Movie Review: “Cinderella”


If Hollywood has run out of ideas to the point where it has to remake animated material in live-action form, it could hardly have picked a better piece than “Cinderella”. Lacking a supernatural or mythical super-scary monster, “Cinderella” instead features a gorgeous villain of epic sociopathic potential–one that seared “evil stepmother” onto the collective consciousness.

Borrowing heavily from the 1950 animated feature, 2015’s “Cinderella” puts a new spin on the old story of an orphan girl living in servitude who finds her path to true love and a golden ticket out of a dead-end situation. Here, the young Ella grows up in an idyllic household anchored by her sweet mother (Hayley Atwell) and kind father (Ben Chaplin).

Ella and her father

Ella (James) sees her father (Chaplin) off on his last business trip

As Ella grows into a beautiful woman (Lily James), her joyous life is interrupted by the sudden death of her mother, whose parting advice is for Ella to “have courage and be kind”. Her father eventually remarries–taking Lady Tremaine as his new wife (Cate Blanchett) and bringing along her beautiful-on-the-outside-but-ugly-on-the-inside daughters, Drisella (Sophie McShera) and Anastasia (Holliday Grainger). At first, the relationship between Ella and her step-family seems relatively innocuous; the glamorous Tremaine is generally warm in demeanor, and Ella’s materialistic step-sisters are nothing more than pretty bobbleheads. But times must change, and Ella’s father succumbs to an illness while traveling on business. Ella grieves heavily for the loss of her father, while Tremaine fears the loss of standing and income.

Lady Tremaine and her daughters arrive at the ball

Lady Tremaine (Blanchett, center), flanked by her daughters Anastasia (Grainger) and Drisella (McShera)

Concerned about the servants’ wages, Tremaine releases the staff and gently encourages Ella to assume the various roles they occupied. Ella takes most of these tasks in stride, even after suffering the humiliation of being unceremoniously relocated to the drafty abandoned tower attic and renamed “Cinder-Ella” for the ash-coated face she sports after a warming night on the kitchen floor in front of the fireplace. The catty Drisella and Anastasia cackle over their breakfast with their now-openly repellent mother, and–in her frustration–Ella dashes off on a horseback ride into the woods to clear her head.

She stumbles onto a stag hunt, where she meets a handsome man who calls himself “Kit” (Richard Madden). The two share playful banter: she insists he spare the life of the stag, and he dodges her questions about his place in the palace where he claims to live as “an apprentice”. After they part, “Kit” (the prince) returns to his father’s side (Derek Jacobi) and they plan for a grand ball at which the prince may select the bride of his choosing. The king and his grand duke (Stellan Skarsgård) plan for an all-princess affair, to seal the kingdom’s future, but the lovestruck prince agrees only on the condition that all maidens of the kingdom may attend.

The King and Prince at the ball

The King (Jacobi) and Prince (Madden) hold court at the royal ball

Ella hears of the grand ball and prepares on her own to go, even after being rebuffed by Tremaine–who wants one of her daughters to land the prince. When the lovely Ella appears in one of her mother’s dresses, ready for the ball, the Tremaine harpies rip it to shreds, leaving her a frustrated, teary mess. It’s at this point that her fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) performs a magical intervention, allowing Cinderella to head off to the ball in grand style, sporting a breathtaking dress and the famed glass slippers (well, okay, pumps). She spends a lovely evening with the prince of her dreams, before she dashes off into the night (minus one shoe) to escape his seeing the fairy godmother’s spell undone. The distraught prince sends out word that whoever fits the shoe will be his bride and…well, you know how this ends. (Or perhaps you don’t.)

Helena Bonham Carter as the Fairy Godmother

Bonham Carter’s Fairy Godmother prepares to work her magic on Cinderella

This movie has many things going for it, such as a fantastic cast and truly breathtaking costumes (surely worth at least an Oscar nomination, if not a win). Blanchett’s Tremaine is nearly continuously draped in green satin that fits so wonderfully it’s hard to tell if she’s wearing the satin or if it’s wearing her, and Ella’s pivotal scene dresses (both at the ball and at the end of the film) are utterly breathtaking pieces likely to inspire many a formal gown. Blanchett gleefully and evilly chews scenery, in a rare opportunity to play the baddie, while Nonso Anozie seems to equally enjoy his turn as the pure-hearted Captain. Chris Weitz’s screenplay gives Tremaine context and depth not seen in previous versions of the story while showing mercifully precious little action from the mice and cat, making this version of “Cinderella” a bit more adult-friendly.

