Ella Enchanted (2004) / Fantasy-Romance
MPAA Rated: PG for some crude humor and language
Running Time: 95 min.
Cast: Anne Hathaway, Hugh Dancy, Ainan McArdle, Cary Elwes, Minnie Driver, Joanna Lumley, Patrick Bergin, Vivica A. Fox, Jennifer Higham, Parminder Nagra, Jimi Mistry, Eric Idle
Director: Tommy O'Haver
Screenplay: Laurie Craig, Karen McCullah Lutz, Kirsten Smith
Ella Enchanted is based on a prize-winning juvenile fiction novel by Gail Carson Levine, and as to whether it does justice to the book or not, I cannot say -- I haven't read it. If I were to guess, I would say that the film probably liberally changes much of the book to accommodate a more visual interpretation, and adds a heap of anachronistic pop culture references in an attempt to entertain the audiences of today, rather than try to make a classic tale to last for all time. Blessed with all of the elements to making a rewarding children's adventure, Ella ends up being a disappointing (and quite boring) spectacle of sight and sound that, while succeeding to deliver all of the bells and whistles to making its story seem rich, fails miserably on every one of its fundamentals. A solid cast of actors is given little to do, special effects dazzle and fizzle at the same time, and seemingly forced attempt at humor takes away all of the magic and mystery that a fairy tale should have.
Anne Hathaway (The Princess Diaries, Nicholas Nickleby) plays Ella of Frell, a girl with a spell placed on her as a baby by a fairy named Lucinda (Fox, Kill Bill), whereby she must obey any command given to her. This "gift" proved to be a blessing and a curse, as she could be made to stop crying in an instant, but there were many unintentional commends and figures of speech that often come into play that have put her life in jeopardy on many occasions, and there is always the potential that others will use this gift to intentionally make her life miserable, like her conniving step-sister has done. So, Ella is "off to see the fairy" to try to have the curse removed once and for all, but along the way she is aided by a handsome prince who develops feelings for her, and the prince's scheming uncle isn't about to let his plans for power be thwarted by either of them.
There is very little about Ella Enchanted that is original, and I'm not even talking about the plot elements, which are intentionally derived from classic tales like Cinderella and Shakespeare's Hamlet. I'm referring to the entire tone and methods to entertain, all of which remind you of other older and better films. The inclusion of the narrator (Idle, of Monty Python fame) immediately will have you thinking of The Princess Bride, and no doubt the producers of Ella were shooting for the same feeling, especially with the inclusion of Bride's star, Cary Elwes. In its inclusion of modern humor, or at least the attempt at it, should also be familiar to the millions who have seen Shrek, and the several fight scenes and sense of visuals, plus the pop music ending, will have you thinking they are carbon copies despite the fact that Ella is mostly live action. Obviously, both The Princess Bride and Shrek are derivative by their nature, but they succeeded in becoming favorite films for giving a new spin on some very old-fashioned stories. Ella fails because the new spins are also someone else's, never really trying to venture into any new territory of its own, and with a main tale that is as oft-told as they come, the only thing to cling to are the interesting visuals.
On that note, even the visuals are a mixed bag. There is a beauty to many of the scenes, especially the long shots that look like moving paintings. Gorgeous looking locales and stunning cinematography by John de Borman (Hamlet, Serendipity) are definitely a highlight, as well as some of the more magical CGI elements. However, there are times when the special effects look downright cheap, such as the Giants (obviously using a form of back projection) that enhance the feeling of artifice -- a big no-no for a fantasy. Director Tommy O'Haver's (Get Over It) style is rarely inspired, using camera techniques in an attempt to be hip, but never really doing so to enhance the mood or to push forward the story in any way. The costumes are lavish, but the make-up is very strange, especially for many of the creatures. These are the sorriest elves and ogres you will probably see in anything outside of an elementary school performance.
I also have to mention: the soundtrack is nauseating.
Ella Enchanted is a contradiction of so many things -- a comedy without laughs, a romance without feeling, an adventure without a sense of newness, a fantasy without anything fantastic. Only Hathaway's smile and grace keep this mish-mash of beautiful and bizarre from completely losing all appeal. Ella Enchanted starts off with so much promise to be a truly magical experience then proceeds to be as disenchanting as any fairy tale has a right to be.
©2004 Vince Leo