Cinderella (2021), Whose Idea Was This?

Who asked for this? No really, who asked for this? I genuinely can’t think of a single person who was clamouring for a redo of Cinderella. I know we’re in this glut of revisionist reimaginings of Disney classics, (although this iteration is made by Sony). We’ve had Tim Burton’s anti-animal cruelty Dumbo, we’ve had the stylistically anonymous anti gendered workplace discrimination (?) Beauty and the Beast, and now comes well, the same movie but it’s Cinderella. So, immediately this movie is confounding, just on the face of it. For a start, this wave was goddamn started with a Cinderella movie that does quite successfully update aspects of it! We had the Kenneth Branagh version which managed to walk the line between being a classic telling of a fairytale while maybe nudging it away from some of its very most outdated ideas, (if you want to criticise it for maybe not going hard enough in that aspect that’s very fair). That adaptation understood to stay away from so many, just common sense mistakes the 2021 version falls into. 

Cinderella 2021 is a difficult movie to write about, because just to think about it is to expose oneself to potentially traumatic flashbacks, so sensorially offensive is the tone and style of this movie. It offended my ears and eyes with the sheer garishness of it all. So we’re going to just take a moment to unpack just on a purely thematic level what is quite so rotten at the heart of this movie. 

Theodor W. Adorno was a German philosopher who famously wrote a lot about what he called the Culture Industry. What did he mean by this? Well, whole careers have been made out of trying to tell us. He’s one of those philosophers that we have to do whole decades of other philosophy just to understand. To the best of my understanding, his ideas are best expressed by the world of advertisement. In the world of advertisement, you have a whole industry built around using art to negate people’s awareness of problems by selling their problems back to them. Take an advert that uses sexualised imagery to sell something as innocuous as a burger. According to my current understanding of Adorno’s ideas, the function of this advert would be to distract you from your alienation under Capitalism by selling this version of being a masculine man under the gender binary as enforced by Capitalist gendered labour to you. Through this mechanism, the advert industry, as synecdoche for the Culture Industry, distracts you from your alienation under Capitalism by selling the idea of fulfilling your role in the Capitalist machine back to you, thus negating your potential to organise, at least a bit. Adorno talked about the whole industry of commercial art in these terms. A quote by him that I’ve been unable to track down the original source for is, “art is the promise of happiness that is broken”. It asks if you are feeling sad, and sells you an impossible happiness in order to stop you questioning whether the reasons you are sad can be prevented. 

Now, you would have quite reasonable recourse to say, y’know, slow down there buddy but just yesterday at time of writing there was announced a reality show where contestants compete to promote a charitable cause where the winner is whoever achieves the most online engagement metrics. 

Then there’s 2021’s Cinderella

2021’s Cinderella is the hollow attempt at pandering to end all hollow attempts at pandering. It attempts to be revisionist but in the end it winds up about as challenging to the problematic aspects of classic fairytales as Enchanted. How does it do this? Well, it wears a lot of progressive clothes. It has a racially diverse cast. It casts Camila Cabello, who I’m sure all the kids love. I’m sure her style of selling sexuality to preteens through shitty airtight pop instrumentals will play great for Cinderella. After all, she got her start in a manufactured pop group formed through the X-Factor process by notoriously controlling producer Simon Cowell. I’m sure she can definitely project the authentically downtrodden vibe that’s called for with an underdog role like Cinderella. I’m sure she’ll definitely be able to glam down to play Cinderella before the arrival of the fairy godmother, (she can’t, and even if she could, she can’t act to save her goddamn life, so it would fall flat anyway). 

