Miramax // 2004 // 96 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees (Retired) // October 4th, 2004
A fairy-tale adventure for the hero in all of us.
Gail Carson Levine's beloved novel about a girl cursed with obedience comes to the screen in a rollicking, music-filled spectacle starring the luminous Anne Hathaway (The Princess Diaries), who seems to be making a career for herself playing princesses. Peopled by a lively cast of characters both dastardly and endearing, Ella Enchanted is not an old-fashioned fairy tale but a grrl-power adventure about forging your own destiny instead of accepting the fate that's handed to you -- whether by an addled fairy godmother or by social oppression. Ella Enchanted has lots of valuable lessons to teach both boys and girls -- but, equally important, it's a highly entertaining film, one that will amuse parents almost as much as kids.
Ella of Frell has a problem -- an unusual problem. As a baby, she was given the "gift" of obedience by her irresponsible fairy godmother, Lucinda (Vivica A. Fox, Kill Bill: Volume 1). Thus, all her life Ella has had to do whatever anyone orders her to do. When her beloved mother dies and her father takes a new wife (Joanna Lumley, Absolutely Fabulous) to help replenish the family coffers, it's only a matter of time before Ella's bratty new stepsisters, Hattie (Lucy Punch) and Olive (Jennifer Higham), learn they can manipulate her.
Fed up with being subject to everyone's will but her own, Ella sets off to find Lucinda and have her "gift" removed. Accompanying her on her quest is a talking book lent to her by the kind but ineffectual fairy Mandy (Minnie Driver, An Ideal Husband). Soon, however, Ella gains more companions: a rebellious elf, Slannen (Aidan McArdle), and even the dishy young prince, Charmont (Hugh Dancy, King Arthur), whom all the young girls in the kingdom are crazy about. Char is about to be crowned king, and although heretofore he has been content to let his wily uncle Edgar (Cary Elwes, Shadow of the Vampire) control the kingdom as he sees fit, Ella awakens him to the unpleasant realities of life in the kingdom that he will soon rule: Giants are enslaved, ogres are ghettoized, and elves like Slannen are forced to work as unpaid cabaret entertainers. Soon it will be up to Char to decide whether these harsh policies will be perpetuated or overturned.
As Ella helps Char to recognize his responsibilities, however, she draws the attention of Edgar and his sinister henchserpent, Heston (voiced by Steve Coogan). Edgar is none too pleased that Char is beginning to develop a mind of his own, and once he discovers that he can use Ella against Char, neither one is safe. But how is a girl who has to obey every command going to save the day?
If fairy tales make you think of simpering goody-goody princesses and men in tights with page boy haircuts, has Ella Enchanted got a surprise for you. This free-spirited romp through magical realms brings us medieval tabloids, a kick line of elves, godfather giants, and a celebrity prince whose fan club turns up at mall openings. In other words, this is not your grandmother's Cinderella story.
I'm ashamed to say that I've never read the novel Ella Enchanted, although I've seen it on bookshelves for as long as I can remember. Now that it has inspired such an enjoyable film, I'm going to have to make a point of reading it. Levine's innovative reworking of the Cinderella legend retains what is appealing about the basic plot but turns it around to create a much more positive personal myth: Although our heroine is still oppressed, as in the original fairy tale, here it is due not to her submissive nature but to a spell. Likewise, instead of passively accepting assistance to help her out of her servitude and into the castle, as does the storybook Cinderella, this new heroine actively takes her life into her own hands and sets about changing her fate herself. Thus, we still get to rejoice as our beleaguered heroine triumphs over those who have mistreated her, but now her victory is the more complete because she, not a fairy godmother and a prince, brought about her liberation.
