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Plaudits for "Cinderella"

Cinderella (2015)

Cinderella—Kenneth Branagh's 2015 live-action remake of Disney's animated feature—is not my kind of movie. It would be going too far to say that I truly liked it, and I doubt I'll watch it again (as I did for the first time with my family the other night).

But that's not to say I can't recognize its sterling qualities. The story adds compelling backstory that enhances but doesn't overshadow the main plot. It is well-acted, especially (as one might expect) in the deliciously wicked performance of Cate Blanchett as the stepmother. The visual effects are fluid. And the costumes and scenery are eye-popping. (Again, not my kind of stuff, but I can't help but appreciate the craftsmanship.)

But the things I like most about Cinderella—and in fact am genuinely astonished about—are the things that make it totally unlike a 2015 movie. I truly cannot believe this movie got made. Let me count the ways.

1. Cinderella exhibits classic earnestness. This film has no sarcasm except in the mouths of the wicked stepsisters. It has no wryness except for a keen comment by the narrator that the stepmother wore her grief "very well." It is never self-referential. It never makes clever allusions to the animated original beyond the base-level imitation of a general remake. It never breaks outside the walls of the story with pop-culture references or slang. Above all, at no time do any of the characters give the viewer a sort of cynical wink-and-a-nod as if to say, "This fairy-tale stuff is cute and all, but we know it's fake and we're too good for it; just play along."

Don't get me wrong—I'm entertained by all of these features that Cinderella doesn't have. (I still laugh when I watch the original Shrek after all these years.) But they are in every show today: every show for innocent kids is written as a cynical gag for adults. I can't remember the last time I saw a film of this sort that simply told the story and betrayed no awareness that it knew it was "only a story." It is refreshingly novel that way.

2. Cinderella exhibits classic femininity. There is no submission to—even awareness of—postmodern political-cultural orthodoxy in this film (aside from a sprinkling of African-heritage courtiers). There are no "I am woman, hear me roar" lines from the title character, even when she's set up to deliver one. There are no wildly implausible scenes of a 104-pound broomstick concussing 260-pound thugs in hand-to-hand combat. Cinderella acts as what used to be called a girl, of which there are still a few living on planet Earth. Perhaps the most liberated thing about her is that she seems supremely comfortable in her own skin; she doesn't waste thought on what her stepfamily, her prince, or her viewers think of her.

Again, don't get me wrong—I enjoy the steel-spined queen (Elizabeth), the tart conversationalist (Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice), and the bad-news battlemaiden (Éowyn from The Lord of the Rings, Trinity from The Matrix, Æon Flux from . . . Æon Flux). These are all true women as well . . . it's just that they're everywhere. The lattermost trope in particular has become so ubiquitous as to be numbingly cliché. It's an unexpected break from boredom to watch a brave heroine who doesn't kickbox—more to the point, who shows her strength not by fighting but by maintaining her dignity when she has lost without a fight.

3. Cinderella exhibits classic virtues. Cinderella doesn't reach the happy ending that satisfies the viewer because she believes in herself. Or because she follows her heart. Or because she shows the world who she really is inside. Those things might prove to be true (sort of), but they are incidental, and the heroine herself cares little for them or for any other postmodern quasi-virtue. Rather, she gets her just deserts because she is the paragon of courage and kindness, which she pursues with abandon.

These ancient qualities—courage one of the four cardinal virtues and kindness linked to charity (love), the jewel of the three theological virtues—are explicitly and persistently exalted from the beginning of the film. Both of them wear well on women and men, girls and boys alike. I was very glad to see courage and kindness held up for aspiration to my daughters and sons—even in 2015.

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