Blame Tim Burton: ‘Cinderella,’ ‘Dumbo,’ and How Disney Caught Remake Fever

The most interesting moment in Kenneth Branagh’s new Disney-owned remake of Cinderella occurs around the halfway mark, when Helena Bonham Carter shows up as the title character’s fairy godmother. Being Helena Bonham Carter, she has to first appear under pounds of hideous makeup, but once I realized who it was, I perked up — because she and the director have a history. They co-starred in his 1994 Frankenstein and reportedly had an affair that broke up Branagh’s marriage to Emma Thompson, and then they were together for like five years, and OMG this is the first time he’s directed her since. How interesting, I thought. Was it awkward on set? Did he cast her, or was she part of the package before he was? Did Ken’s current wife worry? The point is, I had a lot of time to think about the potentially charged atmosphere on set during this stretch of Cinderella. I had a lot of free thinking time during the movie in general, if we’re being honest, because it’s such a rote recitation of a story we’ve heard a thousand times that it’s hard to imagine why on earth they’re telling it to us again.

And let’s be clear here: in the world of oft-told fairy tales, it’s hard to come up with one that’s been told more oft than Cinderella. Obviously, you’ve got Disney’s own, iconic 1950 animated version, and the Rogers and Hammerstein musical take, filmed for television three times (most recently in 1997). But just in recent years, you’ve got Drew Barrymore in Ever After, Anne Hathaway in Ella Enchanted, Hilary Duff in A Cinderella Story, and Selena Gomez in Another Cinderella Story — hell, Disney was doing the glass-slipper shuffle just three damn months ago, with Into the Woods. And here we are again, with yet another run at the foot fetishist’s favorite fairy tale.

Helena Bonham Carter in "Cinderella"

To his credit, Branagh tries like hell to breathe new life into this musty old tale, tossing in little asides and jokes here and there (as he does in his Shakespeare films), and even coming up with a good sequence or two; the breathless scene of her coach and its attendants’ midnight transformation has a nice, wild energy. And the performances are decent to inspired; Cate Blanchett is purring camp perfection as the wicked stepmother, but of course you didn’t have to be told that.

And yet, why does Cinderella exist? I’m not talking about it being, to borrow a movie-Twitter/blogosphere crutch term, “unnecessary”; by definition, it’s hard to find any movie that’s necessary. I’m just having trouble figuring out why anyone would want to spend a year making, or two hours seeing, yet another dull march through these familiar paces. Maybe I was just in the wrong mood when I saw it Monday, that afternoon’s Ghostbusters Cinematic Universe” news leaving me particularly bitter about the cynical way that familiarity and #brands continue to take over movies — how even when it feels as though we’ve reached peak “everything old is old again,” studios find new ways to prioritize familiarity over originality, trademarks over artistry.

Cate Blanchett in "Cinderella"

Turns out, like most things, you can blame it on Tim Burton. Yesterday, Disney announced his attachment to their fuggit-why-not live-action remake of Dumbo, and your film editor (who, I promise, pays attention) hadn’t yet drawn the lines that Speakeasy’s Ben Fritz does: Disney’s remaking a bunch of their animated movies, with live-action takes on The Jungle Book and Beauty and the Beast also in the pipeline. Why are they turning themselves from a family movie studio into a recycling plant? “With 2010’s Alice in Wonderland, which grossed more than $1 billion worldwide, Mr. Burton directed one of Disney’s most successful live-action movies ever,” Fritz explains. “It also served as the spark for the new live-action fairy tale strategy that Walt Disney Pictures is aggressively pursuing…”

So there’s your answer to my admittedly naïve question, “Why does Cinderella exist?”: lots and lots and lots of money. But this strategy of repetition is particularly disappointing from the Disney factory (not that it’s unprecedented, as anyone who’s sat through the straight-to-DVD Cinderella III: A Twist in Time can tell you) because it’s so wildly redundant. Cinderella (and Alice and Dumbo and Jungle Book) aren’t the brand names here; Disney is. They’re the franchise that gets people in the door, and most of their recent financial successes — Frozen, Big Hero 6, any number of Pixar flicks — weren’t sequels or remakes, but original stories or heavily reworked adaptations. I’m sure they’ll make plenty of money by cranking out pale imitations of their greatest hits, but they won’t do anything to further their legacy; if anything, they’ll dent it.

Or as Cinderella herself so aptly puts it, “Just because it’s done, doesn’t mean it’s what should be done.”

Cinderella is out tomorrow.