The Cinderella fairy tale has been adapted time and time and time again for the movies and TV, from the 1950 Disney animated version to the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals from 1957 and 1997 to Kenneth Branagh’s 2015 take to outliers such as “Ella Enchanted” and the Jerry Lewis comedy “Cinderfella” — and now we’ve got a new jukebox musical update with some modern and progressive themes about gender roles, and it’s a most welcome addition to the library.
Writer-director Kay Cannon is the author of the “Pitch Perfect” movies, and “Cinderella” has a similarly upbeat, breezy and sentimental style, laced with some sharp humor and filled with familiar and catchy pop tunes refashioned to fit the storyline. The popular singer-songwriter Camila Cabello makes her acting debut as the titular character, and she’s a revelation, as the camera loves her and she displays not only the expected vocal chops but a real knack for comedy, as this version of Cinderella is particularly charming when she’s floundering about and getting into embarrassing situations of her own making. Whether she’s called out by the king for perching on a statue in the town square or wobbling about on glass slippers that are as uncomfortable as glass slippers would be in real life, Cinderella just keeps winning us over. Any prince would be lucky to have her heart.
This version of “Cinderella” is still set in the fairy tale past — but we’re in a world where the costumes pop with color and the dialogue is very much of the 21st century and we get lavish production numbers set to tunes such as “Rhythm Nation,” “Material Girl” and “Whatta Man” — each song perfectly tailored to fit a particular moment in the story. Cabello’s Cinderella lives in the basement of the house of her still-pretty-terrible stepmother Vivian (Idina Menzel) and her step sisters Anastasia (Maddie Baillio) and Drizella (Charlotte Spencer), but early on there are some indications Vivian has some vulnerability and a back story that will make her more sympathetic, while Anastasia and Drizella aren’t fully on board with the way their mother treats Cinderella. Everybody’s just a little bit more … human.
Meanwhile, at the castle, Pierce Brosnan’s bombastic and terribly old-fashioned King Rowan is growing increasingly impatient with his son Prince Robert (Nicholas Galitzine), who doesn’t want an arranged marriage and would actually like to find someone he truly loves. As for Princess Gwen (Tallulah Greive), who is much more interested in government and has some wonderful ideas about how to help the people and improve the economy and modernize things all around — the king barely acknowledges her existence. (At one point when Princess Gwen isn’t allowed to sit with the king’s advisors, she says, “You’re literally not letting me have a seat at the table?!”)
Billy Porter plays this movie’s version of the Fairy Godmother, a wish-granter known as “Fab G.”Amazon Studios
As we follow the basic framework of the original story, complete with mice (James Corden, Romesh Ranganathan and James Acaster) who are magically transformed into footmen, and a ball at the palace where Prince Robert is to find his princess, “Cinderella” continues to introduce delightful spins, e.g., the amazing life force that is Billy Porter playing a genderless version of the Fairy Godmother known as “Fab G.,” who magically appears to Cinderella, whips up a fabulous dress for her and boosts her confidence by singing Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Shining Star,” because that’s exactly who she is.
Minnie Driver as Queen Beatrice provides some comedic relief counterbalance to Brosnan’s pompous king, finally standing up to him and also pointing out he has a terrible singing voice — a sly nod to Brosnan’s less than overwhelming turn in the feature film version of “Mamma Mia!” Idina Menzel is her usual spectacular self as arguably the most nuanced and empathetic “evil” stepmother in “Cinderella” history. It’s also pretty great when Cinderella, while flattered by the prince’s pursuit of her, makes it clear she’d really like to pursue a career as a dress designer and doesn’t just want to be a princess lolling about in a castle all day. “Cinderella” is filled with positive messages for princes and princesses of all ages, the soundtrack is irresistible and Camila Cabello can now add “movie star” to her resume.