TIM: Welcome all to a very special Alternate Ending review. Our subject for today is the latest adaptation of the fairy tale Cinderella, this one prepared by Sony for a planned theatrical release that got squashed like so many others by the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, it has entered the world as an Amazon Studios original, free of charge to all Prime subscribers. Whether that's still too high a price to pay is a question one we'll be getting to in short order.

Yes! I said "we"! I am joined in this review by AE contributor Brennan Klein, who has made a nice little niche for himself on this site by looking at direct-to-streaming ephemera with a poppy bent. Which is what Cinderella has become now. As for the poppy bent, that’s because this project is a vehicle for rising music star Camila Cabello, and the entire project is a jukebox musical featuring a fairly, shall we say "idiosyncratic" mixture of songs performed by the likes of Cabello as Cinderella, Nicholas Galitzine as Prince Robert, rapper Doc Brown as the town crier/exposition delivery vehicle, James Corden as a mouse, and a couple of Tony-winning ringers, Idina Menzel as the wicked-ish stepmother Vivian and Billy Porter as Fab G, the magical were-butterfly who helps Cinderella whip up a terrific new ball gown. Minnie Driver barely sings as the prince's mother, and Pierce Brosnan doesn't really sing at all as the grumpy king, and indeed his unspeakably awful singing voice (so famously put on display in 2008's Mamma Mia!) comes as the butt of some jokes. To further the exercise in modernization, this is somewhat of a revisionist take on the fairy tale, with Cinderella more concerned about making her way as an independent businesswoman/artisan dressmaker than marrying a prince. This is translated in writer-director Kay Cannon's screenplay through dialogue written with the fearless eagerness of a middle-aged person who is convinced that social media is the key to unlocking the language of The Youths. "Yass, future queen, yass" says Fab G at one point, in a line that is fairly typical of how effortlessly Cinderella's dialogue dances off the page.

But before I go too far with my own opinion, I'd like to hand things off to my guest. I've already spoiled things a bit, but I thought it would be nice for us to start off without diving right into snark. So Brennan, here's my challenge to you: say at least one thing about Cinderella that you thought worked, without using the words "Idina" or “Menzel".

BRENNAN: Well Tim, first of all I'd like to say thank you for having me on in the first place. I know you rarely do reviews like this unless a film of great cross-cultural impact is involved. You can't have realized you were biding your time for Cinderella, but that’s what makes you so special. You have an innate sixth sense for these things. As for something positive I have to say about this film... Well, my irritation with Lin-Manuel Miranda has dimmed in comparison with the faux-Hamilton rap stylings of the town crier. It turns out that when other people copy Miranda, it's even worse. So that’s a load off, for sure.

There’s so much of this movie that is gallingly, gobsmackingly ill-advised that it’s hard to even know where to begin. And yet I do know: Camila Cabello. I don’t know how much you know about her. If a single note of "Havana" has ever hit your ears from a distance of less than fifty paces, I would be wildly surprised. The pop starlet has occupied a quiet little corner of the Billboard charts ever since she separated from her X Factor-born girl group Fifth Harmony, and is mostly notable for the singles she releases with her now-boyfriend, Canadian pop twink wunderkind Shawn Mendes. Including a song that is titled, inexplicably, "I Know What You Did Last Summer."

While she certainly has her ardent admirers, I've never had reason to sit down with her and really consider her body of work. When she first opened her mouth to sing in Cinderella, I thought, "oh poor girl, she really isn’t a theatrical singer, is she?" Then, as the film continued, the world started to bubble and fizz around me and I reconsidered. She really isn't a singer, period. Don't get me wrong, she can certainly hit a note (though there is no evidence of this in the film). But every aspect of singing, from the posture to the facial expressions to the "finding what range you can sing in" thing seem completely lost on her. She strains and struggles to reach every note here, even in the songs she wrote for herself, and only wrings a pitch from her bedraggled throat through sheer force of will. Her delivery of a song is effortful, almost painful, like she’s giving birth to every line. It’s not so much that she's necessarily unpleasant to listen to (I certainly haven't gotten this impression from hearing her pop singles on the radio), it’s just I get sympathy pains from watching her wrest each song from her body like a pound of flesh.

