Refreshingly free of all snark, the satisfying new live-action Cinderella from the princess manufacturing company known as Disney has generated a whirl of pre-screening publicity regarding the billowy blue gown with the terrifyingly narrow waist, as worn by the excellent British actress Lily James.
I vote for costume designer Sandy Powell as the real star of this project. The setting may be early 19th century, but Powell and director Kenneth Branagh roam freely across the decades and even centuries for visual inspiration. The ballgown favors traditional 19th century lines; in other scenes, Cate Blanchett’s evil-ish stepmother is very 1940s in the hat department, wearing more green than you’ll find in The Quiet Man.
Downton Abbey star James was a first-rate choice for this Cinderella, as was screenwriter Chris Weitz. It’s a sincere, open-hearted rendering of the familiar fairy tale. The voiceover narration is provided by our heroine’s fairy godmother played by Helena Bonham Carter, who appears on screen in due course, sporting a dubious set of false teeth. The grief in the story is not fudged or shoved to the side; without being morbid, director Branagh presents the demise of Cinderella’s mother and then her father as inevitable parts of a narrative we know pretty well going in.
Cinderella’s love match, the handsome prince (Richard Madden) she does not realize is royalty when they meet, deals with his own aging parent, the king. He is portrayed by Derek Jacobi and in just two or three scenes, he delivers everything: wisdom, parental fondness, fully earned pathos and a sparkling wit. Sorry, forget about costume designer Powell; Jacobi’s the secret weapon here.
That said, James is first-billed, and she’s the rare young performer who can make consistent goodness interesting. Cinderella’s mother’s deathbed advice guides the picture: “Have courage and be kind.” As Cinderella contends with each new setback, every insult from her horrid stepsisters and their cunning mother, she and her private allies — the computer-generated mice in her attic bedroom, for example — become lessons in coping strategy. And in the forest, when Cinderella meets the prince on a royal hunt, their mutual romantic interest is taken very seriously. It seems, well, real.
The unreal stuff, of which there is much in Cinderella, reveals Branagh to be a workmanlike wrangler of digitized fantasy. The big transformations, notably the pumpkin coach routine, carry some nice details, such as the humanoid goose’s reluctance to take the reins. (“I can’t drive. I’m a goose.”) Yet the effects are routine. I’d like to see a live-action Disney fairy tale with a little less of that business and a little more practical magic.
Branagh’s regular composer, Patrick Doyle, delivers a persistent dribbling stream of forgettable mood music, and that’s too bad; most of the scenes are acted so well, you don’t want anything competing with them. Branagh’s directorial career is a hardy one indeed. With his Marvel comics foray Thor and now Disney’s Cinderella, he has acquitted himself as a dutiful company man with limited visual imagination. On the other hand, he’s terrific with actors, and it’s pleasing to come away from a movie such as Cinderella having felt something for, and with, the archetypes on the screen.
Preceding the film is a nifty animated short, Frozen Fever, which brings Disney’s Frozen gang back for a vignette about Elsa throwing a birthday party for sister Anna. The new characters, known as “snowgies,” are tiny little snowpeople created each time Elsa sneezes. Despicable Me minions: Watch your backs!
Cinderella (PG): ★★★✩✩