Ella Enchanted aims to be a gleefully anachronistic fairy tale with a clever sense of humor, a la Shrek. But in comparing the two (and in keeping with the archery metaphor), one sees the latter as hitting the bullseye and the former as taking out some poor spectator in the audience.
The enchanted Ella of the title (Anne Hathaway) is a strong-minded young woman with a most unfortunate malady. At birth, her fairy godmother Lucinda (Vivica A. Fox) gave her the "gift" of obedience; no matter what she is told to do, Ella must obey. For years, Ella has managed to keep her forced obedience a secret, but it isn't long before her wicked stepsisters learn her secret and start to use it against her. It's after this that Ella finally decides enough is enough. She knows she must seek out Lucinda and demand that she take back the gift. To get to her magical godmother, though, Ella must travel through a land of elves, ogres, and giants, all displeased at having been mistreated by the evil Prince Edgar (Cary Elwes).
Luckily, Ella comes upon a few comrades to aid her in her quest: Slannen (Aidan McArdle), an elf who wants to be a lawyer; Benny (Jimi Mistry), a man trapped inside a book; and Prince Charmont (Hugh Dancy), Edgar's nephew, who opens up to the magical creatures' pleas for acceptance and, in the process, falls in love with Ella.
While the "fairy tale with an edge" approach worked wonders for Shrek, it makes Ella Enchanted look like a cheap rip-off. The film is based upon an acclaimed children's novel, but those who haven't read it might get the feeling that either the book is overrated or the filmmakers have truly missed the target. Instead of adhering to an easygoing approach, letting the jokes come on their own time and the satire work its way through the story, Ella Enchanted feels the need to force everything, apparently in case someone in the audience coughs and misses something.
Most of the film's elements are recycled over and over again to the point of annoyance. Some are even irritating from the start. Take, for instance, Ella's curse. It's a crucial part of the story, as drama often results from Ella being forced to do things she doesn't want to do. But for the most part, director Tommy O'Haver (Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss) plays up the comedic side of the coin to create scene upon scene where Ella finds herself in goofy situations. When Ella is told to "hop to it," she hops around. When someone says, "Hold your tongue," Ella does precisely that. If that doesn't sound like the pinnacle of amusement, chances are you won't enjoy the 150 other times Ella Enchanted beats the joke into the ground. Within the span of a few minutes, Ella's forced obedience goes from important plot device to tired running gag.
And there are other grating elements that pop up throughout Ella Enchanted. The movie's main theme of doing what your heart tells you to do and not what anyone else does is overshadowed by an ill-fitting, anti-discrimination message, with Ella finding herself fighting for the rights of fairy tale creatures to co-exist with humans. The anachronistic style, which puts malls and escalators in a medieval setting, is another bland joke that gets old fast. The slapdash visual style of the picture might fool the little kids it's aimed at, but adults are likely to find this look an ugly distraction rivaled only by the garish production design of Scooby-Doo 2. The fantasy land of Ella Enchanted appears thrown together overnight, with such sights as a nightclub and a work camp for giants obviously needing a polish.
Anne Hathaway (from 2001's family fantasy The Princess Diaries) is a charming actress who plays Ella with plenty of life and spark, but she can only carry the film so far before she buckles under the disappointment of her fellow actors. Dancy is a fairly bland male lead; Elwes gives a terrific, scenery-chewing performance, but the character feels like another unnecessary addition to the plot; Minnie Driver is wasted as Ella's "household fairy," as is Bend It Like Beckham's Parminder K. Nagra as Ella's best friend; and Vivica A. Fox's Lucinda comes off as terribly irritating (the character, not the underrated actress).
As is often the case with films like Ella Enchanted, it all boils down to whether or not the kids will have fun. Here, they most likely will; the film's goofy sense of humor is right up their alley, and the colorful production design will keep their eyes captivated.But for viewers who don't fit into Ella Enchanted's target audience, the flick will be an ugly duckling that only gets uglier as it goes along.
MY RATING: * 1/2 (out of ****)
(Released by Miramax and rated "PG" for some crude humor and language.)
Review also posted at www.ajhakari.com.