For adults, Disney’s new live-action “Cinderella” will be remembered for what it isn’t. But the little girls who fill theater seats in their princess dresses will still have a great time.
Plenty of films have tried to reinvent and modernize the themes classic fairy tales over the years, and even Disney has taken a subversive angle to recent efforts like “Frozen” and “Maleficent.”
But this “Cinderella” stays true to its animated roots, embracing the light fairytale personality of Disney’s 1950 film. Outside of a weak attempt to incorporate a “take me as I am” theme to the traditional story, director Kenneth Branagh has essentially given audiences a live-action version of what they got the first time around.
To some, this might be disappointing. To others, it will be refreshing.
To all, though, it will be familiar. Ella (Lily James) is trying to graduate from her custom school of hard knocks. Her mother (Hayley Atwell) died when she was young, and soon after her father remarried, he died, too. This leaves Ella in the custody of her stepmother (Cate Blanchett), who has a pair of daughters of her own (Sophie McShera and Holliday Grainger). None of them like Ella, so they make her do all the work, banishing her to the attic and eventually dubbing her “Cinderella” after the soot all over her face.
Her mother’s parting advice was to be courageous and kind, and Cinderella’s circumstances are putting that counsel to the test in an awful way.
Meanwhile, the local king (Derek Jacobi) has ordered his son (Richard Madden) to take a bride. The king would prefer a traditional royal wedding to a well-connected prospect, but the prince is smitten with the farm girl he meets riding around in the woods one day. He didn’t get her name, so he puts on a huge dance in the hopes that she’ll show up. And thanks to a little magical help from her fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter), Cinderella does.
Branagh throws in a few additional twists and tweaks to keep things fresh — a subplot including the stepmother and a conspiring duke played by Stellan Skarsgard adds some intrigue — but there isn’t much here that the audience won’t already be familiar with.
In that sense, there isn’t a whole lot to justify the effort. But when it comes to little kids and Disney movies, sometimes you have to look at things the way a mountain climber sees a dramatic peak: You climb it because it’s there.
One of “Cinderella’s” best draws is its special effects work. CGI characters like the mice that live in the attic with Cinderella are blended well with the live-action world, and Bonham Carter’s pre-ball prep work is fun to watch. Cinderella’s ball dress is practically a character of its own, and the grandiose visuals of the dance will dazzle young viewers.
Blanchett and Skarsgard are fun to watch, even if they aren’t given much to chew on here. James fills the Cinderella role well as Branagh’s well-intended “courageous and kind” theme strains to make her character more than two-dimensional. Bonham Carter’s usual zaniness is a fun foil for Blanchett’s wicked stepmother, though it also feels underused.
In the end, “Cinderella” isn’t about acting and writing so much as it is about making magic for its audience.
Unlike its 1950 source material, this Cinderella isn’t a musical. But even if adults feel like the final product is a bibbidi-bobbidi-boo short of a classic, “Cinderella” is still a fun carriage ride for the little girls who need to get to bed before midnight.
One final note: “Cinderella” may not echo “Frozen's” theme, but it is hoping to capitalize on its phenomenon. A new animated short, “Frozen Fever,” plays immediately before the live-action feature. Altogether, plan on a running time of just shy of two hours.
“Cinderella” is rated PG for some frightening moments and adult themes.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.