Cinderella never has seemed mousier than in “Cinderella,” Disney’s gorgeous yet disappointing live-action retelling of the fairy tale.
In this version, bedraggled stepdaughter and housekeeper Ella (Lily James) spends an inordinate amount of time with her mice pals and exhibits a meek quality of her own that seems outdated for a 2015 fairy-tale heroine.
As “Frozen,” “Snow White and the Huntsman,” “Maleficent,” TV’s “Once Upon a Time” and (going back several years) the Drew Barrymore movie “Ever After” have shown, on-screen female fairy-tale characters, whether innocent or villainous, can be complex and self-directed.
Those revisionist tales teach little girls that women can do more to determine their futures than wait around for the lottery win of marrying a prince.
But this “Cinderella,” directed by Kenneth Branagh and scripted by Chris Weitz (“The Golden Compass”), regresses into a straightforward approach, presenting the prince (Richard Madden) as Ella’s only escape from a life of servitude.
Ella is grown by the time her widowed father (a soulful Ben Chaplin) decides to marry a widow (Cate Blanchett, arch and mesmerizing) and move her and her two gaudily dressed, nitwit daughters (Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera) into Ella’s family home.
That home holds happy memories for Ella, of a mother (Hayley Atwell) who died when Ella was young, after urging Ella to “have courage, and be kind.” Ella clings to those words after her father dies and she’s left in the house with her uncaring stepmother and the two twits (although McShera – Daisy on “Downton Abbey” – makes a highly entertaining twit).
James (Lady Rose from “Downton Abbey”) emanates goodness. She nails the “kind” attribute as Ella happily shares with her mice friends the attic space to which her stepmother has banished her. She also shows charity toward a crone-like beggar (Helena Bonham Carter, adding a new portrait to a career-long wall of weirdos), who will repay Ella 1,000-fold.
But the “courage” part eludes Ella, even though she maintains enough mobility, once the stepmother rules the roost, to ride her horse into the forest, where she first meets the prince. Ella also visits a nearby village, where a friend asks her why she remains in the house with step-mama and the two drips. Ella responds that she must protect the home where she once experienced happiness with her parents.
You wish Ella, who looks 22, would stay in the village and get a job as a washerwoman or a fishmonger. Anything to get out from under the stepmother’s thumb.
But Cinderella never ranked among the more interesting fairy-tale characters, anyway. The story’s charm lay more in its flourishes – the glass slipper, the pumpkin-turned-carriage – than title character. That’s why other filmmakers compensated by making Cinderella male and goofy (Jerry Lewis’ “Cinderfella”) or invested with a bit of guile (“Ever After”).
But although it’s missing that necessary twist, the flourishes in “Cinderella” are top-notch. The movie’s solid visual effects produce exciting transitions from pumpkin to carriage and from mouse to steed. Vibrant shots of blue sky, fluffy clouds and tall grass enhance a sense of lightness during scenes of Ella’s happy childhood.
The production moves indoors (it was shot at Pinewood Studios and at other locations in England) for much of Ella’s grown-up life, thus letting two longtime Martin Scorsese collaborators, production designer Dante Ferretti and costumer Sandy Powell, work their magic.
They lend grandeur to the ball where the prince auditions candidates for marriage. Powell’s crystal-laden, hoop-skirted gowns mix nicely with a beautiful terrazzo palace floor.
Cinderella’s blue gown shimmers, sweeps and captivates, although James’ waist looks unnaturally slim. Seeing such an image in a PG-rated film aimed at young girls is disturbing, regardless of whether it was achieved through cinching, dieting or CGI.
Costumer Powell saves her statement pieces for Blanchett, who wears big, curlicue hats and swaths of silk and satin with the tremendous flair. Blanchett is striking in “Cinderella” because she’s always striking, and also because the stepmother’s outfits can be hard to pin down, period-wise.
Most of the fashions look look vaguely Edwardian, but Blanchett sports 1940s shoulder pads and veils and a hairstyle suggesting an invisible hairnet. But the stepmother also wears Scarlett O’Hara hoop skirts, her style the cinematic equivalent of a mullet: noir on top, epic on bottom.
Even with Blanchett playing her, the stepmother remains the same uncomplicated villain she was in the 1950 Disney animated film. This is even more disappointing than the Cinderella character lacking gumption, since she’s always been bland. But “Maleficent” and “Once Upon a Time” have shown that fairy-tale antagonists can hold complexities, and that their callousness and cruelty sometimes derive from their own past abuse.
Apart from an unconvincing, throwaway line from the stepmother to Ella about resenting how Ella represents the home’s former happy state, the character’s treatment of Ella comes down to Ella simply being of little use to her, beyond doing housework. Because she already has two daughters to enter into the prince-marrying sweepstakes.
The prince, when you remove what he symbolizes, is everything you want in a dashing royal. Madden (“Game of Thrones”) imbues his character with ardor for Ella from the moment he meets her. The prince even pretends to be a commoner at first, because it seems the right approach to attract the pure-of-heart Ella.
The prince isn’t keeping Ella down. Disney is. What irks most about that is that Disney helped set the new standard. “Frozen,” “Maleficent” and “Once Upon a Time” are its properties.
Maybe the idea was that on-screen fairy tales have advanced so far that the subgenre can absorb a bit of retro simplicity. And perhaps there will be room for such nostalgia, once there’s pay equity for women, and actresses with 29-inch waists can get work.
Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.
Cast: Lily James, Cate Blanchett, Richard Madden, Sophie McShea
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Rated PG (mild thematic elements)