Cinderella is Pure Joy
Christian Movie Review

Writer Kevin Ott At Rocking Gods House“Do they treat you well?” asks Cinderella, not knowing that the man before her is the Prince.

“Better than I deserve, most likely. And you?” says the Prince.

A frown passes over Cinderella’s face like a dark cloud as she thinks of her cruel step-mother and two step-sisters. “They treat me…as well as they are able…It’s not so very bad. Others have it worse, I’m sure…You must, simply have courage and be kind.”

Later in the film, the narrator says that Cinderella’s cruel step-family “transformed her merely into a creature of toil and ash”; and yet, as the narrator observes, Cinderella has, “not for the first time, felt pity for these schemers, who could be every bit as ugly within as fair without.”

Cinderella 2015 Christian Movie Review At Rocking Gods HouseIf these lines taken from Disney’s highly anticipated new live-action version of “Cinderella” — perhaps the most famous fairy tale in Western culture — sound elegant, even literary, and full of irresistible, childlike earnestness, then you’ve gotten a clear glimpse of everything this movie is: full-hearted with love, articulate and exquisite in its language, chiseled as precisely as a diamond (or a glass slipper) — thanks to the Shakespeare-influenced thespian/director, Kenneth Branagh — and defiantly unashamed of its old-fashioned spirit.

It’s a simple fairy tale without the tired insistence of modernity.

I will explain all of this and more in greater detail — and offer a theory about why this film is so timely and why it’s such strong medicine for the Age of Self that defines our world — but first…

Parental Guidance Issues at a Glance

Sexual Content/Nudity/Themes of Sexuality/Romance: Cinderella and the prince kiss. Some of the dresses are just slightly low cut, but a little more modest than many costumes from period pieces that go for the Eighteenth Century “massive cleavage” look.

Violence/Gore: No gore or any real violence of any kind, just intense moments: Cinderella’s step-mother and step-sisters angrily rip Cinderella’s dress to shreds; Cinderella’s biological mother falls to the ground in a very weakened state. She sits in a sick bed and bids farewell to her family; when Cinderella’s carriage turns into a pumpkin, they “crash land” in a forest (though no one is hurt).

Language: None.

Alcohol/Drug/Smoking Content: None.

Frightening/Intense Content: The film deals with heavy themes of grief as we witness Cinderella losing, and then grieving, over both of her parents; and it is a written and presented in a very plausible, realistic, emotionally powerful way that adds an unexpected gravity to the film.

(Review continues below)

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Entertainment Value and Film Craft

This new version of Cinderella (which is not a musical) presents a fascinating mix of three different versions of the fairy tale: the 1697 version by Charles Perrault — which is the primary influence for this film — called “Cendrillon,” some subtle elements (perhaps) from the Brothers Grimm version called “Aschenputtel,” and the Disney animated film from 1950 — especially its little trademarks, like the Fairy-Godmother’s use of “bippity boppity boo” and the faint use of the original mice voices from the 1950 animated version that the filmmakers quietly (and ingeniously) mixed into the live-action cheeps of the real mice in this new version. (Or, if it wasn’t the original source recordings that they used, they created the mice sounds to closely resemble the animated version — a wonderful touch.)

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And, speaking of the mice (which includes Gus-Gus!), though not as central to the story as the animated version, still delighted my three-year-old daughter. As one memorable line in the film says: “Cinderella had very little in the way of friends; well, she had very little friends.”

So, yes, this new film retains all the cute little Disney creatures who have their own personalities and interactions with Ella — though without all the singing or clear talking.

(And trust me, if you’ve watched the 1950 “Cinderella” three times a day for the past month like I have — thanks to my three-year-old daughter — you will hear their use of the original 1950 mice recordings in this new movie too if you listen closely.)

The result of combining these older versions of Cinderella, filled with rich literary depth, is spell-binding: you get a sense that this kingdom really existed somewhere in Europe. You grow up with Cinderella and experience her family history richly as if they had been family friends. You feel connected to them — thanks, in part, to such strong performances from the actors.

Most surprisingly, you also learn of the step-mother’s history — at least, enough of it to truly feel the full range of the step-mother’s humanity. She’s not just a 2-D, two-bit Disney cartoon-villain-turned-live-action. The step-mother is a real person. She has believable wounds. You are entirely convinced as you get a long look into her soul, and you see how those wounds were never cleaned or sewed up properly; the wounds festered with anger, which gave way to bitterness and envy, which gave way to unabashed evil. You see the long descent into ruin in the step-mother’s eyes (eyes that also borrow great power from the razor-sharp gaze of Cate Blanchett).

Why Kenneth Branagh is the Man

If I were the king of Hollywood, I would require that Kenneth Branagh direct all movies. I am utterly biased, however, because I enjoy Shakespeare.

(Now, I realize that Cinderella is not a Shakespeare story, but hear me out.)

