Contemporary music accompanying a period set film is not exactly a personality that a production should solely rely on. And whilst this unnecessary, but completely harmless, “re-telling” of the classic Cinderella does its damnedest with admittedly catchy (and colourfully choreographed) numbers – ranging from Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” to Jennifer Lopez’s “Let’s Get Loud”, by way of Madonna’s “Material Girl” – the incessant need to modernise the film with its soundtrack and its feminist message ultimately undoes any of its good intentions.
A star vehicle for Cuban-American pop singer Camila Cabello (she of “Havana” fame, for those uninitiated), her Ella is less about finding a man and more about being a maker. A dressmaker, more specifically, one who’ll own her own establishment in a bid to free herself from her evil stepmother, Vivian (Idina Menzel); “evil” as she is designed to be, Kay Cannon‘s script never entirely villainises her in the same manner as previous incarnations have. Ella having a dream and not wanting the partnership of a man is all very well and good, but when attaining that dream is essentially linked to her smitten meet-cute with Prince Robert (Nicholas Galitzine), the film’s message of independence seems muddled under its honouring of the original material’s narrative.
The film very much travels where you expect it to, and a couple of the pop songs involved (primarily used as rhythmic exposition) actually feel in-tune with the imagery on screen – see the sequence of Salt-N-Pepa’s “Whatta Man” used for when the towns women seeking to win Robert’s affections express their hopeful desires – but it all just ends up as padding on a story that didn’t need an overhaul, or at least not the way it’s been packaged here.
There’s a certain impatience to watching Cinderella as the sprinkling of music – both familiar and specific to the film – doesn’t disguise the beats we all see coming, and as admirable as its female empowerment message is, it feels too artless for it to be executed with welcome subtlety. For the things it gets wrong though – and, yes, that includes the annoying insertion of a scene chewing, obnoxiously loud James Corden as one of the mice-turned-footmen – there’s certainly a handful of commendable additives, with the attractive production design and the majority of the cast all leaning in to their characters with enthusiasm.
Cabello still has a ways to go in cutting her teeth as an actress, but it’s a smart play on her behalf to ease into the medium with a musical role, and she exudes a likeability and a sense of comedic timing that suggests she could easily find a home in film. Menzel is perhaps the film’s strongest player, shading her evil stepmother with a sense of desperation rather than deviousness, whilst Pierce Brosnan (thankfully acknowledging the fact that his singing isn’t a welcome ingredient) and Minnie Driver make the most of largely underwritten roles as the King and Queen of the land; Driver is especially amiable as a matriarch who understands the want of leading with your heart rather than your duty-bound head.
Likely to be more warmly received by the family markets, especially those with young girls, Cinderella is an innocuous diversion that feels like it should be so much more. As fabulous as Billy Porter‘s vivacious, genderless Fairy Godmother, aka Fab G, this is not, but its pure intent in hoping to skewer the conventional means its outcome is more naive than nocuous.
TWO STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Cinderella will be available to stream on Amazon Prime Video in Australia from September 3rd, 2021.