Camila Cabello’s ‘Cinderella’ Finds Its Modern Form As A Musical Ode To Girlbosses
What happens when you throw a ton of great talent at a listless idea?
The new Cinderella that’s out on Amazon this weekend is not a good idea. The concept apparently originated with James Corden, our sweatiest late-night host (comedically, not literally) and one of the stars of Cats, a movie that has done for hallucinogens what Oreos did for milk.
Loosely stated, the concept is that Cinderella is now what we might call a girlboss, played by pop diva Camila Cabello. She does have a stepmother, and she does have stepsisters, and she does live in the basement. But rather than being stuck doing menial chores, she just hangs out down there and designs dresses, which makes her life probably one that a lot of crafty young women would envy, except for the fact that she has mice for friends (they are voiced by Corden, Romesh Ranganathan, and James Acaster). She dreams of her own dressmaking empire, while singing and longing and so forth.
Her prince is named Robert (…sure) and is played by Nicholas Galitzine, who has chiseled cheekbones, an earring, and often a tiny upturned thumb of hair just above his forehead. Your brain will try to tell you he has probably been making Disney Channel musicals since he was 14, but it’s lying to you. There’s a good chance he’s not familiar to you; he just seems like the weighted average of all the guys who could play a prep school villain on a procedural or the detective’s son who turns out to be the real murderer in a prestige drama. Robert is an ambivalent prince whose sister Gwen (a woefully underdeveloped character given the weight the story tries to place on her) is better-qualified for leadership than he is, and while he is constantly pursued by veritable scads of women, he only has eyes for this young woman he saw in town.
With a song in your heart
There is also music. This is a musical Cinderella, but it is not the musical Cinderella you know either from the Disney cartoon or from the Rodgers & Hammerstein show in which both Julie Andrews and Brandy have starred. Instead, it’s primarily a pop jukebox musical, using extant songs within scenes the same way you’d use original songs.
The jukebox musical — or the library musical, I suppose you could call it, since “jukebox musical” now seems mostly reserved for single-artist shows like Mamma Mia! — is a long and honorable tradition. No less a standard than Singin’ In The Rain used mostly existing songs from other musicals; the song “Singin’ In The Rain” wasn’t even written for it. So the fact that the songs here, while they include a couple of originals, are mostly things like “You Gotta Be” by Des’ree and the Jennifer Lopez hit “Let’s Get Loud” isn’t as weird as it might seem.
It is a little weird that the film opens with a montage of the townspeople, who look kind of generally old-timey as you might see in a fairy-tale kingdom, performing their daily tasks and singing “Rhythm Nation.” (This also means that if you watch with the captions on, you will see that at one point, the mice are “squeaking ‘Rhythm Nation.'”) More than once, I found myself watching all this and thinking … why does this exist? There are plenty of versions of Cinderella, and some have music. Why do we need one that starts with “Rhythm Nation”?
People who need people
Despite the fact that this movie doesn’t make a very good case on a conceptual level for its existence, what it has in spades is talent. The director and writer is Kay Cannon, who also made Pitch Perfect. She’s genuinely exactly the right person to head up this kind of effort, and her comedy skills shine in little moments like the choir that starts to chime in during an argument between Robert and his father, played by Pierce Brosnan. There are absolutely solid pieces of comedy business here, and the sillier they get, the better they work (she also wrote for 30 Rock).
They’ve also stacked the deck with people who are very beloved by fandoms of various sizes: Cabello, Billy Porter (playing the fabulous godparent or “Fab G”), Idina Menzel, Minnie Driver, and I suppose James Corden. I also watched with bated breath to see whether Pierce Brosnan would “sing” again as he did in Mamma Mia!, and suffice it to say Cannon’s solution to this did not disappoint. Billy Porter does a few minutes of high-octane Billy Porter-ing, Idina Menzel hits some high notes, and Minnie Driver remains one of my absolute favorite comic actresses. They’ve put a lot of people to work here, and they all do just fine.
What does disappoint is the watery effort to make this story feel satisfyingly feminist. I wrote about Cinderella as an enduring idea back in 2015, and one of the few things that’s consistent across the many retellings of it is that it’s a story about status: a lower-status person has to persuade a higher-status person to literally recognize her as the person he loves when she is not in disguise as someone who shares his status. Here, there’s an effort to modernize, which is always a potentially interesting way to approach a folk tale. But the way they go about it is a blunt shortcut, where instead of anyone on any side of the equation thinking that it matters that he’s a prince and she’s a commoner, the issue is that she doesn’t want the constricting position of princess, because she wants to sell dresses.
In other words, the stakes are no longer really part of Cinderella folklore where the question is the viability of love across status divides; they are part of Hallmark-movie folklore where a woman wants to fall in love and also have a successful small business. That’s not to say the updating has no charm: There are some nice grace notes — that, again, I credit to Cannon’s comedy talent — in which trappings like carrying a woman in your arms are affectionately teased through a sort of feminist-ish lens. And Cabello does just fine, even if the character is sometimes sort of a YouTube makeup tutorial/daily affirmation in human form.
But it’s crucial to note, any time you see something promoted as a thing you haven’t seen anyone try before (Amazon presents this as a “bold new take”), that those claims are often exaggerated. In fact, Cinderella, like any folk tale, does nothing but adapt to its time; even the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical doesn’t draw Cinderella as passively as some old versions do. And the 1998 movie Ever After, starring Drew Barrymore — which is my personal favorite film adaptation — tries to bend the notions of passivity and rescue that infect old tellings, without abandoning the central themes of status and acceptance. That film plays with the relationships with the stepmother and stepsisters in some of the same ways this one does, except without everyone singing, you know, “Rhythm Nation.”
Cannon also wrote and directed Blockers, a film that’s much more successful as a bending of a familiar story (there, the idea of teenagers trying to lose their virginity) in a way that really did seem feminist and fresh. As I noted in 2015, though, it’s hard to write a Cinderella story at all if you don’t build in the idea of a person who might reject someone they fall in love with based on status. Without that element, without that risk, it’s perhaps got one less trap to fall into, but I’m not sure it’s Cinderella. Because Cinderella isn’t about mice or dances or fireplaces; it’s about an elemental fear: This person would never love me if they knew who I was.
The problem with an adaptation that wanders this far afield is that it becomes difficult to gracefully incorporate basic elements that people expect to see. Why, for instance, does Cinderella need to run away from the ball at midnight? With the story done this way, where her identity is not ever really a secret to the prince, what is she doing? The answer seems to be that she runs from the ball because it’s Cinderella, but even a movie where magic helps you walk in high heels needs more internal logic than that.
It’s hard to describe something with this many nice touches as bad; it will make a nice weekend watch for a lot of people, I think. But it also feels uncomfortably algorithmic, an exercise that shows that if you don’t start with much of a foundation, there’s only so much fancy dress you can drape all over it.
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