Weirdly, I think she comes off far more scot-free as an actress than a singer, though I admit this is faint praise. Whenever she is asked to be awkward and uncomfortable (which is one of the only comedy cards the film plays with her character), she fits the bill to a T. Though it wouldn’t take a Daniel Day-Lewis to play awkward and uncomfortable in one's feature film acting debut without any training. To that end, I ask you a question that is twofold. What is your take on Cabello's lead performance, and can you name a more challenging screen presence in Cinderella without using the words "James" and "Corden?"

TIM: I'll see your Camila Cabello - and, for that matter, your James "Rat Crotch" Corden - and raise you Galitzine. Cinderella probably has more immediate problems than its failures as a love story, but that's certainly a pretty major one, and for all that Cabello seems to be entirely lost as a performer, at least she manages to make the sarcastic one-liners land. Galitzine offers nothing: he has the same problems with hitting notes, though it doesn't look like it's causing him actual physical pain to try, as you astutely point out with Cabello; he comes across as too much of a smirking know-it-all jerk for me to ever buy his trite "I don't want the pressures my dad is putting on me" character arc; he's not even especially pretty. He does have a fucking horrible little loop earring in his left ear, which even given this film's fish-boil of anachronisms doesn't feel like an active choice, so much as a sad and misguided attempt to give him a soupçon of "dashing rogue".

But not to get too far away from your point: Cabello is pretty bloody bad. And what's really unfortunate about her heaving and straining to put over even a single bar of melody is that the entire film has to be fashioned around that shortcoming. I'm not the world's biggest Idina Menzel fan, but she has a terrific voice to belt out theater songs, and the singing in Cinderella is so bad and so blatantly auto-tuned that they've even added some digital distortion to Menzel, I assume to make sure she matches the rest of the ensemble. I don't know, maybe it was just that badly recorded. But this is very much case of the film lowering itself to meet its star, rather than doing anything to elevate her or make her look good. I mean, Billy Porter is costumed in an orange Frank Gehry building and every time he moves he leaves a trail of CGI sparkles, and he still manages to come across as bored and sedate.

Cabello has a real vampiric effect on the film around her that way. The actors are sluggish, the sets are charmlessly overlit and have no presence at all: the whole thing seems threadbare and unappealingly soundstagey. And the songs-

But I should answer my own question and try to say something nice about the film. My go-to joke would ordinarily be "well, the camera didn't fall down", but even that compliment would be pushing it: literally in the first shot, a big floating tracking deal that comes down from the sky and zips around the town, there are multiple places where you can watch it wobble jerkily (I assume these are bad morph cuts, something the film has a problem with: there's a real humdinger of a bad morph of Cabello’s face, right in the middle of the frame, when Fab G transforms her dress). And it's not the only tracking shot that seems to get stuck for a couple of frames. But I started this paragraph looking for a compliment, so here we go: I laughed at Pierce Brosnan's haughty line readings multiple times, and I liked the running gag about the sea monster on the map being an actual geopolitical feature.

With that out of the way, did you have any other complaints before we start to climb the mountain of Cinderella's unspeakable failures as a musical? Which go so, so much deeper than the strangled looks on Cabello's face as she tries to squawk out notes. I certainly don't want to rush you, especially if you have anything else catty to say about my new nemesis, Galitzine.

BRENNAN: I actually had no real animosity toward Galitzine, a bland white dude who acquits himself about as well as any high school senior who nabbed the lead in Once Upon a Mattress. But it’s astonishing that he's somehow the only human male in the universe to look less cute while wearing prince garb. I agree about the sea monster joke, though that leads me into the film's curious approach to anachronisms. It's aiming for A Knight's Tale (well, really it’s aiming for Moulin Rouge!, but let's not pretend it was ever going to get there), but it’s ended up somewhere in the vicinity of Shrek 3.

