Fairy Tales, especially those featuring princesses, are nostalgic. Most people raised on Western media know the stories of Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella. It may be popular Disney adaptations or the bedtime stories that originated from ancient European folktales. Their notoriety makes it easy to modernize these stories by transporting them to a different place in space-time. High fantasy adult Snow White? Steampunk Sleeping Beauty? And uh… Cinderella directed by Kay Cannon.
These are the perfect stories to be retold because of their universality and their unlimited potential for fluidity in presentation. However, one should not strip so many elements of the original story that it becomes bland, nor abuse the fluidity to ignore worldbuilding. Cinderella 2021 does both.
The movie opens with happy townsfolk dancing and singing while doing their everyday tasks. Billy Porter, the narrator and the fairy godmother, zooms in on Cinderella’s family. The stepmother (Idina Menzel) and two stepsisters (Maddie Baillio, Charlotte Spencer) are introduced, donning a 60’s housewife aesthetic that clashes with their pseudo-Victorian house. Cinderella (Camila Cabello) is, of course, the classic mistreated stepdaughter. But,there are two twists to this classic story: the stepmother desires to marry Cinderella off and Cinderella desires to start a dressmaking shop. After seeing the stepfamily abuse Cinderella and demean her dreams, the directionless and wildly immature prince charming, Robert (Nicholas Galitzine), enters onto the screen. The time-tested Cinderella story progresses from there, with a few modern twists.
The biggest downfall of this musical is perhaps its aversion to consistency. The director does not decide on a musical style, which is not an issue in itself, but the multiple cover songs that are emblematic of a certain era make the soundtrack feel out of place with the plot. Hearing the stepmother sing Madonna’s “Material Girl”, which represents the 80’s and also possesses undertones of modern material commodification, to convince her girls to accept betrothal, while a prince at a ball shouts “Seven Nation Army” seems out of place. The cast covers such iconic songs with little attention to adaptation in the writing, making the movie feel uncreative and underwhelming (who would prefer Galitzine’s vocals singing “Somebody to Love” to Freddie Mercury’s?).
Anachronistic language also limits immersion. The prince’s sister addressing him as “dude,” the fairy godmother dropping “yasss” and a royal woman referring to herself as “a frickin’ queen,” makes the movie feel less like a high fantasy, and more like a high school drama. That sort of language coexisting with the mentions of “dysentery” and exclamations like “huzzah!” make an odd combination. It would have been better to choose between a classic YA high school setting or a high fantasy rather than trying to mush the two together. The movie tried to be relatable rather than be escapist, and it ended up being neither.
The other objection to this movie is its misplaced usage of politics. The prince’s younger sister attempts to share her opinion on kingdom politics with her father, suggesting they use windmills for renewable energy and reduce the catapult budget. These quips are clumsy references to current politics, barely veiled and barely adapted to the time period the movie occurs in. While Gwen suggests progressive reforms and the movie shows its feminist undertones, the class politics are extremely regressive. When Cinderella is confronted with discrimination because of her involvement in business, her solution is supposedly in “Open-minded people with cash to spare.” She is told by the fairy godmother before the ball that she will “…meet a bunch of rich people who will change your life.” This glorification of bourgeois patronage of entrepreneurs is uncomfortable, to say the least, the implication being that: Cinderella needs to rely on the Enlightened upper class to save her from her ignorant peasant village. Cinderella (2021) is a neoliberal fever dream with an uncharming patched aesthetic. It tries too hard to be current and political, thus making itself irrelevant and complacent. Her fixation on running a dress-making business over a life of luxury is an American capitalist idea disguised as a feminist one. The movie posits a worldview where the only path to achieving your dreams is hard work, luck and rich sympathizers. Although it glances toward systemic change, it settles for a “girl not like other girls achieves success because she’s virtuous and has dreams” trope. These tales are not revolutionary, but rather cruel optimism attempting to glorify the American entrepreneurial ideal.
Sophia Gottfried is a Freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]