Robin Clifford Laura CliffordBaby Ella of Frell, like all newborns in the kingdom, gets a special “gift” bestowed upon her by her fairy godmother, Lucinda (Viveca A. Fox). But, the party hardy fairy’s spell mandates complete obedience for Ella – to anyone and everyone. This is not a problem until many years later when grown up Ella (Anne Hathaway) learns that her widower father (Patrick Bergin) has remarried to the loathsome and selfish Dame Olga (Joanna Lumley) and she now has two equally selfish stepsisters. Ella must find a way to break the spell and, along the way, save the kingdom in “Ella Enchanted.”
I was less than thrilled with the idea of seeing “Ella Enchanted.” My previous experience viewing the film’s star was in “The Princess Diaries,” a film I thought fell on its face whenever Hathaway took center stage. It was one of those movies where the terrific supporting cast made it better than it had a right to be, thus my trepidation with this new retelling of the Cinderella fairytale. I’m glad to say that my fears were unfounded and “Ella Enchanted” is on a par with other such fairytale fantasy adventures as “The Princess Bride.”
Director Tommy O’Haver takes the very popular fairytale novel by Gail Carson Levine and brings to the screen a colorful, rousing adventure that has fairies, elves, ogres, giants, a talking snake, high intrigue, greed, banishment, slavery and, oh yeah, a happily-ever-after finale that is bound to entertain both the young and the young at heart.
Ella has been able to live her young life without having too much difficulty coping with Lucinda’s gift. “What’s inside you is stronger than any spell,” her dying mother told her when she was just a child. Ella grew up with the love and attention of her father, Sir Peter, but things are about to undergo drastic changes when he announces his remarriage and Ella meets her new mother and sisters, Hattie (Lucy Punch) and Olive (Jennifer Higham). The vain and stupid women immediately upset the household, making demands upon the kindhearted Ella that she simply cannot refuse, even giving Hattie the necklace her mother gave her. Hattie may not be too bright but she soon figures out that Ella cannot deny her every wish.
Meanwhile, handsome Prince Charmont (Hugh Dancy) is touring the kingdom that will soon be his to rule. He is coming of age and will soon take the helm of state from his uncle, Prince Regent Edgar (Cary Elwes). In this fantasy world, the prince is like a modern day rock star with his screaming throng of female admirers led by Hattie, president of the Prince Char Fan Club. The smug prince, literally, runs into Ella while evading his adoring fans and he is both taken and intrigued by this bold, intelligent young woman who isn’t bowled over by his position of power and good looks.
Ella understands, with her secret of obedience revealed, that she must find Lucinda and have the fairy godmother remove the annoying spell. Armed with a talking book named Benny (Jimi Mistri), the product of a botched spell by her nanny, amateur sorceress Mandy (Minnie Driver), she sets off on the quest that traverses the kingdom. Along the way she spies a group of young toughs making sport with a captive elf. When they refuse to stop their torment Ella takes matters into her own hands and opens a big can of wup-ass on them. After she cuts down the elf, Slannen (Aidan McArdle), they continue on their way and he explains that Sir Edgar is a cruel despot who has banished the elves from the kingdom –except as entertainers brought into the castle to sing for the regent – and has enslaved the giants to do his bidding. But, as they journey through the dense forest danger looms and they are accosted by several large and hungry ogres.
Things look pretty grim for Ella and Slannen until the prince and his men arrive to save the day. Ella sees that there is more to Char than just a pretty face and they soon become friends. She convinces the prince to join her on her journey to Giantville where she hopes to show the-soon-to-be-king the injustices invoked by his uncle on the kingdom’s non-human inhabitants. The quest eventually brings them to the castle where Char’s coronation plans are under way. But, there is intrigue in the air and Ella becomes embroiled in an assassination plot, civil rights demonstrations and the final resolution over the “gift” that has plagued her life. She will, too, if you haven’t guessed, find true love.
Anne Hathaway is perfect in the role of pretty, smart, resourceful and, especially, kind-hearted Ella of Frell. The young actress has matured into an attractive young woman who has developed real acting talent, a flare for comedy and the physical ability to play the strong-minded title character. When Ella must fulfill the requests/orders of others there is a hidden strength beneath her look of capitulation and you know that she will overcome what may. And, the young star proves to have a pretty creditable set of pipes when she belts out a song – Queen’s “Someone to Love” – at a Giantville wedding.
Hugh Dancy also fits that bill as the charming Prince Charmont. There is a nice chemistry between the attractive leads as they go from adversaries – he’s a monarchist and she is a pro-ogre activist – to becoming friends to falling in love. Dancy puts a nice arc on his performance, starting out as a bit of a buffoon but proving his mettle as a fair and just leader by the film’s end.
The supporting cast is an embarrassment of riches with Cary Elwes doing a terrific job as the conniving, murderous despot who has designs on the throne and who will stop at nothing to get it. The actor gives a moustache twirling bad guy performance and appears to be having a great deal of fun in the process. Aiden McArdle is also amusing as Slannen, an elf who does not want to spend his life entertaining humans but wants to be a lawyer and fight for elfin equal rights. Joanna Lumley puts the right spin on her wicked stepmother character, Dame Olga, and Lucy Punch and Jennifer Higham do well as ambitious and none-to-bright Hattie and simple, kleptomaniac Olive. Steve Coogan gives slitheringly sinister voice to Regent Edgar’s hissing sidekick, a talking snake named Heston. Eric Idle also helps raise the bar as the story’s Narrator.
