Monday, May 11, 2015


I often use fairy tales in the classroom as a teaching tool and, specifically, I pick on Cinderella. The reasons are simple: it's a story that -without fail- every college student in America is aware of. It's also one which most have heard, read, or seen in at least two or three variations beyond what they consider the "standard" version.  Flexibility in theme and form is perhaps the real beauty of the fairy tale, and I've taken to asking students in my creative classes to pick apart Cinderella and challenge themselves to write new iterations that manipulate the themes, characters, narrative arcs, and lessons that they see as most integral.  As can be expected, the results are almost always rooted in a basic understanding of one of two twin root systems: the Brothers Grimm and Walt Disney.  They dig into the "violent realities of the universe" or they puff the piece full of sparkle and magic- as if the story renders these things mutually exclusive.  What they don't often don't realize is that it does not. That, by its nature, the Cinderella tale supposes a type of human cruelty that reads as its own kind of violence - with or without the eye gouging.

Of course, Kenneth Branagh's version is produced through Disney and uses as its guide the Charles Perrault iteration that built the studio's 1950 animated classic.  Here the mice sew and transform into horses, a pumpkin becomes a carriage, and a girl is pulled from her hardship because of her staunch commitment to kindness in the face of adversity. It's a lovely, traditional affair pulled - if not from old school fairy tales - then from an early 20th century storybook.

Because it's so traditional, it seems strange to call Branagh's version risky, but I'd argue that in some ways it was. If recent cinema has proven anything, it's that - in the world of children's fare, especially - louder, brasher, effects-driven films tend to finish first. We've seen too many reboots, from Disney alone, of quieter past films drawn as big budget spectacles. In the case of projects like Maleficent or Alice in Wonderland, we're used to seeing retoolings that make room for new action sequences or reparations.  It's almost a little odd that Cinderella tackles almost none of this. It doesn't aim to push the boundaries of its story or to apologize for the hopeless romance at its core, but instead presents a lush, gilded version of the same old storybook expanded only through attention to characterization.  The narrative movements are the same, many of the accouterments are also as expected, but we learn to feel more for the characters and to understand something of the pressures they're under and the way that they connect or break from one another in their shared world.  We see and understand more of "wicked stepmother" Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett) than perhaps any straightforward retelling before, but not enough to make her truly sympathetic or to undermine the conflicts that keep Cinderella (Lily James) so thoroughly in the right.

Beyond the stunning costume work and meticulous set design, it is of course these two performances that truly allow Cinderella to transcend beyond the simplicity of its retelling and to take flight as its own bit of practical magic.  It almost goes without saying that Blanchett is cast perfectly in her role. There are few other working actresses who can manage the same cat-like severity on screen, and Blanchett always manages to do so with a compelling glamour.  Her eyes alone communicate everything we need to understand about her character, and she knows it.  She can sell you "villain" with the flick of a wrist, and you will love her even as you find her actions reprehensible.  Branagh uses Blanchett's extreme control over her performance to present a clear contrast between the physical presence of Lady Tremaine and Cinderella.
By comparison, Lily James is something of a human wildflower. She has an ease of presence, a relaxed composure and willingness to freely and accidentally express herself in ways that Blanchett's character would never allow the public to see. We understand her immediately as a breath of fresh air, the kind of spirited person who - after so much pain - still refuses to allow herself to be transformed into something she is not.  We believe James's Cinderella as good and true. We believe her as kind and genuine. We also believe that she is not stupid, not pathetic, but that she is making the best of the lot she thinks she cannot escape.  James does not allow the character to drift too far into the airy, ditzy hopefulness of past live action princesses, but even so many may find her depiction a little too sweet.

Indeed, though I loved much of Cinderella and found it truly enchanting, I was hit with a touch of disappointment at just how faithful to that old romantic notion it remained in its closing notes.  It's old school to the very end, in a way that I both admire and desperately want to change. All that is to say: the beauty of the tale remains very much in tact and amplified, but so do the false expectations.  You might find yourself wishing, as I did, that Disney had managed to find a loophole in the inevitable marriage between Cinderella and her Prince. You might find yourself, too, wondering if your enjoyment of the movie to that point was a little guilty. But sometimes a storybook is just a storybook, and sometimes the retelling is better left a little classic, a little out of touch, and a little misty around the edges.  Forgive the standard happily ever after, sometimes you have to settle for the little adjustments and stick with the same old narrative.

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