The originality of this story doesn't end there. Ella is not just spunky, independent, and resourceful as a heroine; she's no less than a political activist. As a role model for today's young women, Ella could hardly be bettered: She's kind to those that others mistreat, she stands up for values of equality and individual freedom, and she's unafraid to take her fight to the very top. She routinely comes to the aid of others in peril. This is definitely a new kind of fairy-tale heroine, and she's exhilarating to behold. Also offering a new take on a mythic figure is Prince Charmont. Yes, he's handsome, charming, brave, and an all-around nice guy; but he's not some bland image of perfection. Except when he's running from adoring crowds of screaming teenaged girls, he seems fairly aimless, and he shows little interest in ruling. Until he meets Ella he seems unconcerned with the increasingly unjust living conditions in his own kingdom. In other words, the prince in this fairy tale doesn't represent a reward or an escape for the heroine; he's a person with flaws and problems of his own. In another departure from traditional fairy tales, his relationship with Ella is one of equals: He respects her political opinions, and he's the only person who makes it a point not to give her orders.
If I've made Ella Enchanted sound preachy or agenda-driven, though, I've done the film a disservice. For sheer entertainment, it's hard to resist this combination of broad comedy, anachronistic in-jokes, colorful characters, and buoyant musical sequences. It's also hard, if not impossible, to resist our heroine. Anne Hathaway is more than a pretty face and a gifted performer; she's an appealing personality, someone you just can't help liking and rooting for. Hathaway proved in The Princess Diaries that she's unafraid of pratfalls, and she does her share of slapstick here, which keeps her from being so perfect that we can't relate to her. But she's also genuinely moving in dramatic scenes, and her high-wattage smile could probably power a small country. Opposite her, talented young English actor Hugh Dancy is likewise perfect in his role. With his tousled curls and disarming smile, he is the embodiment of the term "dreamboat," yet he's never plastic or smug. Like Hathaway, Dancy shows a flair for comedy, and the two have a sweet, winning chemistry together.
The supporting cast features an impressive roster of well-known talent, from the incomparable Eric Idle (Monty Python and the Holy Grail) as the narrator to the one and only Joanna Lumley (Absolutely Fabulous) as Ella's odious stepmother. Parminder Nagra of Bend It Like Beckham is sadly underused, but Minnie Driver can always be relied on for a deft comic performance, and Vivica A. Fox brings energy and sass to the wacky Lucinda. The lesser-known actors, however, turn in some of the most memorable performances. Aidan McArdle, a relative newcomer to American screens, is a standout as the touchy yet endearing Slannen ("stinkin' Grimm brothers!"). As stepsister Hattie, Lucy Punch is one of the most excruciatingly effective supporting characters, turning in a performance of perfect hideousness (and I mean that as a compliment). My favorite supporting actor, though, is without a doubt Cary Elwes, who for me will always be Westley of The Princess Bride. The filmmakers showed a nice sense of irony in casting this former fairy-tale hero as the conniving villain, and Elwes leaps into the role with relish, rolling his r's, smirking oily smiles, and doing everything but twirl his moustache. If there were railroad tracks in his kingdom, he would tie someone to them. (In a deleted scene we even get to see him laughing maniacally as he prepares poison for a would-be victim.) It's a classic scenery-chewing villain performance.
Audiovisual quality for this release is superb. The anamorphic widescreen transfer presents the film in dazzling color and clarity; this fairy-tale world is so beautiful you want to put whipped cream on it and eat it. The clean, crisp, jewel-hued picture enhances the exceptional lighting design and the spectacular combination of authentic Irish locations, CGI, and whimsical sets and models. The surround audio mix is also bold, immersive, and crystalline, with dialogue and music well balanced, and the musical numbers come through beautifully. In the featurettes the volume levels of music and speakers' voices are sometimes out of balance, but in the film itself this rarely occurs.
The extras for this edition are agreeable if not stellar. The deleted and extended scenes are the meatiest offerings, and both feature optional commentary by director Tommy O'Haver and Hugh Dancy, which is spotty but sometimes worthwhile. Among these scenes is a substantial sequence removed from the film's conclusion, which wraps up some characters' fates and gives Joanna Lumley some more fun lines. There's also a deleted Heartbreak Montage containing a soulful close-up of Dancy that will have girl viewers swooning. The feature commentary by O'Haver, Dancy, and Hathaway is enjoyable and sometimes quite hilarious; it's warmly reminiscent rather than technically informative, but there are some interesting behind-the-scenes anecdotes to be had, and some surprises as well. The two behind-the-scenes featurettes, the "Red Carpet Special" and "The Magical World of Ella Enchanted," repeat each other to a large degree; both are kid-oriented promotional pieces and are rife with film clips, plot description, and discussion of the pop song covers recorded for the film's soundtrack (yawn). Of the two, the 28-minute "Magical World," hosted by Hathaway and Dancy, has slightly more substance: It offers us a look at the casting process, the set design, and the development of the CGI character of Heston. The "Red Carpet Special," hosted by two of the young pop singers who worked on the film, pads out its 23-minute running time with footage of the film's stars arriving at the premiere and even includes a candy shop montage, the relevance of which escapes me.
