Ella Enchanted Movie Review
Following in the footsteps of the "Fractured Fairy Tales" cartoons, "The Princess Bride," "Ever After," "Shrek" and "A Knight's Tale" -- but never quite matching any of their wit or novelty -- "Ella Enchanted" is an amusingly self-aware fable of handsome princes, evil kings and one very plucky heroine caught up in a magic spell.
Aiming at the tween-ager crowd that made a hit of "The Princess Diaries," 2001's more modern twist on such girlish daydreams, light-hearted director Tommy O'Haver ("Get Over It," "Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss") enlists "Diaries" charming star Anne Hathaway in the title role as a medieval teenager who was hexed at birth with an obedience spell by an irksome but well-meaning fairy (Vivica A. Fox, stuck in a mock-ghetto-fabulous stereotype).
Having grown up quite stubborn yet unable to resist any demand upon her, Ella manages to get through life keeping her curse on the QT until her widowed father brings home a wicked stepmother (Joanna Lumley) and two even worse and obnoxiously over-played step-sisters (Lucy Punch and Jennifer Higham), who quickly and cruelly figure out that they can make Ella their plaything.
Desperate to escape her new family's clutches, our heroine sets out to find the fairy and ask her to take back this "gift" (both tasks are easier said than done). Along the way she's rescued from various enchanted-forest dangers (ogres, giants, etc.) by the kingdom's most eligible bachelor, Prince Charmont (Hugh Dancy) -- and he naturally finds her pretty smile and headstrong spirit completely irresistible. Not that Ella needs a handsome prince to make her complete, but so much integrity and chivalry can wear down a girl's willful resistance.
It's clear from the cheekiness of "Ella Enchanted" that O'Haver and screenwriter Laurie Craig (who adapted Gail Carson Levine's novel) think they're terribly clever in their fairytale self-awareness and ironic modernism. The movie's humor is often cute, but it's superficial -- like a Middle Ages "Flintstones" with tongue-in-cheek pop-culture references like handsome-prince pin-up posters and medieval shopping malls with hand-cranked escalators. The picture is also cursed with several truly awful songs (Hathaway and Dancy lip-sync badly to their own torturous rendition of "Don't Go Breakin' My Heart") and other present-day references with short shelf lives that betray "Ella Enchanted" for the flash-in-the-pan it is instead of the classic it wants to be.
But that said, the film still has plenty of charm. Hathaway is a post-feminist delight as the intelligent, capable, free thinking, politically active Everygirl title character who leads protests against the segregation of mythical creatures by Charmont's uncle, the tyrannical Prince Regent Edgar. Played by "The Princess Bride's" Cary Elwes in spectacular mustache-twirling form, this campy villain soon develops a nefarious plan to use Ella's curse (and her growing feelings for Charmont) to prevent his nephew from inheriting the throne.
Subject "Ella Enchanted" to much scrutiny and all kinds of common sense gaffes emerge: When given two conflicting orders, why does Ella follow the first and not the second? Why don't friends and family who know about the spell try to help when it's abused? Why hasn't a smart girl like Ella spent her life trying to break the curse since she knows that "what's inside you is stronger than any spell"? And is Prince Charmont really a good catch for such a smart girl since he can't even see through his uncle's transparent propaganda until Ella the activist enters his life?
There are plenty of off-the-wall fairytale tweaks to counter the movie's weaknesses: Legendary creatures complain about being pigeonholed ("Stinking Grimm brothers! I've never said 'fe fi fo fum' in my whole life!"). One of Ella's traveling companions is an elf who wants to be a lawyer (instead of singing and dancing for humans, per Edgar's laws). And "Monty Python's" Eric Idle appears as a rhyming narrator who occasionally wanders through this scene or that.
"Ella Enchanted" certainly has enough entertainment value to enjoy as a forgettable Saturday matinee, but had O'Haver been smarter about its self-awareness and more consistent with its cleverness, the movie's magic might have been able to stand the test of time.