2004, PG, 100 min. Directed by Tommy O'Haver. Starring Anne Hathaway, Hugh Dancy, Cary Elwes, Aidan McArdle, Joanna Lumley, Lucy Punch, Jennifer Higham, Minnie Driver, Eric Idle, Steve Coogan, Vivica A. Fox.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., April 9, 2004
Despite being adapted from the popular children’s book by Gail Carson Levine, this all-singing, all-dancing fairy tale is all but unbearable thanks to a restrained script that reins in the comedy just when it should be escaping the paddock with ogres, elves, and The Princess Bride’s Cary Elwes in tow. In fact, Elwes, who is nicely cast here as a sort of anti-Westley (and it’s clear from his performance that he picked up a thing or two from Christopher Guest on how to play the wicked, scheming ruler of make-believe kingdoms), is one of two reasons adults might be interested in Ella Enchanted. The other is Joanna Lumley of Absolutely Fabulous fame, who also manages a worthy performance in spite of being surrounded by the sort of treacly dross usually confined to PBS in preschool hours. Her wicked stepmother is that show’s Patsy on a bile and strychnine bender, and her haughty demeanor and florid eye-rolling swagger are two of the few memorable sights in a film that too often seems calculated to be everything but be interesting. The story might be new to some, but it feels shopworn by the end of the opening credits: Young Ella of Frell (The Princess Diaries’ Hathaway) is given the "gift" of obedience by her fairy godmother (Fox), which forces her to obey any command or offhand utterance no matter how silly. When Ella grows into a young adult, Lumley’s step-harpy and her two loathsome daughters (Punch, Higham) move in, discover her secret, and embark on a campaign to make the poor, wide-eyed naif their round-the-clock maid and servant. Meanwhile, Ella begins to fall for handsome Prince Charmont (Dancy), who’s unwittingly being manipulated by his evil uncle, Sir Edgar (Elwes), who keeps the kingdom’s various nonhuman races segregated and enslaved. When Ella learns that Edgar plans to murder Charmont and usurp the throne, she sets off with the elf Slannen (McArdle) and talking book Benny (Mistry) to track down her fairy godmother and exchange her "gift" for something more useful. (Like, say, Andre the Giant. He has a posse, you know.) Ella Enchanted plays like a greatest-hits reel from lesser fairy-tale films: Its lack of genuine wit – Ella’s evil step-sisters are drawn as broadly as possible – and a surplus of silliness make this well-intentioned film, with its gushy moral center and legions of elves so boisterously, annoyingly elfin you want to take a truncheon to them, a much more cloying ride than it ought to be. Any film that squanders the talents of ex-Python Eric Idle, as this one does, suffers from a serious case of identity crisis, and Ella Enchanted, which veers wildly from juvenile comedy to romance to morality lesson, never quite finds its footing. This might not matter so much to the youngest members of the audience, but for anyone over the age of 10, it’s strictly a colorful bore.