Let’s Go to the Movies: A Dazzling Cinderella
By: Ellis Nassour
It’s another great year for Disney. There’ve been Oscars for Best Animated Film two years in a row: the world-wide phenomenon Frozen [with a soon all-but-certain Broadway adaptation from Disney Theatricals] and Big Hero 6. With Sir Kenneth Branagh’s colorful reintroduction to the timeless fairytale Cinderella by way of a live retelling for a 21st-Century audience, they might as well keep room on the shelves for a few more.
The film may not make the Best Picture category, but there should be most assuredly be nominations for costume and production design [respectively, three-time Oscar winner Sandy Powell, who could score a 14th nomination for her gorgeous and fun creations; three-time Oscar winner Dante Ferretti, who might be racking up an eighth nomination]; and Haris Zambarloukos’s lush cinematography. Budgeted at an rumored $95-million, you can see every penny onscreen.
The film, based closely on Disney’s classic animated feature and the tale written by Charles Perrault [not the darker Grimm Brothers spin], has a Broadway pedigree: choreography by Emmy-winning director Rob Ashford [with smash back-to-back live TV adaptations of The Sound of Music and Peter Pan].
Branagh (Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, Othello, Hamlet -who turned in memorable performances in the Brit TV series Wallander and as Olivier in Simon Curtis’ My Week with Marilyn), as you might think, never toyed with the idea of directing a fairy tale. "That, however," he says, "was until I read Chris’ script. The tale began to speak to me in ways I never imagined. I was captivated by the story’s power and felt I was in sync with the visual artistry and textures that would have to be deployed. The daunting proposition would be to make the film entertaining and relevant to modern audiences. I saw a classic piece of storytelling where the central character goes on a journey all can identify with."
Veteran actor/director/ producer/writer Oscar nominated Chris Weitz [About a Boy] didn’t try too hard to reimagine this tale as old as time so that it would be unrecognizable [as was the case in the tampering of Rodgers and Hammerstein adaptation of Cinderella for Broadway]. He has added elements and depth to certain characters [especially the evil stepmother] while preserving the unforgettable elements from the animated classic beloved by so many.
Cinderella has a stunning lead in Lily James, now known stateside by the zillions of fan of Downton Abbey, where she portrays Lady Rose, and handsome Prince, played by Scottish James Madden, who’s made an impact on TV’s Game of Thrones and Klondike. And two-time Oscar-winner [out of five nominations], three-time Golden Globe winner [eight nods], and three-time BAFTA winner [five nods] Cate Blanchett proves she’s equally at home doing bitch comedy as the stepmother as she’s been in countless dramas and epics.
Blanchett is quite the passionate actress as we’ve seen onstage and film, but as the "the feared-yet misunderstood-Stepmother," she was wise to embrace the role without making it too much of a caricature. The look on her face in the final shot of her on the stairs of her home as the Prince finds his Ella and sweeps her off to the palace is alone worth a nomination. [It’s quite reminiscent of Bette Davis’ expression as she walks up the stairs in the finale of The Little Foxes as she allows her husband to die.]
Co-starring are Stellan Skarsgard as a duplicitous grand duke, Derek Jacobi [sadly, all too briefly] as the King], Hayley Atwell and Ben Chaplin as Ella’s parents, and in a bit of color-blind casting as the captain of the guards Nonso Anozie, the acclaimed black Brit stage actor (King Lear, Othello). Contributing comic relief as the boorish, ill-mannered stepsisters are delightful Brit actresses Sophie McSherra (downstairs Daisy on Downton Abbey; Queen Madalena’s handmaiden on ABC’s Galavant) and Holliday Grainger (TV miniseries Bonnie and Clyde).
The film gets off to a slow start with maybe a little too much back story, but begins to soar with great fun and vastly entertaining special effects with the appearance of Ella’s fairy godmother, played, albeit too briefly, by an actress who knows how to make an impression, two-time Oscar nominee Helena Bonham Carter.
Branagh gave his designers free reign. Powell, who started working on costumes two years before the start of principal photography, says, "I wanted the film to have that ‘once upon a time’ feel, but since this is a fairy tale, I didn’t feel bound to adhere to any rules. I thought it would be interesting if the costumes weren’t strictly 19th entury, but more of a 1940s version of the era instead."
Powell must have a wonderful sense of humor and whimsy, because the millinery seems to be suggested by the outrageous designs that some of England’s royal family embrace.
Branagh wanted the most spectacular and opulent ballroom imaginable. Ferretti, with veteran set decorator Francesca Loschiavo-Ferretti, accommodated him at the U.K.’s Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire on the Bond franchise soundstage, the largest in Europe – 50 yards long, 35 wide, and 30 feet high – with a three-story unit with nooks for several cameras. It had marble floors and an enormous staircase, gold statues, frescoes, sconces, and 2,000 yards of drapes. With the addition of 17 enormous chandeliers custom-made in Venice [with 5,000 oil candles, which had to be lit by hand, it had the grandeur of the Paris Opera and the Louvre, a former palace. Many of the exteriors were built in the back lot and a sprawling, forested country park.
Blanchett says, "When I walked onto the ballroom set, my jaw hit the floor. It was an M-G-M Technicolor moment, and I was transported back in time."
Two-time Oscar and Golden Globe-nominated composer Patrick Doyle [Branagh’s Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet, and As You Like It] has written a lilting, romantic, and perfectly apt score. However, the film seems to be crying out for songs. The use of Mack David, Al Hoffman, and Jerry Livingston’s "A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes" and "Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo (The Magic Song)" from the animated film only make you yearn for more. So when Disney adapts the film for Broadway, we just might get them.
Trivia: Were you very closely attuned to the glass slipper fitting sequence enough to catch the sneaky cameo by Grammy-winning, multi-Platinum recording artist Brandy [Norwood], who made history in Disney’s TV film Cinderella as its first black princess. [It was just announced that Brandy will make her Broadway debut late next month, joining the Tony-winning Chicago revival as Roxie Hart for two months.]
The 1950 animated film cost an estimated $3-million, a huge risk for Disney. However, it opened to world-wide acclaim. That it’s one of the studio’s most treasured titles is no surprise. It has grossed well in excess of $34-million with re-releases, TV showings, and video; and has the honor of being one of the American Film Institute’s "10 Greatest Animated Films of All Time."
For those who can’t get enough Frozen, showing with Cinderella is the animated eight-minute short Frozen Fever, reuniting "cast members" Idina Menzel, Kristen Bell, Jonathan Groff, and Josh Gad on Anna’s birthday when Elsa’s icy powers prove to be a bit icky. While it’s certainly no "Let It Go," Oscar winners Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopezut provide the bouncy "Making Today a Perfect Day."