Once upon a time Disney would have made a live-action version of “Cinderella” as a relatively modest TV-movie and slotted it on “The Wonderful World of Disney.” But today it’s presented as a much more opulent theatrical offering, helmed by a renowned director (Kenneth Branagh) and featuring some acting luminaries—Cate Blanchett, Derek Jacobi, Stellan Skarsgard, Helena Bonham Carter—and marked by plenty of CGI effects. (Happily, it eschews the 3D format, which would have muted the colors in Dante Ferretti’s sumptuous production design, Anthony Caron’s art direction, Francisca Loschiavo-Ferretti’s set decoration and Sandy Powell’s ravishing costumes.)
Unfortunately, the script is no better than it might have been in 1959, and the result is a visually attractive but curiously flat retelling of the old chestnut, which will probably appeal to little girls but will probably leave everyone else in the audience—especially their brothers—as cold as the characters in “Frozen.” (Speaking of which, the movie is preceded by an animated short, “Frozen Fever,” which introduces a bevy of little snow-kids and a wannabe-classic birthday song to little effect.)
Part of the problem lies in screenwriter Chris Weitz’s decision (presumably in collaboration with Branagh) to flesh out the back-story to the tale, which ordinarily begins in medias res—with Cinderella’s parents deceased and their daughter at the mercy of her wicked stepmother and cruel stepsisters. Here, the first half-hour is devoted to Ella’s (first Eloise Webb, then Lily James) happy life with her loving mother (Hayley Atwell), who teaches her to “believe everything” and always “have courage and be kind,” and father (Ben Chaplin), a merchant often out on the road collecting monies for the king—as well as with a bevy of animal friends. Unfortunately, Mom soon dies of one of those unspecified wasting illnesses, and after a suitable period of mourning, Dad marries Lady Tremaine (Blanchett), the widow of a recently-expired business associate, who arrives with her two obnoxious daughters Anastasia (Holliday Grainger) and Drizella (Sophie McShera) in tow Dad soon dies on the road, leaving Ella in their cruel clutches.
That might seem a logical way to extend the story in reverse—and it does indeed expand on elements found in some early versions of the story (like the Grimms’), but in the event all it does is to make Cinderella’s father look like a complete idiot. Why he would, for whatever reason, choose to wed a woman who’s nasty and contemptuous from the get-go, is a complete mystery—almost as big a one as why he would prefer always to wear conspicuously ugly plaid trousers (one of Powell’s rare miscalculations)—or fail to make a will. (Those might seem like matters children won’t dwell on, but kids are sharper than many adults imagine.) The one element of the Weitz-Branagh preparatory material that works is an accidental meeting between Cinderella and the Prince (Richard Madden) prior to the ball, which helps explain why he’s so immediately besotted with her at the ball.
From that point the story proceeds pretty much without alteration from the “canonical” version of Disney’s 1950 movie, though the King (Jacobi) becomes a much nicer fellow while the Duke (Skarsgard) is turned into a duplicitous politico who allies with Lady Tremaine to undercut the Prince’s reunion with Cinderella after the ball, while an added character, the Captain (Nonso Anozie), is added as his ultimate foil. There are some changes in the species of animals, and a few added characters (like Rob Bryden in what amounts to a cameo as the artist hired to paint Prince Charming’s picture to circulate to potential wives). By and large, though, the treatment is oddly unimaginative, except in the visual sense. Even the performance are uninspired—James lovely but bland, Madden handsome but even blander, Blanchett imperious but ultimately rather colorless, and the rest basically just doing what’s expected of them without much distinction.
Apart from Patrick Doyle’s score, which in addition supportive cuts features a waltz for the ballroom scene and a ditty that Cinderella can hum at the close as an identifying tune, the picture is also song-free, eschewing one of the most memorable aspects of the animated film of 65 years ago. As this gorgeous but oddly rote retelling of the fairy tale moseyed on, one might feel an urge to start singing “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” in the hope it might transform what was unfolding on the screen into the 1950 movie. But it probably wouldn’t work, and you’d look ridiculous.