This is definitely a Kenneth Branagh film. Or, at least, it undoubtedly looks like one. The tradition of the Branagh literary period piece has sets, costumes, and atmospherics which swallow us whole and transport us straight into the time and place of the story. Every shot is an establishing shot, with actors are figures in a grand opera of lavish linens, and cathedral ceilings. Hairdos and makeup are perfectly researched and implemented for the particular time-period in which the characters live. One thing that you can be sure of when watching Cinderella is that its going to look absolutely spectacular as a live-action film.
What I ended up questioning throughout the entirety of the movie however, was whether there was really any purpose to this movie other than to take a beloved children’s Disney animation and let a showman like Branagh go wild with art direction. One of the major plus points the film has received over its run is the fact that it remains traditional in an era of Hollywood cinema that seeks to constantly update and revise past classics for a new generation which is too cool to look back at cinema history. A culture where we now consider the way movies were made in the 50’s or 60’s as passé and conservative. In that sense, I guess you have to give Branagh points because he is adamant about his classical Shakespearean roots and his passionate and detailed stitching and weaving of set-pieces akin to that of a Cecil B. DeMille or a Lucino Visconti. For those of us who sometimes long for the “the way they used to make ’em” kind of cinema, Cinderella gives us the closest thing to our hearts desire… but sadly, this is only in terms of production values.
What Kenneth Branagh completely forgot, was the fact that the meat of the film, its story, its characters, and its whimsy, gave us nothing new or improved from Disney’s original animated film. With live-action, there is always a subconscious need to be more realistic in dealing with the story’s fantasy. The talking and wise-cracking mice were dispensed of in the live-action version. An added backstory of Cinderella’s family, the death of her mother, and the leaving of her father after re-marrying were all added to give a familial context and a real-life emotional dilemma that we could connect with as humans. This came at a cost however, because it was rushed and compromised on any emotion in order to push the story along (this one is longer than the 1950 Cinderella, but it is much faster paced). Disney has usually done marvelously when dealing with emotionally wrenching family tragedies (let’s face it, we all cried during The Lion King), but Cinderella’s father’s death and her entrapment in her house with an evil stepmother didn’t feel like a tragedy, but rather, simply a plot point we had to get past. It seemed, throughout the duration of the film, that it was not only us who were swallowed whole by Branagh’s sets and decorations, but all emotion in the film got inhaled as well, leaving the characters with a rather cold set of dialogues with little to no feeling in them. We didn’t really get a new Cinderella or a new story here, just one which gave us a chance to see animation translated into live-action as closely as possible… a transition of purely technological advancement and not one of any personal depth. Aside from a few instances where Hollywood production values could be taken to their limits (the ball, the search for the mystery girl, the ending crowning ceremony), much of Cinderella maintains true to its source material but Disney’s 1950 original Cinderella was a classic that works as well today as it did back then because of its dramatic heft. It is an antique sculpture with some stains and dents of course, but still beautiful because of its history and influence. Branagh’s film ends up as not much more than a newly polished replica in a gift shop.