To borrow a quote from Lady Tremaine, “this thing is so old-fashioned, it’s practically falling to pieces.” I’m of two minds about this thing. On one hand, Cinderella is almost refreshing in its single-minded determination to play things straight and without winking at the audience. On the other, they relatively few new additions added to the narrative hinder the entire thing by placing safely in a cocoon. There’s no risks, but there’s also no rewards.
Ironic considering that Alan Horn, chairman of the Walt Disney Studios, instructed Kenneth Branagh to take all the time and resources he wanted to make this one for the ages. Well, all that ended up on the screen was a practical beat-for-beat remake of Disney’s 1950 animated original. It’s workman-like without a trace of personal artistry or vision. It’s merely the aesthetic of the Disney Silver Era played out with flesh-and-blood actors.
This makes for gorgeous costumes and highly-detailed sets, but it also means there’s not a lot of interest in the narrative going on. The theme of the film boils down to “have courage and be kind,” and we’re never allowed to forget this phrase for longer than ten minutes throughout the running time. If it’s to be something of a personal mantra for Cinderella, a driving force and coping mechanism to get her through the abuse heaped on her by her stepfamily, then the film largely fails to explore that darkness. After all, real human emotion would get in the way of the watercolor aesthetics of the film.
And that is the major problem of this Cinderella. It is more concerned with establishing a series of gorgeous looks and images than it is with exploring the psychological terrain of its characters or the real emotions going on underneath. Cinderella seems remarkably well-adjusted all things considered, and prone to several moments of escape. It makes her eventual rebellion against her stepmother fairly toothless.
Cinderella could easily be renamed Mary Sue in this as she is bereft of flaws and interior life. None of this is to take away from Lily James’ performance. James is lively, lovely, and simply buoyant throughout, it’s just that the script doesn’t give her a lot of wiggle room to really explore the character. But think of Anna Kendrick’s neurotic variation of the character in Into the Woods. You saw and felt what the years of abuse had done to her, you understood why she dreamed and wished as hard as she did. James’ Cinderella takes off on horseback and meets the prince (Richard Madden, tasked with being handsome and nothing more) in the woods, and you wonder why she ever returned to this hellhole.
The only characters that make any kind of impression are her wicked stepfamily. The two stepsisters, played with manic comic energy by Sophie McShera and Holliday Grainger, are entertaining to watch as the actresses fearlessly dive into playing grotesque, bratty creatures. While Cate Blanchett, as she often does, walks away with the best-in-show award for finding ways to expose layers of deferred ambition, jealousy, and heartbreak. She makes you understand how someone could be driven into being so cruel, and she plays a lot of it for dark comedy. Blanchett’s clearly playing the role as if the script hewed closer to the original fairy tale, and you spend a lot of time wondering if she’s going to cut off the toes and heels of her daughters to see her ambitions come to fruition. No dice, as the film is all about lip service to deeper issues and striking glamorous poses.
Even worse is the way that Cinderella squanders its tony cast. Derek Jacobi is wasted as the king, and Nonso Anozie merely exists as an exposition dump and plot advancement. The worst offender is powering through Helena Bonham Carter’s daffy reading of the fairy godmother. That scene should be the centerpiece of the film, but Branagh sacks Carter with ridiculous fake teeth, bad old age makeup before her ethereal reveal, and hits the fast-forward button on the action. Carter’s clearly game for it, but Branagh just wants to power through the beats as fast as he can.
Originally, Mark Romanek was attached to this film, and he was let go for wanting to take the story in a darker direction. Man, what might have been with a director as audacious as him. Don’t believe me? Check out his myriad of impressive music videos for proof. What we get is enjoyably bland, too safe for its own good, and entirely afraid of dealing with the social critique at the heart of the story or the complicated human emotions swirling underneath. This Cinderella is all glossy surface textures, and as dreamy and enticing as they are, pretty pictures aren’t all that a film can be.