Drew Barrymore plays Danielle, according to her great-great-great grand- daughter the real inspiration for the story of Cinderella. Just as in the classic fairy tale, Danielle lives with her mean step-mother and step- sisters, after the death of her beloved father. They force her to do all the work. She meets the prince, goes to the ball wearing glass slippers, and runs away before midnight. But there are some big differences. No pumpkin coach, no fairy godmother, and no bibbity-bobbity-boo. This heroine is not meekly obedient. She stays on because she wants to take care of her home and the people who work there, because it makes her feel close to her father, and because she still hopes that somehow she will find approval from the only mother she has ever known.
The step-mother, played by Anjelica Houston in her most evil “The Witches” mode, is not going to give it to her. She tells Danielle that she sees her as a pebble in her shoe. All she cares about is making sure that the prince chooses her elder daughter, Marguerite (Megan Dodd), as his bride. She is willing to lie, cheat, and steal to make it happen.
Meanwhile, the Prince (Dougray Scott) is not quite Charming. He appears arrogant, but is really just lonely and aimless. His parents want him to marry the princess of Spain, to cement a strategic alliance, but he wants to fall in love. He meets Danielle when she is in disguise as a courtier, to rescue a family servant sold by her step-mother to pay her debts, and he is very taken by Danielle’s passion and intellect.
The stepmother finds out about their relationship, and does her best to thwart it. When the prince finds out that Danielle is not really of noble birth, he is furious, at first. But it all ends happily ever after, even without a fairy godmother (though with a little help from Leonardo da Vinci).
Sumptuously filmed at medieval castles and chateaux, with gorgeous costumes, this is is a pleasure for the eye as well as the spirit. Danielle is a very modern heroine, smart, brave, honest, and able to save her prince as well as herself, if necessary. The script is clever (though wildly anachronistic in places), and while the accents come and go (and why do French characters speak with English accents, anyway?), the performances are excellent, with particularly engaging turns by Melanie Lynskey as the sympathetic younger step-sister and Judy Parfitt as the queen. It is one of the most delightful family movies of the year, maybe of all time.
Parents should note that some profanity in the theatrical release has been removed to secure a PG rating for the video, but there is still one expletive. There is some action violence, and a sad onscreen death. The plot may be a challenge to younger children, especially those expecting the story they know, so it is a good idea to prepare them, which can lead to a good discussion of different versions and points of view. Older children will enjoy Ella, Enchanted, by Gail Carson Levine, a different modern retelling of the Cinderella story. And everyone should see the more traditional versions, especially the wonderful Disney cartoon and the Rogers and Hammerstein musical starring Lesley Anne Warren in the original and Brandy and Whitney Houston in the remake.