Lily James in Cinderella.
Lily James in Cinderella.
We are past the era of asking "why?" when encountering a reboot of a beloved franchise. When the fairy studio godmother sees a ripe pumpkin, never mind how many times it's been trotted out: she's still going to cast that spell. It's the way of the world now. Besides, the tale of Cinderella has been continually rebooted since the 1600s, anyway. A new version from Disney, the company most people readily associate with the story, offers no surprises, but it does allow the heroine some agency. This time she actually gets to meet the prince before the magic gussies her up.
The pendulum of fairy tale styles keeps swinging. After the Shrek snark of the mid-2000s, the hip slang of Frozen, the brooding darkness of Maleficent, and the postmodernism of last year's Into The Woods screen adaptation (which had the audacity to ask what might happen to Cinderella after she marries her prince), we're back around to wide-eyed Disney sincerity. No Grimm touches here. The fair maiden (Lily James), trapped under the thumb of her wicked stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and stepsisters (Holliday Grainger, Sophie McShera) after both her parents die, is blessed with a fairy godmother and one magical night to dazzle her prince at the royal ball. Everyone is telling this story as if they've never heard it before.
Director Kenneth Branagh isn't interested in surprises; as always, he's interested in pageantry. Cinderella takes less after his recent blockbuster fare (Thor) than it does after his Shakespeare adaptations like Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing. Like those works, this film features lush color schemes, glistening feudal castles, and fancy costumes, plus some quasi-religious choral arrangements when that magic ball happens. Lily James (Downton Abbey) makes a fine Ella, beaming through her rib-crushing corset, bestowing kindness on everyone she meets. Her best friends are some creepy CGI mice, not nearly as cute in close-up as the singing mice of the 1950 animated film.
Young children are guaranteed to love this, even though it's rated PG for no reason (fine, "mild thematic elements"). During an advance screening in Washington, DC, two little girls in the front row happily mimicked the dancing during the ballroom scene, and they gave the onscreen actors a run for their money. As for the parents, who will be able to predict each line of dialogue before it's uttered, don't count on plot twists or much humor.
Instead, appreciate the small pleasures, like Blanchett channeling her Blue Jasmine fallen debutante as the wicked stepmother, or Helena Bonham Carter bubbling about in her cameo as the fairy godmother. Or the striking resemblance between the prince (Richard Madden) and Ella's beloved father (Ben Chaplin). Or the transformation sequence resembling an '80s fantasy flick, where a goose and some lizards make for some terrifying-looking humans.
If the rest of the film feels too safe, it's easy to imagine how constrained the filmmakers were with this project. Just look at the end credits, which list the movie's source material, in order, as: (1.) the Disney property, followed by (2.) the original fairy tale. Nevertheless, screenwriter Chris Weitz (About A Boy) takes some admirable effort to answer the story's dangling questions, such as why Ella's step-family puts her to work, why she doesn't just run away from them, and why the prince isn't supposed to wed commoners.
Still unexplained: why the glass slippers don't disintegrate when the rest of the spell wears off. Best guess would be that they have different magical properties because the godmother created them from scratch instead of modifying them, but maybe her glass cobbler just has a no-returns policy.
(Cinderella is paired with an animated short, Frozen Fever, that works as a clever epilogue to the 2013 smash. Elsa tries to throw Anna the perfect birthday even though she has a cold and keeps sneezing up little adorable snowmen. The original creative and voice team put this together, so it doesn't feel halfhearted.)