I guess you can’t really complain about a new version of Disney’s animated Cinderella, but live action this time, doing exactly what everyone expected of a new version of Disney’s animated Cinderella, but live action this time. I mean, it could have been fun, vibrant, witty, clever, different, twisted, edgy – any of those things, or even just one – rather than entirely obvious, without even the slightest glimmer of creativity. But then it might have run the risk of not being what audiences wanted (or were made to want, since the Mouse House is astutely serving up yesterday’s leftovers, with a sprig of garnish and advertised as Today’s Special).
It’s difficult to foresee how this wave of live action Disneys will go, as Alice in Wonderland – loathed as it was, but enormously successful, post-converted to 3D as it was – didn’t necessarily head down the typical route, taking an adult Alice and returning her to the location of her childhood adventures. In essence at least, this Cinderella sounds like it also had something else going on, since original director Mark Romanek – who has a contract whereby he can only ever work on pictures for so long before he is thrown off them by studios unimpressed with his vision and potential for lining their coffers – was driving towards something darker. What Disney has ended up with is reflective of the 1950 film in as much as it’s inoffensively unmemorable (except that at least that was an animation, so more striking for all that it wasn’t one of the studio’s best).
They surely must have desired it exactly that tepid, since Chris Weitz, who ensured the adaptation of The Golden Compass had nothing very engaging going for it either, penned the screenplay. And, adding to the monumental averageness of the enterprise, the impossible miracle (tragedy) of Kenneth Branagh’s incarnation as a name director saw him take the helm.
He flirted with this back in the early ’90s, post Henry V acclaim, when he took on a rightly-derided big screen Frankenstein (itself coming off the back of Coppola’s Dracula). Sir Ken has never been any great shakes as a director. He’s very much from the Chris Carter school of the craft, whereby anything really incontinent or overt, regardless of affinity with the material, is fair game, hence his penchant for relentlessly swirling camera moves to the point of nausea, and a fascination with Dutch angles that would put Sidney J Furie to shame. Somehow, after mounting a limp remake of Sleuth, he got the Thor gig and brought Marvel a hit with its cod-Shakespearean Asgard – and Dutch angles aplenty. And presto, Ken’s fairy godmother has sprung it so he now regularly pops up on director casting lists, be it Jack Ryan or Disney classics.
Cinderella might have done with a bit more of “classic” Ken, the Ken with his delirious camera, as it’s impossibly staid and formal. There’s one moment, as Cinders (Lily James) flees the castle, where he throws in a skewed view, but just the one – that I remember – so perhaps he was on strict rations. It’s all incredibly unadventurous, from the casting (James is okay, Richard Madden is okay, notably more likable than in Game of Thrones, Cate Blanchett is okay, although by her standards she’s on autopilot, Helena Bonham Carter is on autopilot, by way of channelling Joanna Lumley) to the set design, to the sickly mantra (“Have courage, and be kind… and all will be well”; I much prefer her mother’s early pronouncement “I believe in everything”, a good example to set for the kids and one in the eye for Dawkins-types everywhere).
There’s even scant regard for the vaguest drama; everything happens to Cinderella, even her hardships, incredibly easily and with very little effort. Forget about dwelling upon loss etc. The Fairy Godmother’s voiceover nudges the proceedings along throughout, as if the makers are afraid of what might happen if she wasn’t there to state the bleeding obvious and proffer a comfort blanket.
There are a few bright spots. Ben Chaplin brings a tangibly different energy to Cinderella’s father, Nonso Anozie has a considerable fun as the Captain of the Guards, Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera are suitably bitchy as the stepsisters, and Derek Jacobi is dependably and winningly Derek Jacobi as the King. Stellan Skarsgard, as the Grand Duke, repeatedly seems on the edge of going the full Gert Froebe but unfortunately always brings it back down again (in contrast, Rob Brydon is dreadful in a brief cameo; hopefully he can at least use the anecdote for his next outing with Steve Coogan). The transforming (reverting) coach and crew scene is jolly, but you’d hope it would be, as transforming things are the major attraction of doing this live. Well, that and selling tickets to Disneyworld. And all the princess costumes the little darlings will be begging their parents to buy them.
I’m not averse to a solid Disney fairy tale; in the last decade both Enchanted and Frozen delivered the goods for both the studio’s live action and animation divisions. But this new range, bright (money-making) idea as it may be, has left me unconvinced. Maleficent was unmitigated stodge, but an enormous hit regardless. The upcoming The Jungle Book looks as if it has no reason to be other than the technology that brought it into being.
Warner Bros’ recent Pan illustrated how easy it is to put a foot wrong with this kind of fare (and one wonders how well Universal’s The Huntsman prequel will do bereft of Snow White; Alice Through the Looking Glass likewise, now the 3D boom has lost its initial must-see lustre). I suspect next year’s Beauty and the Beast (from Bill Condon) will be every bit the hit that’s hoped for.
And I don’t doubt that Burton’s Dumbo will turn out to be as competently unnecessary with a dash of whacky as all his remakes. Pinocchio (with Downey Jr)? Well, anything to wash away the taste of the Benigni version. Another Peter Pan? Why not, someone has to make a live action version that’s both a hit and also good eventually. A couple on the Disney list (The Sword in the Stone, The Black Cauldron) actually have potential, but Cinderella merely confirms that, unlike several of their other franchises (Marvel, Lucasfilm) Disney really only has an eye on how much lucre they’re going to reel in with these retreads, and negligible interest in artistic merit.