Cinderella (2015): An Old-Fashioned Heroine in Modern Times

Cinderella_2015 Ball Gown
Lily James as Cinderella

It’s been sixty-five years since her introduction, and Cinderella prevails as the most renowned face of all the Disney princesses. Aurora might be more beautiful and Ariel more powerful, but Cinderella, adorned with her glass slippers and cute animal friends, is the princess many young girls secretly want to be.

Starting with last year’s Maleficent, Disney has been steadily releasing live action re-imaginings of their fairy tale classics. Despite lukewarm critical receptions, the film, which tells the story of Sleeping Beauty from the villain’s point of view, became a moderate hit, raking in a worldwide box office of $758,410,378 and popularizing Angelina Jolie’s extreme cheekbones as the film’s titular character. Following Frozen‘s colossal success in 2013, Maleficent‘s feminist narrative appeared to be the natural next step for Disney, and many thought that the studio would continue with the trend by releasing more progressive reboots of their many damsel-in-distress films. Hence, when it was announced that the new Cinderella adaptation will closely adhere to the storyline of its 1950’s predecessor, many became skeptical. By adopting such a dated narrative, how will the film satisfy the expectations of today’s audiences?

For those of you unfamiliar with the 1950s version, Cinderella follows the story of Cinderella (Lily James), a beautiful young girl living in a pleasant farmhouse with her loving mother (Hayley Atwell) and lordling father (Ben Chaplin). At first, all seems well in Cinderella’s life. She spends her days frolicking around the farmhouse with her parents while her servants coo at how great of a child she is. However, her happiness slowly crumbles with the passing of her mother, who unbeknownst to her, had been suffering from a mild cough. Cue the arrival of Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett), her new stepmother, and her two daughters (Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera), whose sole occupation is picking on Cinderella’s fashion sense, until her father also passes away on a trip and they’re able to torment her more openly. When a ball to find a bride for the Prince is held at the royal palace, Cinderella is banned from going by her stepmother. But not to worry! A mysterious woman appears, claiming to be Cinderella’s fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter). With a few flicks of her wand, Cinderella is given a makeover, along with a pair of sparkly glass slippers. Off to the ball she goes, winning the heart of Prince Charming (Richard Madden) in the process.

The first thing viewers will notice when they walk into Cinderella is its visual triumph. Every single scene bursts with crisp jewel tones, giving the film a truly magical look, while the set and costume designs elevate the universe into life. The visual effects are polished, blending seamlessly with the live-action, and almost none of the shots feel redundant. Considering the meager budget it had, when compared to the less stunning, but more expensive Maleficent, it’s beyond safe to say that Cinderella truly excels in the visual department. The film also boasts several strong performances, with Lily James giving a charming portrayal of Cinderella. Though she looks dissimilar to her animated counterpart, James embodies the character’s spirit perfectly and it’s difficult not to feel a glimmer of child-like wonder when watching her tattered dress transform into a vibrant blue number. Other actors, including Cate Blanchett and Richard Madden also deliver great performances, with Blanchett being a strong contender for “Best Evil laugh in a Disney Film.”

Nonso Anozie as The Captain
Jana Perez as Princess Chelina, Nonso Anozie as The Captain and Stellan Skarsgard as The Grand Duke

Visual achievement and strong performances aside, Cinderella remains a flawed film, with the casting of Nonso Anozie as the Captain being its most glaring pitfall. The character of the Captain was non-existent in the 1950s version, thus it can be presumed that the filmmakers had taken the liberty of adding a modern twist to the story by adding a character of a different race. But as wonderful as it is to see a person of color playing a pivotal role in a renowned whitewashed tale, the significance of Anozie’s casting raises quite a few questions. Was he cast because he simply was the best actor for the role? Or was he cast to satisfy the studio’s diversity quota? Is this the filmmakers’ way of appeasing contemporary audiences? Similar to the many characters of fellow actor of color, Djimon Honsou, Anozie’s character feels severely underdeveloped, as the Captain is two-dimensionally painted to be the stereotypical kind henchman whose only other defining trait is his physical majesty. It would’ve been wise to see the Captain expanded upon, perhaps with a mention about how he became Prince Charming’s most trusted friend, but taking into account Disney’s notorious racially-biased past, this is certainly a step in the right direction. Just imagine the look on Uncle Walt’s face if he could see Anozie in the film. That would’ve been priceless.

In terms of story, Cinderella is no Frozen or Maleficent, as it doesn’t lay any new groundwork for the studio’s feminist film repertoire. Nevertheless, to claim that the film doesn’t have an empowering message of its own would be unjust. Cinderella, like other older Disney princesses are often criticized for their over-reliance on men, but it might be worthwhile to look at her under a different light. She isn’t admirable because she ends up marrying Prince Charming. Not at all. Instead, she is a valuable role model for young girls because she manages to remain kind and courageous in the face of hopelessness. Although there’s no denying the intense dreamboat vibe Madden was exuding in the film, it’s Cinderella and her magical glass slippers the audience flocked to the cinema to see. At the end of the film, she could end up living as a spinster with Lucifer, if that’s what makes her happy. Her story is a story of survival and what the audience wants is for her to finally find the happiness she deserves.

With the live adaptations of Beauty and The Beast being scheduled for a 2017 release and Mulan being recently greenlit, it’ll be exciting to anticipate what Disney has to offer in the next few years. Will the audience tire of the reboot trend eventually? Possibly, but for now: bring them on!

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Arlinka is an aspiring screenwriter who spends her free time browsing for dusty books. She drinks green tea three times a day.