Where things are less perfect are in things like James’ affected performance at the ball, with flourishes that likely were meant to suggest Cinderella was transformed and carried away by the magic of it all–but coming off more like an animated movie character in a live-action film who thinks she’s still in an animated movie. Madden does a decent enough job, but some of his lines are a bit too pouty or silly; he seems better suited for the grittier and less fanciful material (or perhaps he was just so good in “Game of Thrones” that it’s hard to see him a role with a comedic aspect). And as much as I love Bonham Carter, I’d like to have strong words with whoever fitted her for the oversized, overpolished teeth the Fairy Godmother sports; she talks around them no better than a vampire in a B-grade movie. This film runs 40 minutes longer than its predecessor–due partially to Ella’s backstory–and it could have been sped up at times. Still, the run time is short enough that most kids shouldn’t be squirming in their seats.

All in all, “Cinderella” is a movie that appeals well to all ages; its non-scary nature makes it a great fit for the younger set, and its strong cast is a good draw for those of us well into the double-digits of age. It’s easy enough to overlook its shortcomings, since they don’t detract enough to keep this from being anything other than what it’s meant to be: a (updated) reboot and instant classic.

“Cinderella” is preceded by “Frozen Fever”–an animated short that returns us to Arendelle just in time for Queen Elsa to give Princess Anna the best birthday ever. Unfortunately for Elsa, the “fever” referenced in the title isn’t a metaphor, and her plans are partially derailed by the wee snowmen that manifest each time she sneezes. The short is cute, and it is a precursor to the just-announced “Frozen 2” that’s entering development, although I don’t see this as the Oscar-winning material of prior shorts, like “Feast” (which preceded “Big Hero 6”). Fans of “Frozen” will surely enjoy it, thought, and truly that’s what it’s all about.

3 out of 4 stars

“Cinderella” opens nationwide on March 13, 2015. This movie is rated PG for mild thematic elements

Has Disney turned a feminist corner?



And so it was that last night, I saw “Maleficent”. In this twist on a classic tale once done up by Disney in animated form, Maleficent is the center of attention. Most tellings of the story of The Sleeping Beauty share the same general elements: a baby girl is born to King Stefan and his Queen; a big party is held to celebrate the baby’s arrival; fairies from across the land are invited to the party and all but ONE bestow gifts of beauty, kindness, etc.; before the final fairy can bestow her gift, she’s rudely interrupted by an evil fairy – Maleficent – who’s terribly offended by the lack of invitation and decides to curse the child to die on her 16th birthday when she pricks her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel; the final fairy “softens” the curse by instead having her go to sleep until true love’s kiss awakens her; natch, this ALL comes to pass no matter what King Stefan does to prevent it; Prince Philip, who fell in love with the princess when she was incognito turns out to be said true love; AND – key plot point – he slays Maleficent and frees the princess from her sleep by giving her true love’s kiss.

It all sounds so…Disney, right?



Maleficent revealed in adulthood (played by Angelina Jolie)


So, then we have “Maleficent”, where we start out with a backstory of Maleficent as a kind, brave fairy in the Moors, a magical land bordering a wretched kingdom led by a cruel, greedy King. Maleficent saves the life of a young thief, Stefan, whom she befriends and soon falls in love with. In one example of how much he cares, when she tells him that iron burns fairies, the dirt-poor Stefan tosses away an iron ring, probably his sole possession of any value, before it can hurt her again. Over time, their friendship does turn to romance – sealed with a true love’s kiss they share when they’re both teens. As time passes, Maleficent becomes the protector of her magical home, and she turns away the King’s army before it can pillage and plunder. Stefan, now a royal retainer, takes up the King on his offer to become his successor by slaying Maleficent. He goes to the Moors and they spend a magical evening together that ends with – sorry, no polite way to say it – Stefan rufeeing her and stealing her wings instead of her life. Maleficent awakes to find herself violated, horribly in pain and maimed both by the betrayal of her love and the vicious amputation he’d performed. She manages to recover physically, over time, but her emotional scars run deep, as one might expect. Her only trusted ally is the crow, Diaval, she transforms into a man (or other creature), and he becomes both her familiar and her lieutenant.


