We are in the midst of a princess reckoning.
Princesses are beloved by children everywhere. But let’s be honest, they have always been problematic. A beautiful, (more-often-than-not) white woman, with no agency or thoughts of her own, must wait for a handsome prince to rescue her. Disney foisted that narrative onto the pop culture landscape beginning with 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. To be fair, Disney has recently led the way in subverting our princess expectations—most notably with the mega-hit Frozen which found two sisters saving each other and the handsome prince turning out to be a snake in the grass.
Even though the Brothers Grimm fairy tales are available to all, it really is Disney that has cornered the princess market. So I wasn’t sure what to expect with Amazon Prime’s Cinderella. It clearly wasn’t going to be the 1950 Disney animated version, nor the 2015 Disney live-action movie nor Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella (known to most because of the 1997 Wonderful World of Disney iteration starring Brandy and Whitney Houston).
Turns out this Cinderella is a modern music video featuring remakes of beloved songs from the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s (like Friends, scrunchies and tie-dye, everything old is new again). Aimed squarely at the pre-teen set, it’s reminiscent of the Disney Channel’s The Descendants and High School Musical. The dialogue really serves to take the viewer from musical number to musical number. Younger kids may enjoy it (with any of the oh-so-slightly inappropriate dialogue going right over their heads) and adults will probably get a kick out of it, but if you are 10 or 11 this movie was made for you.
Pop star Camila Cabello makes her acting debut as the title character. Of course, you know the story. After the death of her father, Ella is banished to live in the basement by her stepmother Vivian (Idina Menzel, voice of Frozen’s Elsa) and her two stepsisters Nerissa (Charlotte Spencer) and Malvolia (Maddie Baillio). Elsewhere in the kingdom, King Rowan (Pierce Brosnan) wants to marry off his son Prince Robert (Nicholas Galitzine) while ignoring the wishes of both his wife Queen Beatrice (Minnie Driver) and his daughter Princess Gwen (Tallulah Greive).
This Cinderella makes dresses and has mice for friends. But she also wants to open her own business and support herself. She’s chastised for having the “audacity to engage in matters of business.” Robert has no interest in ruling the kingdom and Gwen, whose desire to rule is consistently dismissed, has some innovative ideas of how the kingdom can run more efficiently and economically. Cinderella seeks to overturn all gendered expectations of fairy tales. Billy Porter descends as the Fabulous Godmother and gives Cinderella a new ballgown and glass slippers, which even he can’t make more comfortable. “Women’s shoes are as they are. Even magic has its limits,” he tells her. At one point Prince Robert even says “I chose me.”
Written for the screen and directed by Kay Cannon (Pitch Perfect), the movie’s dialogue isn’t subtle. “What matters is how you feel when you look in the mirror,” Ella tells Nerissa. When Vivian tells Ella she has arranged for her to marry slimy suitor Thomas and that she is spoken for, Ella replies “That’s impossible. I speak for me.” At times it seems more like a college lecture than a frothy musical. But it’s also upending decades of ingrained expectations of how princess movies go, so you can’t blame Cannon too much for hitting viewers over the head. Vivian and her daughters aren’t the ogres they have been in previous versions. Here they, like Cinderella, are victims of a society that believes women can’t do anything for themselves. The juxtaposition of these themes against, say, a rendition of En Vogue’s “Whatta Man” can require a bit of an adjustment.
In addition, there are some unfortunate jokes. James Corden, who serves as one of the movie’s executive producers, voices one of the mice who eventually become Cinderella’s footmen. There’s a whole joke about mice peeing from their other tail that we could have done without and will definitely serve as fodder for those who aren’t Corden fans. Some of the dialogue can also be questionable: I really don’t think it’s a good idea to refer to Gwen as “the people’s princess,” especially on the anniversary of Princess Diana’s death.
In her debut theatrical performance, Cabello is charming and handles the script, particularly the throwaway lines that lovingly mock the genre, with aplomb. (“Yes I was just crying and singing about it like two minutes ago,” she says when the Fabulous Godmother asks if she wants to go to the ball). My guess is that this could launch Cabello into a career similar to Jennifer Lopez where she seamlessly moves back and forth between her musical career and acting roles.
The cast is strong across the board and Brosnan, Driver and Porter, in particular, are having so much fun that it’s infectious. The musical numbers are truly the reason to tune in. Where else can you find Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation,” Madonna’s “Material Girl” and Queen’s “Somebody to Love?” By the time Porter sings Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Shining Star” and says “Yasss future queen. Yasss,” you are either all in or all out of this production.
Personally I was all in. Let’s just say the shoe fit.
Director: Kay Cannon
Writer: Kay Cannon
Starring: Camila Cabello, Billy Porter, Idina Menzel, Minnie Driver, Nicholas Galitzine, Pierce Brosnan
Release Date: September 3, 2021 (Amazon Prime)
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer and a member of the Television Critics Association. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal).