Monday, March 12, 2018

CINDERELLA: Blu-ray (Disney Inc. 2015) Walt Disney Home Video

Kenneth Branagh directs an almost too faithful adaptation of Charles Perrault’s 1697 fable, Cinderella (2015), imbued with all the digital wizardry capable of transforming the author’s perennially appealing ‘simple’ story into grandiloquent tripe of the glossiest, but otherwise mostly vacuous order. What’s missing herein, unlike Disney Inc.’s first stab in animated form, circa 1950, is heart, and joy, and those great Mack David, Jerry Livingston, Al Hoffman songs; once heard, never to be forgotten. It’s always disappointing to see a silk purse get magically transformed back into a sow’s ear (or, in this case, the proverbial coach turned pumpkin orange and smashed alongside of the road), especially when so much obvious time and expense has been lavished on such an elaborate display of affectation, rather than affection for the time-honored and true. And Branagh – no stranger to storytelling of the highest order – ought to have known better. Regrettably, Chris Weitz’s screenplay gets the featured points right, but adds a minor twist at the end – this vicious reincarnation of Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett) smashing Cinderella’s glass slipper against the stone wall of her gloomy attic, allowing ‘Kit’ – the gallant Prince Charming (Richard Madden) to slip the other shoe left behind at the ball onto the tender bare foot of Lily James’ eponymous scullery girl. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
It only took Walt 75 minutes to tell his animated version with precisely the sort of lithe enchantment Perrault’s immortal and beloved tale requires. It takes Kenneth Branagh 106 minutes to do not nearly as well, despite some stellar talent in front of the camera thrown into this mishmash; Helena Bonham Carter (a rather dotty Fairy Godmother), Stellan Skarsgård (the conniving Grand Duke), Derek Jacobi (an ailing King) and Ben Chaplin as Cinderella’s doting – if thoroughly misguided papa.  Perrault’s classic tale – and the 1950 film for that matter – did not dwell for more than a sentence or two on the circumstances of the wicked Lady Tremaine to become entrenched in Ella’s familial home with her two mindlessly malicious offspring, Drisella (Sophie McShera) and Anastasia (Holliday Grainger). But Branagh squanders nearly 40 minutes of precious screen time in exploring the ever-increasing misery befallen our winsome heroine; her ousting as the rightful ‘young Miss’ of this former merchant’s maison, relegated as a guest – and finally – no-account servant girl in her own home. Yet, even affording the backstory such a luxury, the short shrift from 1950 gets it more than right and covers infinitely more ground most economically of all. In a sentence or two we could almost believe Ella’s father was blinded by the tragic loss of his first wife (Hayley Atwell) to suspend belief – and the good sense God gave a lemon - that he might be happy again with the thoroughly wicked widow Tremaine.
Stretched to 40 minutes of ineffectual madness, as Tremaine populates his pastoral digs with fair-weather sycophants – a cacophony of gamblers, gluttons and goony potential ‘next’ husbands for her two daughters – Ella’s father, increasingly finds escape in travels abroad while he leaves his ever-devoted daughter to bear the brunt of their envy and disgust. This leaves one deeply to suspect his motives as well. As such, death is too good for Ella’s father and just seems like the last straw in a terribly cruel and arduously drawn out bad joke perpetuated on our lovely young lass. Taking a page out of Sleeping Beauty’s playbook, Weitz retreats to the forest for Ella’s first ‘cute meet’ with Prince Charming. She is genuine in her resolve but abstains from telling him her name. He is false – sort of – pretending to be ‘an apprentice’ instead of the heir apparent of this far off and fictitious land. It’s still love at first sight. But romance between the Prince and his future Princess is poorly delineated. Walt had similar concerns in 1950, resolved by transforming his Cinderella into a musical. You can economize a great deal of needless doe-eyed adoration by simply inserting a song or two to clearly delineate a character’s intensions. After all, ‘A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes.’ You better believe it!
