When I say “fairy tale” to a group of educated, aware, savvy folks like the Nerdist audience, what do you think of? Princesses? Princes? Magic? How about patriarchy? Or perhaps outdated old stories where a young maiden lies in wait until a strong, handsome prince comes along on a white horse to rescue her and they all live happily ever after? Probably.
Over the last handful of years people have started asking legitimate questions about the idea of the “fairy tale,” and if these are the right messages we should be exposing young people to as they form their ideas of what they think real life is like. This is a good thing, if you ask me, and it’s been exciting to see the evolution of the fairy tale from Stephen Sondheim’s stage musical Into the Woods to Gregory Maguire’s novel Wicked to even Disney getting in on the revisionist fairy tale action with movies like Brave, Tangled, Enchanted and Frozen.
In addition to animated revisionist fairy tales coming out of the Mouse House, Disney also got into the business of live-action adaptations of some of their most beloved classics and giving them a modern spin. Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland saw Alice as a warrior, non-conformist type and in return made over $1B (that’s a “B” and not a typo) at the global box office. Maleficent attempted to look at the story behind one of Disney’s most ferocious villains and was a big success (although I would strongly argue that it got away with a lot because of the way Angelina Jolie looked in her costume and not on the merits of storytelling or solid filmmaking). Now, Sir Kenneth Branagh has gone behind the camera for a live-action version of one of the most iconic fairy tales of all time: Cinderella.
As a horror and sci-fi-loving feminist and a gal living in Los Angeles, California, I feel like you might be able to guess that I was NOT looking forward to Cinderella. I’m at the stage in my life where dreams are either going to come true or they’re not and I encounter more dudes like Hans from Frozen in bars and on OKCupid than I see Prince Charming’s asking me to dance and complimenting my shoes. Did I mention I’m not blonde and delicate like Cinderella? What I’m saying is, this ain’t my story, and as much as I wish I were, I’m no Disney Princess.
And yet, with all of that being said, I cannot tell you how much I loved this movie. It was grand and sweet and romantic and innocent. But what’s more is that it was the perfect live-action fairy tale. It was true to the source material – -one of the biggest treats was that Branagh captured the iconic dress transformation scene perfectly — and yet, managed to flesh out the characters just enough so that they were actually versions of real people. Ella is kind and hard working and smart and compassionate in the face of the most fearsome bullying. She loves her mother and father and honors her family and their values as does Kit, renamed here since he literally had no name other than “Prince Charming” in the 1950 original. He’s a prince who realizes the importance of good manners, being kind to people from all walks of life and listens to and learns from Ella because, I think, he respects her. Similar to Ella, Kit also loves and honors his father deeply, represented by a few very touching scenes that screenwriter Chris Weitz added for this interpretation.
This new telling of Cinderella also allows Cate Blanchett’s Lady Tremaine a few quick peeks behind her vicious exterior to let the audience have at least some kind of understanding about why she is the way that she is but doesn’t go far enough to completely reinvent the character. Interestingly, both women, Ella and Lady Tremaine, are met with tragic and awful circumstances and given a choice about how to live their lives and how to treat other people. In the end, one finds true fulfillment and the other doesn’t. One allows hate and violence to grow inside of her and the other chooses differently. Branagh’s Cinderella makes a philosophical choice about the world and which path leads where. It’s a choice and contemporary messaging that I happen to agree with.
Now, listen savvy Nerdist readers, yes, both Prince Charming and Cinderella are white and the heteronormative representation of “perfection.” That hasn’t changed, I’m sorry. And yes, at its core, Cinderella is a fairy tale romance with beautiful dresses and a castle and a Fairy Godmother. Prince Charming still puts the glass slipper on Cinderella’s foot and they still live happily ever after. But, I think there’s enough of a complicated journey here to make it all very well deserved and send the message to little girls and boys that being a good person to your friends and family and to the animals and the earth around you should lead to good things. And deep down in the squishiest parts of my horror and sci-fi loving feminist heart, I still believe in magic and love and kindness and Santa Claus. Even in 2015, I think that’s alright.
Cinderella, starring Lily James, Richard Madden and Cate Blanchett, is in theaters now!