There are few people working in entertainment now I am rooting for more than Kay Cannon. An original writer for 30 Rock, Cannon has gone onto write for Zooey Deschanel’s New Girl, as well as penning the screenplays for all three Pitch Perfect movies, and writing and directing 2018’s standout comedy Blockers. And creating and writing Netflix’s underrated Girlboss series, which is very much the narrative territory we’ll be exploring today with her new version of Cinderella, which may have been a little more than she’s capable of at this moment.
Ella (Camila Cabello, in her acting debut) lives in the basement of her evil stepmother (Idina Menzel) and catty stepsisters (Maddie Baillio, Charlotte Spencer) and there’s a ball happening where the prince (Nicholas Galitzine) is said to be looking for a wife. This version of Cinderella, however, could not be less interested in the prince, she’s an aspiring fashion designer and she wants to go to the ball to make connections and try to get her business off the ground, but maybe she’ll end up falling in love too?
It’s hard not to respect the ambition and scope of this Cinderella, even as it whacks you over the head repeatedly with the girlboss-iness of it all. It’s ultimately a very positive message for the young girls who will be watching this, and that’s what ultimately matters, even if a lot of it feels ham-fisted and focus-group-approved and borderline disingenuous. Cannon’s desire to re-interpret this ancient story and make it feel fresh is something I definitely can respect, even if it didn’t really work out.
Camila Cabello is surprisingly great here, and I’m coming to this with very little knowledge of who she is as a musician or even a public figure. I know she’s dating Shawn Mendes and I know I don’t buy that relationship. That is all I know about Camila Cabello. As an actress asked to do sometimes very broad comedy, she surprisingly pulls it off at every turn. She’s very funny, she’s got tons of personality and screen presence, and they weirdly give her songs outside of her vocal range, but I kind of like that this Cinderella doesn’t sound like a perfect singer, although she literally comes from the world of pop music. Cabello’s undeniable screen presence is perhaps my biggest takeaway from this movie, and it’s the only thing that consistently works from beginning to end. I would be happy to see Cabello gobbled up into the Tina Fey machine, just like Sara Bareilles before her.
Aside from Cinderella’s big song (which is reprised a million times), this is a jukebox musical, and it feels like there was no reason for it to be. The music is so autotuned and over-produced, there is often a strange and off-putting disconnect from the voices you’re hearing and the way the actors’ mouths move. We have some song choices that work (Idina Menzel singing Material Girl, Billy Porter singing Shining Star), and some that aggressively do not work (the opening number, a cover of Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation, a hideous cover of Whatta Man) but overall there are so many baffling choices made here musically, I wasn’t sure how this could have ever worked as a jukebox musical.
The Greatest Showman has the problem where it’s an original musical, but all of the songs sound like generic top 40 hits. It makes me think, couldn’t we have written original music for this version of Cinderella, that still has that anachronistic, not quite of this era vibe about it, but instead just simply reminds you of these fan-favorite songs? The choice for this to be a jukebox musical is inherently strange the entire way through.
Idina Menzel and Billy Porter, showing up as the Fabulous Godmother, are the two bright spots in the supporting cast. Menzel, because she’s always great and makes Cabello look like a chump when they’re supposed to sing together, and Porter, because he’s a national treasure, even if he’s only in about five minutes of this. Pierce Brosnan and Minnie Driver are also quite funny as the king and queen, who are comically overbearing in their son’s life. It helps that Brosnan doesn’t sing.
The central problem here, it pains me to admit, is the craft. Cannon’s screenplay tries way too hard to kick this Cinderella into the 21st century, but in doing so it also kind of feels like this version of the story could’ve happened in the 1980s. It’s also never as funny as it should be, which is disappointing considering how great Cannon is consistently with comedy. It also kind of looks like crap, with the big dance numbers being filmed in quick-cuts where you never see the big group of dancers all together for longer than a few seconds. If they could’ve given me some good choreography I may have ignored the inherent weirdness that plagues so much of this film’s music.
Ultimately, Kay Cannon’s Cinderella doesn’t really work very well at all, but it’s not without its charms, and it’s an auspicious acting debut for the very charming Camila Cabello. We also have a really fun, really game supporting cast that’s never given the room it needs. I weirdly expected more and also less from this new Cinderella. I hope Kay Cannon gets to do a big, weird project like this again someday and next time, I hope her vision is more clear and the studio lets her embrace the weirdness, and make said weirdness a feature instead of a bug.