The central question before us with Disney’s new live-action version of Cinderella is a simple one: was this really necessary? The studio already has a perfectly serviceable animated classic (though I confess I’m not its biggest fan), to say nothing of last winter’s Into the Woods and dozens of non-Disney adaptations available as fast as you can get to your Netflix queue. Everyone on the planet knows the basics of the story, and if you want subversive rather than traditional, the Mouse just gave us Anna Kendrick grumbling on the stairs. Beyond the obvious cash grab, the new film offers nothing to justify its existence, and certainly no reason to drop what we’re doing and rush out to see it.
None of which is the same thing as saying it’s bad.
On the contrary, if you understand going in that you’re going to get exactly, precisely what you’d expect in exactly, precisely the manner expected, this new Cinderella has a lot to recommend it. It looks gorgeous, it maintains a sunny disposition, and it doesn’t get cute with any of the details. Much of the credit goes to director Kenneth Branagh… or more precisely, to whomever was smart enough to hire him. Branagh based his career on Shakespearean adaptations, similarly universal stories that he adroitly updated for a new generation. He pulls the same trick off with moderate panache here: sticking to the basics, cribbing a few details from older (and admittedly better) versions, and presenting it all with heavy helpings of patented Disney sunshine. It’s cinematic comfort food, as delivered by its most practiced purveyor… and you certainly can’t accuse it of making promises it can’t keep.
The most distinctive sequences come early on, as we see Cinderella’s (Lily James) idyllic early life with her mother (Hayley Atwell) and father (Ben Chaplin). Tragedy descends soon enough, of course, but by starting a bit earlier than normal, we gain a better understanding of what she lost and how she came to be a virtual slave to her appropriately wicked stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and less-bright-but-still-wicked-stepsisters (Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera).
Branagh makes similar efforts to set up the romance, with a chance meeting between our heroine and her prince (Richard Madden) in the forest before they sweep each other off their feet at that magical ball. The prince in the animated version exists as a barely-there cipher, which cut down on the romance factor quite a bit. Here, Branagh gives his couple a chance to generate some heat, turning a happily-ever-after-by-default into something we can believe in.
The rest of it comes as resolutely and predictably as you may have feared, and consequently doesn’t disappoint us with anything too radical. The sumptuous sets and costumes give us pretty things to look at and a few unexpected wrinkles take place (mostly concerning political machinations in the palace), but those expecting any big surprises should get ready for a long wait. Missteps occasionally appear, particularly when the film strays too close to its animated predecessor and those times when garish CGI replaces genuine magic.
But again, none of that should come as a surprise and in the balance, the film’s assets neatly outweigh its flaws. Helena Bonham Carter struggles in the fairy godmother role – they attempt to make the role quirkier to fit her, but she just can’t sell us on the chiffon-and-blonde-curls routine – though the rest of the cast earn full marks. (I dare you to take your eyes off of Blanchett for one single solitary moment.)
It’s a fair trade, which signals the bargain you’ll need to make if you want to see the film. Accept the shortcomings and the assets will shine all the more, something Branagh and Disney are as committed to as the happy ending everyone knows is coming. It might not be your favorite Cinderella (for my money, that honor goes to 1976’s The Slipper and the Rose: a non-Disney film that nonetheless features songs from Disney’s most famous songwriters and which Branagh respectfully acknowledges more than once), but the jury’s still out on whether our current generation of little girls will disagree with you. There’s enough here to make them very happy, and asking any further from a movie of this nature is an exercise in foolishness. It’s not like they’re hiding anything from us after all, and for those who don’t look for miracles, this Cinderella resolutely delivers everything you could reasonably expect.