The new “Cinderella,” starring pop singer Camila Cabello and now streaming on Amazon Prime, begins with a sweeping crane shot of the title character’s rustic village that could have been lifted from any one of the dozens of adaptations of the famous story. But by the time the villagers begin dancing to Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation,” tossing pitchforks of hay in the air and doing the Robot in time with the music, you realize this isn’t your fairy godmother’s version of the oft told tale.
The story’s bones are roughly the same as the Brothers Grimm folk tale. Orphan Ella, nicknamed Cinderella (Cabello) by her jealous stepsisters (Maddie Baillio and Charlotte Spencer) because her skin is often besmirched by cinders, dreams of one day travelling the world as a famous designer. For now, though, she lives in the dingy basement of her cruel and imperious step-mother Vivian’s (Idina Menzel) home, where she waits on them hand and foot, only to be called “worthless” and dismissed by a wave of Vivian’s hand.
The Royal Ball is imminent, and Prince Robert’s (Nicholas Galitzine) father King Rowan (Pierce Brosnan) thinks it is the perfect chance for his son to find a wife and settle down. When the prince catches an eyeful of Cinderella he is smitten before she disappears into the crowd. “I’ll play your silly game,” he tells the King, “but only if every girl in the kingdom is invited to the ball regardless of wealth or stature.” The king reluctantly agrees, and everyone is invited, even Cinderella. Except that she’s not interested. “The whole thing is weird and antiquated,” she says. “Not my thing.”
She changes her mind when the Prince, in disguise, convinces her that there will be interesting people there, and she might even drum up some business as a designer. But she doesn’t believe anything romantic will come out of it. “I’m dirty,” she says. “I smell like a basement and my best friends are mice.”
She whips up a frilly pink dress for the big night, but Vivian puts her foot down, and throws ink on the outfit, ruining it and Cinderella’s chances for going to the ball. She is despondent until Fab G (Billy Porter), her Fairy Godparent, enters her life in the most red-carpet-ready way possible.
“Hush, it’s magic time,” Fab G says as a sequined dress, glass slippers and a fancy carriage materialize. There are rules. No one, except the Prince, will be able to recognize her while she’s in the gown and the magic will wear off at midnight, so she must run home as the clock strikes.
Sparks fly between the Prince and Cinderella. He professes his love for her and says he intends on making her his princess. She’ll be royalty. “Royalty?” she says, channeling her inner Meghan, “What about my work?” As she is announced as the future Queen, the clock strikes and she flees, leaving behind one glass slipper.
“Cinderella” is a big Broadway style jukebox musical of the familiar tale given a thoroughly modern makeover. Written and directed by former “30 Rock” writer Kay Cannon, who also created the “Pitch Perfect” franchise, updates the story to emphasize female empowerment, the autonomy of fathers and sons, the freedom to choose one’s life and she evens softens up the traditionally evil step family. It is still a classic love story, but here Cinderella is no Disney Princess. She’s Girlboss Cinderella, in charge of her life, love and future.
The modifications are presented with sincerity and no small amount of humour—there’s even a pretty funny reference to Brosnan’s legendarily terrible singing voice, first noticed by, well, everyone in “Mama Mia”—but the changes also make it fairly simple to predict what’s going to happen, even if Cannon tries to distract you with big production numbers.
Gone are the old school Disney songs like “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes” and “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo.” They’ve been replaced with reinterpreted pop and rock songs like “Material Girl” and “Somebody to Love.” Think “A Knight’s Tale,” the 2001 fantasy that mixed-and-matched modern music and dancing with a medieval setting.
“Cinderella” is a frothy, enjoyable confection that often resembles a music video. Cabello’s take on the character breathes the same air as Moana, “Brave’s” feisty Merida, and Elsa and Anna from “Frozen.” Purists may miss the old songs or traditional blue dress, but stories about women as active participants in their lives should become the new tradition.