Disney's new Cinderella: Squeaky clean and kinda bland

A wholesome, (not-so) fresh take on a very familiar fairy tale.

The thing about Disney films is that, well, they’re Disney films. Pretty and shiny and wholesome, almost to a fault, they represent some heightened version of an already heightened interpretation of the world we live in. Even when the subject is fantasy, the images are squeaky clean, like illustrations in a children’s picture book.

Which is not such a bad thing, I suppose. After all, Disney has cornered the market on family features for almost 80 years. If only it didn’t feel like the edges were rounded off everything, as when childproofing a home. It especially seems to hold true when dealing with darker material – take, for example, last year’s Maleficent, where the title character was not so much evil as simply misunderstood. One shudders to think what they will do with the Star Wars franchise.

But before that we have their live-action version of Cinderella, which opens nationally today. And I guess there’s not much one can do with the source material – after all, fairy tales have become sanitized morality tales of good behavior being rewarded by happily-ever-after endings (much like most organized religions, though that is a discussion for another day). But they didn’t necessarily start out that way, and it’s the interesting shadows in the corners that can make all the difference.

Is there anyone out there who doesn’t know the story of the young woman who slept amongst the ashes, only to wind up married to the prince? We’ve all heard it a million, trillion, gazillion times. And there’s the rub, hoping against hope, that director Kenneth Branagh (in quite a departure from his star-making breakout feature Henry V) would bring something, anything, new to the table.

But for a long while it’s just the same ole same ole, except with much better toys. I mean, seriously, if money equals magic (as conventional Hollywood wisdom appears to believe), then this is Cinderella on steroids. Everything is flashier and more glamorous than ever before – the best that Disney bank can buy. The prince’s palace, in particular, is a marvel of CGI wizardry. And the desperate race to get back home before the clock finishes striking midnight is just out and out fun and fantastic.

But all the glitz in the world doesn’t hide the fact that we’ve heard it all before. And the cast, for the most part, does the story no favors. Lily James (of TV’s Downton Abbey) is a blandly beautiful Cinderella (whose motto “Have courage and be kind” is repeated again and again). And two-time Oscar winner Cate Blanchett leaves all traces of subtlety behind and goes for broke as the wicked stepmother, often swinging from comic buffoonery (at the ball she looked as if she were channeling Carol Burnett) to sinister from one scene to the next. An eleventh-hour attempt to make her appear more sympathetic or at least justify her actions (“And so I lived unhappily ever after. And now my story would appear to be ended”) doesn’t ring true. And this being a Disney film, no eyes are gouged out by birds as in the original story – she and her daughters simply leave, never to come back.

Thankfully, the screenplay by Chris Weitz manages to bring flashes of humor and wit to such over-familiar material – “He went straight for her. You have to admire her efficiency” to describe Cinderella at the ball was a favorite. Derek Jacobi brings gravity and class to his few moments as the prince’s father. And then there is Helena Bonham Carter. Grossly under-utilized – she only appears in one scene – she nonetheless is nothing but fabulous as the fairy godmother who doesn’t “go about transforming pumpkins for just anyone.”

Will any of this make any difference one way or the other to staunch the flow of folks to the box office? Probably not – after all, this is Disney, wholesome, (not-so) fresh entertainment for the whole family. For my money, however, Into the Woods is a more interesting take on the whole glass slipper escapade because at least it has the brilliant music of Stephen Sondheim going for it.

Perhaps the best advice is given by a minor character in the movie. At one point, the lizard-turned-footman turns to Cinderella and advises, “Enjoy it while it lasts.” So enjoy the film while it lasts. But then rock it old school Disney and watch the 1950 animated feature. It may be squeaky clean, but somehow it also feels fresh.

2.5 out of 5 stars.
Rated PG. Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Starring Lily James, Cate Blanchett, Richard Madden, Helena Bonham Carter, Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera. Opens Friday Mar. 13.