Monday, March 16, 2015

Live-action Cinderella: Don't forget the tissues

My biggest problem with the live-action Cinderella wasn't the ridiculous waistline or the being saved from one's circumstances by a man...

Warning: Spoilers ahead

Come for the Oscar-bait-costume-design and aspirational rags-to-riches story, stay for the not one, not two, but three intense scenes of children reacting to their parents dying.  Ahem.

When I decided to take Sidney last Sunday to see her first movie in a theater and chose the live action Cinderella, I thought I had a good idea of what we were in for. Having heard that Kenneth Branagh's version would be pretty true to the animated version, I felt reassured. But not so fast.

Be warned that Branagh's wheelhouse is chalk-full of Shakespeare and, just maybe or on purpose, some of that irresistible embrace of tragedy seeped into his film. We all know that Cinderella's father remarried and then subsequently died, leaving Cinderella to fend for herself amongst her stepfamily.  But in this movie we also get to see the "golden childhood" where both of her parents were happy, and alive, thus setting up an even more epic fall into grief, emotional abuse and a life of servitude. Watching young Cinderella bravely experience an extended deathbed scene with her mom, followed by a death-in-absentia of her father, is utterly heart-wrenching. However, I'll concede: that's part of the story that we already know.

But as an added 'bonus,' we get to see the death of the beloved King which installs our new prince charming as the head of state before finding and marrying Cinderella.  Another heart-wrenching deathbed scene with a parent and child. A death fatigue overtook me, as it weighed heavily on the story. By this third death, I started to doubt my parental instincts on how good of an idea this was, noting that my Kindergartener was sniffling right along with me. Poor girl. Even the plucky Helena Bonham Carter as the Ditzy Fairy Godmother couldn't totally right the ship and dry the tears fast enough. I know how Disney loves nothing better than to jeopardize healthy parent-child relationships because it removes steady authority figures and leaves our titular characters to make decisions for themselves. So they either separate, endanger or just kill parents.  Just take a second and think of pretty much any Disney film, then find that element.  So while I'd love to pin all the blame Branagh, it's not totally unexpected I suppose.

What is fascinating and deliciously interesting about this version is Cate Blanchett's Lady Tremaine aka the Evil Stepmother. When she finally reveals her motivations, we suddenly have a very real and chilling understanding of why she's been so cruel to Cinderella. It's a very human moment and she plays it fabulously. For a moment, I felt some compassion for her character which makes for juicy tragedy. I also felt this way for Angelina Jolie's Maleficent, though outside of her performance the plot and other actors aren't as up to the task. Regardless, it's fascinating to discover why people turn from light to dark.  What fuels their bitterness? (As long as we're getting to the bottom of motivations, I'd also love to know what happened to the Little Mermaid's Ursela to make her so vengeful. My money is on King Triton and some other fish in the sea, if you know what I mean. But we'll have to see about that one.)

Since Disney now seems bent on bringing all it's animated movies into live action, we may see more backstory, motivation and depth to some well known characters of our childhoods. Though we should also expect equal amperage to some of the more dark aspects as well.  Lesson learned.

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