Think of Kenneth Branagh's Cinderella as Disney's own response to its hit live-action adaptation Maleficent. Whereas the Angelina Jolie film tried to find a new take on an overly familiar story, Branagh and company whip up a handsome slice of old-fashioned family entertainment.
The opening scenes find the young Ella (Eloise Webb) living an idyllic life with her mother (Hayley Atwell) and father (Ben Chaplin). As in every Disney film, her mother dies, but not before imparting to her the lesson of the movie with her final words -- be kind and have courage. Years later, Ella (now played by Lily James) must exemplify that kindness as she accommodates her new stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and her selfish stepsisters after her father remarries. When her father passes away during a trip abroad, she relies on her inner courage as her cruel new family force her to be their servant. She must persevere through this ordeal in order to fulfill her father's final wish -- that she care for the house he and her mother loved so dearly.
Dubbed Cinderella by her stepfamily for her oft-dirty appearance, she meets a handsome young man (Richard Madden) in the forest one day, and he claims to be an apprentice who lives in the royal court. They form a quick bond, but she leaves without learning that he's actually the prince of the kingdom. Meanwhile, the prince's father (Derek Jacobi) is in ill health and wants his son to marry before he dies. In the hope of finding an acceptable future queen, a royal gala is held to size up all of the potential marriage material -- think of it as regal speed dating.
Cinderella, denied access to the ball by her stepmother, gets some unexpected assistance from a fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) and wows everybody at the event. However, she must leave before midnight, and in her haste she leaves behind a glass slipper -- which the prince uses to locate the woman he loves.
Branagh, his generation's most renowned director of Shakespeare adaptations, shows a respect for this well-known tale that's quite welcoming. He doesn't feel that this material, or its likely audience, is beneath him. He receives able support from Oscar-winning production designer Dante Ferretti, whose stellar sets find the perfect balance between Masterpiece Theatre ornateness and dreamlike, fairy-tale lushness; and Oscar-winning costume designer Sandy Powell, whose playful work includes not only Cinderella's spectacular blue gown, but a number of chilly monstrosities worn by the stepsisters and the wicked stepmother.
It should come as no surprise that the performances are all solid, but first among equals is the great Cate Blanchett. She could have hammed it up, but instead she finds the emotional truth at the center of her character; her wickedness comes not from a joy of being wicked, but from her desire to protect herself and her daughters. She's frighteningly cold and thoroughly believable, with just enough outsized cruelty to remind us that she's a mythic figure. She finds the perfect tone and never wavers from it. The same is true of the entire cast, as well as the production as a whole.
This version of Cinderella works so well because everyone involved has lived up to the story's moral. They are kind to the story and the material, and are courageous enough to make something with great craft and complete earnestness.