In Disney’s new live-action “Cinderella,” four mice are ballooned into elegant white horses, two lizards are forced to serve as makeshift footmen, and an oblivious old goose gets zapped into driving a pumpkin carriage. But as the American Humane Assn. can attest, no animals were harmed in the making of this delightful if overly safe update of the gold-standard toon classic. More importantly, the underlying property emerges untarnished, as director Kenneth Branagh reverently reimagines Charles Perrault’s fairy tale for a new generation the world over, spelling countless opportunities to exploit fresh interest in the story throughout the Disney universe.
The latest in a trend to rework the most precious treasures in the Mouse House vault, “Cinderella” is by far the studio’s most calculated retelling yet, to the extent that those who know the toon by heart may find Chris Weitz’s serviceable script a wee bit dull. Unlike last year’s daringly revisionist “Maleficent” or the prince-shirking Cinderella seen in Stephen Sondheim’s wink-wink “Into the Woods,” this kid-gloves production plays things ultra-careful, lest it inadvertently cause a single person to love the 1950 toon one iota less.
The goal, of course, is to give fans and future adherents alike a chance to delve deeper into the world suggested by uncle Walt’s “original,” for which no less a pair than costume queen Sandy Powell and production-design maestro Dante Ferretti have been enlisted. It’s the dazzling texture those two bring to the production that makes “Cinderella” such an exquisite visual experience, in which every gown is a thing to covet, each room one that audiences can imagine themselves exploring to their hearts’ content.
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Such a lavish approach is not without its drawbacks, as it can inadvertently serve to make the human cast feel almost plain by contrast. Only Cate Blanchett, who plays the imperious Lady Tremaine, fashion-plate stepmother to ash-covered orphan Ella (“Downton Abbey’s” Lily James), seems fit to hold her own against such extravagant costumes and sets — and none of the outfits are more formidable than Blanchett’s elaborate wardrobe of brilliant green gowns, stunningly designed to complement the butterfly-lit star’s ginger locks and ruby-red lips. With eyes wide, brows arched and her mouth in a permanent scowl, Blanchett blends aspects of Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck and Marlene Dietrich into an epic villainess, so deliciously unpleasant one almost wishes the film were focused more on her.
Alas, this is Cinderella’s story — relatively blasé by comparison, though still quite promising in the wish-fulfillment department. Perhaps unwisely, the fairy tale opens while Ella is still a girl (Eloise Webb), showered with love by her birth parents (Ben Chaplin and Hayley Atwell). In short order, Mother falls ill and Father remarries, only to expire on his next business trip abroad, leaving the young lady at the mercy of Lady Tremaine and her two insufferable daughters, Anastasia (Holliday Grainger) and Drizella (Sophie McShera), who promptly demote their half-sister to scullery maid, rechristening the poor soot-smeared wretch “Cinderella.”
These tragic circumstances have always been a part of Cinderella’s backstory, though it’s asking rather much of a young audience to experience the loss of both parents alongside the story’s long-suffering heroine. One might say it builds character — would that it did, for Cinderella doesn’t necessarily come across any more dimensional here than she did in the earlier animated film. Given how closely this version adheres to the well-known plot, watching the movie can feel a bit like one of those “Double Check” exercises from Highlights magazine, in which eagle-eyed kids are asked to spot the tiny differences between two otherwise identical drawings.
Precious little has changed in the plot itself, apart from a scene in which Cinderella meets Kit (“Game of Thrones” king Richard Madden) before the story’s famous ball, motivating the charming prince to expand the roster of invited guests beyond mere royalty to include all the young ladies of the land. He, too, is soon to be orphaned, and his ailing father (the great British actor Derek Jacobi, making his fourth appearance in a Branagh-made period piece) wants nothing more than to see his son married before he dies — an arrangement that the manipulative Grand Duke (Stellan Skarsgard) has already made with Princess Chelina of Zaragosa (Jana Perez, one of several non-white actors allowed into peripheral roles).
Given her shut-in status at the cottage, it’s not entirely clear what Cinderella is doing riding in the woods on this particular afternoon, though the scene’s strategic purpose is perfectly clear: Defined here by her kindess and courage, it wouldn’t do for her to be a gold digger like her stepsisters. Whereas Anastasia and Drizella attend the ball scheming to land the hand of a prince who might erase their debts and elevate the family name, Cinderella merely hopes to see the gentleman she met in the woods — a wish for which she’ll require the assistance of a flamboyant fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter, stripped of her goth veneer).
So intense is the young maiden’s yearning that the movie practically begs for a big, showstopping “I Want” song — or better yet, a liberated alternative, a la “Frozen’s” “Let It Go” — but Branagh seems woefully unwilling to introduce song into his “Cinderella,” save for the “Lavender’s Blue” nursery rhyme Ella’s mother teaches her in the pic’s opening moments (which all-too-tentatively comes around at the pic’s climax). Although the most appropriate way to reinvent the Disney toon might have been as a full-blown tuner, Branagh relegates musical expression to the background, where his longtime composer Patrick Doyle (dating back to “Henry V”) comes to the rescue with a robust, fully orchestrated score — a defining contribution, adding more to the project’s sense of timelessness than any other artistic element.
Well aware that he’s being tasked with creating a new classic, Branagh (working with d.p. Haris Zambarloukos) wisely chose to shoot on Kodak stock, resulting in a texture that’s become increasingly rare among such big productions. And yet, given the sheer volume of visual-effects shots, “Cinderella” demonstrates something of a split personality, aesthetically speaking. On one hand, it’s full of elaborate, CG-enhanced flyovers as virtual cameras swoop about the imaginary kingdom. (These views, so common among films set in Middle-earth, Narnia and other make-believe worlds, lend the fairy tale a sense of scale, but never look quite real.) Meanwhile, captured in anamorphic widescreen on actual celluloid, the character scenes give “Cinderella” a tangible quality, especially those situated on Ferretti’s baroquely appointed physical sets.
The effect is never more impressive than at the moment of Cinderella’s grand entrance at the ball, as she steps onto the balcony and descends the stairs to accept her first dance with the prince. In scenes like this (imagine Audrey Hepburn’s “War and Peace” waltz amplified a hundredfold), Branagh pulls out all the stops, attempting to outdo Powell and Pressburger, Ophuls and Renoir in a single go as the camera swirls about his awestruck heroine. This moment is matched only by the one in which Cinderella’s fairy godmother transforms her ballgown from tattered pink to butterfly-encrusted blue, lifting the young lady into the air, where she spins amid a cloud of magic dust.
Here, Cinderella fares far better than her animal friends. Outside the realm of animation, there’s no elegant way to morph a mouse into a fine white steed, or make a lizard look gallant, though the CG crew inject a few laughs along the way. “Cinderella” could do with more of that — poetry, too, as Branagh’s Shakespearean roots beg for a more literary script. It’s all a bit square, big on charm, but lacking the crackle of “Enchanted” or “The Princess Bride.” But though this “Cinderella” could never replace Disney’s animated classic, it’s no ugly stepsister either, but a deserving companion.