Subscribe for 99¢

How could an esteemed filmmaker screw up a classic like “Cinderella”? By treating everyone in the audience like they were 5 years old, with no sense of the rich history of fairy tales or recent revisionist franchises like “Shrek” and “Once Upon a Time.”

Kenneth Branagh has directed several Shakespeare adaptations, including revisionist versions of “As You Like It” and “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” so he’s not averse to taking artistic risks with beloved material.

The only risk Branagh takes with “Cinderella” is the risk of boring anyone old enough to operate a remote control.

Even a teenager ought to groan when the prologue invokes the “magic” in the farming-estate childhood of Ella. The script by the once-vital Chris Weitz (“About a Boy”) achieves the truly magical feat of not saying an original, insightful or funny thing for almost two hours.

As Ella’s beautiful, blonde mother withers from fairy-tale flu, she counsels her lookalike daughter (played as a teen by the bland Lily James of “Downton Abbey”) to live her life with courage, kindness ... and a little magic.

But while the girl courageously cavorts on horseback and is kind to the woodland creatures who surround the family estate, she learns that magic can be malevolent when a beautiful widow (Cate Blanchett) beguiles Ella’s grieving father. Faster than you can say “bad judge of character,” Daddy (Ben Chaplin) marries the wicked woman, feathers a nest for her two swinish daughters (Sophie McShera, also of “Downton,” and Holliday Grainger) — and drops dead.

We’ve heard the Cinderella story many times before. So does Disney add anything new to this live-action version? Well, there are some cute animatronic mice (a nod, no doubt, to the corporate mascot), but the special effects are little more than chintzy sparkles, the villainy entails more snark than suffering and when the story moves to the palace for the ugly-duckling makeover, the supporting characters are shockingly nondescript.

As the undeserving beneficiary of the usual marry-a-prince propaganda, Richard Madden (a cheap knockoff of James Marsden) is about as charming as a dime-store condolence card.

With the exception of the ever-game Blanchett, the few familiar faces in the cast add little. (As a refreshingly earthy Fairy Godmother, Helena Bonham Carter disappears from the movie after the pivotal ballroom scene. Apparently this godmother isn’t big on loyalty.)

“Cinderella” is so scrubbed of personality, it’s not even worth calling a mess.


What “Cinderella” • One and a half stars out of four • Rating PG • Run time 1:52 • Content Some mild thematic elements

Joe Williams is the film critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.