Cinderella, the classic persecuted heroine, is as popular now as she’s ever been. She’s the star of a new, critically acclaimed Andrew Lloyd Webber musical on London’s West End, and was the focus of last weekend’s Opera in the Outfield simulcast at Nats Park from the Washington National Opera.
This weekend, you’ll find her as the mysterious belle of the ball streamed into the homes of Amazon Prime subscribers. Writer/director Kay Cannon’s Cinderella (★★★☆☆) serves up an inspiring and strong female character to lead a messy but likable modern take on the fairytale. Here, the heroine goes by her original name of Ella, and she is no longer preoccupied by fanciful dreams of a noble boy sweeping her off her feet and rescuing her into a life of fame and royalty.
Instead, she aspires to make a name for herself as a fashion designer and entrepreneur, one who finds fame in her own right and love on her own terms. Camila Cabello, the pop starlet, makes her acting debut in the role, and her appealing portrayal breaks the archetypal mold still further in terms of how she looks and acts. Cabello as Ella is a plucky, resilient, and driven diva-in-waiting, rather than the skittish, subservient, and demure damsel in distress of yore.
Before we get to know Ella or learn anything of her feminist dreams, Cannon guides us to the ancient Disneyfied village where Ella resides. We zoom in on the townsfolk in this unspecified time and place as they go about their daily chores and activities, from selling their wares at the bustling market, to socializing and playing in the town square, using everyday objects as percussive instruments and busting acrobatic moves in group routines as part of Ashley Wallen’s energetic choreography.
Those hijinks and high kicks are all fine and dandy, but why do they do it while singing Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation?” Furthermore, why does that segue into a mashup with Ella singing a different ’90s hit, Des’ree’s “You Gotta Be?” Chalk it up as little more than a pandering pop pastiche a la Pitch Perfect, the hit franchise that launched Cannon’s screenwriting career. It’s fun, sure, but it’s also frivolous, to the point you start to wonder if Cannon has a point — and with nearly 100 minutes left to go. Fortunately, from there she quickly cuts to a scene of Ella in the basement, just as we hear Idina Menzel as the evil stepmother yelling for her to come upstairs.
Although the Cinderella soundtrack consists mostly of pop covers, Cabello and Menzel each co-wrote an original song that they sing in character. Menzel’s comes toward the film’s climax, during a scene in which the stepmother tries to bond with Ella by pleading for her to be more practical and realistic. “Dream, Girl” is a powerhouse ballad, perfectly suited as a showcase for Menzel, but it’s not the kind of empowering anthem you might expect or hope for. The true Menzel highlight comes earlier, in an amusing scene in which the stepmother instructs Ella’s stepsisters on how they should approach finding the right men to marry. While hanging laundry outside to dry, Menzel works to distract her daughters from the hunky farmhand lustily watching them by leading a Bellas-esque rendition of Madonna’s “Material Girl.”
Cinderella gets more compelling as it goes along. Funnier and goofier, too. From the over-the-top antics of insecure King Rowan (Pierce Brosnan) to the bickering banter of three British anthropomorphic mice, portrayed by James Acaster, Romesh Ranganathan, and James Corden.
This big-budget Cinderella is a shoddy but satisfying twist on the tale, one that would have benefited from a sharper, more unifying thematic structure. Or at least more scenes featuring Billy Porter as the Fab G, an updated twist on the Fairy Godmother character. The gender-nonconforming vision sports a diamond-studded orange frock, and is the sassiest of them all in Porter’s portrayal.
Cinderella doesn’t quite know what to make of the Fab G when they first appear. But when she discounts them as a figment of her imagination, the Fab G snaps back with the best line in the movie: “Let’s not ruin this incredibly magical moment with reason.”
Cinderella is playing locally at the Alamo Drafthouse Woodbridge and Cinemark Fairfax in Virginia. It is also streaming on Prime Video. Visit www.amazon.com.
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