- Directed by: Kay Cannon
- Fantasy, Musical, Romance | PG | 1 hr 53 min
- Streaming: Amazon Prime
This latest Cinderella adaptation promises an update on the classic story imbued with Pitch Perfect pop, an intriguing idea in theory but a goal unrealized in practice.
Camila Cabello makes her film debut as Ella, an orphan and aspiring dressmaker forced to live with her stepmother, Vivian (Idina Menzel) and her stepsisters, Malvolia (Maddie Baillio) and Narissa (Charlotte Spencer) after Ella’s father tragically passes away. When King Rowan (Pierce Brosnan) becomes impatient with Prince Robert (Nicholas Galitzine) for his refusal to marry and assume the crown, he demands his son host a ball to find a proper match. A chance meeting places Ella squarely within the Prince’s sights, and, with the help of her Fabulous Godmother (Billy Porter) and a few gregarious mice (James Corden, James Acaster, and Romesh Ranganathan), and over Vivian’s objections, Ella makes her way to the ball in a dress of her own design and wows Prince Robert and the guests alike. However, the magic doesn’t last, and Ella is eventually faced with a decision to live a plush, royal life with the Prince or travel the world and pursue her dressmaking dreams.
The problem does not lay with the performances; Cabello, who certainly has an excellent voice, does a fine job as Ella, and performances across the cast range from solid to quite good. Likewise, the choices to update and distinguish this adaptation from its predecessors definitely work, as they almost exclusively place ownership of the story directly in Ella’s capable hands: Ella is a dressmaker, and a world-class one at that; Prince Rupert notices and pursues Ella early in the film, not because of her looks, but because of her confidence and charming wit; Ella’s happy ending is not the result of a man deigning to choose her, but rather the result of Ella’s own hard work and determination. Refreshingly, these choices are not limited to Ella, as Vivian, Queen Beatrice, and Princess Gwen also get individual moments of empowerment.
Rather, the issues rest primarily with the filmmakers’ choice to almost exclusively use existing pop songs to fill the roster of musical numbers. None of the songs or performances work particularly well, and they often put the characters in awkward situations that take the audience out of the film. For example, the filmmakers clearly chose to use a Broadway-esque presentation style, with characters visibly hitting their marks and playing to a non-existent crowd. But this isn’t Broadway; there are no active participants with which to engage and react and no back of the theater at which to project, and characters performing as if these things exist does not work on screen without a certain level self-awareness and connection to the narrative.
Especially frustrating is the third act, not because it represents the worst of the film, but because it represents the best. It’s the only significant stretch of the movie that does not feature a pop song; instead, the sequence is populated with engaging one-on-one interactions between Ella and Vivian, King Rowan and Queen Beatrice, and Ella and Prince Robert, connected with three original musical numbers. This genuinely effective sequence works because it embraces this adaptation’s unique story choices, delivers good musical numbers specifically crafted for the film, and gives its characters room to breathe. Alas, the film couldn’t help itself, and a jarring, five-minute, full ensemble performance of “Let’s Get Loud” rudely interrupts to close the story.
Cinderella’s central theme of women’s inherent strength and autonomy is not only admirable, but also essential, and there is a good-to-great film buried somewhere amidst the karaoke pop; unfortunately, that film did not make it to the screen.