Modernizing “Cinderella” with humanity

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Everyone knows the tale of Cinderella.

The story of the beautiful girl who is forced into servitude by a wicked stepfamily, transformed for a night by magic, and saved by a nameless prince has been around for centuries. But while “Cinderella” is ingrained in the world’s consciousness, it’s also as outdated as a fairy tale can be.

So why are audiences now getting an expensive retelling of the passé bedtime story, 65 years after Disney released its animated classic and just months after the screen version of “Into the Woods” poked fun at the idea of insincere princes and delusional princesses?

For one, Disney’s live-action adaptations of its animated properties have become big business for the studio. Between “Alice in Wonderland” (2010) and “Maleficent” (2014), Disney has grossed nearly $2 billion worldwide from mining their archives for material to update. The studio already has a live-action “Beauty and the Beast” and an “Alice” sequel in development.

And yet, despite the too-obvious business objectives, there is nothing cynical about the latest “Cinderella,” which hits theaters on Friday.

“I wanted Cinderella, without being entirely a dreamer, to see life not as it is but what it could be,” says director Kenneth Branagh, who was excited to get the heroine out of a “time warp.”

To cast his leads, Branagh applied the same theory as he did when helping to pick Chris Hemsworth for “Thor”: Choose relative unknowns. He landed on Lily James of PBS’s “Downton Abbey” and Richard Madden, a vet of HBO’s “Game of Thrones.”

Instead of making “Cinderella” dark and gritty or dystopian, which Branagh believes have become clichéd, he and screenwriter Chris Weitz (“About a Boy”) imagined a world where she’s guided by a steadfast belief in kindness. It’s a message that Ella learns as a child and holds dear as things worsen under the rule of her spiteful stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and vain, doltish stepsisters (Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera).

The film succeeds because of its sincerity.

“We couldn’t ever jump out of the movie and say, ‘You know, this is a bit silly and we’re much cooler than this, by the way.’ We’re daring to take this seriously,” Branagh said in a joint interview.

Branagh encouraged James to read Mohandas Gandhi’s works and other writings on spiritual journeys to prepare for her role, hoping that she could incorporate the idea of nonviolent resistance into the character.

“We present this world where we see the grown-up Cinderella for the first time reading a book. There’s a curious mind in the house. It’s legit for her to have a sophisticated response to her position,” Branagh said.

“The old fashioned view of a damsel in distress who needs a man to come and save her from her life is irrelevant and not a message we should be telling children these days,” added Madden.

But Cinderella isn’t the only one given depth. All the characters are crafted with complexities, including the prince.

“I just wanted to make a man who was worthy of Cinderella’s affections and love. She is this amazing, strong, brave woman. She doesn’t need the prince,” said Madden.

The leads are lively and excitable together, even after weeks of international travel and hotel-bound press sessions and the knowledge that their promotional tour is not even close to finished.

“Well Disney gives us these shots every morning …,” joked Madden of his boundless energy.

On the screen, their PG-rated chemistry is undeniable. Branagh orchestrated things so that they didn’t interact much before filming. He even planned out the shoot to begin with their first encounter.

“Ken wanted to capture the energy of two young people meeting for the first time,” said James.

To make things even more uncertain, Branagh put both on horseback and had them circling one another throughout the scene, allowing them the freedom to improvise.

“It added a tension which was good for the scene,” said Branagh. “The audience intuits that it seems to be happening before our very eyes.”

While Madden and James do seem enormously comfortable with one another, their off-screen relationship is a professional one. During a photo shoot, James was asked to pose with one hand on Madden’s chest. “But doesn’t this make us look like a couple?” she asked. “Like, Lily and Richard, not the Prince and Cinderella.”

In addition to his leads’ onscreen relationship, Branagh was especially consumed with doing justice to the ball.

Production designer Dante Ferretti (“The Aviator”) transformed the 007 soundstage at London’s Pinewood Studios into a grand, three-story ballroom, complete with 5,000 hand-lit oil candles and 17 custom-made chandeliers for Cinderella’s big moment. And costume designer Sandy Powell (“Shakespeare in Love”) labored to build a dress for the occasion.

In the end, Powell created nine different versions of the airy blue confection, each boasting over 10,000 Swarovski crystals, 270 yards of fabric and three miles of hems.

While the visuals were designed for ultimate impact, the logistics of actually dancing with the delicate garment proved unwieldy at best.

“There are three of us in this relationship: Cinderella, the prince and the dress,” Madden said. “The dress tried to keep us apart.”

“Basically Richard would only have to look at it and it would rip,” added James.

“I have that effect on women,” Madden responded with a wink.