What would a modern Cinderella look like? The classic fairy tale has been told so many times on film, always following the same basic arc: A charming girl, who is forced into servitude by her mean stepmother and wishes to go to a ball, ultimately gets what she wants with the help of three mice and a magic fairy. Cinderella is the world’s most famous underdog, but she’s also more of a plot vehicle than a deep character. She embodies the moral principle that goodness—along with some fancy slippers and Prince Charming’s hand in marriage—is its own reward. Can she ever actually be three-dimensional?
Kay Cannon, the latest director to adapt Charles Perrault’s story, certainly seems to think so. Her entire project is apparently based on an idea from James Corden, who appears as one of Cinderella’s helpful mouse friends. It’s a loud, brassy update that mixes in pop songs, self-referential jokes, and a thuddingly obvious message of empowerment. The film, out on Amazon Prime Video this Friday, is a mess.
Despite the modern dialogue and contemporary soundtrack, Cinderella is set in some vaguely defined, medieval fantasy kingdom ruled by a surly king (played by Pierce Brosnan), his wise queen (Minnie Driver), and their ne’er-do-well son, Prince Robert (Nicholas Galitzine). The setting is little more than an opportunity for Cannon, who wrote the Pitch Perfect movies and directed the uproariously sweet Blockers, to dole out easy criticisms of feudalism in the name of female agency. Why is Robert in line to inherit the throne when his sister, Princess Gwen (Tallulah Greive), is the one pestering her dad about tax reform and public-works projects? Why should the grumpy king make all the decisions when his wife is far more levelheaded?
And then there’s Cinderella herself (Camila Cabello). No longer a mere prisoner of her nasty stepmother (Idina Menzel) awaiting salvation at the hands of her beloved prince, this Cinderella is a strong, business-minded dressmaker who wants to work in high fashion. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with giving her greater aspirations than marrying into royalty, but the movie forgets to add anything beyond these career goals. The character may embody a new value system—one that refutes the stuffy traditionalism of past adaptations—but she’s as one-dimensional as ever. What should be a triumphant piece of storytelling renovation instead comes across as deeply cynical, given the character’s lack of depth.
This is not to say that any other character is more fully developed. In case any ensemble member’s motivations aren’t readily apparent, each gets a pop song that lays out exactly what they’re thinking. Prince Robert sings “Somebody to Love,” by Queen, because he’s looking for somebody to love. The wicked stepmother belts out “Material Girl,” by Madonna, because she’s a bit of a material girl (living, of course, in a material world). The hardworking townspeople perform Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” because, well, they work in rhythm, I suppose. Nothing thematically links any of the songs that were chosen to knit this film into a musical; an Ed Sheeran number co-exists on the soundtrack with an Earth, Wind & Fire anthem. They’re all just loosely appropriate for the moment at hand.
Like the worst modernizations, Cinderella feels like the result of out-of-touch executives trying to identify the hip new thing. A town crier raps the news with all the bravado but none of the skill of a Hamilton song. The Emmy and Tony winner Billy Porter zaps into frame as Cinderella’s fairy godparent, dubbed Fab G, giving Cinderella a fancy dress to wear and yelling “Yassss, future queen, yassss!” Because I watched the film at home (it was intended for an exclusively theatrical release until Sony sold it to Amazon Prime), these wink-to-the-audience moments played to stunned silence in my empty living room; maybe Cinderella would feel a little livelier with a crowd—but only a little.
The work seems to want to be a campy cult classic, the kind of movie you see at a theater that serves bottomless cocktails and encourages audiences to sing along and laugh. But this is far from the berserk artistry of Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge, another jukebox musical that successfully reinvigorated an old tale. It’s not even as fun as Tom Hooper’s Cats, an objectively horrible—yet compellingly strange—film (also featuring James Corden as a talking animal). Everything in Cinderella, admirable as its message may be, is soulless—and that robs it of any joy.