Saturday, March 14, 2015

Cinderella (2015) and "Frozen Fever"

I've mentioned this before, but having nieces of movie-watching age can be really handy when you're the only forty-something man sitting by himself at certain movies. No need to explain how you have been a fan of Kenneth Branagh since Much Ago About Nothing and Cate Blanchett since Elizabeth; you can just say you're Christmas shopping.

Not that this would necessarily go over well with certain brothers and sisters-in-law, especially the ones who had a pretty good run of keeping their home a princess-free environment. I hoped about Frozen being "little-girl crack" after seeing just how much Elsa and Anna stuff was in evidence at birthdays and Christmas last year, and was assured that I really Had No Idea. I half suspect that this movie will do really well just on the basis of a Frozen sorry playing before the movie. As a person who went to Wing Commander in part to see a preview for The Phantom Menace, I cannot mock these kids.

This movie probably doesn't have quite the same addictive properties as Frozen; it isn't built around sisterhood the way that movie was, but it certainly hits the surface things well enough: Lots of pretty dresses, beautiful settings, a lovely dance, cute animals, and the like. I suppose one might like it a bit more if at least one of those dresses didn't involve a corset, but the costuming isn't exactly tacky. It's impressively non-violent, at least; a lot of movies like this would find an excuse for a swordfight, but this movie is resolute in not ever solving a problem with violence

It's funny, though - I didn't really love Maleficent last year, for a number of reasons, but that movie is a fierce blast of feminism and female empowerment in a genre that doesn't always lean that way. Cinderella doesn't have to be that, but it's got opportunities to be a bit more ambitious or relevant than it is, and it might be easier to recommend whole-heartedly if it took some of them.

"Frozen Fever"

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 13 March 2015 in Capitol Theatre Arlington #1 (first-run, DCP)

The last time Disney made a follow-up short to one of their features was "Tangled Ever After", and in doing so they made the smart decision to take the funny animals and make a slapstick cartoon, matching form to function. That's not happening here; Elsa is too much the breakout star of Frozen to be placed in a backup role the way Rapunzel was in that one. The trouble is, she's not exactly funny by nature, at least based upon the first feature. These seven minutes aren't really enough to re-channel the guilt she's built on in that direction, especially since you have to make Anna the sensible one in order to balance that.

It's actually not a bad direction to consider for the just-announced Frozen sequel, but here it means that the gags don't really balance with the earnest new song. When things get silly, they pick up - Elsa's sneezing spawns a new type of snow creature, frantic little guys who inevitably go after the ice cream cake that Kristoff and Olaf have been tasked with protecting, and that's pretty good slapstick. It becomes a cartoon then, which is what it needs.

One thing that's kind of interesting is seeing how just a tiny step down in this type of animation can really affect one's perception. It's safe to say that this short isn't getting the same sort of per-second budget the feature did (and doesn't need to, since the models are already in place), but the staging seems a little bit less natural, and the characters slightly less expressive. There just doesn't seem to be the same fluidity that Aladdin or The Little Mermaid, for example, retained when Disney brought them to television. As with the ho-hum song, it's just a little off, just enough to notice if not always enough to pin down.

Cinderella (2015)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 13 March 2015 in Capitol Theatre Arlington #1 (first-run, DCP)

Much of Kenneth Branagh's career as a director has been spent attempting to make formal things full of dense language into broadly-entertaining movies: Lots of Shakespeare, to be certain, but also Frankenstein, Sleuth, a Mozart opera, Tom Clancy, and Thor. It's been a mixed bag, but it's still somewhat surprising that a fairy tale like Cinderella at times seems to be more constricting than any of the rest. He and the film eventually rise above that, but it's a bit of a shock that a story which has been so ripe for reinvention for so long winds up being so by-the-numbers here.

To be fair, he's a little boxed in - he hasn't been able to direct his own script in almost a decade, and Disney's spring "revival" movies are going to hew toward familiar imagery. Thus it is with this one: We're introduced to Ella (Lily James), a kind an optimistic girl who loses both her mother (Hayley Atwell) and father (Ben Chaplin), but not before the latter has remarried, and this stepmother (Cate Blanchett) arrives with two daughters of her own (Holliday Grainger & Sophie McShera), banishing Ella to the attic and (laid-off) servant's quarters. She meets a handsome prince (Richard Madden) in the forest, not realizing Kit's true position, and while her stepfamily tries to prevent her from attending the ball that the prince has opened to all of the land's maidens, a fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) gives her a chance to attend in style, although the magic will wear off at midnight.

I feel silly recounting the plot of Cinderella, but it demonstrates how the film winds up in a similar position - we know this story, and both Branagh and screenwriter Chris Weitz struggle with that familiarity. While plenty happens to get Ella to the point where the main activity of the plot really kicks off, she is a fairly passive character through much of it, and there winds up being a lot of narration and baldly laying out the philosophy that she and her parents shared. We know all this, and the filmmakers know we know it, but there are only so many distinctive details they can fit in without bending it too much. Those bits feel like little nubs where branches have been broken off the main limbs of the tree, leaving behind interesting signs that something could grow there but little else. The narration isn't the only source of wit here, but wordplay is one of the few ways things can be spiced up.

Full review on EFC

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