The film's insistence on calling out the little oddities about life during that time period while making no effort to properly integrate its traces of modernity (the baffling opening number involves some ensemble members using industrial power sanders, if I recall correctly, and not even ones that are cutesified to look "ye olde" á là Cabello's wooden Singer sewing machine) is a complete misfire. A film like It Follows that has control over its aesthetic could make this blend of periods work, but here the choices are just brain-melting. Consider the prim and proper princess who is presented as the advantageous political match for Prince Whitebread. She is a classic stick-up-her-ass noblewoman, but she has a nose ring, which isn’t so much a wink at contemporary fashion than a completely character-breaking costume choice.

I think I shall reach into my bulging sack of treasures and pull out just two more complaints I’d like to raise before we dig into the musical aspects. First, Cinderella is fundamentally broken as a character. In a film about her struggle to Have It All (a handsome prince willing to throw away his future to follow her around the world AND a dressmaking business despite her only design instinct being "drown it in pink tulle"), you’d think she’d actually struggle. In Kay Cannon's efforts to punch up the Cinderella story according to Tumblr's top five trending pop feminism hashtags, she has completely defanged the wicked stepfamily. Almost no roadblocks actually impede her progress through life, and any time one of them wanders into the film, she turns this into an opportunity to crank out yet another treacly pseudo-feminist inspirational pop song rather than actually have, y'know, feelings about it.

And while I'm proud how much we’ve managed to make this review not about James Corden, there are two major issues with the mice here. One is that Corden has Cats disease, in that he’s shoved into a hideous CGI monstrosity with a director who’s unwilling to cut away from any of his stomach-churning improvisation. The other mice (played by James Acaster and Romesh Ranganathan) are merely operating at the film’s standard level of grating comedy, though their mouse bodies likewise look like the KIA commercial hamsters went stale. You can feel free to weigh in on any of these issues, but I sit in delicious anticipation of you venting your spleen on the music.

TIM: How dare you impugn Cinderella's dress-making skills! At least once, her instinct is to drown something in white tulle.

But you've otherwise nailed everything. The film's thoroughly knee-jerk, reactive #girlboss intentions are so completely at odds with a story that cannot be bent far enough off the track from "poor girl marries a rich prince" to make it feel modern unless you go full parody. And this Cinderella definitely gets close to going full parody, though I don't think that was it's intention.

You touched on defanging the wicked stepfamily, and I want to pick that back up, because it's really a problem. One of the great pleasures of the story is a big mean villain, and Idina Menzel obviously wants to play Vivian that way, so we get scenes where she's all but sticking out her forked tongue through her tight smile and squinty eyes, and they're great! But there's also an underbaked "female solidarity" message, so she also has to be sad and secretly concerned for Cinderella's wellbeing, and, I mean, how? Plus the scene where she revealed that she had to give up playing the piano because of the patriarchy, although A) we've already seen her playing the piano, and B) proper women of means were encouraged to be able to play the piano, for the entertainment of guests. I presume they actually means "she couldn't become a professional concert pianist", because this film's worldview is such that the claim "I have an activity that I passionately love" must instantly be followed with "great, how are you going to monetize it?" Anyway, the film never has a chance with such a mealy-mouthed villain as the pivot for its "conflict", not that Cinderella ever seems in serious danger of getting less than 100% of what she wants.

So anyway, that music, huh?

I almost don’t know where to start. This is, as mentioned, a jukebox musical, but one with absolutely no identity: it's a pretty random grab-bag of eras and genres, and there's been no real effort made to channel them through a single artistic identity. This is most horribly obvious in the mash-ups: Des'ree's "You Gotta Be" shoved bodily into Janet Jackson's "Rhythm Nation" as the opening scene-setting number; Salt-N-Pepa's "Whatta Man" cross-cut with the White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army". The latter is to me the really ugly example, since there is simply no attention paid to the beats of either song, not even the time signature, and so the army of hungry princesses singing the former song have to speed up individual syllables in order to cram them into the space left available.

More broadly than that, the choices of songs are so crude. Vivian believes that women must be attuned to their material well-being? Okay, "Material Girl". Prince Robert wants somebody to love? Queen's "Somebody to Love" it is, even if that means it bleeds over into a chorus line of guards for no narratively obvious reason. The aforementioned "Rhythm Nation" is to demonstrate that the townsfolk are... a nation? With rhythm? I'm still a little foggy on why that's the opening number, to be honest.

