Cinderella Review: A disappointing waste of potential

Despite the abundance of talent within the cast and behind the camera, Cinderella ranges from mildly entertaining to downright unwatchable

Starring Camila Cabello, Idina Menzel, Minnie Driver, Nicholas Galitzine, Billy Porter, and Pierce Brosnan

There are probably very few who could feasibly claim that the world needs a new adaptation of Cinderella. Even though its origins far precede the Disney classic that popularised it, what with the 2015 live action version and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella, as well as A Cinderella Story and Ever After, and a whole host of other films that take this rags-to-riches tale as its basis, the fact that James Corden (eurgh) was producing a new version as a star vehicle for pop singer Camila Cabello and as a jukebox musical doesn’t offer anything new to this beloved, iconic story. In fact, it actually ends up stripping away most of what made the story dramatic and powerful in its quest to innovate what doesn’t need to be changed.

The story of Cinderella simply cannot be rested away from a society in which women are unable to make something of themselves, and instead rely upon marriage to further their lives. The entire point of the story is to find a woman who is downtrodden by all of those surrounding her and how she finds agency amongst that. What Cinderella attempts to do is to modernise this story, and give it a sheen of what I shall term “Instagram feminism”, which is essentially just vapid, two-dimensional girl boss energy.

In this version of the story, Ella (Camila Cabello) dreams – not of finding a prince – but of being a dress maker. She is tasked with looking after her stepmother, Vivian (Idina Menzel), and stepsisters Malvolia and Narissa (Maddie Baillio and Charlotte Spencer) after the death of her father, while Vivian tries to find suitable matches for the women to ensure a better life for them all. It’s somewhat of a far cry from the malevolent Lady Tremaine, who cruelly locked Cinderella away in a tower so that her own daughter could secure the throne. Here, Vivian is merely a cog within the machinery that makes the true enemy: patriarchal values.

The plight of Cinderella here simply doesn’t feel like it has high stakes. She never appears to be downtrodden, or defeated, but spends the entire film brazenly optimistic and self assured. It’s clear that these seeds are sewn before the intervention of so-called Fab G (Billy Porter) so that it couldn’t be claimed that Cinderella didn’t possess this confidence before she was dressed in a beautiful gown. Ultimately, Cinderella is the one who seizes her own destiny, but it still feels that this version of Cinderella has far more options available to her.

Her quest is to be able to design and make dresses for a living. When she attempts to market one, however, the other people in the marketplace do not believe that she, a peasant, could possibly have made it herself and therefore must have stolen it. It’s a strange moment tonally, not least because it doesn’t go quite as nasty as it could have done. It still feels like a very Nickelodeon version of oppression or class dynamics. Moreover, the beautifully made-up and clean Cabello does not appear visually different to any of the other people in society. She does not look like a peasant, and so everybody’s attitude towards her doesn’t precisely make sense. If they don’t believe that she, a peasant, could make such a gown, then what would be stopping her from wearing her own clothes that she has made so that nobody thinks of her as a peasant? It’s clumsy, and it just doesn’t imprison Cinderella in the way that the original fairytale did.

If Cinderella could get herself out of her situation, then she would. There needs to be something that changes so that she can start afresh and start anew, but by being overly focussed upon Cinderella proving something and making a new life for herself, the entire film starts to fall down.

It’s not just the treatment of Cinderella’s character which is a misstep. Prince Robert (Nicholas Galitzine) is entitled, and privileged and has no interest in being the King. In fact, he is incredibly far removed from the title Prince Charming. He is first taken by Cinderella when she brazenly talks back to the King, claiming that the peasants at the back cannot see (again, she is not costumed in any way differently to the other members of the community, nor is she dirty, despite many lines alluding to her having dirt on her face or muddy clothes. It never happens. She is permitted to glow incandescently at all times). Ella and Robert first meet and talk when he shows an interest in her dress making and buys her dress from her, then putting it on his sister Gwen (Tallulah Greive). Apparently, making a purchase from her is enough to cement a lasting, loving connection, so I shudder to think what’s going to happen when she makes her first sale in Dresses by Ella.

