‘Cinderella’ 2015 benefits from great costuming and CGI

Do little girls anxiously wait for a Cinderella watch still? Or has that Southern California tradition long been replaced? With the original Disneyland just a freeway ride away in Anaheim, Cinderella never really leaves SoCal. This month Cinderella is making a grand entrance into Los Angeles, but you’ll have to decide if you want to see all versions.

On TV, she’s returned briefly in November on seventh episode the Disney-owned ABC show “Once Upon a Time” and then we saw her on the Christmas Day-released Walt Disney Pictures version of “Into the Woods” played by Anna Kendrick.

Beginning this Friday, Pasadena will be able to see Disney’s live-action version, “Cinderella” and later this month, the Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II musical, originally written for television, will be on stage at the Ahmanson.

The live-action version of “Cinderella” uses some elements from Disney’s 1950 animated musical movie. The dress is still full and blue and Cinderella talks to birds and mice, including one particularly plump mouse named Gus, but this movie, directed by Kenneth Branagh,  is one hour and 52 minutes. During a showing at the El Capitan in Hollywood, younger members of the audience got restless. They don’t really care about economics and socio-political background and there wasn’t enough music to keep them tuned in. The original animated feature was one hour and 15 minutes.

“Cinderella” in 2015 is set in an indeterminate era and country and begins with a young Ella (Eloise Webb) living an idyllic life with her mother (Hayley Atwell) and father (Ben Chaplin). Her father is a merchant who often travels, bringing back wonderful gifts for his only child. Her mother suddenly becomes ill and on her death bed makes Ella promise that she will “Have courage and be kind.”

Troubled that his daughter is left alone at home while he travels, her father marries the widow of an old friend, Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett), who has two daughters, Anastasia (Holliday Grainger from Showtime “The Borgias” and Mike Newell’s “Great Expectations”) and Drizella (Sophie McShera on holiday from her “Downton Abbey” downstairs duties as kitchen maid Daisy Mason). Cinderella is now played by the lovely Lily James, who, “Downton Abbey” fans will remember, just got married as the gracious and cheerfully resourceful Lady Rose.

Although Lady Tremaine is faux friendly at first, while her husband is on one particular trip, she tricks Ella into giving up her room and moving up into the dusty, spacious and cold attic. When her husband doesn’t return and is declared dead, Lady Tremaine considers the financial ruin they will face. Aline Brosh McKenna and Christ Wait’s script gives a motivation for her cruelty—economic desperation. The servants are released and Ella is left doing all the work. The stepsisters still dress well enough, usually in matching costumes but in different loud colors—one in oranges or hot pink and the other in yellow. Cinderella only wears one powder blue cotton dress. One day, after a long day of word, she falls asleep near the kitchen fireplace and when her stepsisters see the ashes smudged on her face, she soon gets her new name, Cinderella.

Yet bad days can be blessings, too. Running away from her stepfamily’s cruelty, she rides into the forest and meets first a stag being pursued by the royal hunt and then one of the hunters. Not realizing the man is really the prince (Richard Madden), she scolds him for scaring the stag and makes him promise not to kill the frightened beast. He is smitten and, in hopes of seeing her again, asks that his ailing father (Derek Jacobi) open the grand ball where the prince will officially choose his wife to all the young unmarried women in their small kingdom. The prince is made to understand how their kingdom needs to have good political alliances and a good marriage will seal the deal.

Of course, Cinderella will meet her fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter), and she will make it to the ball and charm both the prince and his father. CGI effects provide delightful moments as mice transform into horses, a goose into the coachman, two lizards into footmen and the pumpkin into an elegant gold carriage. After the ball, as Cinderella races back home, CGI also makes for one of the funniest, suspenseful sequences before the story slows down again. If it’s all about the shoe for you, the glass slippers look like exquisite Swarovski crystals and we are told are amazingly comfortable.

Cinderella isn’t exactly a model of the modern woman, yet the story captures our imagination. Two evolutionary psychologists proposed the Cinderella effect theory to describe her dysfunctional family and feminists named a dependency complex after her. This film attempts to give context and expand the courtship of the prince and Cinderella to avoid the love at first sight fancy. “Cinderella” 2015 also consistently embraces non-violence so unlike the pop version musical version, “Sisterella,” which premiered at the Pasadena Playhouse,  Cinderella remains brave and kind throughout.

“Cinderella” 2015 has already picked up criticism online and off, here and abroad for the width of this Cinderella’s waist but the filmmakers and the star have assured the public that the wispy waist is real and the movie makes it clear that the women are wearing corsets.

For some, the “Have courage and be kind” moral lesson of this movie might be boring particularly since James’ Cinderella is less spirited than her Lady Rose. Madden (“Game of Thrones”) as her prince is suitably nice and attentive. Yet both clearly show their determination and patience in difficult situations.

In contrast, Branagh allows McShera and Grainger to be graceless, grasping cartoonish harpies. All the smolder and fire in this movie comes from Blanchett’s evil stepmother.  Under Sandy Powell’s costume design, while the two daughters are twins of painfully bright colorful crassness, Blanchett’s Lady Tremaine glimmers in poisonous green like a glamorous 1940s Nazi femme fatale. That should give her a boost in the Disney villains popularity polls and the Disney company merchandising empire is hoping that her doll will be a hit with rebellious daughters who prefer fashion nazis to kind characters.

Powell’s costuming, the pumpkin stagecoach, the CGI and the vaguely French estate and spacious and opulent Prince’s castle (production design by Dante Ferretti) all are worth seeing although the movie itself suffers from uneven pacing.

If you enjoy music and your little princess has Cinderella fever, you might enjoy the stage production at the Ahmanson better.

The stage musical was the only Rodgers and Hammerstein musical written specifically for television and was first broadcast with Julie Andrews as the titular character in 1957 (CBS) and again in 1965 with Lesley Ann Warren and again in 1997 with Brandy Norwood.

“Cinderella” opened a week early for special screenings at the El Capitan. Audience members are treated to a display of the original blue ballroom dress and “glass” slipper that Lily James wears in the movie. That display on the main floor, just after the concessions. Get there early so you can take photos or selfies. Downstairs, there a display of various knick knacks and design drawings as well as additional dresses including those of the two stepsisters and Lady Tremaine for the ball and Cinderella’s wedding gown. No sign of the pumpkin carriage however.

The animated short “Frozen Fever” re-introduces the audience to Elsa and Anna and looks at Elsa’s extravagant plans for Anna’s birthday and precedes the “Cinderella” 2015 screening.

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