The unbridled imaginations at Disney have managed to do it again, creating a fantasy beyond belief. With its new live-action Cinderella, the studio has managed to do the impossible, and portray a version of the classic fairy tale heroine who's even more of an insipid doormat that the one in its 1950 animated classic. For all that the animated Cinderella is probably the blandest and most inactive of Disney's princesses, there are still flickers of activity here and there. At the end of the film, after her vile stepmother has cruelly figured out one last trick to keep Cinderella from her happy destiny, she's got that moment where she waits till exactly the right moment to whip out her back-up glass shoe as Ilene Woods delivers the line "You see, I have the other slipper" with exactly the right amount of smugness that the addendum, "did you hear that, bitch?" can be plainly detected. That's more autonomy than Lily James's noble martyr is ever permitted by Chris Weitz's script. This Cinderella doesn't even cry inconsolably when she's locked in an attic; she simply dances in happy little circles and resigns herself to the belief that, anyway, at least she gets to be alone with her pleasant memories now. I mean, what the actual fuck.

There's the debate to be had about the social implications this all has, but frankly think that's a higher-order conversation than Cinderella deserves. This is a straightforward dramatic problem, it is. Make a protagonist who's so all-fired passive as this Cinderella for the 21st Century, and you end up with a story full of frustrating anti-moments: scene after scene of a terrifyingly skinny girl beatifically permitting herself to tremble her chin for a moment before she recalls her mother's (Hayley Atwell) dying admonishment to be nice Cinderella, good Cinderella, and to always retrench to her fantastic visions of life as it could be, not as it is. And so she allows herself to soak up abuse from horrible people without a murmur of complaint; she doesn't even complain in the privacy of her drafty garret to her little CGI mice friends, who are the most transfixingly awful mix of not-quite-right compositing and not-quite-realistic design, and generally feel like something that, were this a David Cronenberg or Catherine Breillat film, would be our first clue that our heroine was suffering from schizophrenia. I'm honestly not confident that it's not true of this Cinderella; the relentlessly upbeat tone and bright colors feel like they could imply some irony, even though they turn out not to. And the talking-to-mice bit feels soldered in artlessly to what mostly tries to be a fairly realistic fairy tale.

Having such a bauble of a lead turns out to be just about right. Cinderella makes no claims on depth or complexity; unlike Disney's last cartoon brought to life, Maleficent, this isn't even minutely interested in challenging or re-conceiving the original animated feature it occasionally nods too. It's not even really a remake; the shared elements between the films are commonalities between all Cinderellas, for the most part, and there are no design elements carried over. One song from the original film makes the briefest cameo during the movie, and two others are covered in the end credits, but that's just about as far as it goes. And so we get the ominous line in the credits that this is based on the Charles Perrault fairy tale, and on "Disney's Cinderella properties". If we are to have brand extensions, it's nice for them to at least be honest about it.

The result, unsurprisingly, is about as straightforward as an adaptation of the story could possibly be. Weitz's primary concession to modern tastes is to give Cinderella and her prince (Richard Madden) a meet-cute out in the woods, so that it's not such a regressive fable of finding one's soulmates based on purely physical criterion. Beyond that, the only real draw - above and beyond "come see something wherein you already know exactly what will happen and how", which I'm sorry to say is certainly the film's biggest selling point - comes in the form of seeing how Disney's money has been used to flesh out this version of the story with the most opulent Dante Ferretti production design and Sandy Powell costumes. And those things are, I concede, quite marvelous: the costumes especially are spectacle of the first order, and when they are garish and campy, it seems absolutely clear that the film knows and loves this about them. Director Kenneth Branagh, making what might very well be the most impersonal movie of his career, does a satisfactory enough job framing this sumptuously (it's easy to believe this is the same man who brought Thor's Asgard to the screen), if not with too much energy; the ball scenes are disappointingly small in execution, which seems like a particularly odd missed opportunity. But at least he puts a lot of pep and effectively florid touches in the magical transformation scenes.

With James being pinioned by the script and her corsets, and Madden being just plain dull, there's not much to anchor this tour of a stylish fantasyland, but at least the film is blessed with two wildly overqualified villains. Following in the tradition of Glenn Close and Angelina Jolie in doing a great job bringing a brilliant Disney villain to physical life, Cate Blanchett's stepmother, Lady Tremaine, is the obvious highlight of the movie, with enough depth and nuance to her portrayal of an unrepentant abuser that I'd have given just about anything to see a movie about her, instead. Making the most out of a handful of lines that imply the shape of a backstory without coloring it in, she suggests the hopeless competition with a saintly dead wife and mother, and the lifelong frustration with her own dull-minded daughters that might explain the character's savagery without trying to excuse it. It makes for a wicked stepmother who is unmistakably human, and thus far more threatening than somebody whose evil is simply innate, because she's so easy to believe in a real-world setting. The same is actually mostly true of the secondary bad guy, Stellan Skarsgård's scheming politician who comes across, in the actor's quiet, unmelodramatic performance, as a sensible pragmatist and not a sneering monster.

Between them, they give Cinderella enough of a backbone that it feels, by the end, like there was something at risk in all this, which is far more than the banal lovers can claim. And they justify the film in a slightly more concrete way than "you can tell that it was expensive!" does. Neither the design nor the villains are actually enough to make it worthwhile, but they're enough to keep it from being completely frivolous. And for something that could not possibly telegraph any more strongly its solitary desire to sell toys and dresses to little girls to not be completely frivolous is at least kind of impressive.