It’s such an immensely satisfying feeling to watch something you had assumed would be disastrous but instead turns out to be an absolute freakin’ delight. When Sony announced its remake of Cinderella, starring Camila Cabello as the titular princess, back in 2019 (Amazon later bought the streaming rights), I was apprehensive. The promotional clips were bizarre. In one video, Cabello’s Cinderella lets out a high-pitched scream when she sees her new gown, designed by her fairy godmother, Fab G (Billy Porter). “Yaaass, future queen, yaaass,” Fab G says, matching the princess’s unbridled joy. It’s an awkward moment, but that’s because it’s devoid of context and works much better in the movie overall. And then there was this viral video of James Corden and other stars from the film literally stopping LA traffic to perform a dance number. While the promo might have felt a bit desperate and off-putting, the film, thankfully, delivers in virtually every way.
Written and directed by Kay Cannon (Blockers), the 2021 version of Cinderella is like a mashup of Hamilton and Glee, and I mean that in the best way. Of course, there are some expected moments — such as the glass slippers, the handsome prince, the evil stepmother, and the grand ball — but this new take feels unique and, most importantly, fun.
The story, as is typical of a fable like this one, begins with the classic line “Once upon a time...” It’s narrated by Porter’s Fab G (who takes the shape of a butterfly) and sets the tone for the film. “There was an old-fashioned kingdom bound by tradition. Here, everyone had a part to play, and they played it without question. Little did they know, their world was about to chaaaange,” he says, dragging the last word out and adding a little flair. The opening scene continues with an overhead shot of the vast kingdom before focusing on the townspeople, who are singing a rendition of “Rhythm Nation,” a 1989 song by Janet Jackson. As the tune continues, we’re introduced to our cast. Vivian (Idina Menzel), “a practical woman” who is “alone again,” hangs laundry while her two daughters, Malvolia (Maddie Baillio) and Nerissa (Charlotte Spencer), run about rambunctiously. And then, finally, “down here, in this dingy basement,” we see Cinderella, who is fast asleep at a table, sketches of gowns and assorted fabrics strewn about, “dreaming of a world in which she can live her life any way she wants.” Just before she wakes, Cinderella narrowly misses rolling her face over onto a sewing pin. Immediately, singing Des'ree's 1994 hit "You Gotta Be," she springs into action and begins her chores. The smart incorporation of modern pop hits is one of the choices that makes this adaptation so compelling. The song mashups push the story forward and illuminate a particular character's wants and desires.
As Cinderella sings, we are also introduced to her three rodent friends (who are the worst-looking CGI mice I’ve ever seen). We learn that her sole ambition, unlike that of the original Disney animated version, isn’t to fall in love but to own her own dress shop. Once the music ends, Menzel’s Vivian, who excels as an icy, evil stepmother, admonishes Cinderella for the tea not being up to her standard. As their mother verbally drags their poor stepsister, Malvolia and Nerissa lean into their wicked archetypes. “I thought she was rather hard on her,” Nerissa whispers, to which Malvolia responds, “I thought she could’ve gone harder.” The two actors, Spencer and Baillio, play off one another really well, and the moment, which is meant for laughs, really works.
From there, the story continues hitting the usual notes you would expect — but it’s updated with a contemporary sensibility. In this version, Vivian pressures Cinderella to find a suitor, even though the princess really wants to own her own business. Cinderella’s struggles run parallel to those of the prince, Robert, who is played by the dashing Nicholas Galitzine. When he first appears onscreen, he’s listening to a prospective wife who is vying for his hand in marriage. She unfolds a map of the world and points to various regions. “Take a look at this blob here and here,” she says. “If we marry, our blobs would join up and we would control the world all the way to this huge sea monster.” But the prince is uninterested, saying he is still too “busy” enjoying his life as a single man and spending his days drinking and fox hunting. This version of Cinderella humorously skewers the idea of a happily ever after and complicates the expected fairy-tale narrative in ways that feel different. Realizing she isn’t going to convince the prince to take her hand in marriage, his prospect says, “I promise, my lord, you can keep gallivanting with your merry bros and I’ll have other interests. We never have to be together, except for royal events, war planning, and when we have to engage in the disgusting practice of making a son.”
The pressure for the prince to conform comes from his father, King Rowan (Pierce Brosnan), a man who is set in his ways. Because of tradition, he wants his son to wed so the men in the family can keep the line of succession going. His wife, Queen Beatrice (Minnie Driver), often tries to reason with her husband and get him to sympathize with their son. Rowan wants his son to marry even if love isn’t involved, an admission that sets Beatrice off. The king and queen have a daughter named Princess Gwen (Tallulah Greive). Because she’s a woman, she isn’t eligible to succeed her father’s throne. Her father constantly shuts down her ideas for how to make the kingdom a more equitable place to live. In one scene, she literally tries to sit at a table of men discussing important matters and her father gives a disapproving look. Meanwhile, her brother doesn’t even want the responsibility of ruling at all.
Strong performances and good musical numbers bolster the film. Cabello is spot-on as the title character and really endearing. She and Galitzine have a natural chemistry, and I found myself actively invested in their characters’ respective journeys. Brosnan is another standout, oscillating between comedic moments and convincing turns where he revels in his manly power as the king. Cannon does a great job of making every woman character, even the evil stepmother, multilayered. The music is incredible too. The immaculate ballroom scene has a moment when the women hoping to gain the prince’s attention perform Salt-N-Pepa and En Vogue’s “Whatta Man,” which perfectly segues into a performance by the prince, who covers “Seven Nation Army” by the White Stripes.
Even if you don’t walk away believing in fairy tales again, you will be thoroughly entertained while watching.●