Give Disney this much: In revisiting "Cinderella" for a new live-action incarnation patterned after the 1950 animated film, the studio hasn't skimped. The reins of the pumpkin coach have been handed to Kenneth Branagh, under whom have been assembled two-time Oscar winner Cate Blanchett (as the Wicked Stepmother), three-time Oscar-winning production designer Dante Ferretti and three-time Oscar-winning costume designer Sandy Powell. They don't disappoint: this "Cinderella" is a lavish, classy affair.
But while long on beauty, Branagh's film falls short on whimsy, coming across as a bit rote in the retelling of how the country lass turned "ragged servant girl" turned princess (Lily James of "Downton Abbey" does the dismayingly tiny-waisted honors) turns the head of the dashing Prince (Richard Madden of "Game of Thrones"). Turn, turn, turn: "Cinderella" remains, unavoidably, a fashion show with a prototypical Barbie and Ken escaping an archetypical diva with some smashing costume changes of her own (perched strikingly on a staircase, Blanchett succeeds in conspiring with Branagh and Powell to evoke Joan Crawford's glamorous old-school intimidation factor).
As much as Branagh relishes the opportunity to celebrate Old Hollywood (as with his neo-noir "Dead Again") and old-world pageantry (as with his "Hamlet"), the fact that he's been there and done that helps to explain why this "Cinderella" never quite rises to the level of to urgent or compelling. The director's camera twirls and tracks and swoops, and one can easily play Easter-egg hunt for the colorful splashes of mid-20th century movie style: 1940s American movie palace, meet 19th century European palace. But it's telling that the film's most affecting emotional moments -- a dying mother (Hayley Atwell) here, a dying father (Branagh's mentor Derek Jacobi) there -- stand apart from the story's central conflict.
And what will it all mean to the 2015 audience? After the welcome rehabilitation of Disney princesses and the tiresome revisionism of so many unimaginative "reimaginings" ("Snow White and the Huntsman," "Maleficent"), there's something refreshing about Branagh's take-the-story-as-it-is approach. Of course, this "Cinderella" is careful not to lose sight of its heroine's class-divide triumph and pure-of-heart essence, pitched against the cruel villainess' hungry selfishness. Thankfully, neither Branagh nor screenwriter Chris Weitz ("About a Boy") feels compelled to stick a sword in James' hand, and they waste no time pretending the story runs any deeper than the tag line they brand it with here: "Have courage and be kind."
"Cinderella" has just enough buoyant touches to keep it afloat: Helena Bonham Carter fleetingly getting her Johnny Depp on as a Fairy Godmother with oversized teeth, Blanchett's robust nasty laugh, bursts of girlish glee (a dizzy waltz) and boyish energy (a sudden infusion of courtly fencing), and the ball-bookending sequences of pixie-dust-by-the-pound magic. Ultimately, though, this version of the fairy tale isn't joyful enough to supplant Disney's first take, or sophisticated enough to surpass it in speaking to today's girls.
Rated PG for mild thematic elements. One hour, 52 minutes.