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Review: Cinderella Is Beautiful But Bibbity Bobbity Boring

Expect to love-hate (or hate-love) this movie.

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Let’s get this out of the way: I do not hate the story or idea of Cinderella. Growing up, I actually loved (LOVED) the Disney cartoon. And more than that, I watched and danced to the live action version, starring my namesake Lesley Ann Warren. I knew every lyric from those movies, and still could stand up and sing (poorly) the Rogers and Hammerstein music, my favorite being “10 Minutes Ago I Met You” – but “My Own Little Corner of the World” is a close second. Gus Gus also might have been my favorite Disney friend, so cute and squeaky.


But even as a kid singing that music and delighting in the cartoons, I felt some discomfort with a lot of things in the story of Cinderella. She just isn’t a very dynamic character ,and the “love” story really isn’t a great tale for little girls. And yet I was consistently won over by it, despite my better judgement. It was the definition of a guilty pleasure for me; I loved it in the moment, but hated how much I let myself get carried away. But I understand the appeal of Cinderella, and there are parts of me which can still revel in the story without making me into passive victim. It’s the same part of me that loves being picked up at the office for a surprise dinner, or why I read Pride and Prejudice in the summer. The sweeping, grand romantic gesture is something I want (on occasion); I just don’t want to have to be a victim to enjoy it.

All this to say, I didn’t go in with good or bad expectations for Cinderella, but I certainly had expectations. The movie, directed by Kenneth Branagh, is upfront about the fact that it isn’t a retelling of the classic Cinderella story; it isn’t taking a new perspective or subverting anything, like Maleficent. It is the story straight from the cartoon, done as a live action film, with some attempts to flesh out the backstory of both Cinderella and her Prince. If you don’t know the story of Cinderella, which would be shocking, here are the basics: Cinderella loses her mother, and her father remarries a horrible woman with two daughters. Cinderella’s father dies, leaving her in the care of her stepmother, who essentially turns her into a servant. A ball is announced for the kingdom so the prince can find a wife, and all in the land are invited, but stepmother won’t let Cinderella come along. And so the magic begins.


Here’s the good stuff: Cinderella is a spectacular looking movie. The costumes by Oscar-winner Sandy Powell are gorgeous across the board, especially the silky-satins worn by Cate Blanchett and technicolor dresses of the stepsisters (particularly their last sweater dresses, which look almost ’50s inspired). They’re really something to behold. The same can be said for the set design of the interiors and exteriors, and the film’s CG looks great; it’s wonderfully bright and the light often feels natural, which is a change of pace for big, blockbuster movies. Cate Blanchett is also fantastic (of course) as the stepmother, and seems to relish being wicked.

Unfortunately, the movie, even with all this great window dressing, is saddled with some pretty bad dialogue, uninspired lead performances, and boring storytelling. Chris Weitz (in charge of the new Felicity Jones Star Wars spin-off, Rogue One) wrote this script, and I have to say, I was sort of amazed by how bad the dialogue really is. It just becomes repetitive, and the movie is completely over-narrated; but it has to be, because otherwise we really wouldn’t know why characters do what they do – especially Lily James, who just doesn’t work as a heroine. She smiles from start to finish, and confuses warmth with sexual flirtation. She never shows Cinderella’s torment, and her constantly smiling though the abusive behavior she suffers makes her seem more stupid than simply fragile. Weitz even makes it hard to empathize with Cinderella because, when we see her being awkwardly made into a servant at eighteen, you have to ask yourself – why is she just passively allowing herself to be relegated to this position? The reasons we’re given make no sense, and seeing a girl of that age happily being turned into a doormat is bizarre. In other versions, when we don’t see the “before,” we can assume this started years earlier, when she was a child. In that case, it’s understandable that, by eighteen, Cinderella would have internalized and accepted the abuse from her step-family. Here, it’s nonsensical.


There is an ongoing theme from her mother – Peggy Carter herself, Hayley Atwell – that Cinderella must always have courage and kindness. But the movie confuses these two things with being stoic and passive, which is such a bad thing to see in a movie so clearly aimed at the Frozen generation (and by the way, the Frozen short is just terrible). And, forgive me for this, but a quick detour regarding something completely superficial: hair. I really, really hated Atwell and James’s fake blonde hair with their very dark eyebrows. Why they made these two beautiful women dye their hair or wear such ugly wigs is beyond me.

Richard Madden, who is charming on Game of Thrones, isn’t much better than James, although he is considerably more charismatic, especially with his father played by Derek Jacobi and his captain played by Nonso Anozie, who is definitely the second MVP in this movie after Blanchett. The part of me that loved Anozie wondered why he couldn’t be the prince, because he really is a fun, energetic presence on screen (though I’m sure we’re all pretty clear on why Hollywood didn’t cast him as the prince). James and Madden, however, generate no heat and occasionally, their love relationship is a little unsettling, such as when the prince says he’ll find her whether she wants to be found or not. And we certainly don’t see the initial spark, which is supposed to drive the rest of the movie.


The problem with just doing a straight, non-musical, non-animated, non-talking-animals version of Cinderella is that it highlights how minor the story really is. Often these stories benefit from being simple and straight-forward when told in these other ways, because you can insert other elements. Cinderella works especially well as a musical, because the joy and pain and passion of the character we don’t see elsewhere in the story is on display during the song. But here, there is nothing but story and characters, and they are just kind of boring. No wonder Branagh’s movie feels so, so long… and he put so much effort into the look of the film. The movie’s visuals are a good distraction, but not enough to recommend it as a night out.

Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.

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