A Look On The Lighter Side: Fairy tale heroines win my respect

Judy Epstein


I’m in a real pickle this week. I picked a movie to review that I was sure I’d hate, because there’s always so much to say when you don’t like a movie.

My problem is I liked it.

Even worse, I’d chosen a second film to go with it. It would be a double feature for scorn—or so I thought.

Alas, the unthinkable happened: I liked them both!

Film No. 1 was the latest version of “Cinderella,” starring pop singer Camila Cabello.

There have been countless makes and remakes of this classic story, but the inherent sexism has always presented a formidable challenge: How do you update, for modern times, a story whose entire point is that marriage — to a prince, no less — is a young girl’s only way out of poverty and trouble?

It turns out that is precisely why this film got made. Producer Leo Pearlman explains that both he and Co-Producer James Corden have young daughters, and they wanted a version of the story that they could let their daughters watch.

This one certainly fits the bill. Cabello even co-wrote a song for the central character, Ella, who dreams not of marriage but of starting her own dress-making business. Titled “A Million to One,” the song will probably become a hit, if my humming it hours later is anything to go by.

Of course, Ella still needs some magical help, which descends in the form of “Fabulous Godmother” Billy Porter, who breaks the godmother mold in a swirling gold cape, gold sparkle pants, custom platform shoes and a necklace that would put anything by Cartier to shame.

After magically creating a gown for Ella — from one of her own designs — plus the requisite carriage, horses and footmen, Porter creates two sparkly glass shoes. “Is there any way you can make them more comfortable?” asks Cabello.

“No. Even magic has its limits!” replies Porter.

Director Kay Cannon, writer on the three “Pitch Perfect” movies, was mostly adept here at blending pop songs into the timeless-but-vaguely-medieval surroundings. I found the start a little bumpy, but it took flight when a church choir, handily standing around in the palace, helped the prince belt out a creditable version of “(Find Me) Somebody to Love” by Queen.

There were other high points in this feminist-friendly film. My favorite was Idina Menzel as the maybe-evil, maybe-just-misguided Step-Mother, who exhorts her own daughters to marry well with a rendition of “Material Girl” that should make Madonna sit up and take notice.

Somehow, there is a happy ending that allows Ella to pursue her career dreams without resorting to marriage (at least not right away) — no small feat in any era. To borrow the Michelin Guide’s descriptions for movie-going, I give this film 2 stars out of 3: “Excellent cooking, worth a detour.”

The second movie was even more surprising to me: “Cruella,” with Emma Stone in the title role.

I was highly dubious about this casting. Sweet Emma Stone? The quiet girl who played sincere if naive Skeeter in “The Help” and the adorable girlfriend in “La La Land”? Who would believe her as a classic dog-hating victim?

And yet, she pulls it off! The film gives Cruella a fascinating backstory and pits her in an amazing, can-you-top-this contest both of wits and evil against The Baroness, played by Emma Thompson as a fashion designer so cold and calculating that you are immediately put in mind of Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestley in “The Devil Wears Prada”— until Thompson sets new marks for narcissism.

I don’t want to say too much more about “Cruella,” for fear of inadvertent spoilers. Suffice it to say I was completely surprised by more than one plot twist in this movie, and I enjoyed every minute of it. To borrow from Michelin again, I give it 3 Stars: “Exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey.”

I don’t know why, but in both of these movies, a young woman who is functionally an orphan starts out scrubbing floors while dreaming of success as — a fashion designer. Is that a thing now? It certainly works out well for the viewer, treated as we are to one fabulous dress after another, and some choice locations besides.

What I never expected was that the world of cinema would give me young female characters I could respect.

I was never so glad to be wrong!

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