Alibi V.24 No.11 • March 12-18, 2015 

Film Review

Cinderella

Non-update of classic Disney fairy tale is as comfortable and worn-out as an old shoe

Cinderella

Directed by Kenneth Branagh

Cast: Lily James, Cate Blanchett, Helena Bonham Carter

In the last 20 years, the Walt Disney Company has been steadily retooling its image as the princess factory. Taking heed of criticism from modern feminists, the Mouse Corporation has started making films that feature non-Caucasian women (The Princess and the Frog), proactive female leads (Brave) and protagonists that do not require rescuing from traditional romantic princes (Frozen). But Disney also knows what side its bread is buttered on. More recently, the company has been circling the wagons, appealing to the nostalgia-minded, theme park-patronizing, merchandise-buying, traditional princess-loving loyalists out there. Swing past Cinderella’s Castle at any Walt Disney Resort these days, and you can hit up the Bibbidi Bobbidy Boutique for a full-day “princess makeover.” Stop by Toys “R” Us, and you’ll see Brave’s empowerment-minded bows, books and video games have given way to countless garish pink Frozen dresses. Over on TV ABC/Disney’s “Once Upon a Time” has added Ursula from The Little Mermaid, Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty and Cruella de Vil from 101 Dalmatians as the big, bad villains of this new season—despite the fact that 101 Dalmatians isn’t a fairy tale. (At this point Disney might as well admit the show isn’t about fairy tale characters come to life; it’s about officially licensed Disney characters come to life. Add Mickey Mouse and Son of Flubber next season and be done with it.) And on the movie front, Disney is returning to the tried-and-true for inspiration. Nowhere is that more evident than in Disney’s new yet totally old-school feature Cinderella.

Why does everything turn back into pumpkins and white mice at midnight—except for the plot-important glass slippers? How come the prince falls in love at first sight with Cinderella, spends the entire evening with her—and then remembers nothing about her the next day, other than her shoe size?

Unlike previous live-action remakes/sequels/prequels/reboots Alice in Wonderland, Oz the Great and Powerful and Maleficent, Cinderella is no savvy reimagination of classic material. On the one hand, that’s good. Cinderella doesn’t stretch the source material too far out of shape (which some of those other films certainly did). On the other hand, Cinderella adds nothing whatsoever new to Disney’s 1950 animated outing (aside from three-dimensionality). This Cinderella is as straight-faced and unironic an adaptation as humanly possible.

Disney fans will eat it up. No doubt. The ballgowns are enormous and super sparkly. The castles are towering and wildly gilded. The princes are appropriately hunky-yet-sensitive. But the story is thin as a worn-out slipper. With no in-jokey references, no cynical reinvention and no psychologically probing character work, this Cinderella is an unabashedly antiquated romp though overly familiar territory.

From the start you know exactly where this tale is going. After her merchant father passes away out on the road, Cinderella (the perfectly lovely Lily James from “Downton Abbey”) is forced to live with her evil stepmother (Cate Blanchett, threatening to but never quite chewing the scenery) and her awful stepsisters (Holiday Grainger from “The Borgias” and Sophie McShera also from “Downton Abbey”). Poor Cinderella’s forced to clean the house, there’s a ball, a prince, a glass slipper, a happy ending: You know the drill.

For some reason the film appears to take place in a real-world version of Regency Era England. Visually, it’s gorgeous, what with its Empire-style architecture, Romantic paintings and pre-Victorian fashions. However, the early 19th-century setting feels way too modern to be very “fairy tale”-ish. Branagh and company seem to agree, stripping away nearly all the fantasy elements of the original story. As a result it feels rather odd when, about halfway through, Cinderella’s fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter, unsurprisingly) shows up out of left field to start granting wishes. Despite a somewhat rocky transition, the magic is delivered with much wonderment and some nifty special effects.

It’s clear no expense has been spared to make this a dazzling adaptation. The screenplay is penned by Chris Weitz (who wrote and/or produced and/or directed American Pie, About a Boy, The Golden Compass and The Twilight Saga: New Moon). The film is directed by no less than Kenneth Branagh (Henry V, Hamlet, Thor). In addition to Blanchett and Carter, noted European actors Stellan Skarsgard, Derek Jacobi and Ben Chaplin fill in around the main characters, lending an air of acting sophistication to the proceedings. And every penny of the film’s no-doubt extravagant budget is visible on screen. But at the end of the day, it amounts to so much princess porn.

To be honest, the film does very little that’s unpardonably wrong. It’s nice. It’s pretty. It’s sweet. It’s not deep or clever or anything resembling original. Weitz’ script is doggedly faithful to its source material, doing little to correct the 300-odd-year-old tale’s many plot holes. (Why does everything turn back into pumpkins and white mice at midnight—except for the plot-important glass slippers? How come the prince falls in love at first sight with Cinderella, spends the entire evening with her—and then remembers nothing about her the next day, other than her shoe size?) If modern culture weren’t already cluttered with versions of this tale (1998’s Ever After, 2004’s A Cinderella Story, 2004’s Ella Enchanted, 2011’s “Once Upon a Time,” 2014’s Into the Woods) Cinderella might be essential viewing. But unless you’re a dyed-in-the-wool princess fanatic, this is one beautifully ornate paint-by-numbers set.