Diaval and Maleficent

Diaval (Sam Riley) and Maleficent (Jolie)


When (now) King Stefan and his Queen have a grand party to celebrate the birth of their daughter, Aurora, three simpering, Keystone Kop-like fairies come to bestow their gifts – and the third is interrupted by the arrival of BOSS Maleficent, resplendent in her black “crown” (a pleather skull-and-horns cap) and full of cruel revenge. At this point, she offers her “gift”: the curse of a death sleep that can only be awakened by true love’s kiss. Maleficent curses her in this fashion because her jaded soul now believes there is no such thing as “true love”. King Stefan, completely freaked out by the ex-girlfriend-from-Hell (and totally in denial that HE MAIMED AND BETRAYED HER), becomes obsessed with saving Princess Aurora from her fate. He sends her to live with the trio of witless fairies (a terrific waste of some great actresses), puts all of the kingdom’s spinning wheels in sequestration in the castle dungeons, and violates every iron worker union rule by having them work around the clock to manufacture iron implements of destruction.

Maleficent and Diaval oversee the three fairies’ raising of the child, becoming surrogate parents to Aurora and generally making sure she survives. Over time, the “beastie” (as Maleficent calls her) turns into a lovely – if completely vacuous – young girl, and Maleficent realizes that the ice in her heart from Stefan’s violation has thawed thanks to his daughter. She attempts to undo the curse, but she’s unable to stop it. When she sees that there’s no way to keep Aurora from her fate, she even rushes heroically to her rescue, dragging along a sleeping Prince Philip to serve up true love’s kiss. Philip’s kiss fails to revive anything (except maybe One Direction fans in the audience), but a teary kiss from a regretful Maleficent brings Aurora back to consciousness. Maleficent and Diaval fight their way out of the castle, so Aurora may escape to freedom in the Moors with them, and redemption comes at a heavy price. Aurora finds Maleficent’s wings, which – once freed from imprisonment in a display – rejoin their owner and make Maleficent’s physique finally match the wholeness of her heart. King Stefan, driven mad by obsession, dies in a final battle with Maleficent. Once Stefan dies, the tale can finally have its happy ending: Maleficent can return to her homeland to be a kind protector, Aurora is crowned the good Princess, and Prince Philip makes a sheepish appearance so there can be puppy love stares.

The new storyline puts Maleficent firmly at the center and finally gives us some justification for how she got to be thought of as the evil fairy. You can clearly see that the reason she’s so angry and badass is because she was mutilated by her human boyfriend, who thought he was doing the right thing by sparing her life. Of course, his ruse still involved maiming her, so perhaps he just didn’t understand that his lust for power was evil? This calls to mind the new-fangled origin story of the Wicked Witch – Theodora from “Oz the Great and Powerful” – who, while scheming, was certainly “turned evil” by Oz’s rejection. And Queen Elsa from “Frozen” wasn’t an evil queen, but she is terribly misunderstood; others expect her to control a power she’s never been taught to use or manage, and she is horrified to be treated like a monster after she’s already endured years of solitary confinement.



Queen Elsa (Idina Menzel) in self-imposed exile at her ice palace


In “Maleficent”, as in “Frozen”, the love that saves the younger female is one between family. Princess Aurora mistakenly believes Maleficent to be her fairy godmother, and their bond is far stronger than that between her and her “aunties” (the fairies), although the mistake may be more Maleficent’s. As she protects, guides, and ultimately interacts with Aurora, Maleficent unwittingly becomes fairy godmother to the child, and the completely-off-the-rails King Stefan provides the perfect counterpoint to show just how she’s the righteous one in this fight. Similarly, Princess Anna of “Frozen” can only be saved by “an act of true love”, and while much time and teeth gnashing is spent identifying exactly which boy will save the girl, it’s actually her sister – the familial bond – that thaws her and brings her back from icy statuehood. Boys on the side, indeed.

