On paper, Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella sounds like Disney’s laziest live-action fairy tale adaptation yet. Unlike Maleficent or Oz the Great and Powerful, it doesn’t claim to reveal some untold story; it doesn’t even offer a new ending, like Alice in Wonderland did. It’s simply a new telling of the same old story.

But that, it turns out, is exactly why it succeeds. By reminding us why we love this story so much in the first place, Disney manages to make the old feel fresh again. 

Cinderella (4)

Going Back to Basics

Rather than try and upend our expectations, Cinderella doubles down on the story’s most potent elements: its good-hearted heroine and its wish-fulfillment romance. Where Branagh and screenwriter Chris Weitz embellish on the classic fable, they do so to strengthen that foundation.

So Cinderella (Lily James) gets a bit of backstory that establishes her goodness as a choice, rather than as an innate and immutable trait. In this telling, she embraces her dying mother’s advice to “have courage and be kind” as a sort of personal motto, and clings to her childhood home for sentimental reasons.

Cinderella’s prince, here named Kit (Richard Madden), is also further fleshed out. Instead of the handsome cipher of Disney’s 1951 Cinderella, he’s an earnest young man who lives by the same motto Cinderella does. Their shared values make Cinderella and Kit a natural fit, which in turn makes their whirlwind courtship feel more fulfilling.

Cinderella Meeting

Sincerity Can Be Charming

In addition to playing up the story’s essential appeal, Cinderella embraces its status as a fairy tale, in the classic, midcentury-Disney-movie sense. There are no attempts to make Cinderella “grittier” or “more realistic,” the humor is more goofy than snarky, and there’s not a trace of cynicism or condescension to be found.

Once upon a time, such sincerity might not have been noteworthy, but in a movie landscape riddled with tortured superheroes and grimy fantasies, it feels downright revelatory. Interestingly, it doesn’t turn Cinderella into a kids-only affair, but a true all-ages one. Without the usual embarrassed acknowledgements that this is kid stuff, I was able to enjoy Cinderella the way I might have as a kid — with awe and wonder.

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