There’s no puttering around in writer-director Kay Cannon’s “Cinderella.” A storybook setting appears immediately, with bright, vivid colors and background actors singing Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation.” This is not, the film makes it immediately clear, your mama’s fairy tale, which turns out to be both good and bad.
Singer Camila Cabello makes her film debut as Cinderella, and the story begins no differently than previous versions: After her father’s death, Cinderella lives with her stepmother (Idina Menzel) and two stepsisters. Her step-family is now the only family she has, and to keep her stepmother from throwing her onto the streets, Ella makes herself indispensable by living in the basement and acting as their maid. Her only friends are the three mice with whom she shares dreams of becoming a businesswoman who designs and sells her own fashion line. Women, it seems, have no place in this world outside of becoming someone’s wife.
She designs a dress using her mother’s brooch (the only belonging she has of hers) and tries to sell it in the marketplace, but people laugh at her and balk at her commercial attempts. A woman trying to sell things? Unheard of! Ella doesn’t give up and ends up selling the dress to the disguised Prince Robert (Nicholas Galitzine, “The Craft: Legacy”), who invites her to the ball later that night. After a terrible argument, her stepmother ruins her opportunity to attend the royal gala.
Grief-stricken, Cinderella is bereft, but soon magical fairy godmother Fab G (Billy Porter) comes to her aid. Fab G uses their magic to give Cinderella a night made of opportunities and dreams. But she must remember that everything eventually comes to an end, and that includes magic. With a race against the clock, will Cinderella get her fella? Or are there other things she wants more than to be anyone’s wife, even a prince’s?
Cannon takes the classic fable and reimagines it for a generation who grew up on a mixed diet of her “Pitch Perfect” screenplays and the Disney Channel’s “The Descendants” franchise. This is a film for teenage girls, offering them a message of girl-boss feminism, and it makes no excuses about it. Structurally, Cannon composes the film almost like a lovingly curated stream of similarly styled TikToks. Bouncing from musical number to musical number, each scene showcases the incredible costume work but provides little substance or depth.
Teenage girls don’t have to have profound messages of feminism drilled into their heads. Their generation has lived online since birth, and they are hyper-aware of the traumatic oppression of women in history. So they know, when Menzel performs “Material Girl” with her two daughters, that the song is a parody. And that when underused Fab G appears, it’s all about the lewks and the magic. But some profundity would make the girl-power messaging seem less superficial.
The musical numbers, much like the entire film, are uneven in tone. They vary from sounding oddly misplaced, like that opening “Rhythm Nation” bit, to pretty fantastic, particularly an ensemble mashup of the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” and Salt-N-Pepa’s “What A Man (Shoop).” Of course, vocal powerhouses Porter and Menzel do not disappoint, and their numbers rank as the stand-outs.
Cabello is a fantastic singer and has an almost Anna Kendrick–like quality in her line delivery, but she doesn’t quite sell the performance. Her singing is beautiful, but there’s a lack of depth within the character. Yes, this is a less traumatized Cinderella than usual — her stepmother is even nice to her at times — but there still needs to be an understanding that Ella has a tragic history that fuels her big dreams. And it would be helpful to have that understanding, rather than lacking context as to why her only friends in the world are mice.
The Kay Cannon filmography (which also includes “Let It Snow” and “Blockers”) remains a staple in my home; my teenage daughter counts several of Cannon’s films among her favorites. But “Cinderella” has far less substance than her other features, ultimately making this a one-time, forgettable watch.
“Cinderella” premieres on Prime Video September 3.