WFTB Score: 8/20
The plot: Leaving behind her wicked stepmother and snotty stepsisters, unhappy Ella sets off in search of Lucinda, the fairy who gave her the ‘gift’ of obedience, to lift the spell. Though she acquires friends on her journey, including the dishy Prince Charmont, she also becomes the enemy of Char’s uncle, Sir Edgar, who’s ruling the kingdom with a talking snake and an iron fist.
Being blessed with a fairy godmother might sound brilliant, but it can have unfortunate consequences. For example, Ella of Frell (Anne Hathaway) is given the gift of obedience by reckless fairy Lucinda (Vivica A. Fox), which means that she has to do everything people command her to do. When Ella’s stepmother (Joanna Lumley) and stepsisters Hattie and Olive (Lucy Punch and Jennifer Higham) use this to ruin her friendship with Areida (Parminda Nagra), Ella decides enough is enough and heads off to find Lucinda, armed only with her wits and a gift from fairy Mandy, a magic book which can reveal Lucinda’s whereabouts – and also has Mandy’s boyfriend Benny (Jimi Mistry) trapped inside.
On the way, Ella meets up with aspirational elf Slannen (Aidan McArdle) who aims to be a lawyer. However, all is not well in the kingdom: interim ruler Edgar (Cary Elwes) and his serpentine accomplice Heston (voiced by Steve Coogan) have banned elves from any job bar entertaining, while the land’s giants have been enslaved. Escaping from his adoring fan club, rightful heir Prince Charmont (Hugh Dancy) is captivated by Ella and tries to help her in her quest; he also discovers what’s rotten in the kingdom, and sets about righting the wrongs. It won’t be easy, though, because Edgar’s keen on power and will exploit anything – including Ella’s ‘gift’ – to keep hold of the crown.
By and large, it’s vitally important to consider movies on their own merits rather than merely comparing them to similar films. That becomes difficult to stick to when looking at Ella Enchanted, which is so reminiscent of so many other films that to assess what’s unique about it would only take a couple of sentences. For a start, it’s yet another telling of the extremely well-worn Cinderella story, which had been told in a fresh and innovative way a few years previously in Ever After. The twist here is Ella’s curse of obedience, though this is simply a highly literal take on doing what she’s told, and doesn’t add much to the tale beyond making the heroine her own worst enemy and providing a few gags (“freeze”, “grin and bear it”, “hop to it”).
There is, of course, no rule that you can’t tell a story again within a certain time period – indeed, the generally pleasant A Cinderella Story came out the same year; however, by sticking resolutely in the realm of the traditional fairy tale, this film can’t help but invite comparisons to other movies. For example, there’s Shrek, from which there are a number of pretty obvious lifts (Benny’s face in the book, Ella’s fighting skills). Or there’s The Princess Bride; while the thought is undoubtedly suggested by the appearance of Cary Elwes, some of the similarities are unmistakeable, not least the fact that Edgar is very closely modelled on Count Rugen, right down to the beard.
The problem is, none of Ella Enchanted’s five screenwriters are a William Goldman, Ted Elliott or Terry Rossio. Where they produced smart, inventive, irreverent takes on traditional stories, Ella Enchanted feels as though it’s been written by committee, with disappointingly bland results. There’s nothing very interesting about Slannen and his dream to be a lawyer, or his relationship with Heidi Klum’s giantess; nor is Heston very hissable, ironically, despite being one of the better visual effects on display (there’s a lot of green screen used, and little of it used well).
Crucially, the film is never quite sure whether it’s deconstructing fairy tales or trying to construct a new one; whatever, the mediocre writing doesn’t allow either approach to take a decent hold (tellingly, Gail Carson Levine, author of the source novel, all but disowned the movie). “Flying While Intoxicated”? Ho bleeding ho. Eric Idle pops up from time to time as narrator, but can’t liven up such uninspired material.
Nonetheless, the film works in one very important aspect, namely Anne Hathaway’s performance in the title role. As she did in The Princess Diaries, Hathaway manages to bring a warm down-to-earth ordinariness to the part, combining strength of character with physical comedy, providing a role model for children whilst – let’s not deny it – giving adults something to look at.
Hathaway makes the film more than bearable, her performance of Queen’s Somebody to Love a particular highlight. And it’s just as well, given colourless performances from Dancy, McArdle, Mistry and others (Parminder Nagra is given practically nothing to do, so we’ll let her off); the normally excellent Jim Carter is also thoroughly miscast as an ogre, though Lumley, Punch and Elwes at least understand that they’re playing in a panto and ham it up accordingly.
It would be harsh to criticise Ella Enchanted too much for lacking originality. After all, it does have a USP of sorts, and what else can you do with the Cinderella legend – or fairy tales in general – apart from chuck in a few more fairies, ogres, giants and so on? However, there are many more accomplished and better written film treatments of fairy tales available, not least the ones from which this movie takes so much inspiration. This is watchable, particularly for younger viewers, but mostly due to the enchanting charms of its leading lady.