Hammering Out... is a series of movie reviews featuring a lively he said/she said discussion between John and Julie. Next up: CINDERELLA.
JOHN: Disney really has this movie thing figured out. They only release a handful of movies each year, which are either animated in-house, Marvel, Pixar, feel-good sports dramas, or live action remakes of their animated classics and/or theme park rides. Most are big hits. And, with Star Wars entering the fold later this year, and I can't think of a good reason not to buy Disney stock. It's no surprise then to see Cinderella get the remake treatment. The story's been around forever, the property is universally beloved, and it practically markets itself. What is surprising is how classy the final product turned out to be.
I wasn't expecting this level of professionalism after the underwhelming Maleficent and downright terrible Alice in Wonderland. A lot of talent went into making Cinderella, and it shows. Kenneth Branagh directs with a sure hand, the costumes and production design are knockouts. The performances are all terrific. Undemanding audiences will like seeing this version on screen. I just wish it didn't feel like I had already seen it 100 times already. It sure feels indicative of the current state of movies, doesn't it? I mean, so many brilliant artists are working at the top of their games, but in service of something that is easily marketable and just...wholly unnecessary. Don't you wish their talent and creativity were being put to something more original? What'd you think of this Cinderella?
JULIE: I'm with you as far as not really knowing how to grade this film. It is really well-made. I'm sure we'll see the costume designers and art directors mentioned come Oscar time next year. Everyone involved in the movie is working at a high level. No one embarrasses him or herself. That said, there is something lacking.
Maybe it's in the character details? Rose from Downton Abbey and Robb Stark from Game of Thrones are great as the titular Cinderella and the prince. Cate Blanchett is typically wonderful as the evil step mother. Derek Jacobi, who is always a welcome presence on screen, is good as the king. But as far as the supporting characters go (from the stepsisters to the mice), there's not really any there there.
This is the same story you already know. Cinderella, the character, is passive and a little boring as always. She's been told by her mother to have courage and be kind, which is lovely, I guess, but she does seem like a pushover. There's a point where "being kind" crosses over into "being a doormat," and that's where Cinderella spends most of this film.
I think there's a good debate to be had whether or not her kindness is a strength or if it's a weakness presented to a female character as a strength. There's a difference, to me, between sharing your food with an old beggar woman and letting your stepmother and her daughters push you around.
What did you think of Cinderella the character?
JOHN: I thought she was kind of a blank slate. I liked her, and thought Lily James did a commendable job in the role. I rooted for Cinderella, which I guess is all you're expected to do. But, I wanted something more to her character, like the plucky intelligence of Belle, the stubborn headstrong streak of Merida, or the spunky slobbishness of Anna. Cinderella is an old-school Disney princess, and this movie treats her that way. There's no real updating to her or the story. For better or worse, this is a classical telling, through and through.
I agree that Cate Blanchett was spot-on as the evil stepmother (in a genius bit of casting), but she could have been more evil. Maybe that would have brought something else out of the Cinderella character. Blanchett gets 1-2 choice scenes to be a total jerk, but she's not as mean as she could be. The movie wants us to sympathize with her at least a little. To be fair, that does make for more nuanced storytelling, but it doesn't provoke as much from-the-gut emotional engagement. I did love the scene where her two daughters are showing off their singing and artistic "skills," and after the one at the piano mangles her song, Blanchett issues a stern, "Do shut up."
Other favorite scene has to be the midnight transformation of the pumpkin carriage, lizard stewards, mice horses, and duck driver back to their original selves. It was fun, exciting and perfectly visually-realized. As overly familiar as most of this movie was, that sequence single-handedly made the live-action remake worthwhile. Did you have any favorite scenes/moments? Least favorite?
JULIE: I actually loved all the scenes with James and Richard Madden. One character that they did give a little more oomph to in this story was the prince. I don't remember the prince being much of anything in the animated version, but Robb Stark managed to bring some humor and humility to a pretty one-dimensional character. Also, he and James had some pretty decent chemistry. They are two actors to watch.
However, I did not like the scene where Cinderella and the prince kept circling each other on horseback. It made me dizzy. I don't know how everyone managed to stay on their horses.
Really, what it comes down to is this: If you love Cinderella, you'll love this movie. If you love great scenery, pretty dresses, Robb Stark's blue eyes, and spotting British actors from Downton, Game of Thrones, and Harry Potter, this movie has something for you.
What do you want to add?
JOHN: Not much. I think most people who want to see this will walk away satisfied. If I came in to it cold, having never seen any other version of Cinderella before and being totally unfamiliar with the story, this movie probably would have been amazing. Branagh achieves a timeless, magical fairy tale quality - one that's not all that easy to capture.
Also, we should probably quickly mention the new Frozen Fever short that precedes the feature. Maybe it's too hard to live up to all the hype, but I don't think it delivered. Although the idea of Elsa getting a cold probably sounds good on paper, it doesn't really provide much in the way of story. The song was generic and unmemorable. Cute enough, and the Frozen fanatics will like it just fine, but Pixar does a much better job with those Toy Story shorts. Frozen Fever did not leave me optimistic about the recently announced Frozen 2. Hate to say it, but I think Anna and Elsa's story has been told. No need for a sequel. What did you think?
JULIE: The Frozen short was a real bummer. The song felt phoned in and the crux of the whole thing was just rehashing old jokes and moments from the movie. If anyone sees this having not seen the original movie, it's a poor first impression. I certainly have concerns about the sequel. Let it go, Disney.
I'm ready to rate this thing. On a scale of Game of Thrones monarchs from Joffrey Baratheon to Daenerys, I give this a solid Renly.
JOHN: Nice. I've been hard on Cinderella, but I think it delivers. It's as good as it needs to be. 3.5 out of 5 stars from me.
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