James Corden’s disembodied head floats, wailing, above a carriage motoring along a road in the dark. A CGI mouse which almost resembles Kettering-born comedian James Acaster opens its mouth wide in an uncanny, terrifying scream. Rob Beckett also shows up and says the word “chicks” unironically. This is Cinderella, as you’ve never seen it before.
After having its cinema release curtailed by the pandemic, Blockers director and Pitch Perfect scribe Kay Cannon’s take on the classic fairy tale is now landing on Amazon Prime in a strange, uncomfortable explosion of barmy ideas. It attempts to reinvent Cinderella in a more feminist guise, but ends up emerging as a movie which feels dismally behind the times in an era in which even Disney has repeatedly skewered the princess fantasy it helped to create.
Certainly, singer-songwriter Camila Cabello’s title character marks a shift from the traditional fairy tale heroine. She’s only tangentially interested in romantically pursuing Prince Robert (The Craft: Legacy‘s Nicholas Galitzine) and is far more focused on turning her passion for dressmaking into a valid business, regardless of patriarchal restrictions on women running stalls in the local market. Stepmother Vivian (Idina Menzel) thinks she should abandon her dreams – “every girl is worth more when she smiles”, she advises – and turn her focus towards finding a husband.
So far, so normal when it comes to the recent vogue for fairy tale revisionism. There’s something very 90s about the way the movie swaggers into the room and declares that fairy tales set unrealistic expectations for women, as if that’s new and shocking information. This sort of material has been fodder for comedy sketches for decades, to the extent that Disney itself worked its way through the standard roster of princess gags in 2018’s Ralph Breaks the Internet. We’ve been there, done that and sold millions of t-shirts and plush dolls in the process.
Once the very familiar revisionism is stripped away, the Cinderella of 2021 is a deeply unusual watch. It sparkles with the unmistakeable glitter of a Hollywood production, but is stifled by a ramshackle tone – like a try-hard Edinburgh Fringe production with A-list talent. Scenes are arranged in haphazard, crazy paving fashion and character arcs – most notably for Menzel’s stepmother – are awkwardly hurried as the movie ticks towards two hours. This is all interspersed with almost entirely random comic interludes involving Corden, Acaster and Romesh Ranganathan as mice-turned-footmen. Rob Beckett, meanwhile, gets to do little comedic flexing in a role that mostly amounts to close-ups of his famously toothy grin.
On a musical level, the film’s hybrid concept of original songs mingling with jukebox hits provides an unusual mish-mash. Original tracks such as Cabello’s oft-reprised Million to One have a distinctly Disney vibe, which smashes awkwardly against a soundtrack which includes songs from Queen, Ed Sheeran, Janet Jackson and Earth, Wind & Fire. There are also a handful of performances which have the troubling whiff of a Glee mash-up. Salt n Pepa’s Whatta Man and the White Stripes’s Seven Nation Army probably aren’t natural bedfellows for a reason.
With all of that said, there’s a joy to the performances that ensures the movie is surprisingly watchable, despite its flaws. Billy Porter bursts forth in a kaleidoscope of glitter for his scene-stealing portrayal of a genderless Fairy Godmother and Menzel can’t help but soar when she is given the musical spotlight. Pierce Brosnan and Minnie Driver also shine as the royal parents hoping for the best for their son, with the former boasting terrific, silver facial hair and a willingness to send up his own, chequered past in the musical genre.
Cabello makes a decent fist of the lead role, but is saddled with abrupt character shifts – Cinderella is sometimes timid, sometimes defiant and occasionally brazenly sassy – that simply don’t match the energy of the story around her. It doesn’t help that she and Galitzine lack any sort of palpable chemistry, regardless of how many swooning, Baz Luhrmann-esque camera movements Cannon musters in an attempt to seel their romance.
Cinderella definitely goes down as a misfire, and certainly for Cannon given the calibre of much of her past work. At times, it’s bafflingly creaky and oddly lacking in any sort of personality beyond its rather played-out critiques of the fairy tales we all know are bad. But there’s a spark of something unconventional and exciting lurking within its heart, hinting at the bolder, braver and stranger movie that could’ve been born from this core. James Corden’s floating head is just the tip of the iceberg.
Cinderella hits Amazon Prime 3rd September