In 1998, Drew Barrymore headlined EVER AFTER, a revisionist and feminist take on the Cinderella tale that reset the story in medieval times and had (I kid you not) Leonardo Da Vinci acting as a sort of "fairy" godfather. The year before, author Gail Carson Levine published her first novel, Ella Enchanted, another version of the Charles Perrault story.
It took several years and a cadre of writers (Laurie Craig, Karen McCullah Lutz, Kirsten Smith, Jennifer Heath and Michele J. Wolff) to adapt Levine's book for the screen. In so doing, the filmmakers have jettisoned a lot of the original, but kept the spine. Still it is a matter of too many cooks, because the film has an uneven tone director Tommy O'Haver and his cast work overtime to smooth out. While the movie's look and tone aspire to the irreverence of the animated SHREK, ELLA ENCHANTED doesn't quite reach those heights. Still, for what it is, it is enjoyable in a goofy sort of manner.
Most of the film's charms come from its leading lady, Anne Hathaway. Having already played modern day royalty in THE PRINCESS DIARIES and enchanted New York stage audiences as Lili in the Encores! production of Carnival, Hathaway again proves to be a delight. As a child, a loopy fairy (Viveca A. Fox) has blessed (or cursed) Ella with the gift of obedience. Growing up, Ella does exactly what she is told, sometimes quite literally (like "hold your tongue"). Her seemingly nice father (Patrick Bergin) has remarried the vain Olga (the incomparable Joanna Lumley) and brought her duaghters, the social climbing Hattie (Lucy Punch) and the dim witted Olive (Jennifer Higham) into their home.
Hattie soon figures out Ella's secret and takes every opportunity to torture her stepsister. But that doesn't stop Ella from catching the eye of the vacuous Prince Charmont (Hugh Dancy), who is more interested in his status as pinup than in anything to do with ruling the kingdom. That's all well and good as far as his uncle Edgar (Cary Elwes) is concerned, for Edgar would like nothing than to remove his nephew from the line of succession to the throne.
Because Ella is something of a human rights activist -- she is seen campaigning for the rights of the underdogs like elves and ogres -- she and the Prince don't exactly see eye to eye. Still, when circumstances throw them together and they traverse various landscapes, from a elf village to the land of the giants, Charmont gets a lesson in the evils his uncle has enacted. Along the way, he falls in love with Ella and she with him. But Edgar has other plans and when he learns of Ella's "gift," he hatches a plan to rid himself of both his nephew and the young girl. This being a fairy tale, of course, everything eventually turns out all right and the film ends with a rousing rendition of the old Elton John-Kiki Dee duet "Don't Go Breaking My Heart."
Hathaway is particularly luminous as Ella and she gives a lovely performance, capturing every nuance from Ella's distress at having to tell her childhood friend (Parminda Nagra) that she cannot see her any more to her mixture of embarrassment and enjoyment at being forced to perform a song at a gathering of giants to the moments when she finally overcomes her gift.
The rest of the cast, however, is a bit all over the place. Some, like Lucy Punch and Cary Elwes, play way over the top, while others, like Aidan McArdle as an elf who aspires to be a lawyer, go for a more balanced approach. The film also wastes the talents of Minnie Driver as an inept fairy and Parminda Nagra who disappears for long stretches of this relatively short film. All in all, ELLA ENCHANTED should appeal to its target audience of young girls. And if you haven't have your fill of this tale, there's yet another modern-day version on the way starring Hilary Duff.
Rating: B Running time: 95 mins. MPAA Rating: PG for some crude humor and language