Cinderella is, to quote Disney stablemate Beauty and the Beast, a tale as old as time. The fairytale, which was originally much darker and more gruesome, as many fairytales were, has been told again and again in a variety of ways.
The one most people conjure up in their mind's eye is the Disney animated version, which debuted in 1950. However, the story is believed to date as far back as AD 23, about a Greek slave girl who married the king of Egypt.
Most contemporary retellings of this story take the Disney version as their template, complete with glass slipper, pumpkin carriage and handsome Prince Charming – all of which are meant to remedy the awful hand that Cinderella has been dealt: a dead dad and a wicked stepmother.
Sony's adaptation, helmed by the genius (and we mean that) behind Pitch Perfect, strips Cinderella of the very real stakes that were the basis for the original tale: a life of abject poverty, indiscriminate cruelty, and no way out. Instead, the story is slapped with a coat of Hollywood-feminist shellac and gilded in a girl-boss attitude that means absolutely nothing except this: women are no longer allowed to be evil.
The crux of Cinderella's misery is her wicked stepmother, who will stop at nothing to advance her life, and those of her biological daughters – including keeping Cinderella as a slave. In this version, Vivian (played by Idina Menzel) is given an empathetic backstory.
Hollywood feminism means women can't be villains, so Vivian is given a reason for her cruel behaviour, however misguided it may be. She used to dream of being a pianist, but the patriarchal world meant she could never amount to anything and was forced instead to marry. All Vivian is doing is trying to save Cinderella from the inevitable disappointment of not being able to fulfil her dreams (in Ella's case, being a dress designer).
Ella (played by Camila Cabello) is meant to be the embodiment of a modern princess in that she forsakes a profitable marriage to the prince in order to pursue her dreams of being a dressmaker. The prince (Nicholas Galitzine) is ill-suited to leadership and has no plans to marry despite his father's (Pierce Brosnan) wishes until he sees Ella atop a statue in the square, making a flat 'joke' about peasants being able to see.
This revelation about class and poverty (ugh) inspires him to force his father to open invitations to his meat-market ball to all the women in the land, so he can get Ella to attend.
James Corden doesn't even deserve a footnote (but we're giving it to him) for his sorry and unfunny footman performance, which can be summed up in one word: UGH.
The prince is bland and only marginally offensive, an empty vessel of ignorance and privilege. What we can't forgive is that his raison d'etre song (before his introduction to Ella, of course) is Queen's 'Somebody to Love'. That this anthem to loneliness and faith is being misappropriated by the moody pinnacle of white male privilege (who has literally just been told they're holding a ball to find him somebody to love) is frankly offensive, and a worse exercise than Zack Snyder's use of The Cranberries' 'Zombie' in Army of the Dead.
The movie tried for further "radical" messaging with the casting of Billy Porter as the fairy godmother Fab G, but the actor is totally wasted in the film. Porter has one scene in which his most memorable line is to declare that there's no magic that can take away the pain of high heels; another one of the film's many whiplashes. (It did, however, remind us of Cinder Edna, who wore loafers to the ball.)
Fab G could have been more earnest, more inspirational, more supportive. Instead, they are another shallow varnish that's meant to stand for something deep and meaningful. Ella herself is the poster child for an Instagram-era girlboss feminism that is fundamentally vapid, and the rest of the film follows suit.
Cinderella's soundtrack has no sense of irony. That Vivian and her daughters gleefully sing Madonna's 'Material Girl' – to represent that they need to marry up – with no understanding of the very world the lyrics are critiquing is myopic and boring. 'Material Girl' is, according to Madonna herself, ironic and provocative, yet neither sentiment is expressed because Cinderella doesn't care about creating ironic or provocative characters, just flat symbols for "feminism".
This brings us to the queen (Minnie Driver) who has suffered years of an unhappy, unbalanced marriage, sidelined for her entire adult life. She makes the declaration obviously: 'I have no voice', she tells her husband. But her big emancipation moment is meaningless.
At the end of the film, her daughter is announced as the next ruler (hooray for feminism) and her son's relationship with Ella is revealed to all the people of the kingdom. Once the declaration is finished, the King orders everyone away; the party is over.
She lacklustrely cries 'no!' and then bursts into song: 'Let's Get Loud'. Get it? Because she has a voice now.
The use of the songs in this film is worse than pandering, it's a shallow understanding of lyrics and meaning, and a colossal misreading of what most people want out of their favourite fairytales retold: it is not entertaining nor enlightening. It's not even sentimental, because not an ounce of the charm of Cinderella, the visual beauty of the magic, the earnestness of its star-crossed lovers, or the impediments in their way, translate into this.
Cinderella is inherently a story that can only function in a world where women have no agency and no escape except through marriage. That Cinderella also finds love in the path out of her squalor is what makes the tale moving.
Take away that squalor, the subhuman way in which she is treated by everyone around her, and the surprise of finding love amidst all that, and her escape is meaningless because her imprisonment never really meant anything.
As Linkin Park said: in the end, it doesn't even matter. Nothing in this adaptation has anything new to say, nor conjures up any other feeling besides boredom with an aftertaste of disgust. For a far more entertaining, nostalgic, and genuinely subversive retelling of this classic tale, watch the '90s Cinderella adaptation starring Brandy.
Cinderella is available now on Amazon Prime Video.
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