Some movies really make it hard for themselves. Cinderella’s producer-star James Corden staged an intensely annoying traffic-stopping flashmob publicity stunt for which prison sentences for all concerned would not be too harsh. It certainly pre-fluffed the snark glands of social media, with much overexcitement at the thought of a new Cats debacle. But no. Actually, writer-director Kay Cannon’s new Cinderella isn’t bad, and Camila Cabello makes a rather personable lead, carrying off some of the movie’s generous helping of funny lines. Doesn’t she want to go to the ball, testily inquires genderqueer fairy godparent Fab G, played by Billy Porter. “Yes, I was just crying and singing about it,” says Cinderella thoughtfully.
Cinderella lives in a quaint Disney-National-Trust village in a vast cottage with her horrid step- (not “ugly”, please) sisters Anastasia (Maddie Baillio) and Drizella (Charlotte Spencer) and fierce stepmother Vivian (Idina Menzel), whose own revisionist third-act redemption is visible a mile away. (They surely missed a trick by not calling her a “conservator”.) Our heroine is actually called Ella: her association with “cinders” is explained, but she never has to scrape out a real fire, nor is one ever lit.
The moody and almost extraterrestrially handsome Prince Robert (Nicholas Galitzine) is yearning for true love, unlike Cinderella, whose emotions are focused elsewhere: she wants professional recognition for her vocation as a fashion designer and dressmaker. Robert is under pressure from his parents, especially grouchy King Rowan (an outrageous scene-stealer from Pierce Brosnan), a testy and insecure monarch who has secretly modified his throne so it’s higher than the queen’s, and keeps a choir on standby in the throne room to punctuate his angry declarations with mood-music stings. There is also Queen Beatrice, elegantly played by Minnie Driver, who at one stage is rocking a glorious white fencing outfit. They decree a ball shall be held to find the prince’s bride, so Cinderella is very excited to attend in one of her own creations. And this is where Fab G comes in, magicking up the couture from Cinderella’s drawing board and transforming the three mice in her cottage into three bickering Brit comics: Romesh Ranganathan, James Acaster and Corden.
Prince Robert incidentally has a sister, Princess Gwen (Tallulah Greive), who has 80s Sloane Lady Di-era short hair and an enthusiasm for reformist government. I wonder if the film-makers were thinking about giving us a boldly inclusive romantic plot twist for Princess Gwen – did they maybe lose their nerve?
This is clearly very different from Kenneth Branagh’s very trad fairytale Cinderella from 2015, starring Lily James, but doing Cinderella straight is almost unthinkable in 2021. A new interpretation is mandatory, and there happens also to be another counter-Cinderella, or Cinderella 2.0, on stage right now in the form of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new musical, written by Emerald Fennell. But satirising a fairytale’s heteronormative patriarchal mythology is going to be tricky if that mythology is needed to sell the movie globally, and you wind up making some sort of accommodation: starting out Corbyn and ending Starmer.
Actually, Branagh’s version, like the notorious 1977 soft-porn musical The Other Cinderella, was a little bit more candid about the fitting of the glass slipper, with all its Freudian associations. This movie rather fudges that climactic moment, but has charm in its goofy way: a good-natured and easygoing revival. And Brosnan has an excellent line in ordering sulky Robert to prepare for the ball: “If a rich man ever lost a woman,” he explains witheringly, “it’s to a man who could dance.” True.
• Cinderella is released on 3 September on Amazon Prime Video.