Cinderella Lily James, Richard Madden, Cate Blanchett. Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Rated PG. Opens Friday.
Thanks to the success of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and the Sleeping Beauty reimagining Maleficent, Disney has been eager to strip-mine its animated classics for new live-action versions. But while Burton brought his distinctive personal style to Alice, and Maleficent offered a new perspective on the Sleeping Beauty story, Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella is a straightforward retelling of the story, without any twists or stylistic innovations. It’s a lavish, handsomely staged production, but it’s also dramatically inert, a pretty diorama led by a pair of good-looking but forgettable TV actors: Downton Abbey’s Lily James as the downtrodden title character, and Game of Thrones’ Richard Madden as her dashing royal suitor.
Branagh and screenwriter Chris Weitz stick fairly close to the outline of the classic 1950 Disney animated movie, adding some elements from the different Cinderella folk tales and giving a larger role to the prince, who barely has any lines in the 1950 movie. But the broad strokes are the same, as poor Cinderella (or Ella, as she’s called for most of the movie) is subjected to the cruelty of her nasty stepmother (Cate Blanchett, disappointingly subdued) and two bratty stepsisters. Here, she has one brief encounter with the prince before the glamorous ball, so that their eventual love is slightly more believable, but this is still a fairy tale, so believability isn’t really the point.
There’s the fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter, also the movie’s narrator), the pumpkin that turns into a coach, the friendly mice (much less annoying than their animated counterparts), the glass slipper, the happily ever after. There are no songs, but the fairy godmother does say “Bibbidi-bobbidi-boo,” at least. Branagh turns the midnight dash from the ball (as the fairy godmother’s spell starts to wear off) into a giant CGI set piece, and the set and costume design walks a fine line between sumptuous and garish. Ultimately it’s all a little too restrained and tasteful, although it should be entertaining enough for kids who’ve worn out the DVD of the animated movie. We can only hope the forthcoming live-action versions of Beauty and the Beast and The Jungle Book will be a bit livelier.