In a world that grew up with the original Disney princess cartoons’ romanticized views of the good, evil and life in general – then later realized just how sexist those films were – finding the right take and tone for modern versions has been challenging to say the least. For Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and especially Cinderella, the central message was: women need to be competitive and spiteful towards each other in their quest for happiness and fulfillment, and only a man – a man of privilege at that – can help us to achieve it.
Which brings us to the latest subtly feminist stab at the fabled tale, written and directed by Kay Cannon (Blockers, Girl Boss) and starring pop singer Camilla Cabello. It’s no surprise it’s getting mixed reviews – journalists basically hate it and audiences really, really love it. It’s a shamelessly on-the-nose crowd-pleaser for modern times, complete with a fabulous queer godmother (no fairies here, girl), mash-ups of pop-hits informing the story, and a message about empowerment and following one’s dreams that might be trite, but is self-aware enough to know it, stand (and dance) by it, and embrace the cheesiness.
Billy Porter plays the godmother and he is indeed fabulous, which is all he needs to be. Idina Menzel plays the evil stepmother and she could not be more perfectly cast, conjuring her old Wicked vibes and belting out a few numbers with the powerhouse vocals that made her famous (and a Disney icon when she “Let It Go” as Elsa in Frozen). Relatively unknown British actor Nicholas Galitzine is fine enough as the prince being pressured to marry by his dad the king (Pierce Bronson, who’s really having fun with this one) and defended by his mom the queen (a gaunt but great Minnie Driver).
In this version there is also a sister princess who is smarter and more qualified to take the throne than her unstable brother but – trope alert – she can’t because women in this kingdom don’t get to have careers. If you saw Eddie Murphy’s gaudy Coming 2 America, you’ll recall this storyline, which yeah, you probably also saw in a hundred of other films about the antiquated rules of royalty.
Yes, it’s cliche, it’s Cinderella for godmother’s sake. But it’s also extremely entertaining: from the gorgeous costuming and sets to the musical numbers, which include a town crier who raps the news of the day to townspeople, and chart-topping hits from the ‘80s-present that work so well into the narrative, you’d think they were actually written for the movie.
Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” used to portray a bustling town’s square (nice!); Galitzine singing Queen’s “Find Me Somebody to Love” backed by a choir after the ball is announced (great – he’s no Freddie obviously – but still pretty great); Menzel crooning Madonna’s “Material Girl” as she teaches her daughters about what’s important (genius!); and a weird but wonderful mash-up of Salt n’ Pepa’s “Whatta Man” (sung by the prince’s female suitors at the ball; yeah he so crazy, but they still “want to have his baby”) into The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” (women from seven or more nations do make for an army of would-be wives, and anyway, the minuet reference begged for it).
If you’re not a fan of Broadway musicals and more so, “jukebox musicals” that infuse modern tracks into the story-line, you probably weren’t gonna like this Cinderella no matter how fresh the writing or how good the acting. As it is, the writing is just OK, but it does have some clever moments and the acting is as good as it needs to be for a colorful, family-friendly fantasy of this sort. We could’ve done without another silly James Corden movie moment (he’s one of the mice who becomes human to take her to the ball and he’s basically playing himself, again, which was probably unavoidable considering he has a producer credit).
Cabello is a likable and spunky, cinder-covered Ella (her real name). And by the way, we must commend the producers – or Rihanna – for not succumbing to the obvious inclusion of an “Umbrella (ella-ella)” number here. It’s nice to see a Latina in the role, even if her culture isn’t really addressed, save for a salsa-infused closing number, J-Lo’s “Let’s Get Loud.” And if we’re ranking portrayals of the down-trodden damsel forced to dress in rags and act as a maid to her step-monster and less attractive sisters after her father dies, C.C. is somewhere behind the original cartoon, Drew Barrymore and Lily James, but definitely ranking before Brandy and Hillary Duff. Also, glass slippers are a ridiculously uncomfortable idea for footwear, and we’re really glad someone finally said so.