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by Kathi Maio

OUT OF THE ASHES


CHILD psychologist (and fairy tale scholar) Bruno Bettelheim called Cinderella the "best-known fairy tale, and probably also the best-liked." With thousands of iterations within the folklore and popular culture of every continent, the story's popularity also seems to have only grown in the almost forty years since Bettelheim published The Uses of Enchantment. Indeed, the universality of a character or entity that is ignored, discounted, and despised but which eventually captures astounding status has taken on meaning that has nothing to do with sweet young soot-covered housemaids. High-tech startups and novel product entrepreneurs that make billions as well as March Madness umpteenth seed basketball teams that bust up millions of fans' brackets are oft called "cinderella stories." And everyone knows exactly what that means.

Rapunzel and Rumpelstiltskin could only dream of having their identities that engrained in the modern Zeitgeist…or of having their stories told and reworked in so many movies over the course of film history. The first Cinderella movie was likely Georges Méliès's Cendrillon (Cinderella) in 1899. And not a decade has gone by without at least one or two theatrical or TV film interpretations of Cinderella's tale since.

There are dozens and dozens (and dozens) of cinematic Cinderellas. Some are straight-forward retellings like The Slipper and the Rose: The Story of Cinderella (1976). More often than not, filmmakers attempt some seemingly clever variation on theme or style. Jerry Lewis starred in a gender-switch comic retelling entitled Cinderfella in 1960 (which surprisingly appears to have a remake in the works). The great Rodgers and Hammerstein created a musical Cinderella for 1957 television (starring Julie Andrews), where it reappeared starring Lesley Ann Warren in 1965 and later Brandy in 1997, before spinning off onto Broadway…where it still plays and tours the country. And then there are all the forgettable teeny-bopper movies like A Cinderella Story (2004), Another Cinderella Story (2008) and A Cinderella Story: Once Upon a Song (2011), and countless more without a titular reference but with the same basic plotline, that brought a dubious Mean-Girls-Meets-Afterschool-Special vibe to the fairy tale.

But no one has made more of a franchise investment in Cinderella than the House of Mouse. Until recently, Disney was best known for their classic 1950 feature cartoon. That Cinderella informed the princess dreams of generations of baby boomers, their daughters, and granddaughters. Set within a storybook framing device, enchantment makes an early appearance in the film. The much-exploited Cinderella (voiced by Ilene Woods) is abused by her evil stepmother and her two quarrelsome and selfish stepsisters, but she has plenty of friends in the form of talking, clothed mice, devoted bluebirds, and various other anthropomorphic household critters.

The Disney formula is readily recognized here. The heroine is sickly sweet and more than a bit passive. Both the heroine and her friends are prone to song. Preferring not to spend too much time on romance, the film devotes much of the action to "Tom and Jerry"-like conflicts between the various house mice friends of Cinderella and an ill-tempered housecat (owned by evil stepmother Lady Tremaine) named Lucifer. Interestingly, we learn a great deal about the characters of the wee mice, and practically nothing about the animated feature's almost anonymous Prince. But perhaps there is little that need be known of a man who looks good, is powerful and rich, and who is in need of a "suitable wife." Good-bye Drudgery and Hello Palace. Enough said.

Disney would return to Cinderella time and again over the years. And some of the folktale retellings are actually surprisingly revisionist versions of the fable. It was the Wonderful World of Disney that presented Brandy's groundbreaking African-American Cinderella in a 1997 multicultural version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, for example. (That version also featured Whitney Houston as the Fairy Godmother.) And ABC's Wonderful World of Disney also presented one of the more intriguing renditions of the story, through a much different perspective, in an adaptation of Gregory Maguire's Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, in 2002. Although not as dark as the novel, the movie version still centers on the plain younger daughter of Stockard Channing's "evil stepmother" character. The title character, Iris (Azura Skye), is certainly more intelligent and sensitive than any stepsister found in earlier Cinderella movies. In fact, she is far more likeable and interesting than the beauteous Cinderella character, Clara (Jenna Harrison).

Disney was also the studio behind the recent, deeply subversive Rob Marshall-directed film adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine 1986 jumbled fairy tale musical, Into the Woods. Here, the very grim elements of the Grimm version of the fairy tale are intact. These include the stepsisters butchering their own feet to try to fit them in the all-important slipper, and their final comeuppance when birds peck out their eyes. As for Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), she desperately wants something more than the exploitation and abuse that she suffers at the hands of her stepmother and stepsisters. But she's smart enough to know that an "ever after" with a self-centered, handsome twerp of a Prince (Chris Pine)—who admits "I was raised to be charming, not sincere"—may not be a better option.

Between these more revisionist versions of Cinderella, and the modest proto feminism of their mega-blockbuster 2013 animated fairy tale, Frozen, you might think that Disney was finally ready to push their bread-and-butter folktales into the 21st century. Actually, no. Not if their new live-action version of Cinderella is any measure. For this handsome movie provides only the most modest update to the very traditional Disney approach to retro princess-pushing.

