Interesting that the two best films released thus far in 2015 are both fairy tales. First was "Paddington", and now we have "Cinderella". Not just any "Cinderella", but genius visionary Kenneth Branagh's majestic, gorgeous, sweeping version of this beautiful tale of a kind, courageous girl.


Beginning with ten-year-old Ella, played by Eloise Webb, who is totally loved and adored by her mother (Hayley Atwell) and her father (Ben Chaplin), until her mother is suddenly stricken ill and dies. For years Ella and her father live happily in their comfortable home on the edge of the kingdom. But her father's decision to remarry mars that happiness, and causes him to spend endless time away from home and his precious Ella (Lily James).


It's on one of these trips that her father falls ill and dies, leaving poor Ella to deal with her wretched stepmother (Cate Blanchett), and her two horrid daughters, Drisella (Sophie McShera --- Daisy on "Downton Abbey") and Anastasia (Holliday Grainger). Because of their previous debts, Ella's stepmother releases the house staff, thus all of the work falls to Ella, whom the sisters have now nicknamed Cinderella.


In an effort to escape their cruelty, even for a short time, Cinderella goes riding deep in the woods, and is met by a handsome stranger named Kit (Richard Madden), who is really the Prince of the small kingdom. They are quite taken with each other, but Kit is forced to ride on with his hunting party and never learns Cinderella's name.


Back at the magnificent palace, Kit's father, the King (Derek Jacobi), is himself not well, and wishes Kit would marry. The Grand Duke (Stellan Skarsgard) has prearranged for Kit to become betrothed to Princess Chelina of Zarargosa (Jana Perez), in order to solidify the future of their own lesser kingdom. But Kit decides a royal ball is in order --- and all of the maidens of the municipality should be invited --- so that he can find the girl from the forest.


The story of "Cinderella" is well known, but Branagh and screenwriter Chris Weitz have given this version its own twist. We have not met Ella's mother before, and it's lovely to witness the genuine closeness the three of them shared as a family before her mother dies and her daft father remarries. It is her mother who instills in Ella the "secret that will see you through all the trials that life can offer: have courage and be kind".


This is such a beautiful and important sentiment --- one that we should all remember --- and Ella never forgets. Despite the way she is ill-treated by her stepmother and stepsisters, she always remembers her mother's words. Ella is consistently kind and courageous, which is what readily attracts the Prince to her --- and makes it so imperative that he meet her again.


As always, Disney has assembled a cast and crew that is marvelous. Beginning with the cast, James is a perfect Cinderella. She embodies the kindness of this beautiful girl with precision. And I must quiet the critics, forcefully, who say she is too thin, and represents a body image detrimental to young girls today --- hogwash!


We women have been growing up with such images all of our lives. As a child, I watched every Disney animated movie known to mankind, and I certainly didn't observe the heroines with the thought that I had to grow up and look like them. The over-protection of our children has risen to all-new extremes, if we have to criticize Ms. James for being an attractive person, who happens to be in good physical condition. Are we now demanding that Cinderella be plain and overweight? I think not.


But I digress --- The entire cast is phenomenal. Madden is a handsome, thoughtful prince --- much more fleshed-out here than in other versions. He truly is Prince Charming, and Madden, known for his role as Robb Stark on "Game of Thrones", is absolutely, positively the right choice. He and James enjoy wonderful chemistry --- and the final scene of the two of them on the balcony is breathtaking.


Of course, Blanchett is divine as the wicked stepmother. Almost no one could have played her better. Her looks are withering, and she

makes a splendid partner-in-crime with the brilliant Skarsgard, who is always a treat. McShera and Grainger are a hoot together as the two bumbling, stumbling idiot sisters. I got a real kick out of McShera attempting to sing and play the harpsichord --- and Blanchett's reaction --- priceless.


And who would Cinderella be without her Fairy Godmother, especially when she's played by Helena Bonham Carter, who is fabulous! Bonham Carter has had her share of zany roles over the years, but I swear she was born to portray this beloved fairy.


But I must admit my favorite character is the King, played by Jacobi. David and I religiously watch "Vicious" on PBS, with Jacobi and Ian McKellen playing an elderly gay couple, and it is hysterical. He's so regal and fatherly here, and even though it's not a large role, it is certainly significant, and Jacobi makes the most of it. He and Madden have a very poignant scene, and it makes me tearful even thinking about it now.


A splendid cast is one thing, but on a film such as this, the production crew is tantamount to success. The stunning prodcution designs are the work of three-time Academy Award-winning Dante Ferretti, and the exquisite costumes are by three-time Academy Award-winning designer Sandy Powell. Editor Martin Walsh is also an Academy Award winner and composer Patrick Doyle has been twice nominated.


There is nothing about this production that doesn't scream perfection. I suggested to our readers that they see "Paddington" a second time. Now, I am recommending the same. "Cinderella" is so entertaining it deserves it!


Opinion: Strong See It Now!





Of all the cinematic versions of "Cinderella" --- both live and animated --- I dare say that Disney's 2015 release, directed by Kenneth Branagh, and starring Lily James in the title role, will be looked back as the best of all. It's a flawless production, filled with solid acting, fabulous costumes, music that captures the grandeur of the story, and a perfectly matched royal couple.


"Downton Abbey" fans will, of course, recognize Ms. James as Lady Rose on that honored series, and she is accompanied by fellow "Downton" actress Sophie McShera --- Daisy on the show --- who plays Drisella, one of the mean stepsisters in the film. Cate Blanchett is Lady Tremaine, Cinderella's cruel stepmother, and she is both hateful and pitiable --- we almost feel sorry for her. The great Derek Jacobi stands out as the ailing king.


One of my favorite characters is Nonso Anozie as the Captain of the Royal Guard. His burly presence and forceful insistence that the infamous glass slipper be tried on by every maiden is a memorable supporting role.


The handsome prince, a crucial casting choice to match James' beauty and grace, is played by Richard Madden. He is an elegant presence, with his thick dark locks and piercing blue eyes. A dashing, princely wardrobe doesn't hurt, either. Madden also made a name for himself on another well-known TV series, "Game of Thrones".


What's a production of "Cinderella" without special effects? Changing a pumpkin into a regal coach to transport our heroine to the Royal Ball is essential, and Helena Bonham Carter does the honors nicely as Cinderella's Fairy Godmother. The famous mice led by Gus become white steeds, two lizards are transformed into footmen, and the goose becomes the flummoxed coach driver. It's all accomplished superbly under the supervision of veteran special effects wizard David Watkins. Small children and jaded adults alike will marvel at the transitions.


Branagh and screenwriter Chris Weitz have taken a few minor liberties with the traditional folk tale. For example, Cinderella first meets the prince in the woods on horseback. Most versions have the prince enthralled with her only when he initially sees her at the ball. I think fans of the story will be enamored with the way this interpretation plays out.


But obviously the heart and soul of "Cinderella" must lie with its two leads. James and Madden fulfill these characterizations supremely. Without their heartfelt performances, "Cinderella" would not enjoy the resounding success it will surely achieve.


Opinion: Strong See It Now!