With Lily James, Cate Blanchett, Richard Madden, Helena Bonham Carter, Stellan Skarsgård. Written by Chris Weitz. Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Rated PG for mild thematic elements. 112 minutes.
Looking for new ways to exploit the catalog of Disney princesses, the studio has turned to live action versions of their animated classics. After last year’s “Maleficent” (which offered a novel twist on “Sleeping Beauty”), we get a mostly traditional take on CINDERELLA. Little girls–of all ages–will have a great time, and there’s some low comedy thrown in to keep the little boys happy as well.
Just in case you’ve missed the numerous retellings of the story in print and on the screen, this is the tale of Ella (Lily James, who plays Lady Rose MacClare of “Downton Abbey”) who becomes an orphan. She’s left to the not-so-tender mercies of her cruel stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and her hideous stepsisters (Sophie McShera, Holliday Grainger). When the dashing but humble Prince (Richard Madden) throws a ball to meet a prospective mate, everyone attends… except poor Ella, who sleeps near the fireplace for warmth and has earned the insulting nickname of Cinder-Ella.
With the help of her Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter), she gets to go the ball after all and meet the Prince. Even if you don’t know the story, you know where this is going, but we’ll leave it at that so that the Spoiler Fascists won’t get the vapors. Just remember that this is a Disney film.
Surprisingly, it’s also a Kenneth Branagh film. Branagh does not appear, staying behind the camera, but his presence undoubtedly allowed them to get such people as Derek Jacobi as the King, Stellan Skarsgård as the evil Grand Duke, and Oscar winner Blanchett as the stepmother. She’s sensational in the part, vamping about in the colorful costumes by Sandy Powell, relishing acting the Disney villain in the style of Glenn Close’s Cruella deVille and Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent.
The only problem is how safe they’re playing it here. The whole film looks gorgeous, including the dusty attic where Cinderella gets consigned. The special effects are imaginative, from the house mice she talks with to the animals who get turned into her magical coachmen by her Fairy Godmother. However, unlike 1998’s “Ever After” with Drew Barrymore or even the recent adaptation of “Into The Woods,” we’re to take the story at face value. It’s not so much that we need an ironic take for the hipsters who wouldn’t be going to this anyway, but it would be nice to have some reason for a new version other than that it will prime the pump of the Disney merchandising machine.
That curmudgeonly griping aside, this is a lovely film that will appeal to its intended audience. If you’re not sure who that audience is, the movie is preceded by a new cartoon short with the characters from “Frozen.” There is a song in it, but it’s unlikely to become this year’s “Let It Go,” much to the relief of people with ears everywhere.
More live action versions of Disney animated classics are on their way. (“Beauty and the Beast” has already been announced for next year.) So if they’re going to do it, at least do it right. This “Cinderella” may not be necessary, but it’s certainly all right.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is “Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide.” He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.