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'Cinderella' Review

When it comes to fairy tales, there have been a lot of mixed messages over the years. Alongside the beauty and imaginative story lines has been the recurring theme of young girls waiting for a prince to save them.

Disney's live-action version of "Cinderella," starring Lily James and arriving in theaters today, attempts to alter that history. And in many ways, the film succeeds.

While this version, written by Chris Weitz ("About a Boy") and directed by Kenneth Branagh ("Much Ado About Nothing"), doesn't upend the fairy tale itself, as the studio did with last year's clever "Maleficent," this Cinderella adopts kindness and courage as her emotional suit of armor and could, frankly, take or leave a handsome prince.

The story begins with Ella, as she's originally called, living a well-loved life with her mother (Hayley Atwell) and father (Ben Chaplin). The trio have a beautiful house in an idyllic country setting, with her merchant father often leaving on long trips for business.

Soon tragedy strikes when Ella's mother becomes ill and passes away. Before she dies, however, she leaves Ella with words that will stick with her forever: "Have courage and be kind."

Ella will need those words when her father later marries the cruel widow Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett, who recalls Gloria Swanson in "Sunset Blvd."), and also takes in her two self-centered daughters (Sophie McShera and Holliday Granger).

After her father's untimely death, Ella becomes essentially a servant to Lady Tremaine and her daughters. She's forced to wait on them and moves upstairs to the attic to accommodate the selfish girls. They even give Ella the name "Cinderella," after she arrives to the table with ashes on her face.

MORE: 5 Surprises in Disney's "Cinderella" Trailer

Shot on film instead of digital, "Cinderella" has a lushness that you don't see so often in movies today. The costumes, designed by the Academy Award-winning Sandy Powell are colorful and sumptuous. The sets, designed by Dante Ferretti, are actual sets instead of long swaths of green screens.

All of that makes the emotion that much more heightened. The living, breathing beings infuse a life into the fairy tale that somehow hadn't been there before.

In fact, there might have been so much life that my 8-year-old daughter, who watched the movie with me, wondered at just how many deaths this poor girl had to endure. Forget princes. What about her parents?

When Cinderella finally meets her prince (Richard Madden), whom she believes to be an apprentice at the castle, she is confident and holds her own with the obviously besotted Kit, as he says his father calls him. Again the live-action version helps bolster the romance, and it's easy for the audience to root for a couple who are equals from the beginning.

The prince, after all, is taken by her determined words as much as her beauty — so much so that he asks his father, the king, to adopt different values in the kingdom.

When the king holds a ball for the prince, and Kit asks to invite every girl in the land, that's when the romance really gets kicked up a notch.

Of course, Cinderella is thwarted by her tragic stepmother — we get her backstory, too — but it's when she meets her fairy godmother (a delightful Helena Bonham Carter) that this underdog character gets back on her Swarovski crystal-clad feet.

Here was a place, though, where animation trumps live action: When the animals are changed into horses, drivers and footmen, some of the transformations (I'm looking at you, lizard footman) are a little creepy.

While we all know how this story ends — there aren't any surprise twists, such as Cinderella telling the prince that she'd just like to date awhile — this princess hasn't been so much saved as found. She was herself — kind with a quiet sort of dutiful courage — and would have been happy to live in her home forever.

But in the process of her transforming into a 21st century woman who can verbally hold her own with a young man, I still wished that Weitz and Branagh had given her courage to stand up to her horrible stepmother and stepsisters.

After all, young women often need to stand up to other women as much as they do men.

Maybe there is that one line at the end — I won't spoil it for you — where Cinderella leaves things on her own terms, but this mother of a daughter and son would have welcomed more.

That, and one more thing. Will someone please tell me, for once and for all, how does that single glass slipper survive the last stroke of midnight after everything else has fallen away?

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