New ‘Cinderella’: Not animated enough

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For Digital First Media

The classic tale of “Cinderella” has enormous resonance. First and foremost, the heroine is an orphan. After the death of her father, she remains plucky and upbeat, despite being treated unjustly by a malevolent stepmother and her mean-spirited stepsisters. Then, there is the intervention of a Fairy Godmother, who enables her to attend the royal ball. There, she meets Prince Charming, who recognizes Cinderella’s inner virtue and falls madly in love with her. How could you not be moved by the story?

Although the protagonists bear different names, there are numerous stories with themes similar to Cinderella. These can be traced back to sixth century B.C. Egypt, when the tale of a lowly courtesan, Rhodopsis, first arises. She eventually marries the Pharaoh of Egypt. Giambatttista Basile, a Neapolitan soldier and courtier, assembled a set of oral folk tales into a written form, titled, “Lo cunto de li cunti overo lo trattenemiento de peccerille” (“The Story of Stories or Entertainment for Little Ones”). It included a story about a character named Cenerentola, which included all of the components that we recognize as the Cinderella tale. The collection was published posthumously in 1634 by Basile’s sister. The tale was also encompassed in collections by the French author, Charles Perrault, in 1697 and the Brothers Grimm in 1812.

The Cinderella iconography has inspired a panoply of theatrical pieces, ballets, and movies. The French pioneer of silent filmmaking, George Méliès, made a seven-minute Cinderella short back in 1899. America’s sweetheart, Mary Pickford, played the Cinderella character in Paramount Picture’s 1914 silent version of the story. However, it is Disney’s 1950 animated “Cinderella” that remains the gold standard. Can Disney’s live action treatment of the tale possibly compare to its animated antecedent?

In this treatment, the film opens while the heroine, here simply named Ella (Eloise Webb), is still young and with both parents (Hayley Atwell, Ben Chaplin) still very much alive. Showered with parental love, Ella frolics in the garden. Is a protracted prologue, depicting a happy childhood really necessary narratively? It pads the running time and results in a film that is nearly two hours long. This challenges the limited attention span of young children.

When Ella’s mom dies, her bereaved father remarries the Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett). On his first trip after remarrying, Ella’s father, who is some sort of undefined merchant, also dies. Ella (played as an adult by Lily James from “Downton Abbey”) is left an orphan. After her father’s death, Ella is banished to living in the unheated attic.  She’s reduced to serving as a lowly scullery maid to her imperious stepmother and nasty stepsisters, Anastasia (Holliday Grainger) and Drizella (Sophie McShera). When Ella cleans out the fireplace, she is left with a soot-covered face. Her stepfamily cruelly anoints her with the disparaging sobriquet, Cinderella.

In a deviation from the traditional storyline, Cinderella meets Prince Charming (Richard Madden from “Game of Thrones) before the ball. She is out riding her horse, when the two meet. The prince is leading a hunting party. Cinderella chastises the prince for the cruel treatment of his quarry. Eager to obfuscate his royal heritage, the prince claims his name is Kit and represents himself as a mere apprentice. Technically, the prince might be considered as serving as an apprenticeship to sitting on the throne. However, this deceptive ploy leads Cinderella to misconstrue that the prince is a commoner, in training to become a tradesman. This is certainly a far cry from his regal destiny.

The ailing king (Derek Jacobi) wants his son to be married before he passes away. Meanwhile, the Grand Duke (Stellan Skargard) has schemed in Machavellian fashion, to orchestrate a marriage between the Prince Charming and Princess Chelina of Zaragosa (Jana Perez). The prince bristles at the notion of a morganatic union. He remains intrigued by the equestrienne he had previously met. With the purpose of meeting her again, he announces a royal ball. In a stroke of egalitarianism, he invites everyone to attend. This must be a fairy tale if the aristocracy is actually going to rub elbows with commoners at a royal ball.

Although the prince has invited one and all to the event, Lady Tremaine forbids Cinderella to join them in their coach. Just for good measure, the stepsisters rip Cinderella’s gown, which she had fashioned out of one of her mother’s old frocks.

Cinderella is left behind with no way of making it to the ball. She shows kindness to an old beggar woman (Helena Bonham Carter),  who turns out to be Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother. With a few magic incantations, the Fairy Godmother conjures up a coach, replete with a team of horses (transformed mice), a driver (a transformed goose), and footmen (transformed lizards).

Cinderella manages to attend the ball, where she has another assignation with Prince Charming, who she still believes to be a mere apprentice. However, she must prematurely leave the affair before the stroke of midnight. That’s when her coach reverts to a pumpkin. In her hasty departure, she accidentally leaves behind one of her glass slippers.  Intent upon tracking down Cinderella, the prince organizes a search for the woman whose foot will fit the glass slipper.

This “Cinderella” is plagued by a screenplay by Chris Weitz, who co-wrote the screenplay for “American Pie” with his brother. It’s a curious background for someone tapped to write the screenplay for a beloved fairy tale. “Frozen” offered a heroine with decidedly feminist proclivities. Last year’s “Maleficent,” starring Angelina Jolie, offered a revisionist version of the Snow White.  By contrast, Weitz seems trapped in an anachronistic vision of the subject matter.

Mark Romanek (“One Hour Photo,” “Never Let Me Go”) was originally scheduled to direct this film. However, his approach was considered unduly dark by Disney executives. He was replaced by Kenneth Branagh, who provides a more tonally positive end product.

The casting is also problematic. In the eponymous role, Lily James is totally pleasant. However, she lacks the screen presence to carry a feature film. Her male counter-point, Richard Madden, is altogether bland. They are eclipsed by members of the supporting cast, particularly Cate Blanchett and Helena Bonham Carter.

Another supporting player should be singled out for recognition. As Captain of the Guard, Nonso Anozie, is superb. An actor of Nigerian parentage, he is one of the only non-whites in the entire cast. At 6’6” and 250 pounds, he cuts an imposing figure. This is enhanced by the euphonious diction provided by Anozie, who is a trained Shakespearean actor. Despite severely truncated screen time, Anozie makes a lasting impression.

The film boasts extraordinary production values. Costume designer, Sandy Powell, has already won three Academy Awards for her contributions to other films. She began sketching designs for costumes two years before principal photography commenced in 2013. Similarly, Dante Ferretti has won three Oscars for best art direction.  Once again, he provides an eye-popping production design.

For all of its beautiful costumes and other top-notch technical aspects, the film’s narrative fails to capture the magic of Uncle Walt’s prior version. This new live action “Cinderella” just isn’t animated enough.

** ½ PG (for mild thematic elements) 112 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerporise@gmail.com.

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