★★★ out of four stars
Disney’s new live-action “Cinderella” is not a reboot. It’s a case of sliding a glass slipper on a movie to make sure it’s the classic that studio executives are looking for. It draws on the simple, pleasurable story line of Disney’s original animated romance just as the studio’s old-style 2011 adaptation of “Winnie the Pooh” guardedly honored its source.
It presents the princess fantasy — probably the best-liked and best-known fairy tale in the world — uncut. The comical meta twists of “Tangled,” “Enchanted” and “Frozen” are gone.
The new “Cinderella” is the opposite of new, a traditionalist throwback to a much loved classic. The tone is sweet and occasionally stodgy, a faithful remake that stays kid-friendly from start to finish. It’s what children love before they develop a taste for satire.
As usual, things are set somewhere European, provincial, 17th century or so, and unknown. “Downton Abbey’s” Lily James plays Ella, the kind and tender youth of her adoring mother (Hayley Atwell) and likewise devoted papa (Ben Chaplin). Years after mother dear dies (where would these period tales be without deceased parents?), father remarries with Ella’s angelic blessing.
Not a good choice on either’s part. Soon their lives are plagued by a manipulative stepmother plotting to take command of the family’s fine business income and lead the life of a dowager empress. Then father passes on; mommy meanest demotes Ella to attic-dwelling maid, and bullying twin stepsisters rename her Cinderella when fireplace clinkers leave a bit of dirt on her cheek. She’s barely 19 and her life is on the garbage heap.
Luckily, gentlemen prefer blondes and Cinderella’s light gold tresses enchant the local Prince, a modest fellow who terms himself an apprentice and prefers to be called Kit. When he throws a wide-open royal ball to meet with her again, Cinderella’s rival siblings hope to steal him away.
The film features a who’s who of international acting talent: Cate Blanchett is caustic as the wicked stepmother; Richard Madden from “Game of Thrones” radiates charm as the Prince; Derek Jacobi is the good-hearted king; Stellan Skarsgård a power-hungry grand duke; Helena Bonham Carter the half-daft fairy godmother, and Rob Brydon a court artist preparing the prince’s portrait for the royal ball. Only the last two add significant laughter to the film, she introducing herself as the heroine’s “hairy dog father” and scampering through her “bibbity boppity boos,” he bantering about painting Kit’s sizable nostrils.
“Cinderella” is directed by Kenneth Branagh, with an abundance of earnestness and not a hint of his usual idiosyncrasy. The play-it-safe screenplay by Chris Weitz (director of the dullest “Twilight” film, “New Moon”) lacks the pixie dust needed to create magic. The design of the film is idyllic, with breathtaking sets and color-coded costumes from Dante Ferretti and Sandy Powell, each a triple Oscar winner. Yet the cinematography by Haris Zambarloukos is routine, lacking the thrill he gave to Branagh’s “Thor” and “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.”
Unfortunately, every character is largely one note, with James holding a single beatific expression throughout. By and large, the abundant British accents give the cast calm gravitas. The exception is Bonham Carter, delivering some of her fairy-tale nuttiness from Tim Burton’s 2010 “Alice in Wonderland,” the last totally insane Disney movie. She is the only performer who manages to turn this healthy, nutritious pumpkin of a movie into a sprightly coach.