Kay Cannon’s ‘Cinderella’ Tries Too Hard to Be Modern

A classic story gets a very updated remake in “Cinderella,” an adaptation of the beloved fairy tale from “Pitch Perfect” director Kay Cannon. Cuban-American pop star Camila Cabello stars as the heroine, a vibrant, entrepreneurial young woman full of life and song who is not just content to wait around for Prince Charming. However, while she is making plans to start her own fashion business, she happens to meet Prince Robert (Nicholas Galitzine), a free-spirited royal who lures her to the big ball only by promising to introduce her to potential investors. While it’s love at first sight for him, she needs more than promises of marriage and a beautiful palace to give him her hand.

Known as Ella and called Cinderella by her tacky stepsisters, Malvolia (Maddie Baillio) and Narissa (Charlotte Spencer), the servitude the protagonist is subjected to by her wicked stepmother, Vivian (Idina Menzel) is downplayed here compared to other adaptations. Sure, Ella lives in the basement, but this is partly due to the fact that there’s more space there for her to spread out and make the dresses that she dreams of selling in her own stall at the local marketplace. Her best friends are a trio of mice (James Corden, James Acaster, Romesh Ranganathan), who are also her biggest supporters. 

Meanwhile, Prince Robert is doing all he can to push back against his father, King Rowan (Pierce Brosnan), who wants him to abandon his hedonistic ways and enter into an arranged marriage in order to consolidate power. His mother, Queen Beatrice (Minnie Driver), is more sympathetic when it comes to her son’s desire to marry for love. While Robert shows little aptitude for kingship, his younger sister, Princess Gwen (Tallulah Greive), is nipping at her father’s heels for the role, but Rowan insists that they cling to tradition when it comes to things like marriage and succession. However, a progressive potential princess soon comes along and shakes things up. Robert has the palace throw a ball to introduce him to potential brides throughout the kingdom, even the smart and pretty little number with unkempt hair and a simple work dress he met while incognito in the market.

Unlike more conventional fairy tale leads, Ella leaves little to destiny. Incredibly proactive, even her Fairy Godmother (Billy Porter) doesn’t just appear out of thin air, as he transforms from a butterfly that she raised from a caterpillar. Porter seems like he’s having a blast as this gender non-conforming mentor, but his shouting “Yas queen!” feels passé. Corden and company show their human selves as the footmen, providing some juvenile humor as they talk about going to the bathroom through a “front tail.” At the ball, Ella meets her dream person, Tatiana (Beverly Knight), a badass queen in her own right who wants to hire Ella to be her personal dressmaker. There’s also that guy from the market, who turns out to be a prince, and although Ella cannot help but be romanced by him, she isn’t about to give up her dreams to sit beside him in a gilded cage.

Cannon falters in adding a backstory to Vivian to make the character sympathetic. Sometimes a villian just needs to be a villain, and the story feels like it loses so much by watering down the antagonistic relationship between stepmother and daughter. At one point, Vivian attempts to make her stepdaughter marry a local creep (Rob Beckett), even going as far as to arrange for her to be driven over to the guy. A scene in which a young woman is being transported to be given in marriage to a man against her will would be horrifying in any other movie, but this one has the ubiquitous and often tiresome Corden to lighten the mood. Even after that, Cannon felt the need to give Vivian an unnecessary redemption arc. The more developed roles of the king and queen play out better in a sweet subplot involving the king being inspired to recapture some of the romanticism he had in his youth.

Overall, Cannon tries too hard in making her “Cinderella” relevant to current themes. There can be little doubt that Prince Harry was far from her thoughts when she fleshed out Prince Robert, a royal who bucks tradition and craves freedom. All he needs is that push from an independent woman. While no one can disagree that he and Ella are better off without the royal trappings, where they end up at the end feels somewhat contrived, although the finale of the film is saved by a rousing rendition of Jennifer Lopez’s “Let’s Get Loud.”

The best part of “Cinderella” is, as expected, the singing and dancing. The costumes are also impressive if one can get past the fact that they are all over the place when it comes to the styles and the time periods they represent. Musical highlights include new versions of Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation,” Des’ree’s “You Gotta B,” and Salt-N-Pepa’s “Whatta Man.” Then there’s “Million to One,” an earworm of an original song that was co-written by Cabello, who belts it out with everything in her. Cabello works overtime to bring charm and freshness to a role that has been done over and over, and while it was a risk to take on such an ambitious project, she pulls it off. Galitzine, meanwhile, shows the makings of a star, especially with his showstopping version of Queen’s “Somebody to Love,” made all the more striking by the backing of a choir.

Cinderella” releases Sept. 3 on Amazon Prime Video and in select theaters.