There have been so many Cinderella retellings that it’s often hard to keep track of them all. Most are mediocre, while others are completely forgettable, made-for-TV movies that enjoy the familiarity of a classic story that has been around for centuries in some form or other. Stemming from an idea by James Corden (who plays a mouse-turned-footman in the film), Amazon’s Cinderella mixes the old with the new in a musical adaptation that tries to make progressive certain parts of the story. Written and directed by Kay Cannon (Pitch Perfect), Cinderella’s music is enjoyable, but it’s hollow, the performances flat, and the dialogue often cringe-worthy.
Set in a distinctly vague time period, one that is defined by the old-fashioned town that is too hesitant to change, Cinderella follows its title character (Camila Cabello), an aspiring fashion designer with a dream of selling her dresses if only she could escape the control of her stepmother Vivian (Idina Menzel), a widow who understands how little a woman can have if she doesn’t play into her societal role (and also marry rich). During a jaunt to town, Cinderella meets a poorly disguised Prince Robert (Nicholas Galitzine) — an irresponsible royal who often butts heads with his father King Rowan (Pierce Brosnan) over his monarchical duties — who offers to buy her dress before inviting her to the ball to meet others who might help her business ambitions. The two are smitten with each other, but things are made complicated when Cinderella learns of Robert’s station and is later pressured by Vivian to marry someone she doesn’t want to be with and ignore her passion.
Cabello and Galitzine have no chemistry, which makes their central romance all the harder to believe or root for. There are no longing looks and no charm to their relationship; it’s something that certainly needed to exist to make Cinderella work and to make up for the parts of the story that are lacking. Despite the songs and set-up, the film is devoid of any romantic moments between them and the pair are better when interacting with almost everyone else but each other. Menzel and Brosnan’s performances are fine, but viewers have seen them do better in other projects, though the former does play Vivian with some nuance and she’s painted with a more sympathetic brush than previous iterations of the character. While Billy Porter makes a grand entrance as Cinderella’s fairy godmother, Fab G, it’s actually Minnie Driver as Queen Beatrice who stands out among the cast, elevating the material by exhibiting the many layers to her character. There is a sad longing and sparks of joy that are made apparent in her performance, one that rises above everyone else’s despite the obviously thin screenplay.
Cinderella attempts to flip the script by sprinkling in progressive subplots — Cinderella has ambitions to be a fashion designer and not a royal at court, the prince recognizes he doesn’t want to be king and believes his sister Gwen (Tallulah Greive) is far more suited for the role with her ideas to move the kingdom forward — but all of these elements are heavy-handed and cringe-worthy. The film would rather tell instead of show, with the dialogue doing most of the heavy lifting to point out issues of sexism and the patriarchal system to the audience instead of exploring and engaging with them in a more meaningful way. Openly pointing out that sexism exists is only stating a fact and the film offers empty platitudes about empowerment without delving into who Cinderella is as a person outside of her circumstances. And this is true of every character, all of whom are one-note and ostensibly dull. What the film also lacks is an emotional core — Cabello’s performance isn’t strong enough to be the anchor. The film quickly loses its momentum and transforms into an empty shell that is too hindering to the story to ignore.
The musical only works if one were to lean into the silliness of it all and when the film’s own script does that as well, there are genuine moments of humor and fun. This is especially true when Cannon’s script pokes fun at all of the nonsense — Fab G announcing that Cinderella needs help, to which her response is, “yeah, I was just singing about it minutes ago,” or Prince Robert very sarcastically asking his father what he and his future wife will even talk about until their deaths at the age of 40. There aren’t enough of these moments, but when they arrive, they’re a treat and a nice break from some of the more ridiculous and monotonous aspects of the film. And yet, it doesn’t go far enough.
The directorial choices are uninspired and devoid of personality, with the overly bright lighting likely meant to make the film feel more fairytale-like, though it makes for a rather dull aesthetic. The cinematography (by Andrew Dunn) is as overly sanitized as the story. What makes up for an overall one-dimensional story are the meticulously designed, gorgeous costumes by Ellen Mirojnick, which have allure and grandeur while reflecting the film’s more modern stylings. The old meets new vibes are prevalent in the film’s song choices, a mixture of popular music — Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation,” Queen’s “Somebody to Love” — with original songs like “Million to One,” which Cabello sings as the centerpiece, being a statement of the film’s attempts at modernity.
Unfortunately, Cinderella lacks the specificity of Ever After and doesn’t commit to the full fantasy of Brandy’s Cinderella, either, nor does it have the charisma of Ella Enchanted. Cannon’s film does emulate each of these adaptations to various degrees, though it has very little to say because its message is surface-level, dressed up to mask its lack of depth. The film very rarely leans into the fun and its heavy-handed execution, mediocre performances, and lack of exuberance makes for an overall bland watch.