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Persall review: Not much magic to Disney's new 'Cinderella' (w/trailer)

As a director, Kenneth Branagh wields a camera like a quill pen, mannered and dull, seeking Shakespeare where he isn't.

After he dehydrated the pulpy fun from a Marvel superhero and Tom Clancy spies, you can imagine how Branagh mishandles Cinderella, so reverent and corny when a touch of mockery wouldn't hurt.

We don't expect a rollicking fairy tale spoof like Enchanted or an abomination like Snow White and the Huntsman. But this Cinderella is achingly old-fashioned, with scant humor, a regressive heroine and godmother effects that aren't special.

Branagh's Cinderella is an outdated Disney princess, from a time before Ariel and Belle redefined femininity in 'toons. Plenty of assertive, ambitious women have been drawn since. The trend toward live-action fairy tales gives them even more backbone.

So why does Ella, played by poseable starlet Lily James (Downton Abbey), need to be this bloodless, submissive and desperately in need of Prince Charming? Branagh even robs Ella of her singing voice; no dream-wish song for her, or any compositions from the 1950 soundtrack until the end credits. Bibbidi-bobbidi-boo on that.

Screenwriter Chris Weitz sticks close to Charles Perrault's 1697 version of the folk tale, which informed Disney's animated classic. Ella is orphaned early, but not before Mother (Hayley Atwell) teaches her to be courageous and kind, and Father (Ben Chaplin) remarries. The rest can't possibly be spoiled by now.

James makes a lovely submissive, always turning the other perfectly sculpted cheek when life slaps Ella. She doesn't convey any more depth than a theme park Cinderella welcoming guests. Even the CGI mice sharing her prison loft appear gradually disenchanted.

It doesn't seem fair to match a cipher like James against Cate Blanchett's deliciously wicked stepmother, Lady Tremaine. Her steely gaze and venomous line readings are the second-best thing about Cinderella, the first being Sandy Powell's swoony costume designs. The stepsisters' wardrobe, a collection of matching patterns in clashing colors, offers visual comic relief to a movie needing it from anywhere.

Since the audience for Cinderella is basically anyone dressing like her, Disney sweetens the offer by including the musical short Frozen Fever, sequel to THE BIGGEST 'TOON OF ALL TIME. In it, Elsa (voice of Idina Menzel) plans a birthday party for Anna (Kristen Bell) while nursing a head cold. Two words: booger snowmen. Well played, Disney, well played.

Contact Steve Persall at spersall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.

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