The real difficulty Branagh’s Cinderella has is neither in overcoming the legacy of Walt’s original animated classic or even bulldozing past the infinitely more affecting ‘re-imagining’ in Fox’s Ever After: A Cinderella Story (1998) – directed by Andy Tennant and co-starring Drew Barrymore and Dougray Scott: an infinitely more magical coupling. In fact, it’s the opposite; Branagh cherry-picking elements from the Disney animated feature he believes he can make better by relocating the story from ancient France to some fanciful principality of no particular nation known to mankind then or now, and, populated with a healthy dollop of politically correct/non-Caucasian courtiers; where our handsome Sport n’ Shave Ken doll of a Prince is progressively expected to wed the suspiciously Spanish Princess Chelina of Zaragosa (Jana Perez) in a marriage of state to secure his future empire, despite the fact she considers his palatial digs ‘the little kingdom’. Oh yeah...that’s definitely the way to a man’s heart. ‘Mine’s bigger than yours is.’ Not! And into this rather serious distortion of Perrault’s classic, Branagh re-introduces Walt’s penchant for cutesy animals; the mice, including Gus (now digitally enhanced, though regrettably, non-verbal), the malevolent, Lucifer (only briefly, and rather pointlessly glimpsed) and inexplicably, recasting Cinderella’s beloved horse, Major, and adorable hound, Bruno as a pair of lizard coach men, who use their slithery tails to trigger a drawbridge and continue to eat flies even in their sub-human form while waiting for their mistress to return. Yuck!
But perhaps the worst of the misfires is Helena Bonham Carter’s Fairy Godmother, performing an almost Beauty and the Beast-like transformation from ‘old hag’ – slovenly dribbling cream from a cup, to an elegant enchantress, much too flighty in her flights into fancy. In 1950’s Walt’s cartoon incarnation was voiced by Verna Felton, whose vocalization conveyed so much maternal warmth it was simply impossible not to fall instantly under her spell. By contrast, Bonham Carter’s glittery gowned and sparkle-haired goddess owes a good deal more to Billie Burke’s Glinda – the good witch of the North from 1939’s Wizard of Oz, except without Burke’s ability to make the height of such glamorous frivolity appear, if not only excusable, then equally as lovable. In lieu of generating this intangible quality of mercy and kindness, Bonham Carter merely puts on a show with plucky sass. 

Her Fairy Godmother is a zeitgeist of energy but virtually no compassion. Her forewarning to Cinderella about the stroke of midnight stealing away all of the loveliness she has briefly wrought just seems mean-spirited. Hurry up, girl. Time is wasting. But have fun. The grave difficulty here is that Lily James’ doe-eyed lass is attempting to live by the precepts instilled at an early age by her mother: above all else, be kind and courageous. The ‘message’, if one can call it that, of the 1950 classic was simply, that ye pure of faith could reap the generous rewards of a life well-lived by virtue of their adherence to an ethical mindset. Branagh’s version adds soul-searching forgiveness to this mix. Cinderella forgives Lady Tremaine her transgressions against her before embarking upon a new life as the future Queen. But is forgiveness truly necessary? Walt didn’t seem to think so. It was enough for him that evil, in any of its many forms, should and could be vanquished in a penultimate display of soft rose-petaled confetti being cast behind the marital coach.
Branagh’s Cinderella begins thus: with nearly an hour of back story that needless elongates the narrative while stealing precious run time from the exquisite Grand Ball sequence much later on – still, much too short to be the impetus for the Prince’s enduring infatuation with this ‘mystery girl’, inexplicably to have run off with his heart. We see young Ella (Eloise Webb) having a happy childhood. Her mother, something of a throwback to the sixties flower child, preaches courage and kindness to fight the injustices of the world. Alas, before long, mama succumbs to an undisclosed disease, leaving Ella and her father deeply distraught. She escapes into her daily regiment and her books. But the master of the house can find no solace except in the arms of another woman. If he had to pick one – why the heartless Lady Tremaine?  Surely, Ella’s father has eyes to see beyond her fashionable trappings, and her perversely ill-mannered and stupid daughters, Drisella and Anastasia. Not nearly as naïve, Ella nevertheless welcomes her new stepfamily into her home, though arguably not her heart.
