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Cinderella director explains her radical reimagining — and ditching the villain

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Kay Cannon talks about scrapping the fairy tale’s one-dimensional threat

cinderella sings about her dreams Image: Amazon Studios

The new Cinderella is a #girlboss. When Camila Cabello’s version of the character goes to the ball in the new Amazon film, she hopes to show off her dress designs to prospective (rich!) clients. Though she’s often depicted just wanting a night off from housework, the Cinderella character is often maligned for passively waiting around for a prince to whisk her away. So writer-director Kay Cannon, who incidentally created Netflix comedy Girlboss, aimed to give her greater internal motivations.

“It’s a bigger notion that she had dreams,” Cannon tells Polygon. “She has dreams to break out of the basement, she has dreams to live life the way she wants to live it on her own terms.”

The fashion designer angle fits seamlessly into the adaptation, considering the importance of ball gowns in the story. But tweaking Cinderella’s dreams was only the beginning of Cannon’s dreams of overhauling the classic story; beyond Cinderella, the filmmaker wanted to expand the rest of the characters’ motivations. Fun-loving Prince Robert (Nicholas Galitzine) now struggles with his father’s expectations and being put into a box, while figuring out what he wants to do with his life. The most romantic parts of his blossoming relationship with Cinderella come when he helps her achieve her own dreams, and in the process, slowly realizes his own purpose. And if that means he sings a rendition of “Somebody to Love” in the process, all the merrier.

The most distinct difference in this new retelling is Cannon’s choice to forgo a villain. That might sound unbelievable to hardcore Cinderella fans — the main drama of the story comes from her awful stepmother using the young girl as a glorified slave. But Cannon deliberately set out to turn Vivian the stepmother (Idina Menzel) into a more complex character. Sure, she makes Cinderella do the bulk of the housework and discourages her from pursuing her dreams of being a dressmaker, but she has more specific reasons.

the stepmother sits at a dinner table, flanked by her two daughters Image: Amazon Studios

“I wanted to show that all the women in that family — the stepmother and stepsisters — that they’re all going through something. They’re all oppressed in their own way,” explains Cannon. “The stepmother has these dashed dreams. She’s a product of that. And she’s like doing tough love for her children, knowing that the only way you can improve your lot in life is through marriage.”

In Cannon’s retelling, Cinderella’s main foe becomes society. Robert is expected to be the ruler, instead of his more capable sister; Cinderella is discouraged from running her own business, because only men do it; and Vivian’s relationship with Cinderella isn’t tense because she’s petty, but because of the way her own life has gone. Admittedly, the revelation comes a little too late and as a result, the sob story is heavy handed, but it’s an ambitious rehaul of a character often reduced to one personality trait.

“She had very specific things happen in her life and a lot of heartache that made her believe the way she believes,” says Cannon. “I wanted to go further than just she’s jealous of Cinderella — like, she’s jealous of the youth or jealous of her relationship with her father — and make it more that she loves Cinderella and, and she believes in tough love is the only way.”

In a rare move for a Cinderella retelling — and oddly, one that lines up with the most popular Charles Perrault version of the fairytale — Cinderella and Vivan reconcile in the end. They don’t embrace and weep in joy, but Vivian isn’t sent away or forced to work for the rest of her life. The last musical number is a joyous celebration, in which Vivian takes part.

“She is able to acknowledge the error of her ways,” says Cannon. “And it felt like everybody was getting a happily ever after.”

Cinderella is available to stream on Amazon Prime.