Everyone knows the story of Cinderella. Adaptations of the European folk tale number into the hundreds — if not thousands — which means that any new iteration must distinguish itself from those that preceded it if it has any hope of succeeding.
The hook for the latest Cinderella is that it’s a live-action update of the 1950 Disney animated film, which remains the best-known movie version. However, in choosing to pay homage to that classic, Disney and director Kenneth Branagh end up being shackled by it.
True, the film does give some nice background on Ella (Lily James), devoting a good chunk of the film to her happy life with her mom (Hayley Atwell) and dad (Ben Chaplin). But we all know that it’s her misery under the cruel thumb of her eventual stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and her two ugly stepsisters (Sophie McShera and Holliday Grainger) that’s the meat of the story, all of which leads to her happily-ever-after with the Prince (Richard Madden).
Branagh and writer Chris Weitz do their best to make sure this version lines up with the animated film many know and love. Much of the humor comes courtesy of animals with which Ella can converse, and the treatment she receives from her stepfamily is as unnecessarily horrid as always.
What passes for nuance are fleeting references to Ella’s having an intelligence that sets her apart and the stepmother’s having a back story that hardens her soul. But these insights are much too brief, with more attention paid to unfunny insults and pie-in-the-sky dreams than any kind of character development.
I’m not saying the filmmakers had to radically reinvent the story, but sticking so close to the tried-and-true does nothing to make the film interesting. Although the movie has its charms, it has little to no heart; it’s simply a paint-by-numbers exercise.
And, of course, having Prince Charming be the solution to all a girl’s woes in this day and age is reductive at best, offensive at worst. This Ella is more her own woman than many who have come before her — but just barely. There’s no hint that she would be willing or able to extricate herself from her poor situation without the help of the prince, which isn’t a great message for impressionable little girls.
James and Madden do make for appealing lead actors, and the period costumes are spot-on, especially the show-stopping blue gown in which Cinderella attends the royal ball. But looks can only take you so far, and by the time the film reaches its not-at-all-surprising conclusion, you’ll be wondering when Cinderella will be allowed into the 21st century.