Hard truth: the original “Cinderella” works best when singing or mice dominate the screen — even more so when the mice sing. The story is very simplistic, and the use of magic is far too brief. The only thrills occur when the stepmother’s evil cat, Lucifer, chases Cinderella’s fury companions. Nope, you won’t see that here. Sadly, Kenneth Branagh’s live-action adaptation offers very little worth, dwelling when it’s all so familiar. What should be reimagining is just regurgitation.
Not much changes between Disney’s “Cinderella” in 1950 and this 2015 variation. We enjoy a bit more exposition regarding young Ella’s (Lily James) parents. Pause and meet Hayley Atwell (Peggy Carter from the “Captain America” films and ABC’s “Agent Carter”), whose depiction of Ella’s mother steals the show. And then she dies, but not before she provides Ella one last lesson, “Have courage and be kind,” she says in her last moments.
These words drive Ella, even when her father (Ben Chaplin) remarries the most wicked stepmother of all, Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett), who turns Ella into little more than a house servant when Ella’s father passes away. And misery craves company as the “Lady” bore two equally treacherous daughters, Anastasia (Holliday Grainger) and Drisella (Sophie McShera), who nicknames Elle “Cinderella” thanks to the cinder covering the young heroine’s face one morning following a long day of chores.
Borrowing a plot point from “Ever After” — a far superior Cinderella tale — Ms. Cinderella chances upon a rather charming young man by the name of Kit (Richard Madden), who’s learning the trade of his father in the castle. They exchange some witty retort in an attempt to prove that Cinderella is not the passive, domestic 1950s housewife many often perceive her to be. I’m not sure it works.
Spoiler alert (not really): Kit’s actually the prince, and he’s quite taken with this nameless maiden from the forest. At least he can vent to his best friend, the Captain (Nonso Anozie). Fun fact: both Madden and Anozie starred in “Game of Thrones”, and (real spoiler alert) it’s nice to see them get some work following their demises in the HBO show. At least Anozie is a compelling character, but our charming Prince (or is it Prince Charming) is typecast in the role.
Unlike the animated original, we learn much more about the prince and his responsibilities to an aging monarch (Derek Jacobi) concerned about the future of his modest kingdom. The right marriage to a foreign power would secure the future. At this point, we even receive an unexpected lesson on leadership, namely the importance of a kingdom’s self-sufficiency — the ability to survive without the need for imports. If you catch it, you might smile and think, “Thanks DIS 001: Remedial Economics”.
The mice are in there too, but they don’t speak. They just kind run around and stare at Cinderella while she talks to them like a mad woman. It’s a bit cute, kinda. The real winner is a lizard transformed into footman, played by Tom Edden, when she goes to the ball. Add Helena Bonham Carter as Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother, and the pieces are set for a tale we’ve all heard many times before.
For a brief moment, it seems like we might experience something different. “Maleficent” was imperfect to great fault, but at least it tried to do something different with the classic “Sleeping Beauty” story. “Cinderella” channels the classic like a Xerox machine. Lady Tremaine is downright evil — her daughters, stupid. Cinderella is pure — her pets, adorable. It’s all too simple.
Reboots and retellings don’t have to be generic, and they should be more complex. Say what you will about “Snow White and the Huntsman”, but it was layered amid its stupidity. “Cinderella” is well acted and clearly structured, but it all feels like obligation, bound to the source rather than liberated by it.
Branagh can’t seem to find a worthy project. “Thor” should’ve been one, but he might only be remembered for concocting a terrible superhero fight sequence. And then came “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” … why dwell on such an easy target? He needs a win, and at least “Cinderella” will make a killing at the box office because of its name.
But this book’s cover truly speaks little about the contents within. It’s just as lifeless as the CGI in another pathetic update, Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland”.
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