Few movies have evaporated from my mind as quickly as this latest Cinderella is doing. Oh, the story hasn’t, but that’s because it’s not in any way significantly different from the story you heard while padding about the house in your Dr. Dentons. When all is said and done, it’s the same as the 1950 Disney cartoon — mercifully minus squeaky singing mice. Oh, this one’s got mice — painfully obvious CGI mice — but they neither sing, nor speak, nor do much of anything other than scamper around and get transformed into horses. Perhaps someone reasoned that having them sing and sew would render the movie unbelievable. For that matter, “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” is relegated to one utterance as a magical spell, and that suits me fine. But the story — well, as Ringo says in The Magic Christian upon hearing Hamlet say, “To be or not to be,” “I’ve seen it.” And you have, too, unless you’re too young to be reading this.
So why are so many critics over the moon about Mr. Branagh’s film? (At the moment, 112 out of 134 reviewers have given it a positive review, and, no, that doesn’t mean they’re all crazy about it, but a lot of them are.) My best guess is that it’s because it really does look swell. OK, maybe the skin tones have been goosed a little too much toward orange, but that’s just the norm these days. The production design by Dante Ferretti (Martin Scorsese’s go-to designer these days) is magnificent. Sandy Powell’s (another Scorsese collaborator) costumes are stunning — if sometimes deliberately grotesque. And Branagh makes sure that both are showcased to the max. In fact, apart from handling everything as if he was making one of his Shakespeare adaptations, that’s mostly what he does. Occasionally, he gets roused into doing something striking — like the swirling camerawork in Cinderella’s (Lily James) first meeting with the Prince (Richard Madden) in the woods. And there’s no denying that the shot of Cinderella in the coach when she arrives at the ball is stunning. But mostly it’s pretty staid and … safe, like everything else in the movie.
I don’t actually blame Branagh — or screenwriter Chris Weitz (About a Boy) — for the movie’s stiff-backed parochial tone. They have, I assume, delivered the movie Disney wanted. And I’ll freely admit that the one child at the showing I saw (mostly peopled by older viewers) obviously adored the movie. (Bear that in mind, if you’re going with kids.) As a veteran of any number of versions and riffs on the story (my favorite remains the 1939 modernized screwball comedy version with Deanna Durbin, First Love), I was not so entranced. I felt like I was marking time while the picture went through plot point after plot point on its way to every set piece and well-known conclusion.
Branagh is also up against such a barrage of CGI effects — from mice to a Friendly Persuasion goose to lizards to pumpkins — that it’s a wonder that the movie feels even slightly human. Helena Bonham Carter shows up as the Fairy Godmother and briefly threatens to inject the film with some life, but it’s a passing moment. Every so often Cate Blanchett’s Wicked Stepmother starts to go full-Glenda Jackson in over-the-top villainy, but quickly dials it down — a wasted opportunity. Am I saying Cinderella is a bad film? No, not exactly. It’s certainly pretty and has a few grace moments. What I’m saying is it’s just kind of a dull straightforward take on Cinderella — and if that’s what you want, I’m sure it’s perfectly fine. Rated PG for mild thematic elements.