Two things made me curious to see how Disney would reinvent Cinderella as a live-action fantasy. The first was the presence of Kenneth Branagh as director, since his best takes on his beloved Shakespeare (especially his excellent full-length Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing) have generally shifted the temporal backgrounds into a sort of a-historical no-man's-land. The second was what sort of approach the studios would take to the fairy tale of the beautiful young woman who becomes effectively her evil stepmother's personal servant after the death of her widowed father: would they do the "reimagining" of something like Maleficent or Oz, the Great and Powerful?
Alas, my curiosity was sorely disappointed. This Cinderella, as rewritten by About a Boy and The Golden Compass writer/director Chris Weitz, is merely a live-action opening-out of the original 1950 Disney animation, playing it straight in traditional fairy-tale territory. And Mr. Branagh seems pretty much to be slumming it for the paycheck, indulging his most decorative instincts without much inspiration.
Even before getting to that, the central problem is clearly that Cinderella seems to fit in with Disney's shareholder-approved new master-plan of "mining" the studio's "intellectual property" to generate new blockbusters, and therefore what's required here is the dreaded "four-quadrant film" that will be everything to everybody and ensure box-office returns. Even though Disney backed last year Rob Marshall's adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods - a film whose playfulness and reinvention of classic fairy tales effectively pre-empts any other serious look at the genre for the foreseeable future - this Cinderella plays it very safe.
This could have been, in itself, interesting as a challenge: how can you do a straight fairy tale in an age where the post-modern, self-referential reading has become de rigueur? Maybe you can do it, but Mr. Branagh hasn't found the way. His Cinderella features eye-catching, inspired production design from the great Dante Ferretti and lavishly appointed costumes from the award-winning designer Sandy Powell, with all the impeccable craftsmanship you expect from British technicians. Its universe seems, in fact, to be somehow loosely connected with his mock-Victorian/Edwardian Shakespeares (and it even seems as if he's recycled a few shots and sets from earlier films). But where it counts - the heart - he is unable to give the tale the spin that would make it less generic and more relatable.
Yes, archetype is part and parcel of fairy tale, but archetype is one thing and fleshing them out is another. Both the kindness and the villainy are here played broadly as befits a children's story, but that stylization sits oddly with the exquisitely detailed universe where everything takes place. In effect, everything is merely staged and play-acted rather than acted, substituting ostentation for emotion. Actors hit their marks and the camera records their performances, but other than Helena Bonham Carter's ditzy Fairy Godmother straight out of post-modernist pantomime and Derek Jacobi's understated, dignified performance as the dying king, everybody seems to be playing it either a little bit too earnestly or a little bit too wide, unhelped by Mr. Branagh's dull, rhythm-less handling. Even the typically magnetic Cate Blanchett (given first billing) as the stepmother seems in muted auto-pilot despite the ravishing gowns Ms. Powell puts her in.
At heart, the issue is that this Cinderella - technically based on Charles Perrault's story but effectively remaking Disney's 1950 film - lacks the depth and dimensions that would make it resonate with modern day audiences, replacing it with a lavish production that works very well as dazzling eye candy but has just about the same amount of empty calories.
USA, United Kingdom 2015
Cast Cate Blanchett, Lily James, James Madden, Stellan Skarsgård, Holliday Grainger, Sophie McShera, Derek Jacobi, Helena Bonham Carter
Director Kenneth Branagh; screenwriter Chris Weitz; based on the short story Cinderella by Charles Perrault and on the Walt Disney animated feature directed by Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske and Wilfred Jackson; cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos (colour, widescreen); composer Patrick Doyle; designer Dante Ferretti; costumes Sandy Powell; editor Martin Walsh; effects supervisor Charley Henley; producers Simon Kinberg, Allison Shearmur and David Barron; production companies Disney Enterprises, Allison Shearmur Productions, Beaglepug Films and Kinberg Genre Films
Screened March 13th 2015, NOS Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon [distributor press screening]