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MRQE Top Critic

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Even by Disney standards, this Cinderella is wholesome through and through. And that turns out to be a good thing.

Fairy Dust

Cinderella (Lily James)
Cinderella (Lily James)

Just last week another PG-rated flick opened that was full of color and humor and it was so well-mannered it seemed almost mean to dislike it. But The Second Best Marigold Hotel squandered its goodwill — and stellar British cast — on bumper sticker wisdom.

Now comes Cinderella, a colorful, big budget, live action fairy tale that is so kind and good hearted it’s hard to argue with it. The best part is that kindness and purity of spirit work like a magic spell. The end result is about as good as it can get: a worthy live action companion piece to Disney’s animated classic from 1950. This one might even be the version of choice for modern generations.

All the World

This Cinderella comes on the heels of Tim Burton’s fabulously wild visuals of Alice in Wonderland, which also incorporated a modern girl-power motif. Then there was Angelina Jolie as Maleficent in a revisionist spin on Sleeping Beauty.

Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella. Both dating back to the late 1600s and Charles Perrault’s Tales of Mother Goose. The 17th century. What a time. What a lasting impact on popular culture. Shakespeare left the stage a mere 12 years before Perrault came on it.

And that leads to director Kenneth Branagh. Once upon a time he stormed the silver screen with masterful presentations of Henry V and Hamlet (and, yeah, he also directed Thor). Given the indelible stamps left by Burton and Jolie, the mind toyed with what Shakespearean heights Branagh might take this fairy tale material. The surprise is that Branagh went for a straight-up pure fairy tale that teaches young girls (and boys) — well, all ages, really — a thing or two about good old-fashioned love.

Cast a Spell

Branagh did bring Derek Jacobi, a Hamlet and Henry V alum, along for the ride. As for any other Shakespearean sway, perhaps Branagh simply took the advice of Polonius in Hamlet, “To thine own self be true.” For that, too, thanks also go to screenwriter Chris Weitz (About a Boy and The Golden Compass).

Much like Jolie as Maleficent, Cate Blanchett (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) relishes the role of the wicked stepmother. She’s, well, mighty darn wicked (in a PG way) and that wickedness is borne of hard times and her lack of luck in love. Both of her husbands met an untimely, premature demise. Her priority is her own flesh and blood, her two daughters; she needs one of them to marry the prince in order to free her from her debts. Ella (Lily James, TV’s Downton Abbey) is, by all appearances, merely an inconvenience, but one the stepmother forbids from attending an all-kingdom ball simply to avoid the extra competition against her daughters.

Blanchett is at the top of her game and has wicked fun. And the rest of the cast hits the mark as well. James is enchanting. Richard Madden (TV’s Game of Thrones) makes for a charming prince. And Helena Bonham Carter (the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland) doesn’t have to sing. Well, at least not until a credits roll rendition of Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo.

True Love

Given her first marriage was for love, the stepmother went for money in her second marriage, to Ella’s widowed father. It was a choice that forever diminished the stepmother’s enjoyment of life. Her cold, calculated outlook matches that of the king (Jacobi), who advises his son to marry for the betterment of the kingdom rather than love.

Counter that with sweet, virtuous Ella and her parents. They married for love and that informs how Ella looks at the world. She prefers to see the world as it could be and knows deep down in her soul and the very fabric of her entire existence that kindness has power and magic.

And with Ella’s wholesome view comes a wholesome message: The greatest risk is to be seen as you truly are. No longer in the flowing blue gown supplied by her fairy godmother, Cinderella asks the prince to accept her as she is, and he requests the same of her.

Throw in magical CGI mice (who know a thing or two about sewing), eye-popping visuals and an abundance of color, along with humor (including a funny little joke about the portrait technology of the day: “I hate myself in paintings, don’t you?”) and Cinderella works its magic, making those thoughts of Burton and Jolie disappear while Cinderella remains true to herself.