Directed by Sir Kenneth Branagh (Thor, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit), who came up through the ranks of the Royal Shakespeare Company making the Bard accessible to the masses, Branagh knows how to make a sumptuous spectacle to which just plain folks can easily relate. He certainly accomplishes this feat with his Cinderella—which is feast for the eye and a balm for the romantic heart.

Based as much on the earlier 1950 Disney cartoon as on the Charles Perrault variant of the fairy tale, the new film features a mischief of adorable (and highly advanced) mice in the supporting cast. And the human cast is equally impressive. In the title role of Ella is the very pretty Lily James (previously best known as Lady Rose MacClare in Downton Abbey), who is a princess-ready figure of elegance and beauty, but also strikes just the right note as a self-described "honest country girl." As required, this Cinderella retains a constant, shining goodness, and viewers can actually believe that here is maiden ruled by her dead mother's edict to "Have Courage and Be Kind."

Since the inner Cinderella needs no transformation, all that's needed is a rags-to-riches wardrobe upgrade. And, boy, does she get one. Nor is she the only one. One of the stars of this grandly gorgeous film is the costuming of Oscar-winning (Shakespeare in Love, The Aviator, The Young Victoria) Sandy Powell. Yes, she makes sure that Ella looks fab in both torn muslin and the poofiest of cinch-waisted ball gowns, but she does an even more impressive job with the over-the-top wardrobe of the vapid stepsisters and the vain and greedy stepmother, Lady Tremaine, played to the hilt by Cate Blanchett. A Disney villainess (whether she be Cruella de Vil or Ursula, the Sea Witch) is meant to spice up what might be a saccharine storyline. And Ms. Blanchett is about as fabulously evil a wicked stepmother as anyone could wish for, slinking around in her elegant, putrid green gown.

Other aspects of the production are equally impressive. Notably, Dante Ferretti's opulent production design (and the art direction of Ravi Bansal), which is never less than dazzling—whether characters are galloping through a forest glen or waltzing through a palatial ballroom. And I loved the small visual allusions like when the glass slipper is lost by Ella, and retrieved by the smitten Prince, Kit (Richard Madden), in a manner that playfully recreates Jean-Honoré Fragonard's naughty yet luxuriantly romantic Rococo masterpiece, "The Swing."

The look and feel of this Cinderella become all the more important since screenwriter Chris Weitz (About a Boy, The Golden Compass) seems somewhat restricted by a required faithfulness to his source material. Which isn't to say that the screenplay is a reactionary mess. Rather, Mr. Weitz stays true to the fable, while updating the olden Disney approach to mythmaking. He does this, most importantly, by fleshing out the characters of both Ella and her Prince. His Cinderella has a goodness that is an act of will and compassion—as when she confronts the Prince, upon meeting, with his casual willingness to kill a magnificent stag because hunting is "what's done." Ella is not passive; simply true to her best self. Likewise, Kit, the Prince, is the most fully realized of all the Disney fairy tale royals. Devoted to his ailing father and serious about being an "apprentice" learning his trade (which just happens to be ruling a kingdom), he seems to make a genuine love connection with the forthright young beauty called Cinderella. She's much more than just the prettiest girl to come along when it's high time for him to find a wife.

Although it's a very pretty pageant, Cinderella also has a humanity that helps round out the all-too-familiar Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo of a retooled Disney cartoon. If you prefer a truly novel take on the Cinderella story, I would recommend 1998's Ever After. But if you'd enjoy a ravishing yet completely recognizable rendition of a classic tale, by way of Walt Disney, then partake of the pleasures of this latest Cinderella.

And for a much, much different (and ultimately quite depressing) version of modern mythmaking, I would highly recommend the documentary Merchants of Doubt by Robert Kenner (Food, Inc.). Inspired by a book by the same name by Erik M. Conway and Naomi Oreskes (who is featured in the film), the movie details, in a way that entertains as well as outrages, how modern corporations and their fiendishly talented public relations firms have managed to block public policy and debate as well as derail essential regulation. They do this by simply creating confusion and doubt where they cannot actually refute a preponderance of proof. Key global and public health issues like tobacco use, climate change, and toxic chemical and pesticide use are discussed. Regarding such important topics, if you're not angry, you're not paying attention. And if you are not paying attention, it's probably because a small army of flack artists and well-funded "think tanks" have done their job very, very well.

Many documentaries are earnest and carefully researched, but have a tendency to bore. Mr. Kenner knows how to keep his films visually interesting, as well as intellectually stimulating. And the story he tells in Merchants of Doubt is about as important as they come—especially related to climate change. For the false "debate" and general obfuscation of the corporate "deniers" is effectively stalling worldwide policy changes just when time is of the essence. The film points out that after fifty years of lies and subterfuge, Big Tobacco was finally forced to acknowledge the dangers of their products. But do we even have fifty years to get past the fog of confusion related to the manmade causes of climatic changes? The film suggests not.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is famously quoted as saying "The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it." But if not enough people believe in important science, then this planet might well seal its doom without even acknowledging the truth of the science right in front of them.

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