A short while later, Ella's father elects to go abroad on business, leaving his daughter to endure Tremaine’s cruel and jealous nature. In his absence, Tremaine relocates Ella to the attic (in the 1950 version, cramped but cozy/herein, taking on the dank and depressing attributes of The Tower of London). Lady Tremaine also indulges her own offspring in their teasing of the girl; nicknamed ‘Cinder-Ella’ because she has fallen asleep more than once on the tile grate near the dying embers of the kitchen fire to keep warm. News arrives. Ella’s father has died abroad. Heartbroken, Ella is now made to bear the brunt of Lady Tremaine’s haughty demands. She is a servant in her own home.
Wounded by their cruelty, a tearful Ella escapes on horseback into the nearby woods. Inadvertently, she encounters ‘Kit’ – the crown Prince who is on a stag hunt. Ella cautions prudence. The majestic beast should not be hunted down and killed. Aside: we suspect PETA had something to do with this. Evidently, the Prince is easily persuaded to see things Ella’s way. Without learning her identity, Kit has fallen hopelessly in love with this mystery girl. Returning to the palace and thinking with the wrong head, Kit informs his father he would pursue this girl for his own. Alas, the King is aware his time on earth is short and demands his son marry a lady from his own strata to expand both the wealth and nobility of his kingdom. Despite never having met her, the King is certain the Princess Chelina of Zaragosa will suffice for this marriage of state. To blunt the effect, Kit has his father break with tradition by inviting virtually the entire nation to a grand ball, at which time Kit’s marriage to Chelina will be announced. This narrative wrinkle in Weitz’s screenplay actually blunts the whole purpose of the ball in Perrault’s original story; namely, to act as a sort of ’50 first dates’ by exposing every eligible maiden in the land from which the Prince may choose for himself his future wife.
As Lady Tremaine has been quite successful at delaying Ella’s arrival at the ball by tearing apart the old dress that once belonged to her mother on which Ella has lavished her considerable skills as a seamstress, Lady Tremaine and her daughters are equally unsuccessful at catching the Prince’s eye. Meanwhile, a tearstained Ella is afforded a rare opportunity – to go to the palace in style a la her very own Fairy Godmother. Arriving in a gilded coach, Ella majestically strolls into the grand ballroom, taking everyone’s breath away. Despite her elegant camouflage, the Prince instantly recognizes her as the self-same peasant girl he encountered in the woods. The two share a spirited pas deux on the dance floor before the Prince whisks Ella into the cultured gardens beyond the palace walls. Now, he takes her to his secret garden, complete with a swing. After several meaningless lines of genteel dialogue, the clock strikes twelve and Ella is forced to retreat from the ball, accidentally losing one of her glass slippers on the grand staircase as she races for the coach. The ball sequence, and its subsequent departure into the garden is executed with such perfunctory short shrift, one sincerely wonders what the point was to all the Fairy Godmother’s hard work. All this magical expenditure for what barely amounts to 15 minutes of screen time – shameless and wasteful!
Barely escaping the Grand Duke and his pursuing militia, Ella retreats home and into the kitchen where she momentarily hides her remaining glass slipper in the fireplace ashes, seconds before Lady Tremaine and her girls arrive. Although Drisella and Anastasia do not suspect as much, Lady Tremaine begins to believe the girl at the ball and Ella are one in the same. Days pass. The King dies, though not before having had a change of heart. He orders his son to marry for love. After a period of mourning, the Prince commences on his search for the mystery girl. He is momentarily dissuaded by the Grand Duke to reconsider marriage to Chelina, should the girl of his dreams not be found. The Prince agrees, but only after his proclamation for an intense search for Ella is announced throughout the land. Eager to fulfill her destiny, Ella hurries home and up to the attic where she has since hidden the glass slipper – proof positive she is the girl everyone has been talking about these many months.
