Well, another Friday, another vigilante flick and/or movie about an ordinary young woman who becomes an enchanted princess. Ella Enchanted, it goes without saying, is the latter. But it might drive you to the former. Certainly the least magical of this new wave of princess-to-be movies, Ella is a potent reminder of how difficult it is to make a hip fairy tale for the entire family. For a while there, it looked quite easy. I admit I took for granted the skill with which Shrek incorporated pop sensibilities into storybook legends. A Knight's Tale segued seamlessly from medieval ballroom dancing into David Bowie tunes. Even Drew Barrymore and her unmistakable Southern California dippiness worked a fine match for Ever After's take on Cinderella.
They gave you a new appreciation of the originals while offering a little comment on them. But Ella is Cinderella dragged through a story that's been unnecessarily complicated with issues of ethnic cleansing and racism. Giants and ogres and elves have been segregated from society; the giants actually live in concentration camps under a system of economic slavery.
Which sounds very ominous, until we reach the final song-and-dance number, Elton John's "Don't Go Breaking My Heart." Then none of it matters; it's not unlike that moment in dopey old beach movies where Frankie and Annette break into a song that has nothing to do with anything.
This is a fairy tale movie impatient with fairy tale conventions. Animated Disney features aside, between the coming of the baby boomer generation and the fall of Gen X, what made fairy tales magical lost its appeal to Hollywood. Or at least that's the perception you take away from these revisionist flicks. Or maybe it's just simple economics: The older kids get, the less they want to spend time with their childhood things, and the lower the box office expectations. But if you pat the audience on its back for seeing through the naivete of fairy tales, and if you can do this in a way that sends their nostalgia into overdrive, you'll reach a very broad audience, indeed. Moviegoers get to have their gingerbread man and eat him too.
Ella doesn't seem an obvious candidate for this high concept sheen. It's an adaptation of a beloved grade school bestseller by Gail Carson Levine that is not very nostalgic, but does have a distinctly modern attitude toward fairy tale basics. When she's born, Ella is granted the gift of obedience by her fairy godmother. Of course it turns out to be more of a curse than a gift. Any command given to Ella ("Go to bed," "Step on that elf") must be obeyed, and it rarely takes long for enemies to exploit her impulse to do whatever she's told. The book's modern twist is that Ella doesn't rely on a prince to teach her the importance of self-worth or the art of saying "No." She takes matters into her own hands. The prince becomes both her boyfriend and equal.
This is a worthy twist for a fairy tale - one that landed Levine's book multiple awards and a ravenous preteen fan base that debated on the Internet every new tidbit about this adaptation the way Harry Potter fans sweat their details. My guess is they're going to be disappointed. At the screening I attended, a Detroit elementary school class, invited by Miramax, lost patience 20 minutes in and gradually created an endless back-and-forth exodus between their seats and the bathroom and the popcorn stand. I sympathized. The movie, directed by Tommy O' Haver (Get Over It), takes the book's updated sensibility to depressing extremes and winds up less than ordinary.
It features one of those medieval movie worlds that's been Shrekified, and loaded up with anachronisms that get less fun the more they get piled on. Ella sets out to find her fairy godmother (Vivica A. Fox) with the help of an elf who wants to become a lawyer. They travel in horse-drawn yellow cabs. There's an arrest for FWI (flying while intoxicated). They make allusions to Rodney King and O.J. Simpson. There's even a hand-cranked escalator down at the mall, where Ella, more politicized than in the book, goes to protest the appearance of Prince Charmont (Hugh Dancy), a Medieval Teen cover boy whose scheming uncle (Cary Elwes) engineered the kingdom's policy of medieval apartheid for its population of giants, elves, and ogres.
All this might sound clever, but it's played so broadly, with such forced charm, the story feels secondary to that cleverness. You practically feel the heat of flop sweat on O'Haver as he falls back on musical numbers that add nothing but an Electric Light Orchestra or Queen ballad to the mix. (And third graders love ELO, after all.) The special effects are uniformly cheap, computer generated, and gaudy. The seams between the real world and the digital one fray in every direction - though not as badly as the seams in the plot.
About that curse.
What exactly are the rules? Ella Enchanted never explains them and part of the fun of fairy tales are learning the laws that define them. The film stars the princess-to-be who set off the current princess cycle, Anne Hatahaway, the almond-eyed princess of The Princess Diaries, and star of the upcoming Princess Diaries 2. She's pleasant to look at and kind of blah. Same goes for the prince. I did like one scene: she has a musical number where she's commanded to serenade the giants and starts to get into it. But my problem, and it's not a small one when filmmakers take pains to rub their glibness in your face, is why she can't just command herself to do the opposite. Or perhaps ask an ogre to command her to do the opposite. No one would want to live like that. But maybe she can put in for medieval disability.