We also get the Ella trailer and the usual assortment of other trailers, but the glorious thing about them is that they aren't mandatory -- the DVD goes to the menu right away instead of forcing us to fast-forward through previews. That makes me a happy, happy woman. The set-top game lost my interest pretty quickly, but younger viewers may find it worth sticking with. Likewise, while I was underwhelmed by the Kari Kimmel music video, it may be the icing on the cake for 'tween viewers. An Easter egg accessed through the set-top game clues us in on the hidden faces in the movie that O'Haver mentions in his commentary.
I realize that, as an adult roughly three times the age of Ella's target audience, I probably have a rather outdated approach to family entertainment. Yet I still wish these films would settle down and tell a story without resorting to fast cuts, pop songs, and gratuitous action sequences (not to mention the now-ubiquitous fart jokes). If you, too, prefer a slightly more traditional type of family film, like The Secret of Roan Inish or even the classic Cinderella musical The Slipper and the Rose -- or if you're simply out of your teens -- Ella Enchanted may well seem like it's revved up on too much caffeine. Its broadly comic, amped-up style is certainly entertaining, and is no doubt designed with today's short attention spans in mind, but it's a world away from the more sophisticated humor and temperate pace of, for example, The Princess Bride, which still stands for me as possibly the finest fairy-tale comedy ever made. Thus, although I enjoyed Ella, it took some time to grow on me.
Its wholeheartedly anachronistic approach also makes me wonder how well Ella Enchanted will age. Again, when we look at The Princess Bride, the anachronisms are subtle enough -- and sufficiently general -- that they don't jar us out of the story. Years after it was made, there's little to make the film seem dated. However, looking at Ella's pop-cultural references (which even include an O.J. joke) and the clever but oh so trendy costume designs, I wonder if it will ever warrant a 20th-anniversary edition.
Of course, Ella was made for kids, not oldsters in their thirties, and they probably won't feel a sense of loss if a year from now a new movie comes along to make Ella seem old hat. At any rate, by then it will have served its purpose: to entertain and gently teach its audience, and perhaps to lead them to read the original novel, so that they can learn how rewarding reading can be. If this film adaptation doesn't have the staying power of a true classic, that's probably irrelevant. As for us older viewers, we'll always have Paris -- or Florin, in this case. Therefore, the prosecution rests.
This is Cinderella for the Shrek generation: a giddy, sometimes even goofy adventure that nevertheless has both a heart and a brain. (Which reminds me -- it also features enjoyable echoes of The Wizard of Oz.) Girls will find this Ella truly enchanting, and even boys will find plenty to enjoy here, from the scrappy Slannen to the ravenous ogres to the ninjas (yes, ninjas!). It's all wrapped up in energetic performances, colorful eye candy, and some familiar, hummable tunes. Go ahead, give in -- if you can get in touch with your inner 'tween and allow yourself to be carried along by its freewheeling momentum, Ella Enchanted will probably enchant you too.
King Edgar is guilty of attempting to steal every scene. All other parties are acquitted and are hereby released to live happily ever after...except the stinkin' Grimm brothers.
Review content copyright © 2004 Amanda DeWees; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Commentary by Director Tommy O'Haver and Actors Anne Hathaway and Hugh Dancy
* Deleted and Extended Scenes with Optional Commentary
* "The Magical World of Ella Enchanted" Featurette
* "Red Carpet Premiere Special" Featurette
* "Prince Charmont's Fan Club" Set-Top Game
* "Happily Ever After" DVD-ROM Feature
* Music Video by Kari Kimmel
* Official Site