Actually speaking of the Fairy Godmother let’s talk about that. They cast a man, which is interesting, but make him queer coded in just about every mannerism he has… to play a Fairy Godmother… Can’t see anything awkward or ill thought out there! I’m sure they thought the appropriation of drag culture, especially the specifics cherry picked from ball culture by the producers of Ru Paul’s Drag Race, (a show I hate), would make the high camp come over smoother but it doesn’t! Seeing as the whole manner of the film is a sensory assault of the camp it just feels like another facet of the way this film is selling the aspects of my own queer existence that have been seen as commodifiable by Capitalism back to me. I’ve always hated the way our society represents queerness in media essentially boils down to campery. It’s a very valid way to express queerness but it’s certainly not the only, or even most common way, and it’s troubling to me that that’s how Capitalism chooses to express it in totality. The expressions of it here are so washed clean of any queerness that you wouldn’t know that that’s where it came from but that’s just representative of the way this film is making a feign towards appealing for progressive reasons to a young, progressive audience, but washing itself so thoroughly of any depth, and washing these signifiers so clean of their context that it comes across like a cop at a pride parade. 

This aspect is only amplified to levels of parody by the actual changes this adaptation makes to the story. It would be an interesting change to the story to make Cinderella reject The Prince, not because of some magical contrivance of the spell causing her glamour and anonymity to end at midnight but for more personal motivations that speak more to an empowered, well written protagonist in a well structured film. That could work as a way of giving Cinderella more a complete personhood and also to make the fairytale have more a classically cinematic structure. Sure, I could go with that. However, the reason they come up with is because she wants to be able to run a business and if she were to join the monarchy she wouldn’t be able to run her business, because she wouldn’t need to, because she’d already have everything she wanted. Now like, on the face of it this seems slightly stupid. If you had your needs taken care of, you could still labor, but without the need to cater to other people, to sacrifice your art, without the need to break your back earning a living. You could make art for the sake of it. This is aside from the fact that this is a tacit endorsement of the existence of monarchy and unjust hierarchies like that by the dint of that not being the thing that is challenged in this scenario. No. What this is is explicit propaganda in the guise of female empowerment. It is saying that you should reject an opportunity to not be required to monetise your art and commit it to your labour, while understanding there will always be people above you due to their legal birthright that you have no access to. I mean wasn’t that the whole fucking point of the story? Of breaking down those barriers? No, what this is saying is that there is something deeply feminist about being a cog in the system that oppresses you. 

You may remember this being the core message of the recent reimagining of Beauty and the Beast as well. Another lesson that this film just spectacularly fails to learn from Beauty and the Beast’s failures are the sly winks at the logic flaws in a goddamn fucking fairytale and lamp-shading them for metatextual yuks which really just comes off in this movie as intensely smug, childishly inane, and moronically stupid. On top of these weird winks to the audience is a weird joke about how Pierce Brosnan sang really badly in the Mamma Mia! films… My only response to which is, how dare you? Those films are ten times the trashy fun you will ever be. 

So that’s how this film is rotten to the heart. Unfortunately for this film, in its case, beauty isn’t even skin deep. 

The film is garish beyond belief. Someone made the inexplicable choice to make this a jukebox musical, probably because the film is distributed by Sony and Disney are going to hold onto those classic numbers with an iron copyright grip. The film opens with a mashup of Rhythm Nation by Janet Jackson and You Gotta Be by Des’ree that is just one of the most sonically ugly things I’ve heard since the Let’s Have A Kiki/Turkey Lurkey Time mashup on Glee, (yes, that’s a real thing). It’s just so… much! And while I understand that can be fun for some, the film has too many jagged edges for me to get lost in that shamelessness the same way I do with Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again or even, frankly, Glee. Frankly, it’s too shoddily put together with too little self awareness for what trashy fun it should be aiming for. It has the attitude of the theatre kid who thinks putting on Romeo & Juliet as a modern dance abstract piece is ‘like, so deep, man’. It has the attitude, basically, of the lead characters from Rent. It’s just abrasive in its smugness while just being so deeply stupid. This peaks at the ballroom scene where we have another mash up. This time we have Seven Nation Army by The White Stripes mashed up with Whatta Man by Salt-N-Pepa ft. En Vogue. In the context of the story, the potential brides to the unwilling to marry Prince are singing Whatta Man about The Prince, intercut with The Prince singing Seven Nation Army about how like, a seven nation army of sycophantic preteens who want to marry him aren’t going to hold him back from, being a bachelor I guess? Or maybe hold him back from Cinderella who he’s met by this point and fallen in love with. It’s very messy. I shouldn’t even really need to provide commentary. I think you can see for yourselves how ridiculous that is. The film aims for frivolous in these moments while it thinks its frivolity and embracing of, remember not queerness but the saleable signifiers of it, are the most important and worthy thing in the world to do. 