Not to say that I think this is a plot device that should be used all the time, since eventually it may get played out, but I’m happy to see Disney doing something other than the same old tactic they used for so long: a girl who’s in trouble just needs saving by a man. Now, it seems, someone believes that sisters are doing it for themselves. Beyond giving Maleficent the humanity that (oddly) is missing from the humans in her story, she’s given motivation and earns sympathy. She’s not just some evil creature, she’s a flesh-and-horns person deserving of respect and dignity. Princess Anna, for all her gullibility in believing that Prince Hans was THE ONE, acts solely out of sisterly love – risking her life and that of her companions to save Princess Elsa from herself. As much as Elsa saves Anna, Anna saves Elsa right on back: teaching her the key to controlling her power and giving her hope that they can both be happy.

I like where Disney’s headed lately, giving young girls – and boys – a new paradigm to consider. Instead of girls’ eyes fluttering open from a death sleep at the slightest peck from some wandering prince, girls (and women) are being given motivation and depth, and they’re saving each other instead of waiting for a guy to come along and do it for them. Little girls who dress up as Maleficent will think of her as a villain, and a hero, and they’re right on both counts. She finally has depth of character. By putting these characters on film and giving them wide release, Disney seems to be attempting to undo (or at least soften) the curse of the myth that all girls need a prince to save them. And like Maleficent, while the horse is firmly out of that barn and the curse can’t be revoked, it’s nice to see some stories riding to the rescue that help “flip the script” and give girls a chance to realize that they can have depth of character, strength, courage, and love – with or without that prince.

Movie Review: “Frozen 3D”



It’s been a long time since I can say I saw a movie that was a home run, and I’m incredibly glad the drought is finally over. “Frozen”, the latest product of Walt Disney Animation, is a delightful musical loosely inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s story, “The Snow Queen”. The movie opens with ice choppers singing as they hack away at a frozen fjord, while a young boy (Kristoff) does his best to handle pint-sized tongs and his pet reindeer, Sven. In the nearby castle, two young princesses – elder sister Elsa and younger sister Anna – awake in the middle of the night for some mischief. Elsa has the power to create ice and snow at a touch, and the two young girls frolic in the interior winter wonderland. But as the play gets slightly out of hand, Anna is accidentally sideswiped in the head by a touch of ice from Elsa, and their parents (the King and Queen of Arendelle) take Anna to rock trolls to extract the ice before it freezes her forever.

The head troll, Pabbie (voiced by the stoic Ciarán Hinds of “Rome” and “Game of Thrones”), does as they bid, but he warns the King and Queen that he had to remove all of Anna’s memories of magic, and he further cautions them to hide away all evidence of magic. The King counsels Elsa privately: “Conceal it. Don’t feel it. Don’t let it show.” From that point forth, the family is effectively in isolation; they close the window coverings and the castle gates, and the girls are separated for reasons Anna will only learn far later. As the girls grow, Elsa becomes increasingly cold and sad, and Anna becomes eccentric, missing the company of her beloved sibling. Tragedy strikes yet again a few years later, as the King and Queen are lost at sea in a storm, and the girls have to wait in their confinements for enough time to pass before Elsa is due for her coronation as the queen.

The young queen-to-be (voiced by Idina Menzel, a Tony Award winner for “Wicked”) fears accidentally putting her power on display, since her forced isolation and her father’s instructions to hide her gift left her with no practice on how to properly control her chilly creations. Meanwhile, the boisterous Anna (Kristen Bell – of “Burlesque” and the forthcoming “Veronica Mars” movie) explores the town in eager anticipation of the coronation festivities and all the excitement they’ll bring. In her enthusiasm, Anna bumps into Prince Hans (Santino Fontana of “The Importance of Being Earnest”), in a meet-cute involving a horse, a rowboat, and the end of a dock on the fjord. He later sweeps her off her feet during the evening’s amusements, but his whirlwind marriage proposal to Anna is quickly dismissed by the new queen. When Anna challenges Elsa over her decision, emotions flare out of control and Elsa’s powers are revealed to a wide audience, splaying ice spikes and frozen coverings in every direction. Elsa flees, and a distraught Anna heads out after her – leaving Hans in charge.

