Ella Enchanted

(2004) ** Pg
95 min. Miramax. Directors: Tommy O'Haver, Paul Jennings. Cast: Anne Hathaway, Hugh Dancy, Cary Elwes, Vivica A. Fox, Joanna Lumley.

Ella Enchanted was obviously greenlit with the directive "Bring me a live-action Shrek for preteen girls!" (The Princess Bride and Ever After also leap to mind). At first, the movie is a bit dazzling and not a little charming, but the cutesy modern colloquialisms and generally repetitive fairy-tale gags quickly grow stale. At least Ella Enchanted serves (with a smile) a blunt metaphor for female self-empowerment in a culture still largely clinging to the assumption of male domination.

At the outset, Eric Idle's welcome presence as a narrator given to rhyming couplets accompanies an awesome CGI "helicopter shot" over a medieval village. The narrator warns of "the perils of choice we face in our youth," just before we meet young Ella. Despite the protestations of Ella's nursemaid (Minnie Driver) and Ella's mother, Ella's fairy godmother (Vivica A. Fox) gives the child a gift that's more of a curse: uncontrollable obedience. Clearly, the film will ultimately prove Ella's mother to be right in saying, "What's inside you is stronger than any spell." After all, as another character opines, "Nobody should be forced to do things they don't want to do."

The perverse premise of Ella's slavish obedience leads to a seemingly endless string of "robot" jokes, in which the grown Ella (Anne Hathaway of The Princess Diaries) takes every command literally ("Hold your tongue, Ella": uh oh!). Too many cooks—by which I mean the five screenwriters who unmake Gail Carson Levine's novel—threaten to spoil this soup. Unfortunately, the most notable ingredients are annoying remakes of pop songs: "Strange Magic," "Walking on Sunshine," and "Respect" among them. Wading into the deep end of the American Idol age, director Tommy O'Haver ("Get Over It," "Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss") shoehorns in opportunities for the stars to warble "Somebody to Love" and the big finish "Don't Go Breaking My Heart"—a.k.a. "You Will Succumb to the Good Cheer of This Movie, Dammit!". Supporting players include evil stepmother Joanna Lumley, best friend Parminder K. Nagra (Bend It Like Beckham), Steve Coogan (24 Hour Party People) as the voice of a snake, and—wait a tick!--Heidi Klum as a giantess?

In the plus column, O'Haver convinced Cary Elwes to subvert his heroism in The Princess Bride as Ella Enchanted's be(k)nighted baddie, and the politicization of fairy tales is good for a couple of chuckles. Besides the feminist slant, talk turns to free enterprise based on subjugation of elves and enslavement of ogres ("Say No to Ogrecide!" a protest sign touts). Sadly, too much of the movie is flatly shot and edited and, fatally, the leads lack personality. Hathaway's big eyes, big lips, and big teeth become a pretty but vacant mask, and Hugh Dancy as Prince "Char" likewise offers little. For the sake of the silly plot, the screenwriters must skirt the obvious short-term solutions to Ella's enchantment issues (like letting her or her allies simply correct with a new thought what she's been forced to do). Ella Enchanted is perfectly fine for kids, but seriously dodgy for adults.

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