"They treat me as well as they are able."
Like them or loathe them, live action adaptations of classic Disney animated films are not going anywhere any time soon. Next year will bring us Jon Favreau's The Jungle Book, followed by Bill Condon's Beauty and the Beast, and with the rate of success these adaptations are enjoying, there's likely no end in sight. Cinderella is the third such adaptation following 2010's Alice in Wonderland and last year's Maleficent, and while it's not the colossal bungle that Tim Burton's frenetic, nonsensical Alice was, it doesn't come close to reaching Maleficent's soaring heights.
The primary reason the film fails to be an unqualified success is that it's a colossal bore. Director Kenneth Branagh certainly gets good performances from his actors and shoots them and their gorgeous Sandy Powell designed costumes beautifully, but he's hamstrung by a story that's just honestly not very good. The original animated film runs a brisk 74 minutes, and the nearly 40 minutes of additional material added to this by screenwriter Chris Weitz doesn't do much to flesh out these pitiably one-dimensional characters. Most of the padding comes in the run-up to the famous ball scene, starting with a prolonged backstory for Ella (Lily James), who once upon a time lived with her perfect mother (Hayley Atwell) and perfect father (Ben Chaplin).
The film lives on the ends of the spectrum, where everything is either completely sunny, idyllic, and perfectly marvelous, or overloaded with misery, sullenness, and despair. When Ella's parents die in short order, she is stuck in the home she loved so much as a child serving as the housekeeper for her wicked Stepmother (Cate Blanchett, chewing all of the luxuriously appointed scenery) and cruel stepsisters, played by the thoroughly interchangeable and unmemorable Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera. While out for an inexplicable ride on a horse one day, Ella encounters a magnificent cgi stag who proceeds to bolt right the hell out of frame and out of the film, and she soon encounters the Prince (Richard Madden) giving it chase. After a flirtatious back and forth, she convinces him that killing the stag would be wrong, and he agrees because he's smitten with her.
Perhaps the film's biggest problem is that it's in no hurry to get to any of the most famous sequences from the original animated film, namely Ella's meeting with her Fairy Godmother, the ball, and the quest to find the girl whose foot will fit the glass slipper left behind. As a sidebar, I've never understood why the slippers don't transform back into her regular shoes along with everything else, but that's a discussion for another time. The biggest problem with Cinderella is that its source material isn't all that great to begin with, and sadly the additions made by Weitz and Branagh don't do much to absolve those shortcomings. Showing how Ella gets her titular moniker isn't all that inspired, nor is it all that original to turn her into an independent, free-thinking woman who can influence the men around her through her virtuousness, but can do nothing to change other women's opinion of her.
This drive to turn the Disney women of the 1950s into fierce mavericks didn't work for Alice either, namely because it puts them out of step with what the story requires of them. I happen to think that the character of Cinderella is in sore need of a makeover, but the choice to make her devoted to the home she shared with her beloved parents at all costs calls into question her decision to abandon it at the drop of a hat during the climax. I am as progressive as they come, and I want my daughters—and everyone else's daughters for that matter—to have better representation on the big screen, but such a reversal doesn't make a lick of sense in context, and I wish they had spent more time figuring a way around this. The filmmakers are ultimately hamstrung by the very conventions they're trying to shirk.
Kenneth Branagh is a wonderful filmmaker, but he has floundered a bit in the age of special effects. His first big budget bonanza, 1994's Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, remains one of his weakest efforts and twenty-plus years have done little to improve his ability to balance story and effects. He always manages to get great performances from his actors, but they ultimately become little more than another piece in an ornate puzzle he can't quite manage to fit together properly. Everyone from James, Blanchett, Madden, and the curiously underused Derek Jacobi as the King and Helena Bonham Carter as the Fairy Godmother, do excellent work, but they're forced to deliver some of the soapiest dialogue this side of late morning network television. Branagh's old fashioned ethics serve him well when crafting the overall look and feel of the picture, but the film has no drive whatsoever.
At the well attended Sunday afternoon screening at which I caught the film, there were many little girls who had come decked out in their princess dresses, ready to be swept away by some Disney magic. Within thirty or so minutes, however, many of them had lost interest altogether, and by the time the extravagant ball rolled around, some were even wandering the aisles of the theater looking for anything that might occupy their wandering minds. I'm reminded of a screening I went to of Spider-Man 2 some 11 years ago where several young boys were engaging in superhero roleplay before the film started, and were subsequently left to wonder desperately—some ninety minutes later—where the hell Spider-Man had gone. I felt for them, just as I felt for the little girls who came into the theater with so much hope for a fun afternoon, only to be confronted with a chamber drama. A gorgeous looking, well-acted chamber drama, but a chamber drama nonetheless.
Cinderella is not terrible, but there's no way to be faithful to Disney's original version of this fairy tale and still manage to make a good film out of it. It's a truly weak story, and the actors give it their all, but it's almost completely in vain. The costumes, settings, and landscapes are all beautiful to look at, but without any real substance to speak of, there's nothing to hold the attention of five year olds, let alone thirty five year olds. As a word of advice to parents with children under the age of eight: go ahead and leave after the Frozen Fever short film that plays before the feature. Your kids will never be happier than they are when this enchanting little reunion with their favorite characters is over. It calls the issues with the fairy tales of the 1950s into sharp focus when they directly follow something truly fresh and original. Cinderella has never felt mustier than she does riding the coattails of the 21st Century.
GO Rating: 2/5