Moreover, the songs were lazy. It felt as if Kay Cannon (whose previous work has definitely been to much higher standards) randomly selected popular songs and wedged them in, based upon the most superficial reading of the lyrics humanly possible, and expected the audience’s affection for these songs to make these musical numbers work. They do not, for two simple reasons.

Firstly, despite the fact that this film was both written and directed by Cannon, the songs are at odds with the depiction of the characters elsewhere in the script. To have Prince Robert go straight from sitting in a room, complaining about how he has no desire to settle down, to immediately proclaiming that “[he] works ‘til [he] aches in [his] bones” is disingenuous because, as the narrative has just established, he is lazy and has no interest in his princely duties. For Vivian, a character who has been downtrodden by the patriarchy, forcing her to give up her own dreams of being a pianist to then gleefully sing ”Material Girl” with no hint of irony or entrapment is further tonally confusing.

Secondly, there seems to be a lack of understanding of the function of a musical number within a musical film. In previous films by Cannon – notably the Pitch Perfect series – the musical numbers that occur are actual performances. It is not a traditional musical film in the sense that characters just burst into song. When one has that as part of the narrative and the language of a film, it is up to the director to question “why are these musical numbers happening?”. Are the characters aware that they are singing? Are they actually engaging in a musical performance, or are their emotions just so large that they cannot help but sing them?

Within musical theatre, characters tend to sing at moments of high emotion. The fact that they’re singing just seems perfectly natural to everybody else on stage and, while it may be trendy or amusing to poke at that veneer, the moment that a character stands around and points out the fact that there’s singing, the internal logic of the scenario entirely falls apart. That’s precisely the error that is made here. It is implied that every one of these musical performances is actually being performed and sung by these characters, which makes each character seem brazenly self aware and confident about singing their deepest emotions directly at another person.

If the audience is really meant to believe that Prince Robert actually does want to find “Somebody to Love”, then why would he be singing it and admitting this, when it goes so fundamentally against his character, to an entire choir full of people? There’s also seemingly no awareness of “who is hearing this song? Who is aware of this character singing?”. In the number “Whatta Man / Seven Nation Army”, the women sing “whatta man” directly to Robert, telling him they literally want to have his children. In turn, Robert returns with “I’m gonna fight ‘em off”, and we see the warring men and women at odds as they sing this aggressive duet.

This would make sense if this was an internal narrative. If it were edited and shot in such a way that it were clear that the words that were being sung were representing the energy from the women instead of that they are literally saying those words to Robert’s face. Seeing him react to their words out loud betrays the fact that this is meant to be an actual song that is being heard during the ball, and that is a strange tonal choice as it really collapses the internal logic of these characters and the realism of the movie.

In those moments where it does lean more into musical theatre, such as Ella singing ”Million to One”, the film still falls down by not questioning why there has been a change or a shift in motivation. After Vivian sabotages Ella’s dress and informs her she is already betrothed, Ella rages against her universe, with a defiant ”Million to One (Reprise)”. She stands in the courtyard, dramatic strings swirling around her as she proclaims her ambition to the universe that has forsaken her. She is angry, she is embittered, her life is falling around her – all of her dreaming has come to naught.

With every word, Ella should be getting more angry. She should be fuelling herself. Sure, that’s not the only way that it could go. Perhaps her anger is giving way to sadness, to defeat, to resignation. But that’s not reflected in the music. Despite there being no change in her circumstances, Ella comes out of that reprise calm once more, and ready to meet Fab G as if she doesn’t have any concerns at all.

Ultimately, these characters just don’t feel real. Probably the most understandable of them all is Vivian, who is just desperately trying to find security for herself, her stepdaughters and, even, Ella. The fact that Ella and Robert sing “Perfect” by Ed Sheeran to each other, publicly, at a ball, proclaiming that they’re ”so in love” and ”fighting against all odds” is something that literally any person casting an eye over the script could have said was a ridiculous reach. There are so many other songs that exist in the world which could have fit in that moment and, in fact, a sweeping instrumental might actually have been more effective than seeing two characters who have barely spent any time with each other saying that they are in love.

