Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | September 2nd, 2021
Cinderella (Kay Cannon, 2021) 2½ out of 4 stars.
Does the world need another “Cinderella”? Beyond Charles Perrault’s 17th-century version of the fairy tale—that from which most modern copies are drawn—there is the 1950 Disney animated classic and then, quite recently, director Kenneth Branagh’s live-action remake. Those particular cinematic adaptations are just two of many, including all the ones made in languages other than English. Now comes Kay Cannon’s 2021 Cinderella (also live action, though with plenty of CGI), and the big question is the one that I first posed: is it necessary? Well, perhaps not, but it offers enough new twists to enliven an otherwise tired and well-worn narrative. Be prepared for at least a few pleasant surprises, wrapped up in a shiny (if pro forma) feminist bow.
Singer Camila Cabello plays the titular role, bringing a good deal of charm and talent to the part. Born in Cuba, she also somewhat diversifies the cast, though the royals remain white and what people of color there are exist mostly in the supporting ensemble. What truly sets this Cinderella apart, however, is her drive to make it on her own. More than anything, she wants to be a fashion designer. Yes, it might be nice to fall in love along the way, but give up her dreams, just to settle down and live in a palace? Probably not.
As in other variants of the story, Cinderella—or Ella, given her nickname because her room is in a basement, by the cinder-producing furnace—lives under the same roof as her stepmom (Idina Menzel) and two stepsisters (Maddie Baillio and Charlotte Spencer), who treat her with a mixture of pity and contempt (mostly the latter). Mommy dearest has an urgent need to marry all three of them off, as money is tight. When the local king announces a ball to which all the women, irrespective of class or rank, are invited for the express purpose of meeting his princeling son, she insists they all go. Until, that is, she sees what Cinderella looks like in a dress of her own making. No way is she going upstage her own flesh and blood!
About that prince, whose name is Robert (Nicholas Galitzine, Handsome Devil): he’s a feckless sort, hardly the kind of young man a father—here, King Rowan (Pierce Brosnan, False Positive)—might ordinarily want to promote to high rank were other options available. There is, in fact, an alternative, in Princess Gwen (Tallulah Greive, Our Ladies), but Rowan would never allow a woman to rule the kingdom. Banish the thought! No matter that his wife, Queen Beatrice (Minnie Driver, Spinning Man), is clearly for it. Nay, it’s a man’s world, and even smart women only get ahead if they marry well.
Or so it has been up until now. In writer/director Kay Cannon’s take, the patriarchy is in for some shaking up. That is all to the tremendous good of the picture, even if the exposition weighs heavy on the otherwise light tone. The singing, given who sings, is also terrific, though some of the covers of well-known pop tunes try a little too hard to be Glee-ful and fall flat, landing in their sticky-sweet syrup with less than a splash. Other numbers, especially the original tunes, fare better. It’s too bad that Driver, herself a fine singer, only gets to belt her stuff at the very end, though. At least we get the fine pleasures of Cabello and Menzel, with Billy Porter showing up as a very campy fairy godmother (he also narrates the movie). And let’s not forget the mice, one of whom becomes James Corden (who also produced the film and is responsible for the original idea) thanks to a little bit of magic. It’s a merry bunch, for sure.
Cannon (Blockers) knows her way around camera and comedy, and the mise-en-scène, including the choreography for the corniest of songs, is mostly quite assured. Though some parts work better than others, the message of female empowerment, even when it feels like it was designed by committee, transforms what could have been just froth into something a little more solid. It’s not great art, but it’s acceptable entertainment.