When Disney determined that their classic cartoon catalog needed to be remade as live action films, many felt the decision was as dopey as their mid-’80s leap into direct-to-DVD sequels. Then Tim Burton came along and delivered a billion dollar blockbuster called Alice in Wonderland and the House of Mouse felt vindicated. Soon after, Angelina Jolie became a supposedly sympathetic villain named Maleficent and, before you knew it, the familiar Sleeping Beauty storyline was no longer necessary.
So it doesn’t make sense to let Kenneth Branagh step in and recreate Cinderella and offer no narrative novelty or twist. It’s just the same old tale told when we were young, festooned with some backstory and some eye-popping production design. The eponymous heroine isn’t reinvented as a spunky, spirited heroine. There’s no grrrl power perspective with our Cindy showing her crass, clueless step-relatives where to go and how to get there. No, there’s just beauty and the same old manipulative beats, with the addition of CG critters and Helena Bonham Carter with one helluva set of false teeth.
Our story now starts many years before Ella (Lily James) earns her “Cinder” nickname. She’s a comely country girl with a doting father (Ben Chaplin) and a mystical mother (Hayley Atwell). The former is always traveling for work (he’s a merchant) while the latter is always talking about being kind and having a brave heart. Of course, Mom dies and Dad becomes despondent. One day, he shows up with a new wife, Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett) and two new siblings (Holliday Grainger, Sophie McShera) in tow. Then he dies. This leaves Ella to wait hand and foot on her new family members, who thank her with insults and putdowns.
One day, Ella wanders into the forest and meets Kit (Richard Madden), who just so happens to be the Prince of the realm. His father, the King (Derek Jacobi) is very sick, and wants his son to marry one of the many pre-arranged paramours chosen. Instead, Kit decides to throw a ball and have the entire kingdom invited. Of course, Lady Tremaine won’t let “Cinder-Ella” attend. Upset, our heroine is helped by her fairy godmother (Bonham Carter) and arrives to much fanfare. She steals the Prince’s heart but must abandon the party at midnight. Leaving behind a glass shoe, the nobleman calls for an all out search for his mystery date. Naturally, Lady Tremaine tries to make sure this doesn’t happen.
Since Cinderella is often used as a bedtime story, one has to admit that such a reclining position would be a good place to experience this dull, droning effort. Sure, young girls stuffed to the gills with as much Frozen falderal as their parents can afford will swoon at all the pretty costumes and wanton wish fulfillment, but unless you’ve got a hankering to see how Shakespearean Branagh can make this material, you’ll need a good lie down to recover from this film’s lack of excitement.
Granted, at the one hour mark, the former Mrs. Tim Burton waltzes in, bringing the anticipated magic that this story has subsisted on for the last 500 years, and suddenly we’re awake. The turning of mice into horses, a pumpkin into a carriage, and some lizards into footmen is fun, and also indicative of what the rest of the movie is lacking. We don’t really care for the opening sequences since we know they have to end in Ella becoming an orphan and earning her nickname. But as villains, Blanchett et al are more terrible fashion sense than cruel and heartless.
Instead, we are presented with three hapless social climbers who can’t understand why the world doesn’t dote over them the same way they obsess on each other, and such nonsensical narcissism grows weary after a while. Also, Ella has many well wishers in the small town where she’s from. So it doesn’t make sense that not a single one of them comes calling once Lady Tremaine takes over. The script, by Chris Weitz (The Twilight Saga: New Moon, The Golden Compass) just wants to hit the familiar elements of the story we know and love. His only attempt at invention is giving everyone a backstory. This worked in Alice since Burton was basically taking the Rev. Dodgson and making his ideas is own. Here, it’s more theme park fodder with additional merchandising.
The cast is competent, though Lily James is so light and airy she borders on the non-existent. We don’t necessarily root for her Cinderella, just the character in general. As her parents, Atwell is unrecognizable while Chaplin seems to have been hired for his permanent hangdog expression. On the royal side of things, both Jacobi and Madden are affable, but without much depth, and their various court members (including a conniving Stellan Skarsgård as The Grand Duke) are nothing more than plot machinations. Similarly, Grainger and McShera come across as ancillary in their own adventure.
That just leaves Blanchett, and to say she is a disappointment is an understatement. When we hear that this two time Oscar winner is going to play the evil stepmother, we have visions of chewed scenery and sneered dialogue in our heads — but that doesn’t happen. Instead, her Lady Tremaine is cut from the mean but misunderstood school of wickedness. She has her reasons for being so vile, and almost all of them revolve around money and a woman’s (lack of) place in this fictional society. She’s mad because she can’t care for herself and her daughters. She’s angry at Ella because… well, just because.
It’s just one of many problem areas presented by Branagh’s ebullient over-production. Everything is golden and shiny and festooned with rainbow color schemes. But all this eye candy leads to is empty entertainment calories. The audience already primed for more “happily ever after” will be more than satisfied with the results. Everyone else will wonder what the studio was/is thinking with this strategy — the recent announcement regarding Tim Burton being hired to helm a live action Dumbo notwithstanding.