Regrettably, Lady Tremaine has beat her to this hiding spot. She smashes the glass slipper against the attic’s stone wall, locking Ella inside and hurrying to the Grand Duke’s offices to reveal the truth. The Prince cannot marry a scullery girl. The Grand Duke concurs. In return for her silence, Lady Tremaine demands a title and money to procure a lavish lifestyle for herself and her daughters. The Grand Duke agrees to these terms. But shortly thereafter, inexplicably, he arrives at the Tremaine household with the Prince in tow and the remaining glass slipper to test it on the foot of all the eligible maidens who dwell there. As Ella is still locked in the attic, the slipper is tried on Drisella and Anastasia’s feet to no avail. Mercifully, Gus and the rest of the mice unhinge the latch on Ella’s attic window; her lithe voice carrying down to the courtyard just as the Prince, Grand Duke and his armies are preparing to depart. The Prince orders the girl to try on the slipper. Predictably, it fits and Ella, bearing no malice, forgives Lady Tremaine her many indiscretions. The happy couple departs. When next we see them, they are man and wife, exiting to a palace balcony to welcome the kingdom in their rejoicing. We learn Lady Tremaine and her daughters soon left the kingdom for parts unknown and that Ella and the Prince lived ‘happily ever after’. Did we ever doubt as much?
Re-telling such a well-known story as Cinderella may not leave much room for originality. In point of fact, none ought to have been expected.  But it ought to have allowed for a margin of better character development than this. Virtually every figure populating this gaudy milieu is a cardboard cutout, lacking the intrinsic spark of joy to make good on the celebratory quality so essential to this narrative.  Haris Zambarloukos’s lush cinematography shows off Dante Ferretti’s garish production design to its fullest, with Gary Freeman’s art direction and Francesca Loschiavo-Ferretti set design taking center stage. Everything looks exquisite – if slightly over-stylized and gaudy to a fault. But the style overcompensates for lack of substance. This is not the Cinderella of Walt’s heart or even another distant cousin, predicated on the dreams a wishful heart makes, once upon a star or otherwise. It’s simply a retread, lacking the sincerity of its time-honored predecessor, and quite unable to stand on its own merit as anything better than a needless, if occasionally visually spellbinding update. At 106 minutes, this Cinderella decidedly outstays its welcome. Walt’s 1950 classic knew when to graciously bow to a fanfare of music and merriment. Were that director, Kenneth Branagh had done the same herein. Regrets.
Walt Disney Home Video bowed Cinderella on Blu-ray some years ago. I am playing catch-up these days with movies I missed the first time around; Cinderella being one of them. In hindsight, I could have easily skipped it and been as contented. There is virtually nothing to complain about regarding this 1080p transfer. Visually, it remains a feast, exercising a bold palette of colors and excellent contrast levels. Everything is razor-sharp without appearing to have suffered any untoward digital tinkering beyond the obvious Disney universe recreated mostly from digital composites and green-screen work. Personally, I hunger for the days when Hollywood actually had to build most of their imaginary worlds from scratch and full-scale, with only the occasional matte painting employed to extend their make-believe beyond its unnatural borders. The DTS 5.1 audio is as perfect at recreating the original theatrical experience. Disney has gilded the lily with some nicely produced extras, including a short subject and featurettes that superficially cover the creation of this latest version from top to bottom. Bottom line: for those who loved it, Cinderella on Blu-ray is a treat. But I will stick to my Blu-ray of the 1950 animated classic and be very glad its legacy long endures – hopefully, much longer than the memory of this cheap cut-glass imitation.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
3
VIDEO/AUDIO
5+
EXTRAS
4 

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