How Music Helped Bring the Magic of Cinderella To Life

By  · Published on March 12th, 2015

One of the most memorable elements of Disney’s classic animated fairytales is their music. Sleeping Beauty’s “Once Upon A Dream,” Snow White’s “Whistle While You Work,” even Disney’s most recent smash, “Let It Go,” from Frozen. Animated characters breaking into song is just another part of the magic of these films, but if characters in a live action feature start singing out of nowhere, you end up with a musical (see: Into The Woods).

However in order to properly bring Cinderella to the big screen as a live action feature, the music would still need to play a major role. As Kate recently pointed out, Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella approaches the story without irony while still being charming and Patrick Doyle follows suit with a score that delivers real emotional depth while still incorporating elements of the music from the original animated feature.

Branagh’s Cinderella pays homage to the animated version, but smartly updates the narrative to make it more believable (a necessary change when working in live action where people are likely to project themselves onto characters more so than with animation). Thanks to slight tweaks to the story, Branagh paints a fully realized view of not only Cinderella (Lily James), but the characters surrounding her as well.

In the animated Cinderella, her stepmother is kept in the shadows and dissonant chords play whenever she is on screen. In Branagh’s tale, when Cinderella’s “evil” stepmother (Cate Blanchett) comes to live with her and her father (Ben Chaplin), her souring attitude towards Cinderella is a slow burn instead of an immediate shift. Doyle uses dissonant chords in songs like “A New Family,” but he does not let this unsettling feeling define Cinderella’s stepmother.

The sorrowful strings on songs like “Orphaned” highlight the feeling of loss both Cinderella and her stepmother go through after Cinderella’s father passes away. Instead of using the music only to hint at her stepmother’s darker nature, Doyle also uses it to suggest that there may be more to Cinderella’s stepmother (and her behavior) than it first seems. Fairytales are a great escape, but Branagh makes Cinderella even more compelling by showing how layered each character truly is and Doyle’s score works to add dimension to each one.

Cinderella is a story of hope, and Branagh and Doyle certainly take their audience on a hopeful journey, but they do so without undercutting the raw emotion being portrayed on screen. The first three songs on the score take you through a myriad of emotions from pure happiness (“A Golden Childhood”) to pure sorrow (“The Great Secret”) to a feeling of unease (“A New Family”). This may be a world where magic and fairy godmothers exist, but it is also a world where upsetting things can (and do) happen and those emotions are tackled head on. Cinderella is allowed to be happy or sad or confused or resilient and Doyle makes sure the score echoes each of these emotions, never glossing over them.

It is the more difficult moments in Cinderella’s life that help make the magical ones all the more entrancing. Cinderella may hold on to her happy memories, but she does not have any grand illusions that her life will suddenly change so when her fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) shows up, it takes her a while to believe it.

Doyle makes the smart decision to draw on some of the memorable songs from the animated film during Cinderella’s more magical moments. There may not be much singing in this Cinderella, but Carter’s fairy godmother does sing bits of the classic “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” as she transforms pumpkins and mice into Cinderella’s carriage (just like in the animated film). This scene is sure to make Cinderella fans smile, but the most delightful call back is when Cinderella and The Prince (Richard Madden) dance together to the instrumental version of “A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes.” It is the perfect song for this dance and works as a wonderful (and subtle) nod to the animated version.

Pairing the magical moments with more realistic ones help give Cinderella balance and Doyle’s commitment to make the music sound grand no matter what is happening on screen helps tie every moment – whether happy or sad, magical or realistic – together. Cinderella’s unwavering kindness could come off as over-the-top or cheesy, but pairing it with a deeper understanding of why she continues to have courage and be kind it allows you to truly escape into her world.

The music in fairytales should play things to the hilt, and the music in both the animated Cinderella and the live action version do so, but the difference with this version is how Branagh’s story and Doyle’s music make every moment feel (and sound) as important and transformative as the magical ones.

Cinderella gets her happy ending, but she does so without losing who she truly is along the way, no matter what obstacles are thrown in her path. This Cinderella is not a one dimensional princess and her trials and tribulations are as much a part of her story (and the music) as her happily ever after allowing Cinderella to deliver a rich story that is still full of magic.