Sometimes you go into a movie with a sinking feeling in your stomach. You aren’t at all excited for what you’re about to see. Or at best you’re completely indifferent. Maybe the trailer left a bad impression. Maybe you just know the movie isn’t for you. Yet you see it anyway, clinging to a thin thread of hope that you’ll be surprised. Taking the chance that you may have misjudged it. Saying with all the optimism you can muster, “Maybe this isn’t the movie I thought it would be.”
“Cinderella” is exactly the movie I thought it would be.
“Pitch Perfect” scribe Kay Cannon writes and directs yet another version of the Charles Perrault classic, this one originally under the Sony umbrella but sold to Amazon to be released this weekend on Prime streaming. While they share the same name, “Cinderella” 2021 has little in common with the other versions outside of the basic details. Instead what we get here is an aggressively modernized reimagining with what seems like a poorly veiled distaste for the fairytale that inspired it.
While I’m not sure anyone was clamoring for a new “Cinderella” movie, Cannon’s musical version had some promise. But it’s too preoccupied with highlighting its own forward-thinking and wedging in every policy from the progressive playbook. There’s no nuance, subtlety or cleverness to be found anywhere in this laughably heavy-handed reinvention. We see the politics everywhere, but where’s the magic?
To clarify, Cannon has a tale that’s ready-made for a fun and enlightened update. The story of female empowerment and following one’s dreams should inspire any young girl. And its critique of a backwards male-dominated society speaks to issues that still have relevance today. But do we really go to a “Cinderella” movie for what it has to say about the coal industry or military spending?
Some of this would be easier to digest if the story itself wasn’t so flat. We get a few flashes of originality, but the movie ends up backing itself into a corner and routinely falls into traps that it itself set. Meanwhile characters are nothing but a swirl of bland caricatures. In fairness, some of this is due to classic story which most of us know by heart. But it’s still reasonable to expect the characters to be interesting, especially in a movie that makes such a big deal out of distancing itself from the other adaptations. They aren’t.
And the music isn’t much better. Weird covers of songs by Janet Jackson, Queen, Madonna, Salt-N-Pepa, Ed Sheeran and others too often sounds like group karaoke rather than movie musical numbers. And even the songs by pop-star Camil Cabello (the film’s lone burst of genuine energy) quickly begin sounding exactly the same.
The film’s on-the-nose introduction gives you a good sense of where its head is at – “Once upon a time there was an old-fashioned kingdom bound by tradition.” From there we’re introduced to Ella (Cabello), an aspiring fashion designer who’s far more interested in owning her own dress shop than finding her Prince Charming. Unfortunately she’s stuck under the same roof as her wicked stepmother Vivian (Idina Menzel in a thankless role). While Ella is full of her own dreams, Vivian submits whole-heartedly to the kingdom’s patriarchy. And she’s determined to make sure her girls do too.
Meanwhile in the lavish castle on the hill lives the cartoonishly thickheaded King Rowan (Pierce Brosnan), his remarkably dull wife Queen Beatrice (Minnie Driver), his hyper-leftist daughter Gwen (Tallulah Greive) and of course his son Prince Robert (Nicholas Galitzine), who is (reluctantly) next in line for the crown. The King, who’s more worried about his power and perception than his son’s wishes, insists that Robert find him a wife. So what does any good house of royalty do? You throw a ball!
You know where it goes from there. With the help of a little magic (and I mean very little) Ella goes to the ball where the nobleman and the commoner fall for each other. But Ella is no stay-at-castle kind of girl. She has her own aspirations and enough girl-power to see them come true. It’s the only real twist to the classic story that’s remotely interesting. Unfortunately it too is glaringly predictable and ends with a rather underwhelming thud.
The film takes several big swings at comedy and pretty much misses every time. The biggest whiff comes with Billy Porter’s loud and garish performance as the Fabulous Fairy Godmother. It’s essentially Billy Porter playing Billy Porter and mercifully it’s only one (albeit long) scene. Speaking of distractions, producer James Corden sticks himself into the movie playing a talking mouse turned human footman. If you thought the viral video of him dancing in a mouse costume was bad, wait till you see this.
“Cinderella” ends up being a movie that’s so enamored with giving the classic fairytale a makeover that it forgets everything else. It’s a musical without good songs. It’s a comedy that isn’t funny. It’s a romance that lacks spark. The biggest casualty is Cabello who has some noticeable charm and even a little swagger which I liked. But material like this doesn’t highlight any of her acting or musical strengths. In fact it doesn’t highlight much of anything other than the fact that we really didn’t need another Cinderella movie. “Cinderella” premieres tomorrow (September 3rd) in theaters and on Amazon Prime streaming.