Half of 2021’s Cinderella is an unbearable sensorial assault of nonsense, and then it settles into into actually having to tell the Cinderella story with some very mild, very inoffensive, (at least to the mainstream), revisionism and lamp-shading of logic flaws in a magic tale when it just gets very boring. The energy of the film just sags like a failed soufflé. 

To make myself clear, it’s not like Cinderella isn’t a story that would benefit from a revisionist take but you’re never going to do that properly like this trying to appeal to such a large audience because you end up watering down any potential voice you might have. Recently we’ve seen a lot more low budget retellings of typical fairy stories in a more hard edged genre fashion that have really actually properly unpicked the problems with the stories and turned them on their heads in interesting ways. Try looking at Jennifer’s Body, or Gretel & Hansel, or Hard Candy. Cinderella 2021 is never going to be as interesting as any of those films while it tries to be a conventional Disney style extravaganza. There’s too much at risk financially and reputation wise for a studio to ever let you do anything interesting beyond the lip service of a progressive cast and a mock-fabulous colours scheme. In this film Cinderella is not representative of any values that have been seen as progressive since the 90s. In today’s world Cinderella would definitely be heading a start up that has gender inclusive work spaces but uses child labour and bans unionising. 

Camilla Cabeo is a terrible actress in this film and she was a pretty shit pop star, and indeed she misses most of her notes. Just more things she’ll be paid millions of dollars to fail at doing. 

Honestly thank God for James Acaster and Romesh Ranganathan who seem like the only people who have any idea of what they’re meant to be doing. Ranganathan especially has this reputation as a comedian with a bitter demeanour, playing on the fact he’s an ex-teacher for a take-no-prisoners grumpiness. Here he gets to show a different side of himself as a mouse turned into a person. He plays it with unbridled, unrelenting, giddy, authentic, joy and wonder. It is genuinely charming and sweet and I wish there was more of it. 

To add to the aesthetic garishness, all the songs are mixed like ass and the dialogue feels the need to sound sonically continuous. As a result, the whole movie feels like listening to white noise because of how compressed the whole sound mix becomes. It should also be noted that unless, like Mamma Mia!, the story is consciously, knowingly constructed around your existing catalogue of songs, often in a tongue of cheek manner, a selection of pop hits just isn’t a great medium to tell a preexisting story.

The original fairy tale has been broadly adapted as vaguely European but this film sets it in a definitively British cultural style. Most of the side characters are played by Brits and the style of comedy is directly informed by British stand up and improv comedy. However it is universally made by Americans. American money, American director, American lead. As a result it takes the American style of comedy that’s so pervasive these days, which I hate, of every character actively trying to be funny and tell jokes and riff and improv instead of just being funny naturally. Now most British comedy doesn’t do this. Most British comedy relies on more structured writing, on implication, and on character interactions. That’s the fundamentals of the tradition of comedy over here. As a result, this film just winds up having no idea how to be funny and just quick firing a lot of very unfunny, badly delivered jokes at you and it falls flat like a damp squib. 

Christ, we haven’t even gotten into how this film attempts to update the wicked stepmother character and give her more sympathy, as a result just making her character incredibly inconsistently written. 

Cinderella 2021 isn’t progressive or empowering like it so very desperately wants you to believe that it is. It’s about as empowering as Sex And The City 2. Fuck it the fucking Barbie animated fairy tale adaptations have a better idea of progressivism.

What a hellish, discombobulating, disorienting experience. Polygon called it ‘Cinderella by way of Tik Tok’ and they’re so right in that it’s painfully trying to be hip and has an attention span of about fifteen seconds.

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