The wicked stepsisters in Kay Cannon’s new version of “Cinderella” are “wicked” in the way someone from south Boston might use the word, as in “wicked awesome.” Instead of being cruel to their stepsister Cinderella (pop star Camila Cabello), they’re quirky and seem like more fun to hang out with than most of the characters in the movie.
That illustrates both the novelty, and the problem, with this new jukebox-musical version of “Cinderella,” which premieres Friday at Marcus Palace as well as on Amazon Prime. While other recent reboots of classic fairy tales (“Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters,” “Mirror Mirror’) darkened the original material, this “Cinderella” brightens it up so much — and makes even the most villainous characters so likable — that the appeal of the original fable is washed away.
Most of the changes are designed to turn “Cinderella” into a modernized girl-power tale. This Cinderella isn’t waiting around for a handsome prince to rescue her, but a talented dressmaker who wants to open her own business in a sexist medieval kingdom where girlbosses are unheard of.
Her stepmother (Idina Menzel) would be more than happy for this Cinderella to find a royal sugar daddy to take care of her, but Cinderella is more interested in finding an angel investor. She does meet handsome Prince Robert (Richard Galitzine), who is chafing under the restrictive traditions of his overbearing father, the King (Pierce Brosnan).
Cinderella and Robert hit it off, but when he invites her to the palace for the royal ball, she goes mainly to network with royals from other lands. The resolution of the film doesn’t come down to whether a glass slipper fits, but whether romance with a Prince fits in with Cinderella’s startup plans.
There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason behind which familiar songs are performed in the musical numbers. For every time a song makes sense for a character, such as Menzel’s stepmother lecturing her daughters with Madonna’s “Material Girl,” there’s a number that seems totally random, like the townspeople all singing Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation.” Because they have rhythm, I guess?
Cannon wrote the “Pitch Perfect” movies and the highly underrated teen comedy “Blockers,” and she’s able to cram some pretty funny lines in the margins, such as a running gag where the characters wonder why they use medieval phrases like “toothsome” and “Huzzah!” Casting Billy Porter of “Pose” as Cinderella’s Fabulous Godmother is a masterstroke (even though he’s only in one scene), and Brosnan, whose shaky singing voice was so memorable in “Mamma Mia,” doubles down here with an enjoyably hammy performance.
This “Cinderella” is constrained by its insistence on sticking to a generic you-go-girl message and applying it to every female character. Not only are the wicked stepmother and wicked stepsisters ultimately sympathetic, but nearly every woman on-screen, including barely seen figures like the Queen (Minnie Driver) and Princess (Tallulah Greive), is shown having to overcome some kind of oppression.
Yet their struggle is presented so shallowly and superficially that any message of empowerment evaporates faster than a pumpkin carriage at midnight.
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