Cinderella opens with a bunch of villagers singing Janet Jackson's “Rhythm Nation” as they go about their daily routines. Why? Presumably to let us know that this version of the age-old fairy tale is going to be “hip” and “fresh.” Because what's hipper and fresher than a thirty-two year old song? The whole “let's put contemporary music in a period setting” idea has been done to death at this point, with few movies accomplishing it as deftly as Moulin Rouge did in 2001. A star vehicle for pop singer Camila Cabello, this new Cinderella isn't bad, it just fails to find a valid reason to tell the oft-told tale one more time.
Cabello is the title character, an aspiring dress maker whose dreams are tampered by evil stepmother Vivian (Idina Menzel). While out in the market one day, she meets Prince Robert (The Craft: Legacy's Nicholas Galitzine), the tempestuous son of King Rowan (Pierce Brosnan) and Queen Beatrice (Minnie Driver). The two become smitten, although she doesn't know who he is. With Rowan pressuring him to marry, Robert convinces his father to invite all the village women to a fancy ball designed to find him a mate. Vivian won't let Cinderella attend, but then a Fabulous Godmother (Billy Porter) shows up. You know the rest.
Internet punching bag James Corden is here, too, playing one of the mice who gets transformed into a manservant for Cinderella. Once again, he yells his dialogue and is generally an annoyance.
The story of Cinderella is told via pop songs sung by the characters, to varying degrees of success. When Prince Robert walks into the ball, the young women hoping to win his love burst into Salt-N-Pepa's “Whatta Man.” That's clever. A minute later, Robert expresses his nervousness about fighting them off by crooning the White Stripes' “Seven Nation Army.” (Huh?) Regardless of how well the song choices fit, these musical numbers are highlights of the film, thanks to the energetic performances of the cast and lively direction from Kay Cannon (Blockers).
As for Camila Cabello's acting debut, let's just say she's no Viola Davis. The former Fifth Harmony member is a very talented singer, and she's certainly a likeable presence onscreen. You just don't get a lot of substance. This Cinderella goes through heavy emotional stuff, both good and bad. Cabello plays everything at roughly the same level. Fortunately, she's surrounded by more seasoned co-stars. Idina Menzel brings much-needed shading to the wicked stepmother, delivering the movie's best performance. Pierce Brosnan and Minnie Driver are also exceptional as the royal couple. Rowan gets off on the power of his position, whereas Beatrice is more pragmatic. Then there's Billy Porter, who shows up for one scene and lights the roof on fire.
Several elements of Cinderella are good -- including the production design -- and several are mediocre. Only Corden is outright bad. The problem with the movie is that the Cinderella story has been done over and over again. Merely sprinkling in pop songs isn't enough to make this new version feel like a discovery. We sit there waiting for the film to go through story points we already know it has to hit, and that creates a sense of impatience. Cannon, who also wrote the screenplay, tries to spice things up by tweaking the ending into a female empowerment message. That's certainly admirable, yet what she devises is something we see coming long before the movie gets there.
All in all, Cinderella is a pleasant, harmless distraction, but disappointingly not much more.
out of four
Cinderella is rated PG for suggestive material and language. The running time is 1 hour and 53 minutes.