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REVIEW – “Cinderella”: New Musical Ambition Held Back by Old Hits

Celebrated French author Charles Perrault (or his estate) probably never imagined his sweetly fanciful 1697 short story Cendrillon to outlast the rest of his career to latch onto the cultural lexicon. Too many adaptations to count of a simple romance story where a bored prince seeks new opportunities, by falling for a villager, with a glass slipper for a calling card. And the bulk of those, be in other books, film, TV, or even a noted Broadway musical later adapted into a film for TV, are prone to finding themselves lost in a cluttered zone of mediocrity, with little breathing room. While its intentions are plenty fair, Kay Cannon’s spin on Cinderella is the next in a long line to mingle in this zone, not so graceful as it is a sudden nosedive thanks in part to a jukebox soundtrack making up for dwindling levels of originality.

Less a teen-friendly counterpart to Kenneth Branagh’s traditional spin on the Perrault novel (and the heritage Disney toon), and more Cannon’s own Fractured Fairy Tale with an attitude shared between Mamma Mia and her own Pitch Perfect, this Cinderella makes it very clear right off the top how untraditional it’s aiming for. Though as an apparent leading lady vehicle for musician Camilla Cabello in the title role, it’s still very apropos. She slips in the shoes of maid-in-training Ella with a glove-like fit. In that it feels conforming, to a loose cuff.

The same really can be said for the songs here. Having gone in cold here, no trailers, it caught me completely off guard hearing an overly energetic cross cover of “Rhythm Nation” and “You Gotta Be” to open the picture, and that is far from the end of it. Ella’s determination isn’t entirely impacted by such frivolity, leaving little flourishes around a nondescript kingdom while aiming to break in the impossible game of self-made evening gowns. And yes, the stepmother (Idina Menzel) and her daughters (Maddie Baillio, Charlotte Spencer) disapprove without a second thought.

Inside the core of which, we find Prince Robert (Nicholas Galitzine), the kind who refuses to be tied down. Unless it were on his terms, which his parents (Pierce Brosnan, Minnie Driver) balk at, and yet they have enough patience to allow their first-born to host a ball with all the eligible ladies in tow for dancing and the like. Ella’s certainly looking to impress, nothing too different from the story we know. Until the direction she’s pursuing says otherwise.

What Cannon does manage to get right in her partially modernized take on Perrault’s story lies with newly interjected empowerment versus lingering shreds of antiquated patriarchy, which only a firm-fisted ruler can enforce. Not that Brosnan’s much an antagonist, he is a little misguided (and a minor delight post-Eurovision) as Robert stands in the middle, merely trying to please everyone. His sister Gwen (Tallulah Grieve) is more the brave one, mediating when she can to break down the politics of gender roles. Cannon doesn’t overemphasize this adjustment, allowing it to fester organically, with first-time feature star Cabello representing the face, voice, and theatrical physicality necessary to sell the story and its themes.

She’s no Andrews, though, possessing a hesitant stiffness over more music-less scenes with focus lost. Where it does counts, sharing optimal chemistry with Galitzine or belting out before the camera, particularly her main original track “Million to One”, it’s just enough to remind us of where the film manages to miss inadvertently. Having established performers like Brosnan, Driver, and Menzel (also with her own original “I Want” song) help to raise our musical clout. Ditto for a rambunctious Billy Porter portraying a gender fluid fairy godmother, whose candid snark and charisma is its own definition of bank. Not so much for this adap’s equivalent of Jacques and Gus Gus, a trio of CG mice turned footmen (James Acaster, Romesh Ranganathan, and James Corden). Their presence in this vision goes beyond mere question, and for talk show host Corden especially, who normally doesn’t make many bad waves, contingent on the role.

This Cinderella is still a rough sit, if only due in part to unflattering arrangements of legitimately classic pop standards both propelling the story forward not unlike Moulin Rouge, sans sophistication, or better pacing. When Galitzine brings the lights down for Queen’s “Somebody to Love” (way to steal Ella Enchanted’s thunder), or when Menzel’s spin on “Material Girl” runs like oozing liquid sunshine, the production values aren’t lacking, unlike the motivation not to clash with the classical era Cannon’s saddled with. At least one mashup is guilty of winding up discordant and messy, particularly in an 18th century mystique.

All these numbers, regardless of source material, fall within a larger scale of generic cadence. They may stand out in small doses, but combined they make up for a rather long music video highlight reel for Cannon, slick, tightly edited, and with a hint of auto-tune. When she does build enough confidence to break past the restraints of a jukebox musical, that’s when many of those hindrances can be overlooked. Menzel’s big number, in particular. One wishes every move Cannon makes could be this daring, and arrive much earlier to benefit the plot. The look remains rather consistent throughout these highs and lows, with Ellen Mirojnick’s (Bridgerton) costume work further emphasizing Ella’s career aspirations, and DoP Henry Braham (The Suicide Squad) embracing the vintage Victorian style, even as the story itself occasionally disconnects from its surroundings.

Ultimately, this Cinderella is a mixed bag in a lineup of more organized backpacks. Many can promise sturdiness and agility, unafraid to take some risks in differentiating from Perrault’s manuscript. Cannon accomplishes this well enough, splitting open the old notion of royalty and inverting it on its head, and giving the lead more to work for than just romance. It’s a strong start for Cabello, whose career in film shows some fine potential. Just about everything else about this adaptation can’t make the same perilous choice to stand out past most other teen-oriented musical comedies. Originality makes a world of difference in a sea of shortcuts, it can’t be handled halfway. Cannon pleads a decent case for those glossy shortcuts, interweaving them with those welcome changes. We can only go so far with this material before the fuel stagnates; it’s through pure luck we don’t run out by the end. (C; 2.5/5 Horns Up!)

Cinderella debuts on Prime Video and in select theaters (Seattle area residents, look to Cinemark Lincoln Square) September 3; rated PG for suggestive material and language; 113 minutes.