Once upon a time, in the dark, algorithmic heart of Hollywood, James Corden had the idea to make another Cinderella movie. And then, years later, after a pandemic forced the movie onto Amazon Prime Video, his wish came true: Hark, fellow peasants, we now have a new Cinderella movie — only this time, she’s a girlboss, and also James Corden is in it as a mouse. Let us thank our overlords for this kind gift to the masses.
The overarching tone of this new version of Cinderella is self-congratulation. The movie, not to be confused with the recent live-action Disney Cinderella or the Andrew Lloyd Webber stage musical, takes it upon itself to reinvent the classic not-so-feminist tale of wish fulfillment for 2021 with grating results. As far as I can tell, the germ of the pitch really did come from Corden himself but was expanded into a screenplay by Kay Cannon, who also directs. She pulled off the pleasantly fun studio comedy Blockers (and, fittingly, wrote the Pitch Perfects and tried to make Netflix’s Girlboss series work), but here seems overwhelmed by a plot made up entirely of studio notes.
In this version, Camila Cabello’s Ella dreams of opening her own dress shop instead of just marrying a prince, while the prince is the one who wants love. Plus, he has an aggressively barretted sister who really should rule the kingdom. Plus, Billy Porter shows up as a gender-bent version of a fairy godmother referred to as “Fab G.” The results feel so schematically unobjectionable they’re lifeless. After transforming her into a ball gown, Fab G tells Ella, “Yass, future queen, yass,” in a clip that’s already been roundly mocked online. But what happens later is potentially worse: Once the mice are transformed, the movie tries some feeble lines about how Ella assumed they were women (because to her, mice are female and rats are men), and Fab G ends the scene with a “moving right along.” Not a joke so much as a vague gesture at humor, and about par for most of the other dialogue.
On top of all this, Cinderella is a musical, primarily a jukebox of the Moulin Rouge! variety, though the song choices are less than inspired. We start off with the villagers all singing “Rhythm Nation” to indicate, well, boring routines. Later, we hear the prince (an actor named Nicholas Galitzine, who I assumed was Shawn Mendes before questioning whether I ever really knew what Shawn Mendes looks like) sing “Somebody to Love” about his quest to … it pains me too much to complete that sentence. There are two new songs: one for Camila Cabello about the odds of her dream coming true being “Million to One,” and one for Idina Menzel’s wicked stepmother that serves to humanize her, because it’s about how it sucks to be a woman.
Menzel’s stepmother is as close as the movie gets to having a villain, though it attempts conflict with as much enthusiasm as it aims for jokes. She threatens to marry off Ella instead of letting her go to the ball, because she believes that women are only valuable as objects. She explains her perspective with a performance of “Material Girl” that’s obvious but at least fun in that it takes advantage of Menzel’s natural hauteur. The movie quickly forgives the stepmother, however, in the way it steamrolls over pretty much all the other character dynamics, including a brief hint of marital squabbles between the king (Pierce Brosnan, who looks unaware that this isn’t just another Mamma Mia!) and queen (Minnie Driver, for whom one always wants better). In Cinderella, nobody is ever in the wrong, especially the women, because women are good and they are capable and they should be allowed to participate in capitalism too, darn it.
Cinderella arrives amid a glut of movie musicals that have clustered around the second half of 2021, seemingly all encouraging audiences to enjoy some spectacle as the pandemic drags ever onward. There was In the Heights, promising a summer of jubilation that didn’t really happen (and stumbling on its own promises of representation), the surreal high-art anxiety of Annette, and now acid-sherbet-colored Cinderella, with other movies advancing toward us in a chorus line: Dear Evan Hansen, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Tick, Tick … Boom!, and finally, the much-delayed West Side Story. That collection encompasses a whole range of genres, and I’m happy to see so many variations in the form get made. But there’s something about their relentless advance that smooths them together. Why are all these people singing at us through the screen? Is it for a sense of community? For the spectacle? Simply a quirk of the pandemic colliding with the aftershocks of the success of Hamilton, Disney’s live-action remakes, and The Greatest Showman?
Cinderella will not answer that question, but it provides a sort of anti-insight: that a musical will make no sense if there’s no reason for these characters to sing at all. The whole project is hermetically sealed, predictable from the moment Cabello tries to play Ella as Beauty and the Beast’s Belle as if she is attempting a TikTok challenge. A musical, theoretically, could reveal something under the surface, whatever thoughts her character isn’t able to articulate in dialogue. But there’s nothing under the surface here, just a girl trying to sell you a dress.
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