Everything about this film reeks of artifice. The music production is slick and well-rounded, some of which with exciting, interesting choreography and nice arrangements, but the lyrics do not fit the character’s situations. None of the characters are granted extra depth. Ella herself is never given any moment of true self reflection or doubt. She does not develop or change over the course of the movie, but rather her status catches up with the way that she has been behaving the entire time.

A massively untapped storyline is that of Queen Beatrice (Minnie Driver) and King Rowan (Pierce Brosnan). She expresses her dismay that she has no voice within their relationship and that his demeanour, now that he is King and they are no longer courting, is dismissive and unloving. This could have been a really powerful scene, with Beatrice finally finding her strength and her voice and giving Rowan the stern, angry word that he is sorely deserving of. But, for some reason best known to Cannon, it is understated and resigned. When Beatrice says “meh”, and seems like she’s numb to it, what emotion is that supposed to elicit in the audience? If our characters don’t care about how they’re being treated, then the audience don’t either.

The main relationship which is actually explored is that of Rowan and Robert and, even then, it seems as if everybody involved in the film seemed to have collectively forgotten how regular humans actually have a conversation. Personally, I’ve never come into a room and launched into a monologue about how my father sits on a throne and judges me before he’s even had a chance to speak but, go off, I guess, Robert.

Throughout the film, you can feel the film being pulled in too many directions. The original Cinderella is simply about her escaping the torment of her stepmother. Here, there’s Vivian trying to marry Ella off; there’s the town not taking her seriously because she’s a peasant and she wants to open a dress shop; there’s the prince who doesn’t want to be the King and is being forced to have a bride. Oh, and there’s also the patriarchy in general, which forces women into being mere props for their husbands. There are scenes thrown in which are unnecessary and do not serve our central narrative – whatever, in fact, that is meant to be.

For example, staying on Fab G once Cinderella has been whisked away to the ball to hear a final flourish of “You’re a shining [pause for dramatic strings] star [hold note for thirty seconds]” is unnecessary. How is this serving Ella’s story? It is not necessary. Fab G is not our focus: Ella is. Why does the film need an extra scene of James Corden (eurgh) and the other mice figuring out that they can go to the toilet through their ”front tail”? It doesn’t. It does not feed into the central conflict and adds absolutely nothing. Seeing these things included makes it clear that this film lacks creative direction and a sense of purpose. It is a meandering journey full of random, unexpected moments that result in a mismatch of tonal inconsistency that make character growth and decent, well rounded acting performances impossible.

Ultimately, Cinderella took everything that was good and inspirational about the story and threw it to one side. The interesting plotlines that they put there in their stead were not expanded upon enough, and the women were not permitted to be flawed in any way. Cabello herself did not spend a single moment of the film looking anything other than flawless, which takes away from Cinderella’s growth and journey. The music was sorely out of place, even the songs which were purposefully written for the film and what comes out is a complete mess.

Yet, it’s all things that were easily avoidable and palpably obvious throughout the entire production process. Though it is not the purpose of a review to lay blame, it has to be said that all of the creatives involved in this have had some very successful projects. The performers themselves are infinitely capable of brilliant work, but, ultimately, the captain has to go down with their ship. As writer and director, Kay Cannon should have known better. Taking a longer time to settle upon more appropriate songs and building characters from the ground up so that they are three-dimensional and realistic is essential to making a movie-musical work. You can’t just take a good song, slap on a little movement and expect the narrative to hold together. It simply doesn’t work that way. And it’s unfortunate, now, that Cabello will end up getting the reputation that she isn’t a good actress, as that may well not be the case, but that she wasn’t given the material with which to show it off.

Cinderella is streaming now on Amazon Prime Video.

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