105 min., rated PG.
There is nothing wrong with reworking a classic story again and again, especially when such a simple, timeless fairy tale as "Cinderella" never loses its charm. Director Kenneth Branagh (2014's "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit") and screenwriter Chris Weitz (2007's "The Golden Compass") are content to not reinvent the glass slipper, telling an antiquated story we already know — this is your great-grandmother's, your grandmother's, your mother's, and your own "Cinderella." For better or for worse, 2015's live-action retelling remains traditional with little interest in breaking from the 1950 animated benchmark or any of the numerous reduxes. Say whatever you want to say about last year's "Maleficent," but at least it subverted expectations in daring to take a revisionist take on a well-worn story. It's hard to expect much dimension out of a fairy tale, too, but 1998's "Ever After: A Cinderella Story" with Drew Barrymore did it beautifully, and believe it or not, the 2004 Hilary Duff vehicle "A Cinderella Story" even put a more clever spin on the tale as a modern retelling. Nevertheless, it's high time we just get a pleasingly old-fashioned treatment, and this incarnation is just sweeping and magical enough to clear out most of the cobwebs.
Left with her mother's (Hayley Atwell) dying wish to "have courage" and to "be kind," 10-year-old Ella (Eloise Webb) goes about her happy life with her father (Ben Chaplin). Years pass and Ella (Lily James) accepts the fact that her father remarries the widowed Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett), who comes to the house with her two dim, untalented daughters, Anastasia (Holliday Grainger) and Drizella (Sophie McShera). After Ella's father's untimely death, the stepmother saves money by getting rid of the help, turning her stepdaughter into the servant, and redecorating the house with her own extravagant style. As the doting daughters move into Ella's larger room, Ella is forced to live in the attic, where she makes do with her friendly farm mice. When she gets away on horse and rides into the forest, she runs into Kit (Richard Madden), a self-proclaimed apprentice whom Ella does not know is the prince of the kingdom. Not long after their meeting, it is announced that the royal prince is holding a royal ball to find a bride for an advantageous marriage and in hopes of finding the pure common woman he met in the woods. If you're new to Earth, you won't know that Ella will get her wish in attending the ball with a little help from her Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter). Hopefully, Ella's happiness won't always have a midnight curfew.
Sparklingly pretty and confectioned, completely sincere without a wink of post-modern snark or a post-feminist update, "Cinderella" still holds very few surprises. With a story like this, we know what's coming, so it's more about how it will come. Rule number one in fairy tales: if there is a good-hearted parent, he or she will die. When Ella receives the news of her father's death, along with the only present she requested from him, it is a touchingly sad moment to see Ella now alone with both of her wonderful parents gone. How Ella's Fairy Godmother magically turns the giant pumpkin into a golden coach, the mice into horses, and two lizards into coachmen and gives Ella a gleamingly blue dress and glass slippers is also a dazzler. However, director Branagh has only graced audiences with lavish, ravishing production values rather than a fresh, inspired vision. He and screenwriter Chris Weitz mostly go through the paces, with the help of the enchanting Lily James (Lady Rose in TV's "Downton Abbey") as Cinderella. The dominoes just don't fall in any particularly interesting way, almost cursing the plotting with inevitability.
Lily James could have just been a blandly pretty face shackled by her character's passivity, but fortunately, as Ella, she comes across so poised and lovely, never cloying, and emanates soul, charm, warmth and an actual backbone. Even within the reality of a fairy tale, one does wonder if Cinderella has any other clothes. Does she wash the same blue dress off-screen? Richard Madden (HBO's "Game of Thrones") is a dreamy, blue-eyed Prince Kit with natural charisma, and he and James do have a sweet chemistry together, their bond more deeply felt than the superficial, prefabricated kind. That the prince accepts Ella for the cinder ash on her face and her plain dress is also nice without sending any mixed messages. As the vindictive Lady Tremaine, Cate Blanchett makes a fabulous entrance, stepping out of her carriage with her pet cat named Lucifer and veiling her face by her big black hat, and then relishes in the stodgily written part of the wicked stepmother. She's never not fun to watch, snarling and supplying the film with its only source of delicious edge and much-needed menacing presence, but the writing barely allows much of a telling moment to shade the madam's jealousy and cruelty. She's just wicked inside. Best of all is Helena Bonham Carter, in capped teeth, who's an airy, energetic delight when popping up briefly but memorably as Ella's glowing Fairy Godmother to get the young girl ready for the ball with a "Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo."
Kenneth Branagh's "Cinderella" is too much of a grand production with ideal casting to be the bore of the ball, but it has nothing more to add thematically or narratively besides the faultless message of kindness and courage that shines throughout. For a new generation, there is enough heart and technical wonderment on display here to warrant why the filmmakers wanted to retell a tale as old as time, particularly in an age when 2013's "Frozen" actually felt progressive and circumvented Disney-princess tropes. Haris Zambarloukos' cinematography is handsome, and the work of production designer Dante Ferretti's (2011's "Hugo") and costume designer Sandy Powell (2013's "The Wolf of Wall Street") is splendidly just-so. Like Ella's glass slipper, "Cinderella" fits comfortably. A tried-and-true happy ending can sometimes be dull in 2015, but Ella deserves one that it's difficult not to get mildly swept up in the Disneyfied magic in the end.
Grade: B -