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  1. Spencer

    I initially thought the live-in remakes were a bit of a cash-in but you’ve made this sound very interesting – may give it a look now! 🙂

    • Arlinka Larissa

      It is somewhat of a cash-in, but I enjoyed it with a sense of nostalgia. A well-made movie nonetheless, so it won’t be a waste seeing it for its visual achievement.

  2. Great review! You give us a really great insight into the film’s style.
    It’s funny how Disney focuses a lot on remaking its classics into real-life films, as if playing with our nostalgia and renewing childhood films was safer than create new films with new concepts.

    • Exactly. Why remake these films without subverting the content? These live-action remakes are simply polishing the brand, rather than reimagining it.

  3. samcel

    Good article! this movie has been written about quite a bit recently in The Artifice, but yours has particularly well written and objective. Nice work!

  4. This film is like cotton candy- pretty, sweet, airy and not much substance.

  5. vivian keene

    I am a life-long lover of the fairytale Cinderella, can’t wait to watch it.

  6. Good move, safe for children (no multiple nasty surprises), good CG. Maybe finally there is a lessening of the perverse need to fill every story with ‘the dark side’, above unfortunate family dynamics.

  7. If movie makers are in the mood for “revisionism” or updates to classics, maybe they should really turn the stories on their heads.

    Turn Cinderella into a male POV fantasy….Cinderfella ?

    Poor, over worked, under paid and unappreciated guy is noticed and rescued by a beautiful rich sugar momma making all of his dreams come true, after meeting at the local bowling alley.

    Maybe instead of the shoe that fits the guys foot, the lost bowling ball that fits his fingers ?

    Guys need to be rescued too.

  8. Everything happens as expected. Which made this movie boring.

  9. Cate Blanchett can play any part thrown her way.

  10. Lily James is a bland, unimaginative choice for Cinderella. It seems that if you’ve appeared in Downton Abbey then you get a fast track to Hollywood….even if the acting in Downton is shockingly cack.

    They should have taken a punt on an exciting, young & unknown talent. So dull.

  11. Leblancer

    It was a very pleasant surprise… and quite ‘charming’.

  12. Is this a brilliant reproduction? No. Was it enjoyable? Yes.

  13. Deloris Mcnally

    Surely the best Cinderella movie adaptation was Ever After – starring Drew Barrymore and Anjelica Huston?

  14. Re-casting Cinderella as some kind of strong-willed feminist icon.

  15. There are plenty of strong female characters in fairy stories, but Cinderella was always a bit passive and stoical – and that’s why we feel empathy for her. The idea of turning every character into a confident ‘winner’ type is a symptom of our ‘winning’ society.

  16. Intrigued but was still was hoping for a more a more substantial, fleshed out re-imagining of Cinderella. I’ve always enjoyed novels/films that re-explore “classics” in the vein of “Ever After” (Drew Barrymore).

  17. Nicole Wethington

    When I first watched this film, I was pleasantly surprised in the feminist twist on the story. I was most impressed by one of the last scenes in which Cinderella was making the best of her situation; she was not waiting around for the Prince to come and change her life, she had decided to stay because she loved her home and the memories it held (as well as save the Prince from her step-mother’s corruption). Cinderella was determined to continue to be a shining beacon of light in the house and her village, whilst keeping the Prince free to justly rule over his kingdom.

  18. Never liked Cinderella, much she was a always a tad dull to me. You opened my mind, nice job.

  19. The biggest issue that I had with Cinderella was the negative message it was giving to young girls. I found that Cinderella was portrayed as a poor and abused girl who waiting for a prince to save her and sweep her off feet. This is completely not what we need to be teaching girls. These young girls begin to think that this is reality and one day a prince will come and give them that happily ever after instead of the chasing their own dreams.

  20. This definitely opened my eyes up to a new portrayal of Cinderella. Compared to the original fairy tale, the protagonist seemed to have a stronger sense of self. Throughout this version of the movie, the character development is very clear. I am very excited for Beauty and the Beast as I have watched the broadway performance, which was truly spectacular and revealed the beast’s side of the story. I am sure the movie will do the same.

  21. Stephanie M.

    Like other commenters, I am a lifelong lover of Cinderella. I saw the remake when it hit theaters, and I appreciated what it had to say about deciding who we are, having courage and being kind, and so on. I also appreciated the serious development upgrade for Prince Charming (thank goodness he got a name in this one)!

    However, I actually don’t like the live-action version of Cinderella as much as the animated one. A lot of people criticize the animated Cinderella for being anti-feminist, but I say the live-action one is guiltier of that. The animated Cinderella had limits; she got angry and frustrated, albeit in a subdued way. She had one huge breakdown after her dress was ruined. She *reacted* when locked in her room, screaming, yelling, and enlisting any help she could get.

    By contrast, the live-action Cinderella seems like, well, a bit of an airhead. Don’t get me wrong–she’s likeable. You can’t *not* like her. But much of the time, she seems too accepting of her situation. She doesn’t seem to make the connection that because she can leave the house, go to town, and talk to her (human) friends, she can also explore options to get out. As for her big dress-related breakdown, it’s a real letdown in the live-action film. In the animated film, it’s intense; I’ve heard people say it’s reminiscent of a rape. In the live-action version, basically the shoulder gets ripped. The dress is whole when Cinderella runs into the garden, yet she reacts as if it truly is ruined. Furthermore, because we saw her break down right after being relegated to servant status, the moment loses its edge.

    The animated Cinderella actually seems to have more realistic reactions. She’s also arguably more sympathetic because she’s presumably been a servant from childhood. That’s all she knows; she has no concept that her life could be different. I agree that in every Cinderella story, we’re meant to cheer for the heroine’s survival and happiness–who cares if she marries the prince or not? But some Cinderellas are easier to root for than others.

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