I'll kick it over to you for final thoughts on the music and anything else, but I didn't talk about the mice, did I? They're horrible, realistic and also textureless, and they bend in ways that suggest they don't have skeletons. I don't like to think about them. Instead, I will let my final thought on the film be this: at once point after the mice have been turned into humans, the Corden-mouse excitedly tells the other two mice about how he's just discovered that they now get to "relieve themselves" out of their "front tails", so thanks to the movie for giving me the mental image of Corden waving his cock around like a fire hose as he pisses.

BRENNAN: Honestly, a little Corden cock-waggling might be preferable to the Cronenbergian horror that is Corden mid-transformation back to mouse (by the way, why on Earth is Cinderella's carriage made from a wooden crate rather than a pumpkin? Why, Tim?!) Yes indeed, Cinderella may be a jukebox musical, but these selections couldn't be found all together in any jukebox I've ever encountered. I can at least give the filmmakers a pass and assume they’re vaguely adapting the dystopian “Rhythm Nation” music video rather than anything actually reflected in the lyrical content of the song.

People who have seen the viral video of a pelvic thrusting James Corden know that the film also features the Jennifer Lopez song "Let’s Get Loud," but they don’t know that the song is stretched on the rack to an ungodly five minutes until the song lies battered and bleeding on the dirt. The less said about the original compositions the better. If you want to listen to shitty pseudo-feminist pop anthems that are actually fun, just hit me up on that Alternate Ending Discord. I've got a playlist, and Camila Cabello ain't getting nowhere near it (it's actually pretty telling - there are plenty of shitty original songs from bad musicals that I download and listen to all the time because I am demented and nobody can save me from myself, but Cinderella didn't pique my interest even the once).

The choreography and general blocking is also a must-mention. It’s easy not to notice in the face of the film’s constant baffling song choices ("Am I Wrong?" by Nico & Vinz is a fun if mysterious inclusion that at least fares better than the leadenly obvious "Perfect" by Ed Sheeran, performed doing a scene that copies the music video for "Thinking Out Loud"), but it's got its own deep layers of shittiness to plumb. The film is convinced that it’s "fun" to stage every throwaway background line in the song by having some random extra in a silly costume blurt it out, but that gag gets stale at about the negative 13 million minute mark. The group dance scenes are less"“production numbers" than "the cast of SNL milling around at the end of the episode while the credits roll." Any other dancing is the kind of carefully packaged pop movement style that asks the star to walk demonstratively around a room while things happen around them. One delirious moment sees the dancers doing a series of quick calf raises in the background just to make Galitizine’s solo pop.

That horrid "Somebody to Love" number is guilty of all these sins and more, because Queen music demands staging, and Cinderella has no idea how to give it that. "Somebody to Love" is especially unforgivable, considering that the song has already been used in a Cinderella adaptation featuring Minnie Driver (Ella Enchanted, a better movie by a league, based on a book that's better than that movie by 20,000 leagues). But sweet mercy, how on Earth did they arrive at that "Seven Nation Army" debacle? "Whatta Man" isn’t chopped and screwed to fit in, it's dunked in toxic waste like that dude in RoboCop.

I suppose I should close out this review with the film's only moment that made me laugh out loud. "You're so sloppy, comb your hair," says Idina Menzel to a girl in a braid that clearly took a team of people three hours to construct. Good times, Tim.

Tim's Rating:
Brennan's Rating:

Tim Brayton is the editor-in-chief and primary critic at Alternate Ending. He's also a PhD candidate in film studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where his dissertation research focuses on the impact of technological change on the aesthetics of animation. He is horribly allergic to most forms of social media, but he has been known to be found on Letterboxd, writing about even more movies than he does here.

Brennan Klein is a millennial who knows way more about 80's slasher movies than he has any right to. He's a former host of the Attack of the Queerwolf podcast and a current senior movie/TV news writer at Screen Rant. You can find his other reviews on his blog Popcorn Culture. Follow him on Twitter or Letterboxd, if you feel like it.