Did we need another Cinderella movie? Disney’s live-action reboot of its own classic cartoon is only six years old… and as I wondered back in 2015: Why are we still telling this story? Even if we had, as a culture, embraced the dark version the Brothers Grimm told us, we wouldn’t need to keep reupping it. But we sure as hell do not need more of the version we keep getting: “fantasies” about acquiescent-doormat young women who endure abuse with equanimity. We sure as hell do not need to be filling the heads of girls with any more “some day my prince will come” nonsense. Be your own prince, girls. Save yourself.
But then I saw Kay Cannon’s take on the fairy tale, and — huh — turns out I am here for it. The Pitch Perfect creator has, perhaps unsurprisingly, reimagined Cinderella as a karaoke jukebox musical, with hints of Moulin Rouge! and The Greatest Showman abounding. It’s not anywhere near as good as those cinematic gifts, alas, but it’s pretty darn fun. And Cannon gives the old story a feminist spin. It doesn’t quite reach the progressive finish line that it might have — I mean, it’s all right there, the movie just had to have the guts to go for it. But this Cinderella is still infinitely better, infinitely more than I ever could have hoped for.
Pop star Camila Cabello — a Cuban-Mexican-American Cinderella, hooray! — is adorable and full of sweet spunk as this latest Ella, put-upon stepdaughter and stepsister who, despite the fact that she must live in the basement with the ashes and the mice, retains an all-singing, all-dancing hope for a better life. But her hope has nothing to do with marrying a prince — or marrying anyone, for that matter — and thank god. Instead, she is an aspiring dressmaker, with dreams of opening her own shop in the village someday, even though women aren’t supposed to go into any sort of business in her world. (Her duet with her own imagined successful future self is rather nice.) Ella spends her days sketching out dresses and mocking them up as best she can with the scraps of fabric she can get her hands on. Here I dared to dream: When it came to the going-to-the-ball bit, would she — *gasp* — turn out to be her own fairy godmother?
And… that does kind of happen. True, she gets a magical assist from her, ahem, Fabulous Godmother (Billy Porter [Like a Boss, Noel], a treasure as always), but it really is just an assist… and it wouldn’t have even been needed if not for the cruel intrusion of her stepmother, Vivian (Idina Menzel: Frozen II, Uncut Gems), on Ella’s plans for the ball.
So the bones of the Cinderella story are here, but Cannon — with her second feature as director, after 2018’s unexpectedly sex-positive Blockers — has a ball, no pun intended, waking it up. (Yes, sorry, people who fear change: this Cinderella is woke.) Almost all the romantic and plaintive songs end up sounding either ironic, sarcastic, or at least winking, undercutting the performative heterosexuality and the patriarchal normativeness of those bones. Even the notion of monarchy gets smacked! There are inescapable suggestions of real-life prince-on-the-run Harry Windsor in Prince Robert (Nicholas Galitzine).
This is a funkily gender fluid fairy tale in which Robert’s sister, Gwen (Tallulah Greive: Locked Down), dresses more like her brother than you’d expect from a princess as she agitates for a seat at the table of power, literally and figuratively, in order to enact her own modern ideas for the kingdom. Robert’s best friend, Count Wilbur, is played by a trans actress (Jenet Le Lacheur). And even Vivian and her daughters, Ella’s stepsisters Narissa (Charlotte Spencer: Les Misérables, Dark Shadows) and Malvolia (Maddie Baillio: Dumplin’), are not so much evil but frustrated by how they are constrained by the expectations and limitations placed on them as women. Their joint performance of perhaps one of the most famous pop songs of the past 40 years is, well, pitch perfect for this retelling.
I could have done without the screeching annoyance of James Corden (Peter Rabbit 2, Trolls: World Tour) as a mouse transformed into one of Ella’s carriage footmen, but his presence is more than made up for by Pierce Brosnan (No Escape, Survivor) and Minnie Driver (Beyond the Lights, I Give It a Year) hamming it up as the king and queen, and by Ben Bailey Smith (Nowhere Boy, Doctor Who), also known as rapper Doc Brown, as the town crier, whose performances with his backup band are redolent of Beyoncé’s Homecoming.
I did spend the whole movie wondering, Gosh, this won’t possibly go there, will it? And if this Cinderella doesn’t get to all of the enlightened places it might have, it does get to some of them. An Ella who goes to the royal ball not to enchant a prince but in the hopes of networking for business prospects? I have to love that.