IF THE GLASS SLIPPER DOESN’T BREAK, THE GLASS CEILING MOST CERTAINLY DOES IN THIS TIMELY RETELLING OF THE CLASSIC FAIRY GODMOTHER TALE…
When my daughter was young, much to my joy, I revisited all of the Disney Princess films. As an adult, and something of an educated consumer, I noted that Cinderella, in its heart, is an homage to fashion, comportment, and to just looking good. In the 1950 Disney original, the Fairy Godmother scene, which is the setting for Cinderella’s transformation from maidservant to shimmering princess-to-be, is a splendid sequence, intentionally so, full of magic and sentiment, of hope and, yes, featuring a gown that has a life of its own.
We are supposed to be captivated by how pretty she has become. In fact, the story makes sure to have her in a well-intentioned hand-me-down dress, lovingly spruced up by Cinderella herself, which stepmother promptly destroys, only so that the next ensemble, and how it happens, is that much more dazzling—the gown and the moment in which she transforms.
Voila. The dress says it all. The dress captivates. The dress closes the deal. Remember? It was white? Or, was it pale blue? Or pale pink? And are those sequins or actual stars living amid the tulle and taffeta? Animation aside, our eyes played tricks on us even back then, and the dress moved and radiated all on its own. We know the rest.
So, it is a happy coincidence that the latest iteration of Cinderella from Sony Pictures and brought to us by Amazon Studios centers on a witty, self-aware young lady who wants to make it big in fashion and start her own business— woman-owned and all, which is a lot to ask for in the 14th century. Singer songwriter Camila Cabello plays Ella, as in Cinderella, and the larger theme of “woman-owned and operated” is presented to us faster than you can say “Million to One”, which is title of the opening song, written by Cabello and Scott Harris.
As for the story, Ella, as to be expected, is living in a basement with three mice, her creative “wall”, and a rescued, incubating pupa (we can explain this). The bells are there too—the ones that chime when stepmother Vivian, played by the mesmerizing Idina Menzel, and step sisters, Malvolia (Maddie Baillio) and Narissa (Charlotte Spencer) want their orphaned and more-beautiful stepsister Ella to come running.
But, Ella is the only servant in the house, and Vivian and her girls are living more or less on fumes themselves, which brings us to the first novel twist in our new Cinderella story. Cash-strapped Vivian is eager to marry off at least one of her daughters—including Ella—to a wealthy man so that they can be taken care of. In this sense, right away and in spite of Vivian’s acerbic treatment of Ella, there is a feeling that all four ladies are “in it together,” fighting for peace of mind and solvency in the only way they can back in those days.
Stepsisters Malvolia (Maddie Baillio) and Narissa (Charlotte Spencer) don’t really dislike their beautiful stepsister, perhaps because the girls are peers. The awkward sisters are your typical teens who spend most of their time thinking about dreamy boys and wishing they were prettier. They commiserate and giggle with Ella, and, when she can, Ella lifts them up, and makes them feel better about themselves, even if her graciousness is lost on the clueless girls. Still, Malvolia and Narissa are sympathetic, unlike their more obnoxious predecessors who went by the names of Anastasia and Drizella. Indeed, they are obedient with Vivian, if not worried, about their difficult, brilliant, beautiful and tragic mother, whom they long to see happy.
As it turns out, Ella is a very talented dress designer. And while she is ridiculed and even dressed down for trying to proffer one of her creations at the marketplace, she ultimately crosses paths with a savvy, exotic Queen from afar with deep pockets and good taste who is Ella’s big chance at realizing her dream. Still, there are hiccups along the way, not least of which is choosing between her career and her beloved’s future as king, given she’s been offered a job that requires full-time travel. So goes this retelling of Cinderella.
Filmed at Pinewood Studios outside of London, Cinderella started and stopped production around the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. The film is nothing if not a tribute to the idea of resilience, and facing your demons, be they an unsympathetic stepfamily, a sexist monarch, gender inequality, cynical critics or the CDC. What is more, one of the film’s producers, nighttime television’s James Corden, who is also in the film, and writer/director Kay Cannon (Pitch Perfect) didn’t stop with just any Cinderella remake. They made sure is was a loud romp of a musical with big choreography, all of which is wrapped cleverly — and lavishly— around the words “Me too”.
Alas, when critics of this picture said we didn’t need another Cinderella, those of us who enjoyed ourselves beg to differ. Of course we need another Cinderella, particularly if it’s a badass dance-fantasy jukebox musical that combines noteworthy original music with edgy covers of the iconic songs of by Freddie Mercury, Earth Wind & Fire, Madonna, Gloria Estefan and Jack White, among others. Add to that women who roar, and we’ve got a movie musical that resonates.
Furthermore, what’s not to like about a liberated Cinderella who nonetheless believes in love too? She isn’t so hardened that she is convinced she can only succeed independently and doesn’t need a man at all, which is often the case for powerful women. They either scare men off, or, alternately (and tragically), get hung up by his breadwinner problems that could inevitably eclipse her breadwinner problems. Hard as it is to admit, society’s wildly successful women often end up going it alone. In that sense, this Cinderella movie has nerve. The film gives us a young woman who is fiercely ambitious while also perfectly silly-yet-serious about love all at once, which makes it a fair and quite honest treatment of what modern day women actually think about. (to be con’t)