Retold thousands of ways in folk literature, invoked by dozens of dating reality shows, revised and parodied everywhere from Pretty Woman to "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt," the Cinderella tale endures. The story of a human doormat who undergoes magic-assisted metamorphosis and social elevation is just too good to resist.
In fact, it's such a good story that Disney has told it to film audiences twice in the past 12 months, in radically different ways. Last December, Into the Woods presented Stephen Sondheim's fractured, grown-up vision of a Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) who wins the prince and suddenly isn't sure she wants him. Now, with Cinderella, the company returns to the reassuringly old-school version of its 1950 animated feature of the same name, recreating it with live actors, CGI and the occasional twist.
No one should go to Cinderella expecting a "reimagining" along the lines of Maleficent, or even a take-charge, 21st-century fairy-tale heroine like Rapunzel in Tangled. Determinedly predictable in its story and retro in its sensibilities, Kenneth Branagh's film probably wouldn't even have upset anyone in 1900 (once they recovered from the shock of seeing a digitally enhanced world on screen).
Lily James (of "Downton Abbey") plays our heroine, Ella, as a childlike, trusting, whimsical girl raised in the bosom of the kind of family that generally nourishes such traits. But when her doting parents (Hayley Atwell and Ben Chaplin) perish in fairly short order, Ella is thrown on the mercy of a cynical social climber of a stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and her shallow, bickering daughters (Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera).
Banished to the attic and renamed "Cinderella" by her sneering rivals, the perpetually cheerful Ella experiences an actual bout of depression. So she takes a jaunt into the woods, where she meets a prince in commoner drag (Richard Madden) and begs him to spare the stag he's hunting, thereby winning his heart and putting everything in place for that inevitable ball.
Chris Weitz (About a Boy) has crafted a script that gives the plot occasional subtler shadings; for instance, the stepmother persecutes Cinderella out of insecurity vis-à-vis her dead predecessor, not random malice. Meanwhile, the film's costuming (by Sandy Powell) and production design (by Dante Ferretti) constantly ply the audience with eye candy. Cinderella's home is lit like a pre-Raphaelite interior, with swatches of rich color catching the eye; when Blanchett shows up, dressed and posing like Joan Crawford, she brings with her a decidedly Old Hollywood aesthetic. And Helena Bonham Carter, as the fairy godmother (who also narrates the film), offers much-needed notes of deadpan humor.
But in the end, Cinderella's main appeal is its take-me-as-I-am sincerity — what's left after the clock strikes midnight and magicked finery and sophistication disappear. There are no epic battles or quests added to this fairy tale, no attempt to appeal to the quadrant that might prefer to be watching another Harry Potter. Under all those digital effects, the film is as unadorned as its moral, which Cinderella learned from her mother and repeats often (for some viewers, perhaps, ad nauseam): "Have courage, and be kind."
Older viewers, of course, know that those two good rules of conduct don't guarantee anyone a handsome prince — and that sometimes handsome princes aren't all they're cracked up to be. Placed beside the more complex vision of Into the Woods, this Cinderella looks awfully regressive, but the contrast could start interesting mother-daughter conversations. Why, one might ask, did the tales of ages past exalt so many patiently suffering damsels, and so few who got their hands dirty?
On the plus side, it's hard to believe even a very young viewer would see this vision of passive goodness triumphant as anything but the wistful fantasy it is. While it's as unchallenging as comfort food, this Cinderella is almost as hard to hate.