This pretty live-action film directed by Kenneth Branagh comes nowhere near the domesticated grandeur of the 1950 cartoon, though it has its own moments. Most of it feels familiar, including the house mouse Gus Gus and his evil feline foe Lucifer. But it begins without much promise: an enhanced family background story of Ella’s blissful childhood with a doting New Age-y mother (“I believe in everything,” she says) and a kindly merchant father filmed under a dull luster. It slowly grows into its magic, though, specifically during more plot embellishment from screenwriter Chris (The Golden Compass) Weitz, in which Cinderella (Lily James) meets the Prince (Richard Madden) before the ball while riding through a forest venting her Evil Stepmother blues. He’s hunting a noble deer, which she convinces him to spare. In this tiny way, the story feels new.
After the woods, the film improves and sweetens. The transformations from pumpkin to coach and the ball dance choreographed in Fred Astaire–movie style, where couples seem to plausibly create impossible steps and respond with sexy unspoken cross-talk, are all nice. What’s missing is the magic of Cinderella’s morning routines — she’s a little less stoic in this version but set free by her mother’s favorite mantra: “Have courage and be kind.” (Spoiler alert: You’ll probably get sick of this phrase before the end.)
If you ask people why Disney remade Cinderella as a live-action film, they will invariably say, “To make more money.” Nobody believes there was a more aesthetic reason: that it could feasibly be more enchanting or, more importantly, better attuned to the contemporary world and less dependent on princely rescue and Fairy Godmothers for its heroics. This movie is none of the above. But I can say that when I looked over at my thoroughly grown-up movie companion — my very independent spouse — she was enthralled, her hands folded tight in her lap and completely engrossed in the screen. That’s strong enough for movie magic.