Hans and Anna

Hans and Anna

As Elsa arrives in the cold mountains, she finally takes the reins off her powers and creates a beautiful castle of ice atop North Mountain, the tallest of the peaks. She casts off every bit of evidence of her prior life, and settles into a blissful exile in her cold fortress. Anna finds herself unable to negotiate the snowy environs on her own, so she enlists the help of Kristoff (Jonathan Groff from “Glee”) and Sven. On their way to Elsa’s new seat of power, Anna and Kristoff bump into an old friend of Anna’s and Elsa’s: Olaf the snowman (voiced by Josh Gad of “1600 Penn” and “Ice Age: Continental Drift”). He is based on the same design Elsa had made for Anna on that fateful night when they were children, and the icy queen’s awakened powers have somehow brought him to life. He tags along, a physical comedian of the highest order. Being blissfully unaware of the limitations of a snowman, he sings a giddy tune about how much he’d love to see summertime that leaves the audience giggling over his naïveté.


Olaf dreams of summer

The quartet manages to reach Elsa’s castle, but she’s in no mood to return to Arendelle with Anna, even upon hearing that she has frozen the town in the middle of the summer. She simply doesn’t have the ability or understanding of how to control her powers. The sisters quarrel again, this time with Elsa accidentally throwing a spike of her ice into Anna’s heart. The effect is insidious: Anna is mortally wounded but doesn’t yet realize it. Only after the foursome have escaped the castle do they realize something is horribly wrong, and Kristoff takes the princess to his friends – the same band of rock trolls – to be healed. Only an act of the truest love will save her and warm her heart again, and Kristoff rushes Anna back to Arendelle in the hope that she will find there what she needs to heal the wound to her heart.

Kristoff and Sven rush to Arendelle

Kristoff and Sven rush to Arendelle

The climax of “Frozen” seals it an excellent addition to the growing catalogue of Disney movies featuring women who come by their strength on their own, rather than only through the love of a man. The songs are crisp and effective, and small details in them show the excessive (and occasionally modern) humor threaded throughout this movie. Additionally, Walt Disney Animation Studios’ technology and artistry are clearly improving by leaps and bounds; Sven’s fur and the texture on the snowflakes exemplify the lessening distance between Disney’s internal animation studio and Disney-owned Pixar.

“Frozen” is either a movie for kids that grown ups would enjoy or it’s a movie for grown ups that kids would enjoy. Either way, it’s really a fantastic effort from Team Disney. The songs, written by the husband-and-wife team of Robert Lopez (“The Book of Mormon”) and Kristen Anderson-Lopez (“Winnie the Pooh”), are sure to have the kids clamoring for the motion picture soundtrack in no time.

Anna and Elsa, in Elsa's icy fortress

Anna and Elsa, in Elsa’s icy fortress

I would be remiss if I didn’t talk a bit about the 3D used in the movie. In some films, when I see the 3D version, I end up shrugging about how it’s okay but it didn’t really need the 3D or it didn’t lose much if you watched it in 2D. This is a movie that really begs to be seen in 3D, and it’s the first case in a long time – perhaps since I saw “Avatar” – when 3D  was used properly. Sure, there are a couple of early cases where the 3D leaps off the screen in almost gratuitous fashion, but that’s some of the joy in playing with this technology. Why should all the depth only be leading away from you? If it’s possible to see this one in 3D, I strongly recommend doing so.

There are a couple of scary scenes – but they’re really brief and things move on immediately.  For a movie that runs 1hr 48mins long, you’d think it would drag for the kiddos, but the constant nature of the action and the storyline keeps things moving apace from start to finish. The opening credits are a thing of beauty unto themselves, so moviegoers should be in their seats on-time, and they should stay put through the end credits – to catch a small extra scene at the very end of the credit roll.

“Frozen” is also preceded by a lovely short film, “Get a Horse”, a marvel of 3D animation that should win an Oscar on technical merit alone. The short showcases Mickey and Minnie Mouse in both 2D and 3D, literally giving a chase scene all new dimensions. I’m sure Walt Disney would be weeping tears of joy if he saw it, since both pieces together really show just how far his team’s animation has come.

4 stars out of 4

“Frozen 3D” opens nationwide on November 27, 2013. This movie is rated PG for some action and mild rude humor.