If you can get past the giant pumpkin in the ballroom — really, why bother to remake “Cinderella” in 2015 if you have no new spin on the material? — there’s a lot to like about director Kenneth Branagh’s gorgeously fanciful tale.
Hewing closer to the previous Disney animated version than to the Brothers Grimm’s or Stephen Sondheim’s — no stepsisters were blinded in the making of this motion picture — it’s a perfectly serviceable addition to the studio’s princess-industrial complex.
Whereas last year’s “Maleficent” retold the Sleeping Beauty legend with the witch as a central character, portrayed as someone who had good reason to seek revenge, this “Cinderella” never strays far from the path laid out by the animation department in 1950; there’s no singing this time, but we do get the friendly mice. (When cartoon Cinderella hangs out with a talking Gus and Jaq-Jaq in the earlier version, it’s adorable; when live-action Cinderella shares her dinner with CG mice in her kitchen, however, it’s difficult not to think of her long-tailed little friends as vermin.)
Giving credit where it’s due, this “Cinderella” does make its heroine proactive, rather than just a goody-two-slippers who passively allows events to transpire around her, and that’s a testament both to the screenplay by Chris Weitz (“About a Boy”) and the lead performance by Lily James, best known stateside as the headstrong Lady Rose on “Downton Abbey.” Unlike the saccharine Job of earlier iterations, this Cinderella is self-possessed and forthright. Even when she’s at her most abused, she endures out of love for her departed parents and the home they left behind.
This version, of course, assumes that this property could legally be inherited by either Ella or by the wicked stepmother (Cate Blanchett) who is widowed by Ella’s father. There’s a revisionist-feminist take just sitting here about why this awful woman would go to great lengths to find rich husbands for her shrill daughters (Holliday Grainger and James’ fellow “Downton” star Sophie McShera) in a stiflingly patriarchal society, but the movie’s barely interested in that path; Blanchett’s character is already horrid when she arrives on the scene, and her wickedness only increases over the course of the story.
Blanchett, it should be noted, is having a great time vamping it up in a series of stylishly overblown costumes (designed by the renowned Sandy Powell); she doesn’t allow herself to go as broad as, say, Glenn Close’s live-action Cruella DeVille, but her snarling virago is not to be underestimated.
We get a more outrageous turn from Helena Bonham-Carter as the Fairy Godmother; like her fellow Tim Burton alum Johnny Depp in “Into the Woods,” her role is kept just short enough that even her most wildly showy moments don’t disrupt the mood of the rest of the movie. Sporting Tilda Swinton‘s oversize choppers from “Snowpiercer,” she’s ditzy and capable all at once.
Weitz does well by the expected story beats, from the conversion of mice and lizards and ducks into Cinderella’s entourage for the ball (culminating in a suspenseful midnight carriage chase) to a Prince (Richard Madden, “Game of Thrones”) who’s established early on as being smitten with Ella for who she is and not just for the glam figure she cuts at his big party.
The ball scene itself calls to mind those Technicolor epics of yesteryear, when actors in crowd scenes dressed in every color of the rainbow to show off a full spectrum for audiences accustomed to black-and-white. Granted, the modern-day equivalent includes that crispy-fried post-production work that pumps up the blues and oranges and makes every surface gleam like a Jolly Rancher candy, but that’s the look that future historians will unfailingly peg as hopelessly early-21st-century.
The less you want to see a “Cinderella” that comments upon or breaks away from the cartoon — which stands strongly enough on its own not to need a remake, thanks all the same — the more you’ll like this version.
Sometimes a glass slipper is just a glass slipper.