In the mid-1970s, psychologist Bruno Bettelheim wrote “The Uses of Enchantment,” in which he analyzed fairy tales and folk tales as vehicles for children to process deep-seated impulses and anxieties, from sibling rivalry to shame and anger. “Cinderella,” the latest of countless adaptations of the centuries-old rags-to-riches story, is far less interested in enchantment than in dismantling the entire sexist, classist racket.
In this jukebox musical-slash- feminist manifesto, the lowly servant girl (Camila Cabello) now nurtures dreams of entrepreneurship, not marriage, and the prince of her dreams (Nicholas Galitzine) happily takes a back seat to her girl boss ambitions. Even the wicked stepmother (Idina Menzel) is no longer a rival but a sister under the skin, her cruelty a function of a flawed and oppressive system.
If that sounds more worthy than fun, writer-director Kay Cannon strives to package “Cinderella’s” most heavy-handed revisionism within a pop pastiche, her characters regularly breaking into hits minted by everyone from Janet Jackson and Jennifer Lopez to Queen, Madonna and the White Stripes. The result is a movie that is strident, sassy and silly all at once, its long-ago-far-away aesthetic clashing purposefully with present-day lingo.
“So, we good? ’Cause I’ve got a thing,” Galitzine’s Prince Robert snarks at his father, King Rowan (Pierce Brosnan), who has been hectoring him to marry well. Later, when Fab G – a wish-granting sprite played with campy playfulness by Billy Porter – transforms Ella’s modest house dress and apron into a stunning gown, the moment is punctuated with a “Yas, future queen, yas!”
Such is the quippy, strenuously irreverent sensibility of “Cinderella,” which for all its knowing, self-referential ’tude can’t help but feel like it’s trying too hard. As if Ella’s (continually thwarted) desires to open a dress shop in the market square weren’t aspirational enough, Cannon has given Robert a sister named Gwen (Tallulah Greive), who is far more competent to assume the throne and continually badgers the king to share her plans for poverty reduction and renewable energy.
Meanwhile, Queen Beatrice (Minnie Driver) spends most of the movie establishing the groundwork for a climactic celebration scene that dials the anachronistic dissonance up to 11. Amid the manic efforts to prove its I’m-hip-I-get-it bona fides, “Cinderella” has its bright spots. Cabello does a capable job in her feature film debut, joining the winking humor with larky good spirit, her Britney-esque vocal pout Auto-Tuned to perfection.
Although Menzel brings a pained stiffness to her scenes, her pipes are still impressive, especially when she’s joined by her character’s vain and vapid daughters (Maddie Baillio and Charlotte Spencer). There are moments when “Cinderella” can’t help recall “Cruella,” in its heroine’s narrative arc and fusillade of pop-rock callbacks; although a few of the latter fall flat, there’s an imaginative mashup during the ball that makes not just for felicitous harmonies but some fun choreography.
Of course, that life-changing event ends quite differently than the one remembered by a generation raised on Lesley Ann Warren mooning and crooning in her attractively appointed scullery. Ella has come to network, not snag a husband. As she tells Robert when he decides to make her his future bride, she’s not any more interested in being confined to a royal box than to a basement. Oh, snap!