. Now, three months later, Disney unleashes Cinderella on the masses, which proves why a film like Into the Woods is so important – in this modern age, straightforward fairy tales don’t hold water anymore (as if they ever did to begin with). By this time, we seem to have evolved past the standard fairy tale myth…or at the very least, our cultural cynicism has outgrown the bland innocence and simple moralizing.
Perhaps director Kenneth Branagh and screenwriter Chris Weitz intended this very straightforward adaptation of Cinderella to function as an antidote to the presumed cynicism of modernized takes like Into the Woods, to offer no additional shades of complexity and let the simple story work on its own. What results, however, is a classical tale rendered with such slavish dependence on its source material that it almost runs on autopilot.
Sure, it’s a lovely notion to think of the put-upon young maiden who stumbles upon a handsome prince and falls instantly in love. But isn’t even that pious ideal shallow on its face? It hardly matters what the context is, any story in which the romanticized lovers meet only twice feels forced and unbelievable. For their part, these actors make the absolute most of their limited screen time together. As the title character, Lily James is bright-eyed and infectious – all humanity that could be imbued into this character is her doing. Richard Madden plays the Prince, and he’s not merely charming, as one might expect, but also sneakily self-effacing. Their chemistry is one of the film’s greatest strengths… but if only their relationship was allowed to figure more significantly into the narrative than as a means to an end.
Perhaps the most overt object of this story is the Wicked Stepmother, played with evil glee by Cate Blanchett, who couldn’t deliver a bad performance if she tried. The Oscar winner relishes the opportunity to sink her teeth into this iconic caricature, but caricature it is nonetheless. There are a couple of stray sequences in which Blanchett seems to be communicating a deeper pain through her eyes, perhaps signaling the sad truth behind her icy exterior. But as ever, this screenplay shuts the door on any empathy or nuance. For better or for worse, last summer’s Maleficent hinted at some mighty serious subtextual threads being sown beneath its surface fairy tale fabric. In Cinderella, however, Blanchett’s big revelation is that she’s ruthlessly cruel because she’s a widow two times over. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t consider that any legitimate explanation for visibly displaying your pleasure in torturing your servant girl.
There needed to be more. More motivation, more nuance, more room for characters to breathe rather than follow a predetermined path, even if said path is a classic fairy tale. We’ve seen that modern fairy tale adaptations can contort the story and themes to make them relevant for the modern age, as well as provide legitimate motivation and dire human implications to each character’s decisions. This live-action Cinderella is basically just the fairy tale status quo. And anymore, that’s boring.