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March 13, 2015

I had such high hopes for Cinderella. After Maleficent upended the story of Sleeping Beauty and landed among my ten best films of last year — and that on the heels of Frozen — I thought maybe someone at Disney had recognized that not only is it possible to rework their core fairy-tale properties away from their more problematic aspects, it can be downright profitable. But no, all we get is a CGI’d-up version of the same story as Disney’s 1950 hand-animated version and an injection of boring slapstick.

As such, the story should be utterly familiar. Ella (Lily James) has a beautiful mother and doting father, who die in that order, leaving her in the care of her stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and two stepsisters (Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera). They dismiss the household staff to cut costs, putting Ella to work in their place and dubbing her “Cinder-Ella” for her habit of sleeping next to the kitchen fire to keep warm.

Then there’s the ball, which Cinderella’s stepmother keeps her from; the fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter), who gets her there anyway; the charming Prince (Richard Madden), who falls for her; and the lost glass slipper that eventually brings the lovers back together. It’s all totally standard, except for being rendered in eye-poppingly lush computer animation instead of Disney-classic hand-drawn cels.

We do spend more time on Ella’s young life this time, including her mother’s dying benediction: “have courage, and be kind”. Kindness is probably a virtue we could do with more of, but it’s taken to a fault here. When asked why she doesn’t complain about her mistreatment, Cinderella demurs: “Others have it worse.” Remember kids, good girls accept their lot in life because it’s not as bad as they could imagine it being; this is the logic that keeps women in abusive relationships, both romantic and familial.

We also spend more time with the King (Derek Jacobi) and his court (Stellan Skarsgård, Nonso Anozie) as they discuss who the Prince should marry. Because if there’s something missing from the Cinderella story, it’s palace intrigue between men.

And while yes, the Prince probably falls for Cinderella because she’s so darn kind, the biggest scene in the movie is when everyone else admires how beautiful she is when she shows up at the ball. What a lesson for young girls in the audience: be adored for your appearance in the crowd, but know your place in daily life.

The most frustrating part is that it didn’t need to be this way. It wouldn’t even take the flat-out Marxist approach we saw in Maleficent to salvage a wonderful story from the ur-text of the Disney Princess narrative. The script even takes a halfhearted stab in that direction, filling in some of the stepmother’s backstory too late for it to really affect anything. It’s Blanchett’s best scene, and I have to believe it’s the one scrap left of Aline Brosh McKenna’s initial draft of the screenplay before American Pie producer Chris Weitz got ahold of it.

As maligned as it is, I’m convinced that there’s a great story within the regressive Cinderella narrative, waiting for the right filmmakers to pull it out. I thought that the modern Disney would come up with them, but evidently not.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: pass.

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