Updating classic fairytales is nothing new (see: Shrek). And, of course, the musical has been around for as long as movies have had sound. So combining an updated take on Cinderella with a pop-laden musical would seem to be a guaranteed winner. But somehow director Kay Cannon (Blockers) and her team have created a by-the-numbers movie musical that feels oddly dated.
I couldn’t help but feel this 2021 version of the story was created more by committee than clear artistic vision. Every element seems to be designed to appeal to a broad but ill-defined audience, with the result it might end up missing all of them. The elements are all there, but they’ve had any potentially sharp edges buffed off. So in cinematic terms, it takes basically no risks. This isn’t a thrill ride – it’s more like a merry-go-round.
The film begins with a rollicking song mash-up to introduce the audience to Ella (Camila Cabello), her stepmother Vivian (Idina Menzel) and stepsisters Malvolia (Maddie Baillio) and Narissa (Charlotte Spencer). They live an increasingly precarious existence, with Vivian hoping to marry her daughters – including Ella – off to improve her finances. Ella though doesn’t want to be a farmer’s wife – she dreams of being a fashion designer.
Meanwhile, at the palace, King Rowan (Pierce Brosnan) grows increasingly perturbed that his son Prince Robert (Nicholas Galitzine) shows no real interest in being king. His ever-patient wife Queen Beatrice (Minnie Driver) suffers the pompous Rowan, but can see that goading the boy will only be counter-productive. Rowan also takes little notice of his daughter Princess Gwen (Tallulah Grieve) – who actually has all the attributes of a ruler – because she’s not male. Rowan decides that marrying Robert off is the answer. Robert reluctantly agrees, but only if every eligible woman in the kingdom is invited – not just royalty. With the prospect of marrying someone off to a prince on the table, Vivian swings into action. You can probably fill in the rest.
Cannon’s main problems stem from her script. Everything about the story has been toned down and dumbed down. What’s left is a blancmange of cliches and insipid situations. Notably Cannon has drained the “bad guys” characters of any real “badness”. The stepsisters are a little self-absorbed but generally supportive of Cinderella. Vivian – the putative villain of the piece – is stern but given an uninspired redemption in the end. Even the pompous King Rowan is revealed to be a nice guy after all. But the washing away of these spikier elements of the original story drains Cinderella’s story arc of meaning.
That said, if you’re more interested in songs than storylines, then you’ll probably enjoy this more. Cannon delivers one huge performance number after another, complete with tight choreography. Everyone from Queen to The White Stripes to Ed Sheeran get a go. Even Beethoven and Vivaldi slip into the soundtrack. And DOP Harry Braham (The Suicide Squad) gives the film a bright, sunny look with some glittering cinematography.
The cast mostly look like they’re going through the motions. Pop princess Camila Cabello delivers in the musical numbers, but fades into the background a little in the other scenes. Idina Menzel (Uncut Gems) – arguably the most accomplished singer in the cast – by contrast gets precious few numbers. Nicholas Galitzine serves as little more than eye candy as Prince Robert. And the increasingly insufferable James Corden makes yet another appearance as an animated animal. About the only actor who seems to have any fun is Pierce Brosnan, who sends himself up as the king.
Clearly Cinderella is a film that (as they say) skews younger. Teenagers will probably revel in the colour and movement of it all. The songs are a plus for a wider audience. But the script problems and the film’s muddled delivery make it more of a chore than a delight.
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David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television