Remember those old-fashioned hardcover fairytale books your grandma used to buy for your birthday, with the ornamental lettering and baroque illustrations? The ones you buried in your closet while you read Goosebumps and Mad Magazine? Disney's new live-action update of CINDERELLA is the movie equivalent of those proper old tomes.
Directed by Kenneth Branagh, it's a surprisingly straightforward retelling of the 1950 animated classic that lacks the flash and revisionism of recent Disney outings such as Into the Woods and Maleficent.
We begin in Cinderella's idyllic English country childhood with her adoring parents. Tragic events unfold, and the teenage Cinderella (Downton Abbey's Lily James) is reduced to a scullery maid by her cruel stepmom (Cate Blanchett) and stepsisters.
But our heroine is pure and incorruptible, living by her mother's credo: "Have courage and be kind." Cinderella's innate goodness manifests in semi-magical powers—she can talk to animals, and the farmhouse birds and mice become her companions. James, rather bland at first, grows increasingly likable, if a bit lacking in initiative.
You know the rest: The prince of the land hosts a royal ball, where he shall choose his princess. Cinderella's fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter, delightfully ditzy) provides a pumpkin carriage, some mice-turned-footmen and a pair of glass slippers.
Branagh shifts into high gear for these scenes, blending relatively understated digital effects with dazzling production design and costuming. He evokes that old-time Disney magic with palaces and ballrooms, princesses and storybook flourishes. Composer Patrick Doyle joins the effort, too, with a fully orchestrated score that swoops and chimes. It's grand.
The film's other elements, however, are curiously inert. The dialogue is stiff, the humor is halfhearted, the supporting characters have no pop and the prince (Richard Madden, Game of Thrones) isn't all that charming. After the ballroom showpiece, the energy steadily dissipates. My first-grade daughter fell asleep briefly during the third act. When asked later about her favorite part of the movie, my discerning companion said it was the bonus animated short from Disney's Frozen that preceded the feature.
This bodes ill for Cinderella's chances in the pop-culture mindshare arena. Lavish and frequently dull, it's a classic throwback movie, but not in a good way.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Serf & turf."