Cinderella, Inc.

Amazon’s patchy new ‘Cinderella’ musical is a weird paean to woke capitalism

After a fairly robust marketing campaign, Amazon Studios released its version of Cinderella to a rather mixed reception. This was perhaps inevitable. Disney released its own live-action remake of Cinderella only six years ago, and many people still see it as the definitive version. Despite the fact that everyone knows full well that Cinderella is a public domain story not actually invented by Walt Disney Studios, the 2015 film is a perfect encapsulation of the zeitgeist surrounding the very pure, almost messianic, way that pop culture sees Cinderella, friend to all animals.

Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.

Which is a bit surprising given that the 1950 animated film contains almost none of this characterization. The issue isn’t that Cinderella’s characterization is significantly different. Rather, she has very little characterization at all. The seventy-five minute movie is mainly a vehicle for slapstick betweeen Cinderella’s adorable mouse friends and her stepmother’s cat, which goes by the comically nefarious moniker Lucifer.

Cinderella herself mostly just wants to go to the ball and have fun. She has no pretensions of even meeting Prince Charming, let alone marrying him. The wicked stepmother is more a generically abusive parent than outright evil. All of this make sense in the context of how we understood Cinderella as a story, pre-Disney. It was wish fulfillment for grumpy children who didn’t like how their parents made them do chores, or listen to them, or let them have fun. The fairy tale is so short that you can ascribe nearly any interpretation to it in feature-length format, just because you need to add so much to the narrative.

But in a weird way, Amazon Studios’ Cinderella is actually a more faithful adaptation of Cinderella, fairy tale or original animated movie, than the more recent Disney joint. The reason is simple–instead of being an abstract personification of the concept of good, Cinderella is back to just wanting to go to the party to have fun. Admittedly, Cinderella wants to have fun largely so she can start a small business as a dressmaker. Funnily enough, dressmaker, not animal lover, is actually probably Cinderella’s most distinctive trait in the original animated Disney film. She literally inducts mouse friends into her circle of friendship by making tiny little clothes for them.

Ironically, enough none of this actually makes Amazon Studios’ Cinderella a good movie. Amazon Studios can’t decide whether to be faithful to the source material or to make this an actually contemporarily relevant story, and the result is a baffling stylistic mishmash of several competing decades. The hip-hop-themed soundtrack jumps wildly among standards from completely different eras. The structure of the movie itself is straight up vaudevillian, with there being less a single cohesive plot as a series of self-aware skits built around the same interlocking universe. And then there’s the often absurd setting, a royal medieval world with inconsistently 19th-century technology that defines the edge of the known universe as being the land of the sea monster. I was inevitably disappointed that we never actually get to see the sea monster, despite the characters constantly hyping up its importance in geopolitical relations as something impossible to ignore.

Perhaps the single most incongruous element is the aggressively woke plotting. It’s not enough for Cinderella to want to be a dressmaker, she also wants to succeed on her own merits–and not with the help of Prince Charming. And by succeed on her own merits I mean…with the help of a queen from a completely different country. Who likes Cinderella’s designs. Or maybe just wants to enslave her. Seriously kids, don’t accept job offers from rich people in other countries about whom you know almost nothing.

Patriarchy is an overarching presence in Amazon Studios’ Cinderella, preventing the title character from achieving success, yet the movie is weirdly detached from power relations where that would make any sense. Of the three ruling monarchs we see in Amazon Studios’ Cinderella, two are women. The third, Pierce Brosnan, is utterly determined that fratboy Prince Charming succeed him for reasons that the movie never clearly explains. We’re just supposed to understand that he’s arbitrarily sexist against his daughter who has an actual interest in governmental policy. Pierce Brosnan then inevitably decides, equally arbitrarily, that being sexist isn’t actually that important.

Lest that sound too harsh, I should note that, as is appropriate for the vaudevillian style, Amazon Studios’ Cinderella is far from boring. It is, in fact, endearingly stupid in a way that’s very easy to nitpick and mock. It’s the kind of movie where characters will poke fun at themselves for obeying certain genre conventions without expecting it to look or sound all that clever. That the movie occasionally presents Cinderella and Prince Charming as being idiots for completely different reasons underscores that the show is perfectly willing and able to make itself the butt of its own jokes and not take itself too seriously. It’s as if Amazon Studios, when faced with the inevitable question of having to justify why their version of Cinderella even needed to exist, just decided to shrug its shoulders and admit that there isn’t actually a good reason.

Yet lest that sound too praising, I should also note that the single most accurate piece of marketing for Amazon Studios’ Cinderella isn’t actually anything related to the movie itself. Rather, it’s this advertisement for Amazon Prime, where Rapunzel uses Amazon Prime to free from herself from captivity and become a successful small business owner with no need of assistance from a dashing prince. Where Disney self-satisfyingly subverts its own tropes, Amazon aims to be a brand with its own association of using its service to defy class conditions, despite the company being famous for abusing its employees just to send its leader on a vacation into outer space.

It’s a stupid vision, just taking one kind of unrealistic fantasy and replacing it with a different one, debatedly a more harmful one. The desire for a romantic partner as a means of self-fulfillment transcends time and culture. The desire for economic success as a means of self-fulfillment is, frankly, a lot less healthier than that. And in many ways it’s literally impossible, especially if we’re expecting everyone to believe in this as a cultural ideal. But the scope of that massively complex social problem is rather beyond this comparatively simple review–or, for that matter, a mass-market mainstream film.

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William Schwartz

William Schwartz is a reporter and film critic based in Seoul, South Korea. He writes primarily for HanCinema, the world's largest and most popular English language database for South Korean television dramas and films.

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