Cinderella suffers from a host of problems, but its real curse is terrible timing. If this most recent reboot, with its heavy-handed feminist messaging, had been released decades ago, it might have stood a chance at being subversive. But it’s 2021, and additions to the crowded and underwhelming field of #girlboss narratives require a bit more style and depth to keep even young audiences engaged.
Written and created by Kay Cannon (Pitch Perfect), this new but not so improved Cinderella recasts the heroine (played by Camila Cabello) as a career-driven woman. In the rare moments when her exigent stepmother (Idina Menzel) and her barely wretched stepsisters (Maddie Baillio as Anastasia and Charlotte Spencer as Drisella) aren’t yelling for her, Cinderella hides away in her basement, sketching gowns. She wants to be a designer, and, by the looks of the pages strewn across her work desk and tacked to the walls of her sun-flooded basement room, she seems close to realizing that dream. This Cinderella, ambitious and quick-witted, has no time for a prince.
Solid performances meet a disappointing vision.
As promising as that premise sounds, Cinderella buckles under the weight of its intentions, and not even its formidable cast — Menzel, Billy Porter, Minnie Driver and Pierce Brosnan — can save it. It lacks magic and elegance, the magnetic qualities that made the 1997 Rodgers and Hammerstein reboot, for example, irresistible. In that version of the film, starring Brandy and Whitney Houston, a Black Cinderella marries a Filipino prince (Paolo Montalban). Her feminism isn’t reduced to a choice between a man and a career, and when asked by her royal soon-to-be husband how a girl should be treated, Cinderella, shy but assertive, says, “Like a person, with kindness and respect.” By comparison, with its ham-fisted script and uninspired production, the new Cinderella goes down like medicine.
The musical film opens with the townspeople singing Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” and Cinderella herself belting Des’ree’s classic “You Gotta Be.” The energetic medley — one of many throughout the film, all arranged by Keith Harrison — is a timely shortcut, nudging viewers in the right emotional direction. Here you should feel optimistic and inspired, there sad but hopeful. Despite the talented performances (I’m sure the soundtrack album will be a hit), the music does not help make sense of the rules governing this fictional universe.
In this world, where the cruelty of the stepmother and stepsisters is considerably softened, the script doubles as an extended motivational Instagram post. “I think you look so pretty, but honestly who cares what I think, who cares what anyone thinks,” Cinderella lovingly says to one stepsister as they stare at their reflections in the mirror. “What matters is how you feel when you look in the mirror.” When Prince Robert (Nicholas Galitzine) and Cinderella meet for the first time in the town square, he, disguised as a commoner, asks her why women should be allowed to own businesses. An irritated Cinderella rolls her eyes before triumphantly exclaiming, “We women give birth, we run entire households. Surely we can run a business — it can’t be that hard!” Cinderella possesses enough self-awareness to clock its own ridiculousness, and statements like these are sprinkled throughout the movie with a wink and a smile. But without the foundation of a reliable narrative (after all, kids aren’t stupid), the jokes don’t land.
Where Cinderella could have made a splash but doesn’t is in its design elements. It’s hard to see the overall vision for the sets and costumes, which feel like they’ve been plucked at random and assembled with little thought as to how any of this would work within the story’s world. Nothing defies expectations, and everything looks cheaply made: The palace decor abuses the use of velvet and gold, and the royal family — with the exception of the Prince’s sister, Gwen (Tallulah Greive) — dons stiff garments that don’t tickle the imagination; the townspeople, for the most part, wear muted colors. There are hints of what could have been, however, as when Cinderella’s fairy godparent (played by Porter) rocks a structured diamond-studded orange piece that is matched only by the actor’s vibrant presence.
As a big-budget film with a star-studded cast, Cinderella meets the relatively low bar set by most contemporary reboots, but that doesn’t make it any less disappointing. The classic fairy tale and its straightforward but powerful lessons in self-confidence, perseverance and the power of imagination provide an alluring foundation for ambitious and visually stunning storytelling. It’s sad that, watching this version, you wouldn’t be able to tell.