Walt Disney’s new live-action rendering of its 1950 animation hit, “Cinderella,” may act as a Rorschach test for a film critic: What kind of a person are you? A romantic, cynic, elitist or young at heart?
The film dares you not to like it with its sumptuous craftsmanship, fine actors and heart-felt sentiments about being true to yourself and the virtues of kindness and courage. All this guided by Kenneth Branagh, no doubt paged for this directing job to bring his Shakepearean skills to a different kind of classic storytelling.
Okay, I surrender the field. It’s …. okay.
Look, it’s never going to hold a candle to the original animation feature — no one will fault you for saying that, surely —but the film takes no chances either and plays it safe although, admittedly, vibrantly so right to the end.
There is even a half-hearted attempt to humanize the cruel stepmother. The insipid stepdaughters are played for dithering idiots though as it should be.
“Cinderella” has enough charm splashed across a very broad canvass and, of course, will appeal to children and romantics of any age. It shuns anything that feels retro or camp but does earn solid laughs in scenes that require the transformation of rodents and a pumpkin into a golden coach, driver and footmen and then, disastrously, back again.
Its CGmice are playful when romping with Ella, aka Cinderella, and wondrous sets and cinematography make all CG creatures feel at home in this fairy-tale world.
I know you’re expecting a BUT here but … I’ll resist. Enjoy if you will and avoid if so inclined. Personally, I’d rather see Branagh do Shakespeare but then that was a long time ago, wasn’t it?
Screenwriter Chris Weitz embraces this fairy tale without any cynicism or revisionist urge. (Not that Disney would allow such a thing.) He plunks us down in a traditional storybook land and insists that its revelations and themes are still relevant.
Lily James, best known as Lady Rose on “Downton Abby,” is our fair maiden (ably played as a youngster by Eloise Webb). She swiftly losses both mother (Hayley Atwell) and father (Ben Chaplin) in order to burden her with Lady Termaine (Cate Blanchett), whom her father has unwisely married, plus her dowdy daughters (Sophie McShera and Holliday Grainger), oft dressed in appalling pastels.
One revision on the Charles Perrault 1697 version has Ella’s initial encounter with her prince (Richard Madden) occur before the ball, in the woods while out riding and finding herself in the midst of a hunt — of which she heartily disapproves.
She also seems to have an ability to communicate with animals from the hunted stag to those mice but this Dr. Doolittle bit is swiftly dropped.
The palace has its intrigue, more interesting than those in Cinderella’s domicile actually, that sees a self-serving Grand Duke (Stellan Skarsgard) plotting more for himself than a dying, benevolent king (Derek Jacobi) and his clueless son.
(Come to think of it, this has long been a weakness in the tale in all versions. Other than the fact he is soon to inherit a throne why does anyone want anything to do with this Royal Nothingness? Oh well, I did sort of answer that question.)
Helena Bonham Carter turns up as the Fairly Godmother but nothing rich comes to this, which is a shame. I am in the firm belief that Carter can do no wrong but she can be wrongly used. As she is here.
The magic kingdom has been updated to include not only princesses for his Royal Nothingness that include Africans, Latins and Asians but a senior advisor who is black (Nonso Anozie). Indeed he is the most sagacious member of the court.
Blanchett, another actress in the can-do-no-wrong category, is given opportunities to demonstrate that her meanness is more a question of women’s limited opportunities and rights in this fairy tale world. It doesn’t quite work as a legal argument but she makes a splendid villainess.
You do wish James weren’t so GoodyTwo-Shoes but that’s the role and she does what she can with it. I guess that goes for just about all the cast.
Meanwhile the effects from Dante Ferretti’s oh-wow sets to Sandy Powell’s extraordinary costumes and the aforementioned CG stuff blend so smoothy that they should name a drink after this at the Disney premiere.
Opens: March 13, 2015 (Walt Disney Studios)
Production company: Walt Disney Pictures
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Lily James, Richard Madden, Helena Bonham Carter, Nonso Anozie, Stellan Skarsgard, Sophie McShera, Holliday Grainger, Derek Jacobi, Ben Chaplin, Hayley Atwell, Rob Brydon, Eloise Webb
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Screenwriter: Chris Weitz
Based on: Disney’s ‘Cinderella’ properties and the fairy tale by Charles Perrault
Producers: Simon Kinberg, Allison Shearmur, David Barron
Executive producer: Tim Lewis
Director of photography: Haris Zambarloukos
Production designer: Dante Ferretti
Costume designer: Sandy Powell
Music: Patrick Doyle
Visual effects supervisor: Charley Henley
Editor: Martin Walsh
PG rating, 105 minutes