R E V I E W – M O V I E
Ah, Cinderella. That harrowing tale that gleefully details the maltreatment of orphans and superpositions powerful fairy godmothers to only ensure date night with a prince. As it seems, this age-old story has been picked up for yet another re-imagination, no doubt due to its immense popularity and melodrama potential. No matter the fact that the last “re-imagination of the Cinderella lore” was done rather spectacularly mere six years ago, by Disney itself. Neither was any mind paid to the dozens of modern takes, musicals, canon divergences that have been done to this exhausting piece of fairytale. You see, this take is completely different. After all, Girlboss creator Kay Cannon armed together with the ever risk-taking Amazon Prime Video has done something no other version has even dared. They asked a very simple question:
What if Cinderella had ambitions?
The Amazon Prime re-imagination doesn’t tell the story of a timid little Ella continually terrorised by her evil step-mother and her horrid step-sisters. This Cinderella (played by Camila Cabello) has dreams. She wishes to become a dressmaker. Ella, as she’s called in this version, spends her nights making beautiful dresses, and spends her days rescuing caterpillars (in which her elusive fairy godmother hides), and doing chores around the house for her mildly chastising step-mother and annoying step-sisters. She also lives in a town that ebbs in and out of medieval times with its casual sexism, yet also features an absurd amount of raps from palace courtiers. This Cinderella still wants a reprieve from a life with her step-mother, yet does not wish to catch the eyes of a charming prince to make it happen. No, Ella of this reincarnation wishes to make her own destiny by selling the dresses she’s been meticulously making in her basement.
When Cinderella was first introduced in 1950 as one of the very first animated films of Disney, it portrayed a heartwarming tale that won the hearts of many. Cinderella at that time was everything woman was allowed to be in the 1950s: Kindhearted, soft-spoken, and above all, lacked any agency of her own to get out of her stepmother’s custody. It was strongly emphasised that the only way Ella could get out of her toxic home environment was through marriage (preferably to a wealthy fellow). That’s why, Ella was so happy to receive an invitation to the ball in the first place as it gave her a rare opportunity to hope for a change in her circumstances. Cinderella (2021) completely forgoes that entire spiel and gives Ella an opportunity to regain some of her agency with her dressmaking. It was established in the first act that, it was not catching the prince’s eye that will set Ella free, instead it was her ambition.
Of course, the movie immediately forgets that little detail as it was ultimately catching the prince’s eye that earn her an invitation to the fateful ball as well as it was the prince’s idea to use the ball as a networking event to gain capital for Ella’s dressmaking business. This re-imagination of Cinderella doesn’t provide much of Cinderella shaping up to be our next revered girlboss as the director clearly hoped. Instead, it actually stomps on the admirable efforts led by its worthy predecessors shown in Ella Enchanted, Ever After, or even the Another Cinderella Story of Hilary Duff renown. The movies that were far more progressive in the characterisation of Cinderella than this half-done version could ever hope to be. Whereas the heroines in Ever After and Ella Enchanted were trying to work their way out of an impossible society hell-bent on stifling them, this Cinderella was pouting when being told that women cannot own businesses, and only persists in her effort to sell her dress when the prince graciously buys it from her simply to impress her.
Even the movie narrative is carefully done overly simplistically, not unlike a movie from the Step-Up franchise. After all, Ella can be thought of as a Step-Up protagonist, with sufficient charm and just enough sprinkling of difficulties that can be easily resolved by the third act. Similarly, Cinderella clearly understands the importance of using choreography as sufficient exposition, as every bit of awkward silence and stricken conflict is filled with underwhelming choreography and even more underwhelming musical numbers. When Cinderella characters are not dancing wobbly to bland covers of popular music, they are exchanging quips and jokes as if they are in a Ryan Reynolds movie. Makes for great lighthearted fun, but closes off any and every chance of emotional depth and introspection. After all, why shall the audience feel any sort of sympathy for Ella’s apparent plights regarding the casual misogyny she faces trying to sell her dresses when in the very next scene, she is shown casually exchanging quips. The movie tries very hard to sprinkle in little nuggets of information regarding the systemic oppression woman faces in Ella’s little kingdom showing how the clearly qualified princess of the nation is shooed of the table by the king, yet the fact is shown almost comically as the grown princess just shows up on frame spouting off random facts about public policy. Even the ending is a cop-out considering the Princess is not made queen by her own virtue, but by her idiot brother stepping down to “travel the world” with Ella. What could have been an empowering moment is reduced to another exposition.
Which brings out the most significant point regarding this particular reimagination of Cinderella’s story. Cinderella as a lore has existed within the justification that fairytale and happily ever after are acceptable alternatives to actual female agency and freedom. After all, it is believed that if women cannot free themselves, at least they can endear themselves to people who can — with their beauty, wit, and kindness. It is picturesque, yet incomprehensible at the height of the 21st century. So, should we applaud Cinderella for trying to bridge that gap, instead of ostracising it for failing to execute it properly?
No. Because at the end of the day, Cinderella always had the potential for progressive themes. It is inherently a story about an orphan trying to survive an abusive system. There have been incarnations that have successfully incorporated those themes in their particular reimagining. This Cinderella, however, only hoped to give Ella a sprinkle of ambition and hoped to be renowned for making a feminist Cinderella film. It is ultimately a wrong approach to storytelling as it inherently makes the story culpable to the standards it was hoping to escape.
At the end of the day, Cinderella is hardly an abhorrent film whose sole purpose is to create outrage. It can be quite a pleasant film if a bit bland. That is what remains the issue with this particular re-imagination, not only does it not manage to elevate the story, nor does it have the decency to be a truly horrifying bastardisation of the original tale that can at least create mirth and amusement to the audience. It is just painfully and brutally mediocre in every shape or form.
Raya likes to critically analyse anything regarding pop culture, and when she’s not doing that, she likes to live life dangerously — one House MD episode at a time.