Kenneth Branagh’s “Cinderella”

CINDERELLAOne of the more interesting aspects of film criticism is swimming against the current. Case in point, the latest entry in the post-Alice in Wonderland live-action cash-grab sweepstakes: Kenneth Branagh’s take on yet another Disney production of Cinderella. Sure, it made a killing in its opening weekend ($131 million worldwide), but that was a given. The head-scratcher is that it somehow has an 84% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. After seeing that Cinderella has been collectively praised for its acting, faithful script, and allegedly empowered heroine, I could only wonder if I’d sat through a different print of the movie.

The 1950 animated classic, also by Disney, ran at a slender but well-paced 77 minutes. Branagh and screenwriter Chris Weitz staple on an extra half-hour’s worth of backstory, plot twisting, and actors swooning on deathbeds. It’s still somehow an official remake, but with the bonus of Cinderella first appearing as a youngster living luxuriously with both her parents in a peaceful kingdom that looks out of a Thomas Kinkade painting. Their idyllic world is shattered when her mother (Hayley Atwell) falls ill and dies. Her father (Ben Chaplin) then weds the widow Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett), who has two odious daughters of her own from a previous marriage and is bent on making our heroine’s life a living hell. Branagh and crew treat the audience with similar contempt with a soulless, rushed paint-by-numbers production that offers nothing fresh and teeters on the precipice of those cheesy, star-studded ’80s live-action CBS fairytale specials. Only Sandy Powell’s phenomenal costume design deserves to be remembered come next March.

For the miserable existence Cinderella endures, she’s never under any serious threat, the obligatory slave-labor montage notwithstanding. In the animated film, she is trapped in a virtual fortress with her stepmother more her jailer than guardian. Here, she’s holed up in a massive, isolated attic for which the average San Franciscan would sell their blood, and is even allowed to venture out for the occasional horseback ride. (Empowerment, indeed.) The two-dimensional performance of Downton Abbey actress Lily James too often resembles a feature-length audition for a Crest WhiteStrips commercial, with a forced Anne Hathaway-like grin frequently spread across her alabaster face.

Richard Madden is her Prince Charming (renamed “Kit”), cut from the same swath of cardboard and gleaming dental enamel. They meet under inanely forced circumstances and fall in love as if under deadline, culminating in a later scene at his palace that is intended to be intimate but is instead questionable at best. Blanchett, anachronistic Roaring Twenties-style wardrobe and all, echoes Charlize Theron’s unctuous matriarch who was the lone positive of 2011‘s awful Snow White and the Huntsman, but the otherwise reliable Helena Bonham Carter is merely herself here, goofy mannerisms and all, as the iconic Fairy Godmother. It’s Holliday Grainger—a most talented young actress—and Sophie McShera who nearly steal the film as Cinderella’s repellent stepsisters Anastasia and Drisella, both played in comic relief mode as if on a collective Pop Rocks overdose and in turn keeping the proceedings from resembling the pumpkin Cinderella rides in on: a giant squash.

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