It's time for those of us who write about film to admit it: The war for Hollywood's soul is lost. It was lost a long time ago.
What war? The one against the brand-oriented emphasis of studio movie-making. We've griped for more than 20 years as sequels, remakes and franchise extensions proliferated, and all we've seen is a global industry more dependent than ever on familiar properties, familiar titles, familiar characters, ready for tie-ins and K-Mart toy shelves. When a live-action Cinderella emerges under the Disney banner, there's no point in tearing our hair and asking why. We know it will never stop, any more than the Marvel superhero movies will stop before there are more "phases" than Super Bowls. This is the new normal.
The battle now isn't for the "what" of brand-focused Hollywood; it's for the "how." It's important to change the conversation from "Did we really need a live-action Cinderella?" to "How did this particular live-action Cinderella turn out to be so lifeless?"
In theory, it's not a terrible notion that director Kenneth Branagh's version would be an earnest, straightforward re-telling of Charles Perrault's fairytale of the Disney animated classic. The screenplay by Chris Weitz goes heavier on the back-story, introducing the beloved mother (Hayley Atwell) of young Ella (Lily James) before mom's untimely passing and Ella's merchant father (Ben Chaplin) remarrying, ultimately leaving poor Ella with a stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and two stepsisters (Holliday Grainger, Sophie McShera) who treat her poorly, as traditional stories about the orphaned scullery maid's step-family characters are wont to do. It's a generally bright, cheery interpretation, built around plucky Cinderella's determination to follow her mother's deathbed advice to "have courage and be kind."
And, again, fidelity isn't inherently a problematic approach simply because we're in an era where we're used to new versions of these classic stories, like last year's Maleficent, which shift the perspective or add thornier psychological subtext. The problem is, this version is faithful to only certain things, at the expense of the aspects that would have brought the whole enterprise to life. More specifically, this variant is about only the humans: about Cinderella and her first meeting in the woods with a fellow who calls himself Kit (Richard Madden) but is in fact the crown prince; about Kit's trying to convince his father, the king (Derek Jacobi), that he should be allowed to marry for love; about their courtship at the ball, and so on. It's almost entirely a nice, slow-build romance between two very nice people.
It is, therefore, almost entirely a huge bore. Those who remember the 1950 animated Cinderella (repeatedly re-released in theaters over the years) with any sort of clarity will recall the amount of screen time actually devoted to the human characters is relatively short; the focus is on Cinderella's animal friends, like mice Jacques and Gus, trying to help her out, while trying to avoid being caught by Lucifer, the cat belonging to Cinderella's stepmother. And when the focus is on the people, it's often accompanied by lovely songs like "A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes," "So This Is Love" and "Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo." CGI renderings of the mice make brief appearances here, and there are no songs. In short, somebody thought it was a good idea to create an adaptation of Disney's Cinderella lacking absolutely everything that gave it its charm.
There's a brief glimpse of what's lacking during the rest of the film when Helena Bonham Carter shows up as Cinderella's fairy godmother, goofing her way through prosthetic teeth to do the obligatory pumpkin-into-carriage and fancy-ball-gown thing. Finally a spark emerges to distract from the inexorable march toward happily ever after, and from how eerily Lily James resembles a young Jessica Lange. Even Cate Blanchett can't help with that much-needed energy, despite a token effort to give the stepmother some emotional wounds to explain her cruelty (which nevertheless doesn't prevent Blanchett from going into full arched-eyebrow villainy mode).
And so we wait for the slipper to fit, so we can all smile when the nice people getting their nice ending. Since Disney is currently planning its live-action version of Beauty and the Beast, we'll have to hope that maybe next time, the exploitation of intellectual property winds up with something better than sappily ever after.