The legend you know. The story you don’t.
One of the most adapted fairy tales of all time, it was always going to be tough to do something new with the story of Cinderella. Over the years, the folk tale has been the source of many film and television renditions, the most recent English-speaking version being Kenneth Branagh’s solid 2015 film, which saw the talented Lily James star in the titular role. Apart from the more traditional takes on the story, there have also been a plethora of re-imaginings and parodies, from Drew Barrymore’s post-feminist Ever After in 1998 to Anne Hathaway’s Ella Enchanted in 2004. We’ve also had the Cinderella Story modernizations starting with the Hilary Duff and Chad Michael Murray starring film from 2004.
This latest rendition, written and directed by Kay Cannon, Blockers (2018), is the most Gen Z version of the story so far, as it’s been custom-made to suit today’s political climate. But, besides from being a jukebox musical, there’s nothing really fresh about this incarnation. Sure, some story elements have been tweaked here and there, but the movie still travels down a predictable route. And while some are screaming that its star, Camila Cabello, is the first-ever Hispanic woman to play Cinderella, this isn’t entirely true either; the radiant Sofia Carson donned the ‘glass slipper’ in A Cinderella Story: If the Shoe Fits in 2016, which we wrote about here. The best thing that can be said about Cannon’s newest version is its wonderful reworking of the Fairy Godmother, the ‘Fabulous Godmother,’ who’s been gender-swapped and brought to life with splendid glory by the scene-stealing Billy Porter.
The story takes place in a faraway kingdom, where the townsfolk are introduced singing a cover of Janet Jackson’s ‘Rhythm Nation.’ It’s here that we meet our protagonist, the orphaned Cinderella or Ella (Camila Cabello), who’s living in a relatively spacious basement and dreams of becoming a dressmaker. We see her sketching and sowing gowns whilst belting out a rendition of Des’ree’s ‘You Gotta Be’ — with the help of autotune. Forced to serve her stepmother Vivian (Idina Menzel) and her not-so-evil stepsisters Narissa (Charlotte Spencer) and Malvolia (Maddie Baillio), Cinderella is determined to make her own way in the world. Vivian, however, is keen on the old-fashioned mentality of marrying off all her daughters because she believes that espousing a rich man would set them up for life.
Meanwhile, in the castle, King Rowan (a brilliant Pierce Brosnan) is in a similar predicament, hoping to get his son Prince Robert (Nicholas Galitzine) to marry a princess in order to expand his rule — potentially all the way up to a huge sea monster that’s on their world map. This, however, doesn’t sit well with the young man who is looking for a woman he can connect with. The prince’s mother, Queen Beatrice (Minnie Driver), also sides with her son, and wants Robert to marry for love not convenience. To widen the search for his suitor, the kingdom throws a ball to ‘find the prince a wife.’ Robert even disguises himself as a commoner and goes into town to look for potential candidates. While at the market, Robert bumps into Cinderella, who’s trying to sell one of her dresses against her stepmother’s wishes. Instantly enchanted by the young designer, the smitten’ Robert purchases the gown and invites her to the ball, seeing as any woman can attend, not just royalty. Hoping to showcase her garments at the event, Ella’s dreams are shattered when Vivian ruins her fancy dress and forbids her from attending the regal party, given that she’s not an eligible contender for prince Roberts. Besides, Thomas, the creepy vegetable merchant (Rob Beckett), has already asked for Ella’s hand in marriage. With nothing to wear and no way of getting to the ball, Cinderella will need a miracle if she wishes to attend the party that could potentially change her life.
Setting the scene from the get-go, it’s clear that Cannon has a knack for big flashy musicals — she did write the Pitch Perfect (2012-17) movies after all — and Cinderella glows when it comes to its Broadway-style energy. The musical mash-ups — all arranged by music director Keith Harrison — are excellent; these include mixes of Salt-N-Pepa’s ‘Whatta Man’ and White Stripes’ ‘Seven Nation Army,’ along with covers of Madonna’s ‘Material Girl’ and Queen’s ‘Somebody To Love.’ The film possesses a Hamilton-type of gusto and flair. Even the new tracks, ‘Million To One,’ co-written by Cabello, and Menzel’s ‘Dream Girl’ are memorable, so too are the ditties performed by the town crier Doc Brown.
The dance choreography by Ashley Wallen, The Greatest Showman (2017), is also lively and energetic, chiefly the ball numbers, which have a Moulin Rouge flavor. These sections amp up what should be an overall joyful experience. The stand-out sequence, though, involves Porter’s hugely charismatic Fabulous Godmother or Fab G, who’s introduced via a stunning transformation from butterfly to dazzling fairy godparent. His magical powers help Ella get set for the party, and Porter’s flamboyant flair and spicy rendition of Earth, Wind & Fire’s ‘Shining Star’ really prep the film up when it begins to sag — it’s just a shame Cannon wasn’t bold enough to give Porter more screen time.
She’s more concerned with Ella and her feminist ideals, which, if Cinderella had been released decades ago, would have been subversive, but now just feels overcooked. While Camila Cabello does okay in her first major movie role, Cinderella’s whole ‘boss girl’ attitude comes off as overdone — it’s 2021, and we’ve seen a dozen stories where women seek salvation through pursuing personal desires as opposed to chasing love, so there’s nothing unique here. At the very least, Ella is still a positive role model for the young people of today.
The evil stepmother has also been nullified, with Idina Menzel’s Vivian employing a kinda ‘tough love’ approach when it comes to her stepdaughter. Vivian believes that if Cinderella were to follow her dreams, she’d wind up being disappointed and left without the financial support that a suitor would bring. Just on that, Prince Robert is portrayed as a lazy slacker with zero ambitions (hardly the kind of man a woman of today would be swooning over) — he has no interest in politics or even becoming king. Fortunately, Nicholas Galitzine’s charming performance keeps the love interest amiable.
There’s also the character of Princess Gwen (Tallulah Greive), Robert’s kid sister, who’s literally begging for a seat at the royal table, comprised of those governing the kingdom. She’s constantly spurting out progressive ideas about sustainable energy and welfare but is continuously being shunned by her father, who thinks politics should be left to the men. If handled better, Gwen could have been inspiring; here, she’s just a one-note gag — oh, look, the ignored sibling is politically smarter than everyone else (heh)! While Pierce Brosnan is having a jolly good time playing the egotistical king (who amusingly raises the height of his throne), it’s also in poor taste that Cannon felt the need to ridicule his unrefined singing skills (many mocked his duet with Meryl Streep in 2008’s Mama Mia!). While it’s clear that Brosnan is okay with having a laugh at his own expense, the joke is still somewhat insulting. Lastly, James Acaster, Romesh Ranganathan, and James Corden voice a trio of poorly rendered CGI mice who eventually transform into Cinderella’s footmen. Alas, Corden’s recent hip-thrusting, which occurred during a flash mob the cast did amid L.A. traffic to promote the film, is more memorable than his entire performance here.
Despite some misguided attempts at squeezing social commentary and gender politics into the narrative, this Cinderella still makes for an enjoyable night in. Who knows, it might become this year’s The Greatest Showman. Running for a whopping 113 minutes — seven minutes longer than Branagh’s superior remake — Cannon’s Cinderella was never going to be the new definitive version of the story, but generally works best as a fun parody of the classic tale. Just like the film itself, Cabello’s Ella deviates from the well-known fairytale and its tropes, making her own choices in life: she doesn’t lose her shoe when she’s trying to flee the king’s guards but plainly throws it at them to make her getaway. She’s in charge of her own destiny, and no one’s gonna stop her.
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by Dan Cachia (Mr. Movie)