The imaginative, lively fairytale adventure is coupled with slick production design, costumes and makeup that help provide a convincing fantasy world. Norman Garwood’s inventively creates a fairytale kingdom that has the look and feel of a medieval land but with modern characteristics like escalators, shopping malls and medieval suburban housing developments. Costume, by Ruth Myers, maintains the Cinderella fantasy with flowing gowns for the women and jerkins and knee high boots for the men. John de Borman lends his lensing skills to bring out the fantasy world with its bright colors and funky locales.
“Ella Enchanted” is definitely targeted at the young femme crowd and will strike an effective chord with teen girls. But, there is such intelligence to the story, a captivating and likable performance by Hathaway and the rest and lots of whimsical and funny creatures that should make this an appealing diversion for just about anyone – if you’re young at heart. I give it a B+..
When Ella of Frell (Anne Hathaway, "The Princess Diaries") is born her mother and nanny (Minnie Driver, "Owning Mahowney") try, and fail, to save her from receiving the gift of Fairy Lucinda (Vivica A. Fox, "Kill Bill"). Years later, Lucinda's gift of obedience becomes a real burden when it is discovered not only by her stepsister Hattie (Lucy Punch, "Greenfingers"), the president of Prince Charmont's (Hugh Dancy, "Black Hawk Down") fan club, but by Prince Regent Edgar (Cary Elwes, "The Cat's Meow"), who decides that the perfect weapon to get rid of his nephew is an "Ella Enchanted."
This anachronistic Cinderella with a twist displays the same warped humor and fairy tale awareness of "Shrek." Hathaway has improved leaps and bounds since her "Diary" days, dropping the mugging for a more naturally energetic charm - and she can sing!
Monty Pythoner Eric Idle's presence as a rhyming narrator is the first hint that "Ella Enchanted" will be treated with good-natured irreverence for the fairy tale format. Ella grows up literally obeying such commands as 'Bite me!' but it isn't until her widowed father remarries that anyone seems to notice. The arrival of her new stepmother, Dame Olga (Joanna Lumley, "Absolutely Fabulous"), in a carriage tricked up like a New York checker cab, means big changes for Ella. Her stepsister Hattie is hideous, immediately making demands and lording it about, behavior which is copied by her younger, dumber sister Olive (Jennifer Higham). When Ella and Hattie are partnered in a debate at Frell Community College, Hattie figures out what everyone else has missed - that Ella cannot not obey - and uses it to her advantage, beginning with some shoplifting at the Frell Galleria.
Ella disdains Hattie's obsession over Prince Char, seeing him as politically corrupt rather than hunky. When Prince Char comes to town to open the new Galleria mall, hundreds of screaming girls are their to greet him, with Hattie bearing a banner proclaiming 'Prince Char Rules!' In stark contrast are Ella and her best friend Areida (Parminder K. Nagra, "Bend It Like Beckham"), who use the opportunity to protest the enslavement of giants and poor treatment of ogres. Hattie demands that Ella return home and as she makes her way she bumps into Char, running from his fans. Ella's contempt intrigues the prince and soon Ella's not the only one who is enchanted. Eventually Ella learns that the Prince is simply naive, but when her political influence begins to take hold, the Prince Regent decides they must be gotten rid of.
Hathaway is put through her paces, not only having a go at Queen's "Somebody to Love," but delivering 'rabbit punches' and kickboxing `a la "Shrek's" Princess Fiona. (One could pick a small screenwriting nit that Ella's obedience gift shouldn't necessarily enable her to perform martial arts and freeze suspended mid-air.) Her many adventures traveling towards the palace include rescuing an elf (Aidan McArdle) who wants to become a lawyer (all elves must only perform as entertainers under Edgar's administration) and almost being eaten by ogres. She's saved from that fate by Char and Dancy and Hathaway exhibit lovely chemistry together. Dancy shows the influence of a good woman, moving from amused apathy towards leadership. "Ella Enchanted" should prove a good springboard for the handsome young actor (and, having placed two princesses, Hathaway has wisely signed up for Ang Lee's next film).
Elwes delivers a conniving villain, ably assisted by Steve Coogan ("24 Hour Party People"), who provides the voice of his advisor Heston, a CGI-created snake which wraps itself around Edgar's scepter. Lumley keeps her face screwed up like everything stinks but her, with Punch and Higham accessorizing her greed with their own unbecoming traits. The rest of the supporting cast are only required to play one note, with Driver a ditz and Jimi Mistry ("The Guru") a talking head inside a book. Most underutilized are Patrick Bergin ("Sleeping with the Enemy") as Ella's apparently clueless father and Parminder Nagra who seems to have wandered onto the set and joined in.
Director Tommy O'Haver ("Get Over It!," "Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss") isn't always successful getting his supporting players properly into the mix and he seems to have let a point about discrimination regarding Nagra's character get buried. He did, however, set screenwriters Laurie Craig, Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith to work 'modernizing' Gail Carson Levine's award winning novel. Among their innovations are the Frell Galleria, complete with wood planked, hand-cranked 'escalators,' Medieval Teen magazine and Bat-Ox treatments at the IV Seasons hotel. Production designer Norman Garwood ("Brazil") based the palace city of Lamia on New York City's skyline. Art Direction by Anna Rackard ("The Medallion") combines the cozy, flower-draped cottages of fairy lore with more modern concepts like closet space.
"Ella Enchanted" is not only sweet, but delivers strong messages about self-reliance and political activism. It's a terrific film for young girls and its humor is cutting edge enough to engage the rest of the family too.
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