Cinderella and the Magic of Virtue

As I think you can gather from the movie posters, Kenneth Branagh’s new adaptation of Cinderella is live-action–with, of course, a good measure of CGI thrown it. It is Cinderella, after all; did you really want her to show up at the ball in a Prius?

Other than the live action, what has most impressed viewers–and surprisingly, even many critics–is the lack of revision in the story. Branagh’s Cinderella is faithful to its source material. Cinderella is good. The stepmother is bad. The prince is handsome. Cinderella does have a bit of an anti-hunting sensibility, but that actually fits in well given her St. Francis-like way with animals. The story does not get warped in the usual and disappointing ways (ahem, Maleficent).

But there is one significant change in the movie worth noting, and it is this: Cinderella gets humanized.

Now if you are like me–and really, you probably aren’t–that term “humanization” sets off warning bells in your mind when used by a reviewer. It usually means a generally good person or character being re-envisioned as a disagreeable, borderline psychotic (ahem, Noah). However, there is a different sort of humanization at work in Branagh’s film: an enigmatic figure is suddenly presented in an intelligible light. In the case of Cinderella, an explanation for her incomprehensible goodness is given.

What is the explanation? In a word, virtue.

You see, this Cinderella does not really direct her life at being swept off her feet by a rich, handsome man. Oh, don’t get me wrong, she doesn’t mind when things play out that way (would you?); nevertheless, the critics carping about the movie’s tacit patriarchy have missed the point. The happy ending is actually a byproduct of Cinderella’s focusing her life on moral goodness–not fulfilling a checklist of moral commands, but rather existing in a certain excellent way, embodying certain human qualities.

We learn those qualities from Cinderella’s dying mother, who counsels her daughter to “have courage, and be kind.” Cinderella takes the lesson to heart, and so we find the line being repeated at strategic points in the movie: it would not be an exaggeration to say that the line serves as the film’s unifying thread. Virtue is the point, and as the movie explains early–and shows in the end–“there is magic, real magic, in it.”

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