"Cinderella" is headed to the big screen...again.
Sixty-five years after Walt Disney Pictures released its animated classic, the beloved fairy tale is getting the live-action treatment courtesy of director Kenneth Branagh and Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.
The movie, in theaters March 13, 2015, stars "Downton Abbey's" Lily James as the titular character. Academy Award winner Cate Blanchett plays her wicked stepmother, Lady Tremaine, and Helena Bonham Carter plays her fairy godmother. Nonso Anozie, Hayley Atwell, Ben Chaplin, Holliday Grainger, Derek Jacobi, Richard Madden, Sophie McShera and Stellan Skarsgard round out the cast.
Of course, "Cinderella" posed a unique set of challenges. "It's a very unusual project because anybody sitting down almost certainly knows the story. They've had it read to them or they've seen the film. I think we get to refresh ... and recreate 'Cinderella' from the inside out," Branagh tells E! News. "The honoring of the original comes in, I think, as sort of a lightness of touch and a sort of lavishness."
"I wanted to take the world of the ball. Life can be pretty rough sometimes and it's a wonderful thing to be able to invite the world to the ball," Branagh, a five-time Academy Award nominee, continues. "And then, from the inside, we've given it a contemporary feel that is human and humane and strangely enough, not built around the idea that Cinderella's life depends on finding a man or things, like clothes or a title, or just hoping this magic will come along. It's much more about who she is, what she feels about herself, and taking that kind of sort of spiritual cue to make it refreshing in a contemporary way."
When Branagh was casting the lead role, he was searching for an actress who had both "intelligence" and "passion," but who also had a "strong sense of humor and a sort of beauty shining out from within."
"Goodness can seem pious. It can seem righteous. It can seem too good to be true. We needed Cinderella to remain funny, sexy, smart and crucially kind," he tells E! News. "There was talk way back about redefining goodness as a superpower and kindness in the same way. I think it can be very active and charismatic and compelling, but it needs to be lightly done. This Cinderella, she's not empowered in the sense of being adversarial or self-pitying or victimized. She makes her own choices and she doesn't indulge in her own pain or have any regard for her own hardships. She's generous of spirit, and we needed that in the actress.
"Lily has great generosity of spirit, which really you can't fake. I think the audience will intuit that. She is good company. She's un-showy, yet she's charismatic. And she wants to enjoy herself! She takes the blows in the movie. There's loss–the loss of loved ones. There's the cruelty and ignorance of other people. She knows love can be fleeting and so she's determined to enjoy it. Underneath all of that comes this sense of fun and this sense of humor. I think she's fun and funny."
Casting a "thoroughbred actress" like Blanchett was a major coup. "She's such a top talent that you can't help but have layers of contextual subtlety," Branagh raves of the movie star. "We didn't want the film to be pantomimic. I think people want that cruelty to come through. They want Cinderella to have a really formidable adversary. But without any kind of appealed sympathy, you get a sense in Cate's performance of a real background, a real history that she brings with her arrival into Cinderella's household. She's not cruel for cruelty's sake, but my God, when she imposes her will, she's terrifying."
Blanchett, as one would imagine, looks the part. "She has the most dazzling wardrobe I have seen in many a long day that she carries off with a panache...which is in itself utterly thrilling," Branagh tells E! News, also praising the film's costume designer, Sandy Powell. Between Blanchett's outfits and the set design, he added, "She occupies the space as you would expect, and yet strangely enough, although brilliantly charismatic, she is not larger than life. But my God, she is full of light–albeit a very dark light."
Cinderella undergoes a major transformation in the movie, too. In fact, the scene that takes place just before the ball was said to be the late Walt Disney's favorite piece of animation. As such, Branagh knew that it was critical to match the magic with his live-action version.
"Swarovski made absolutely sensational 3D shoes, which was entirely crafted with Sandy Powell's great visionary look. She was trying to find something that had a magical quality, that had this crystal glass sculpted quality, that had this ever colorful light refracting quality, that looked like they could be–as Helena Bonham Carter, the fairy godmother says in the movie, 'really comfortable to wear.' They just look sensational," the British director marvels of the iconic glass slippers. "I've never understood more clearly than in working on this story the importance of shoes to women, and I hope our treatment of this iconic pair bears that out."
Branagh says there are "some surprises" in store. However, he also reveals that moviegoers won't be hearing James sing "A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes" or Bonham Carter sing "Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo."
"There are no musical numbers inside the body of the film, but there is singing and you will find that songs work their way into the movie ultimately. We hope to pay a little nod to the original in that way."
Fans of the original can rest easy–some of the beloved animal characters will be included. "I think I would possibly be drummed out of the DGA if I denied the audience watching Cinderella the opportunity to say, 'Gus-Gus!'" the actor-director says with a laugh. "Gus-Gus, I believe, will be making an important appearance. We worked with both real mice, which were actually fantastic, and some CGI mice."
Branagh, who also helmed 2011's "Thor," can't wait to see how audiences respond to his live-action version of Cinderella. "I feel as though I've not only been afforded a great deal of freedom in this process, but also an incredible amount of support from a company who are, I think, incredibly invigorated and excited about trying to take some creative ownership of these titles that have been part of their DNA for so long," the director tells E! News. "I think they're being brave, creative, and in my case–I can only speak from my experience–extremely supportive of the filmmakers who are involved."
"Cinderella" is in theaters on March 13, 2015.