Fie on those feminist princesses of recent animation fame. “Cinderella,” a live-action fantasy directed by Kenneth Branagh, features a traditional fairy-tale heroine, rescued from misfortune by a dashing prince. The story is retrograde malarkey, but Branagh infuses it with majesty and delivers a spectacle with flourish.
The production is written by Chris Weitz and based on the 1950 animated Disney film and the Charles Perrault story. Branagh presents the material as old-fashioned sweeping entertainment with a rococo look, killer costumes and a force-of-goodness protagonist.
Following a sugary childhood passage in which her dying mother (Hayley Atwell) tells her to “have courage and be kind,” the grown-up Cinderella (Lily James) puts these words into practice when, after the death of her father (Ben Chaplin), she is forced into servitude by her monstrous stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and horrid stepsisters (Holliday Grainger, Sophie McShera).
At the palace, the prince (Richard Madden) shows some enlightened mettle, refusing to agree to marry a princess. He invites women of all classes to the ball. When her stepmother forbids her from going, Cinderella, with some intervention from a glammed-up fairy godmother (an entertaining Helena Bonham Carter), arrives at the ball in a gilded pumpkin coach. She dances with the prince, flees at midnight, loses her slipper – you know the rest.
It’s indeed familiar stuff, and sometimes it fizzles.
The trying-on-the-slipper passage feels consistently tired. Apparently one requires not only the tiniest waist but the daintiest feet to qualify as the kingdom’s most desirable maiden.
James and Madden are likeable stars, but their characters generate little romantic chemistry.
While Weitz has tweaked the original fairy tale in a few progressive ways, Cinderella remains trapped in a plot that requires her to suffer without protest and talk to mice all day.
Overall, however, Branagh displays his flair for creating big-screen experiences and presents Cinderella winningly by underscoring her essential decency. This is a visually splendid good-versus-evil fantasy with a relevant message about benevolence.
The transformation scene in which Cinderella twirls in the air in magic dust and becomes an exquisite creature who appears to have stepped out of a Fragonard painting is stunning.
The race-against-time passage in which the coach’s goose driver and lizard footmen must get Cinderella back home before the spell breaks is a thrill ride.
And while Branagh, known for his Shakespeare adaptations, included more hints of the bard in “Thor” than in “Cinderella,” he delivers some genuine humanity.
This occurs even in the wicked stepmother. Visually suggesting a 1940s screen diva, Blanchett’s terrifically played character, sporting green getups that complement her scary red lipstick, is a villainess made credible but never softened by a hard-luck backstory. A superb antagonist, she helps the movie to hit more than miss.
Derek Jacobi, as the dying king, and Stellan Skarsgard, as a scheming duke, also figure in. Rob Bryson has a cameo as a klutzy palace artist.
Starring Lily James, Cate Blanchett, Richard Madden, Helena Bonham Carter
Written by Chris Weitz
Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Running time 1 hour, 45 minutes