Branagh is the Shakespeare expert when it comes to film. He’s adapted, directed, and starred in more Shakespeare-to-screen adaptations than anyone in film history — I’m willing to wager.

The truth is this: when a director — or an actor, for that matter — really knows Shakespeare as well as he or she knows their own soul — it utterly transforms their film craft. Everything they do changes. Shakespeare not only elevates your grasp of story, dialogue, and dramatic flourish and depth, but it gives you a powerful vision of human nature — and, most importantly, the real nuances of human nature that make the audience instantly laugh, cry, and believe, “Yes, these characters are real. I feel their emotions. Their thoughts take shape with the same tangible, plausible spirit of human life that I have in my mind — even if my words are less, well, articulate.”

And there’s the Shakespearean humor too — that refreshing turn of wit so dearly missed in Western civilization. “Cinderella” is filled with it.

So when someone with that ace up their sleeve comes to a film like Disney’s new “Cinderella,” it turns the film into a delight that you can’t get enough of; literally, I didn’t want the movie to end.

The Perfect Cast; The Perfect Castle

And if anyone has any doubt that Cate Blanchett is one of the best actors of modern times, watch her add more miserable but oh-so-relatable humanity — that acidic wickedness filled with pain that pools behind Blanchett’s gleaming eyes — to her character than Cinderella’s step-mother ever had in any version of this story.

I loved the entire cast. Lily James oozed with agape love — that unconditional, impossible-to-kill love — and, amazingly, she made it plausible. It wasn’t plastic or campy. It felt like a real person — granted, the most selfless person you’ve ever met: one of those human beings who makes you feel guilty by just being around them. Or, perhaps less cynically, the kind of person who makes you better by just being around them. Likewise, the Prince (Richard Madden), exuded down-to-earth warmth that gave him the right amount of charm and the right amount of humility until he was impossible to dislike.

I could go on about everyone else, but I’ll just say this: every role was perfectly chosen — no miscues in the casting department.

And the exterior shots of the castle and the kingdom take your breath away. It reminded me of the gleaming, jaw-dropping visuals of Asgard from “Thor” (which Branagh also directed.) The exterior shots really make me wish Cinderella’s castle had an opening in its kitchen for a dishwasher just so I could be in that castle every day. Wow.

Cinderella: A Strong Woman, Not a Weak One — But Not a Modern Woman Either

Cinderella has just experienced terrible heartbreak: her step-mother has cruelly shredded to pieces the dress that belonged to Cinderella’s late mother.

So Cinderella runs to the garden to weep, but she finds an old woman instead — played by the always awesome Helena Bonham Carter — who asks Cinderella for something to drink. Instantly, Cinderella abandons her pain, forgets her problems, and rushes to help the old woman by bringing her a bowl of milk.


The old woman marvels at Cinderella’s heart. Cinderella, a little confused, says, “It is just a bowl of milk. It is nothing.”

“Yes, just a bowl of milk. It’s nothing,” says the mysterious old woman. “But with kindness, a bowl of milk means everything.”

No, Cinderella does not take up a sword and save the Prince — in a dramatic, shocking reversal of the fairy tale paradigm for the sake of “girl power.”

No, she doesn’t embody our culture’s idea of strength, in which a celebrated pop icon reality star must always offer snarky come-backs to her enemies — often with the fire of a conqueror who cusses like a sailor when she’s angry, throws common manners out the door in the name of liberation, and spews verbal venom upon anyone who crosses her.

Nor does Cinderella even gossip about the step-sisters behind their backs.

The humble but relentless Ella — nicknamed Cinder-Ella by her step-sisters — redefines what inner strength means; at least, she unravels our modern world’s idea of it, checks our modern egotism at the door, and — with the help of one of the best Disney scripts every put to film — reminds us that the generations before us (yes, the very old ones too) had much wisdom, perhaps more than we do in many cases.

What does this film teach us then? It says that love — unconditional love, filled with the courage to love our enemies even if it doesn’t feel good at the moment (a concept almost entirely lost in our world at times) — is not weakness.

No, in fact, the film lifts up two world systems into the light and contrasts them — one rooted in envious, self-serving ambition and the other rooted in self-sacrifice, lavish forgiveness, and no-strings-attached kindness. And when we see the two paths side-by-side, we see clearly which one has true strength and which one is as weak as a dead tree that is rotting from the inside.

And the film convinces us about these two paths — so much so that we find ourselves seeing all of the other characters through Cinderella’s eyes. Instead of gloating in Ella’s triumph over the step-family when they fall, we feel sincere pity for them.

We yearn to extend forgiveness.

I walked out of the theater with an unexpected realization: Cinderella — yes, the same Cinderella that my three-year-old daughter adores — had just become a deeply moving, inspiring role model in my life.

I want to be just as courageous and kind — and irrepressibly joyful, if I dare — as she was in this film.

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