“Have courage and be kind.” These are the dying words of Cinderella’s mother in Kenneth Branagh’s live-action mounting of the classic fairy tale (which takes most of its cues from Disney’s 1950 animated version). As platitudes go, it’s not bad; God knows it could have been worse. But it’s repeated so many times and in so many different contexts over the course of the film that it comes to feel less like a notion and more like a bludgeon. It’s typical of the film’s determination to leave no point un-emphasized, no moment un-underscored. This is a Cinderella so crammed full of costume changes, set pieces, plot devices, in-jokes, music cues, special effects, Motivating Factors and Meaningful Gestures that it has no room left for the one thing the story needs: a light touch.
The film suffers from an attempt to be all things to all audience members. Like Cinderella herself, it’s a bit of a people-pleaser. It wants to please little girls with a parade of colorful, sometimes borderline-outlandish costumes, which come courtesy of the great Sandy Powell. In a couple of perfunctory-feeling action sequences, it makes a somewhat desperate bid for the attention of little boys. It tries to avoid making Cinderella’s romance with the prince feel too hasty by giving him more dialogue (and a Backstory). It attempts to placate feminists by having Cinderella do vaguely “empowered” things like vow to “protect” the prince from her wicked stepmother. In short, this is a fool-proof, water-tight, focus-group-approved Cinderella that’s scientifically engineered to Deliver Entertainment. (For adults, it offers up a deliciously campy Cate Blanchett as the stepmother. On this point, at least, the film succeeds in Delivering.)
It’s difficult to say to what extent the film’s faults can be traced to Branagh, best known for his energetic, actively un-pretentious Shakespeare adaptations made in the early 1990s. I’ve always liked Branagh’s Shakespeare films for their stylishness and wit. Even when they were bombastic and sentimental, they worked. It helped, of course, that Branagh was working from great source material; Cinderella’s screenwriter, Chris Weitz, is no Shakespeare. But Branagh’s direction here feels busy, shoddy, rushed. The digital mise-en-scene also feels oppressive instead of whimsical. Cinderella’s coach is a Christmas-tree ornament made out of CGI glitter. Even Sandy Powell’s costumes appear to have been digitally re-touched. I’m reminded of John Waters’ comment about the artificiality of Mommie Dearest: “I don’t think this movie was ever filmed in the light of real day in the real world, ever.” But Branagh can’t be blamed for this: caught up as he is in the Hollywood machine, he’s powerless to escape its machinations. Eye-raping special effects are the order of the day; heaven help the studio filmmaker who tries to get by without them.
The enduring appeal of the three-hundred-year-old source material (which holds the record as cinema’s most filmed story) is resilient enough to survive its treatment here, but only barely. Better versions of “Cinderella” emphasize the basic humanity of the heroine’s plight, which needs very little dressing up (as it were). Curmudgeonly as it may sound to say so, the Cinderella story doesn’t need to be tricked out, digitally enhanced, or otherwise doctored—it just needs to be listened to. This “Cinderella” can’t hear much over the sound of its own noise.