Review: Cinderella (2021)

Kay Cannon’s new musical comedy Cinderella (2021) reimagines the traditional tale with a modern twist. Set in a middle-ages-style kingdom, Ella (Camila Cabello) traverses the tyranny of a patriarchal society to achieve her dream of opening a dressmaker’s stall at the market. Her attempts fail and she is mocked by the townsfolk. Luckily, the disguised Prince Robert (played by Nicholas Galitzine) sees Ella, buys her a dress, and invites her to the royal ball. It is here she will find the elite of society and presumably a customer base for her dresses. But on the night, Ella’s stepmother steps in, splashes ink on her outfit, and tells her that she can’t go because she’s arranged for her to be married to a creepy local merchant. All is saved when the fabulous Fairy Godmother (Billy Porter) arrives and conjures up the classic Cinderella starter kit: a new dress, glass slippers, and the mice-cum-carriage-drivers.

When retelling a classic princess story, there are some problems that writers have to face. Of course, to a modern audience the gallant masculinity and swooning women of early Disney narratives would be tone-deaf to say the least. But how do you tell a story of patriarchal romance, while leaving out all the aspects of patriarchal romance? Cannon’s answer is similar to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s production of Cinderella in the way that the story is given a recognisably feminist theme. Ella chasing commercial success rather than marriage is the most obvious change, but significant depth has also been added to the other leading female characters. The stepmother is given the backstory of nearly becoming a professional musician (were it not for her scathing husband), the Queen drolly calls out the King’s behaviour, and the princess seems to be the only one in this whole mess who knows how to competently run a kingdom.

Image Source: Still via Youtube // Cinderella – Official Trailer | Prime Video

This is all well and good, but in my opinion the film fails in grace and nuance despite its well-meaning attempts to deviate from the source material and relies instead on sanctimonious pandering to its audience. The stepmother and sisters (the “ugly” part has been dropped) turn out to be fairly likeable characters with their own struggles, but this then makes Ella’s motivation to escape the household less meaningful. Her dream to become a dressmaker also seems an odd choice as the ideal of an empowered woman: needlework has been the pinnacle of female drudgery since the beginning of history. Couldn’t Ella be an expert in something other than pretty dresses or would that be too much to ask for? While this bodged plot makes the narrative rather dreary, the film’s insistence on filling every quiet moment with politically charged asides quickly becomes tiresome and jarring (I am watching a fairy tale fantasy movie to escape reality, dammit!).

It’s not all bad! Cinderella is saved from being an utter parade of gaucherie by its excellent score and endearing actors. Cabello’s debut in film involves impressive performances of the songs, as well as convincing acting in the more serious parts of the plot. Pierce Brosnan’s hammed-up role as King Rowan and James Corden’s cameo as one of the mice bring some much-needed humour. The rollicking jukebox musical includes such numbers as “Rhythm Nation”, “Material Girl”, and “Seven Nation Army”, along with some original compositions. The film ends happily, if nebulously, with all the loose ends neatly tied together.

It’s included with Amazon Prime subscription, so worth a watch if you want something undemanding, unmoving and free.

– Fabian Carstairs

Featured Image Source: Still via Youtube // Cinderella – Official Trailer | Prime Video

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