Review: Tired tropes strike flat note in 'Cinderella' musical

Katie Walsh
Tribune News Service

Classic stories and fairy tales continue to make the content rounds, whether that’s because recognizable names are easier to sell, or perhaps because these old tales still have some life left in their lessons. Often these centuries-old stories work best when the time period is fully updated (eg., Amy Heckerling’s “Clueless”) or the modern lessons are subversively subsumed into the archaic era’s traditional customs and practices (eg., Autumn de Wilde’s “Emma”). However, the new musical “Cinderella,” starring pop sensation Camila Cabello and written and directed by Kay Cannon, tries to have it both ways, pairing contemporary post-feminist tenets and anachronistic slang and pop songs with the ballgowns and social norms of Renaissance-era Europe.

Camila Cabello stars in "Cinderella."

It’s a cute idea that’s been pulled off before, notably in the 2001 film “A Knight’s Tale,” starring Heath Ledger. But here, it’s a bit awkward, and forced. Cabello’s Cinderella is a big dreamer with entrepreneurial ambitions. Confined to the basement with her talking mice, she sketches fashion designs and sews ballgowns with the hopes of one day selling her dresses and becoming a businesswoman (are retail markets even a thing in this village?). The intent is to avoid a Cinderella whose entire fate hangs on marriage to a wealthy prince, so instead they’ve made her a rise-and-grind girlboss hustler, whose values clash with those of her evil stepmother Vivian (Idina Menzel) and stepsisters (Maddie Baillio and Charlotte Spencer) who want to marry for money.

That’s a choice that may have landed with a bit more aplomb a few years ago, but in 2021, it’s a tired trope. In fact, tropes and archetypes are the engine of this film, thinly sketched characters whose development seems to have been jettisoned for endless belting. In musical theater, the characters put their inner feelings into song, but these characters are mostly singing pop tunes that have been reverse-engineered into the plot, expressing sort of vague platitudes and affirmations like, “ya gotta be,” “whatta man,” “material girl,” “let’s get loud,” etc. There are a few original songs by Cabello and Menzel that fill in things a bit, but their sentiments merely scratch the surface.

This is Cabello’s first film, and while she’s a skilled singer and performer, her acting is overly cutesy, a bit grating and flip, which doesn’t allow her character to achieve any depth. All of the main characters, including Nicholas Galitzine as Prince Robert, subscribe to this sort of “Disney Channel” acting style, which is sarcastic and glib and inherently insincere.

With such a great cast, it’s disappointing that it feels like none of the side characters get much to do, existing as stereotypes or stand-ins, spouting wink wink feminist aphorisms, you go girl sentiments and therapy-speak confessions about their motivation. It’s underwritten yet over-stuffed with songs, and the production itself feels chintzy and airless.

This “Cinderella” is a lot like “Succession” for kiddos, with Ella trying to get her dresses in front of angel investors, and Robert resisting the power being handed to him. If anything, it’s an acute reminder that marrying for the purposes of joining property isn’t that far off from entering into a contract with an investor. It’s cynical, because underneath it all, it’s still about the money, honey. With all the songs, gowns and corny jokes, kids under 10 will likely love it, and frankly,  that’s who this is for, not the millennials or Gen Z kids who grew up with Brandy or Hillary Duff. Plus, they’ll learn about the importance of having a solid business plan ready to go as soon as opportunity strikes.

'Cinderella'

GRADE: D+

Rated: PG (for suggestive material and language)

Running time: 173 minutes

Amazon Prime