Greetings again from the darkness. In keeping with the times, writer-director Kay Cannon (the screenwriter for three PITCH PERFECT movies) has turned the classic and ancient Cinderella tale into an agenda movie, albeit one adorned with new and lively adaptations of popular songs. The earliest versions of the folk tale date back 2000 years, while the most widely-accepted fairy tale version was penned by 17th century French writer Charles Perrault, who also wrote “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Sleeping Beauty”. Since then, there have been countless renditions around the globe in various forms: literary, stage, musical theatre, TV, and animated and live action film. As far as I can tell, this is the first feminist take.
Opening with the town folks performing Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation”, we are then introduced to Ella (pop singer Camila Cabello in her first movie), who lives in the basement of her stepmother’s (Idina Menzel) home. Yes, Ella has two stepsisters, although neither are particularly wicked. In fact, Anastasia (Maddie Baillio) appears almost disinterested, while Drizella (Charlotte Spencer) is at times, downright hilarious (in a Leslie Mann kind of way). Even the stepmother has moments of respectability and decency with Ella.
Ella’s only friends are the three mice who also live in the basement. It’s here where she hones her talent as a dress designer and dreams of having her own business (“how hard can it be?”). For her, she sees fashion design as not just her way out of the basement, but more importantly, as her road to independence. She doesn’t need a man or anyone else, and is skilled in daily affirmations. Hers is less of a ‘dream’ and more of a goal, despite the challenges of her situation.
Of course this is still a Cinderella story, and Nicholas Galitzine plays Prince Robert, an unfocused young man who lacks the drive to be king and fulfill the ultimate wish of his father, King Rowan (Pierce Brosnan). On the other hand, Robert’s sister, Princess Gwen (Tallulah Greive) is both driven and filled with ideas on ways to improve the kingdom. Her father readily dismisses her from matters of importance (men things), while Queen Beatrice (Minnie Driver) initially tries to maintain peace in the family. Knowing that this is a musical, and seeing Pierce Brosnan’s name in the credits, might generate nightmarish flashbacks for those who experienced his singing in MAMMA MIA! (2008). While he does tease/threaten us with singing, most of his musical bits are quite tongue-in-cheek.
Bringing a jolt of energy to the story at a time when it’s desperately needed is Billy Porter as Ella’s non-binary Fabulous Godmother, known as Fab G. Porter’s costume and overall flamboyance are a hoot to watch, and oh by the way, he’s quite a singer as well. And yes, the three mice turn into coachmen played by James Corden, James Acaster, and Romesh Ranganathan. They do serve up some comic relief, but likely not as much as they or the filmmaker hopes. Surprisingly, the set design and costume design are fairly drab – the two exceptions being Porter and the ball.
In addition to the opening “Rhythm Nation” song, you’ll hear a version of Salt-N-Pepa’s “What a Man”, as well as other familiar tunes. The music and the shift in Ella’s approach are the contemporary touches, as the girl-power theme stresses there’s no need for a man … even a Prince. The twist on the Cinderella tale varies from previous versions, the most popular being Kenneth Branagh’s 2015 film with Lily James and Cate Blanchett, the 1997 film with Whitney Houston as the Fairy Godmother, and of course, Walt Disney’s 1950 animated classic. Ms. Cannon’s version is still a love story; it’s just love of one’s self and career, rather than the love of another person. A tale perfectly suited to the times.
In select theaters and on Amazon Prime beginning September 3, 2021