Cinderella will debut on Amazon Prime Video on Sept. 3.
Cinderella, a live-action musical update of the popular fairy tale classic, is a middling reboot that relies heavily on the power of its star-studded cast and modernized narrative to hold viewers’ attention. Unfortunately, in an age where it takes more than a few sly remarks and winks at the audience, it struggles to make a real impression.
Written and directed by Kay Cannon (Pitch Perfect, Blockers), Cinderella adapts the fairy tale’s familiar beats for an uninspired, pop music-tinged slog through predictable changes that aren’t as fresh as it seems Cannon believes. It’s an occasionally fun romp that may elicit a few smiles here and there, but it’s nowhere near an enduring classic like its contemporaries.
Grammy-nominated pop star Camila Cabello is serviceable in her first major film role as Ella, an aspiring fashion designer living under the rule of her abusive aunt Vivian, portrayed by Idina Menzel and clueless stepsisters, played by Maddie Baillio and Charlotte Spencer.
Ella is an effervescent, relentlessly positive force that Cabello plays with slightly self-deprecating humor and an earnest edge. She chats with the talking mice that hang out with her in the basement (James Corden, James Acaster, Romesh Ranganathan), although their dialogue adds nothing to the movie (Corden especially, an annoyance to be sure), and daydreams nonstop about how different her life could be if she could just open her own shop and become a businesswoman to provide for herself and her family.
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Menzel is more catty than cruel as Vivian, and Baillio and Spencer offer some spacey comedic moments that play off of their seeming lack of intelligence in social situations. They’re not mean — just dim-witted, with one pinching the other’s cheeks harshly to add color rather than brushing on some blush. Oddly, though the story hinges on Ella’s mistreatment at the hands of her stepmother, Vivian is much more dialed-down than what we traditionally see in Cinderella stories.
Nicholas Galitzine, the kingdom’s Prince Robert, is goaded into marrying to continue the family bloodline — and to finally make something of himself. Pierce Brosnan’s King Ronan is adamant that he cease his freewheeling and oafish ways, while Minnie Driver’s Queen Beatrice remains aloof as her husband does what he pleases.
Brosnan and Driver understand the assignment, but Galitzine’s Robert is difficult to like, with a sarcastic titter at every turn and a mean-spirited attitude that we’re expected to believe turns around at the drop of a hat when he first sets eyes on Ella. He’s known her all of ten seconds and his entire outlook on love has changed?
Princess Gwen (Tallulah Greive), Prince Robert’s sister, is a delight though. Her father’s refusal to grant her a “literal seat at the table” with him and his advisors prompts one of the few laugh-out-loud moments. Greive channels that same precocious “little sister-dom” we’ve seen in the likes of Phil of the Future‘s Pim Diffy (Amy Bruckner) or Hocus Pocus’s Dani Dennison (Thora Birch). Unfortunately, her character is woefully underutilized time and time again.
As with any Cinderella story, Ella and Prince Robert must come together in a touching and effervescent manner befitting that of the young, mistreated Good Girl and the rambunctious, misunderstood prince — and all of that plays out here, of course. Yes, there’s a ball to attend, and when the dress Ella has been working on for weeks is suddenly taken out of commission, she’s got to rely on the emergence of a bizarre blue chrysalis she’s been tending to in the basement. Yes, that’s her Fabulous Godmother, or Fab G — Billy Porter, to be precise. Fab G is a blinding flash of “you can do it” who appears to Ella to ensure she makes her grand entrance at the ball with a beautiful dress to boot.
Porter is as dazzling as expected, a veritable sensation nestled among the movie’s overarching blandness. From his infectious, joyful dialogue to the initial pantsuit he whips up for Ella (“You said you wanted to be a businesswoman”), he steals the show from the moment he arrives to the incredibly short time he remains on screen.
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But it’s time we talk about the unfortunate elephant in the room: the story’s constant companion, music. Cinderella carelessly sprinkles contemporary pop hits throughout the narrative with little regard for whether they fall in logical places.
On one hand, it’s thoughtful to open the film and introduce the kingdom’s villagers with a medley of “Rhythm Nation” and “You Gotta Be” from Janet Jackson and Des’ree. On the other, it’s bizarre to have Prince Robert prance around moments after complaining about looking for a bride singing about how hard he works every day while eking out an incredibly lackluster cover of Queen’s “Somebody to Love.” Especially strange is a dance floor scene where the kingdom’s women vying for Robert’s heart gush over him with stilted rap bars in a military-like dance to Salt-N-Pepa and En Vogue’s “Whatta Man,” immediately followed by Robert frantically planning to “fight ’em off” to the tune of The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army.”
Cabello’s “Million to One” is a standout only in that it’s the perfect syrupy “I’m going to make it/against all odds” tune, but the fact that its quality elevates the film in such a way makes it very clear that Cinderella could well have benefited from a slate of brand-new songs from Cabello or other songwriters instead of forcing a hodgepodge of random tunes into places they didn’t necessarily need to go — with singers who didn’t necessarily need to be singing them. The “town crier” expository moments, reminiscent of Hamilton, showcased the creativity that could have otherwise gone into the film’s soundtrack had it not been a mixtape of music without any real cohesion.
Cinderella tells a familiar story with a few changes that specific audiences, likely younger viewers, should be able to enjoy. It’s just that in the end, none of it is unique or even engaging in the way that it had potential to be. Even Porter was allowed only one small segment; a true tragedy, considering it was by far the best musical moment of the entire movie.