“Cinderella” will be charming local film and theater audiences alike this week and next, first with Friday’s opening of the live-action Disney version directed by Kenneth Branagh, and then with a musical of the same name opening Tuesday at the Ahmanson Theatre in downtown Los Angeles.
The live-action film draws from Disney’s 1950 animated classic, but it is way too long. The cartoon version lasted all of 74 minutes. Of course, Cinderella is still blonde, her ball gown remains blue, and she still talks to birds and mice. But here, much of the film’s one hour and 52 minutes are consumed by lavish set designs, stunning costumes, expanded character development and socio-political explanations for our heroine’s troubled home life.
“Cinderella” 2015 begins with 10-year-old Ella (Eloise Webb) living an idyllic life with her mother (Hayley Atwell) and father (Ben Chaplin), a merchant who travels and often brings back wonderful gifts for his only child. But suddenly, her mother becomes ill. On her deathbed, Ella’s mom makes her promise to “have courage and be kind,” and she agrees.
Eventually, Ella’s father marries Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett), the widow of an old friend who has two daughters, Anastasia (Holliday Grainger from Showtime’s “The Borgias”) and Drizella (Sophie McShera on holiday from her “Downton Abbey” downstairs duties). By this time, Ella has grown into the lovely Lily James, (“Downton Abbey’s” cheerfully resourceful Lady Rose).
Although Lady Tremaine is faux friendly at first, while her husband is away she tricks Ella into giving up her room and moving into the cold and dusty attic. When her husband dies abroad, Lady Tremaine considers the financial ruin she and her daughters will face, and the script by Aline Brosh McKenna and Christ Weitz gives a motivation for her cruelty — economic desperation. The servants are released and Ella is left doing all the work. One night, Ella falls asleep near the kitchen fireplace. When her stepsisters see her ash-smudged face, they rename her Cinderella.
Soon afterward, Cinderella rides into the forest and sees a stag being pursued by royal hunters. She then meets one of the hunters. Not realizing this handsome man is really the prince (Richard Madden) she scolds him 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 — during which the prince will officially choose his wife — to all the young unmarried women in their small kingdom.
Cinderella eventually meets her fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) and makes it to the royal ball, charming both the prince and his father. CGI effects provide delightful moments as mice transform into horses, a goose turns into the coachman, two lizards become footmen and the pumpkin changes into an elegant gold carriage.
Unlike the animated version, this “Cinderella” attempts to give economic and political context while expounding on the courtship of the prince and Cinderella to make it more than a love-at-first-sight infatuation. It eschews the vengeful violence of the stage musical version “Sisterella,” and holds to the central tenet of Cinderella’s challenging life: Have courage and be kind.
Branagh’s creation is a celebration of fashion, with much of the fire coming from Blanchett. Under Sandy Powell’s costume design, the two daughters are models of crassness while Blanchett’s Lady Tremaine glimmers in poisonous green like a glamorous 1940s femme fatale.
Still, the film isn’t above some criticism, mostly focusing on the narrow width of this Cinderella’s waist, but the filmmakers and the star have insisted that the wispy waist is real and the movie makes it clear that the women are wearing corsets.
If you prefer a more musical version of this story, or if your little moppet doesn’t care about the complicated reasons for royal marriages, then consider the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical (originally written for TV) when “Cinderella” opens Tuesday at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles.
For more information, call (213) 972-4444 or (213) 972-4400 or visit centertheatregroup.org.