U.S. Release Date:
April 9, 2004
Writer: Karen McCullah Lutz, Kirsten Smith
Cast: Anne Hathaway, Cary Elwes, Steve Coogan (Voice)
Running Time: 1 hour and 35 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG (for some crude humor and language)
Ella Enchanted does for Cinderella what Mike Myers did for Dr. Seuss' The Cat in the Hat: spoil a classic children's story. To say that director Tommy O'Haver (Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss) goes overboard in this campy catastrophe is too generous. O'Haver's adaptation of Gail Carson Levine's bestselling book, scripted by five writers, is more affected than enchanted.
Opening with Eric Idle's poetic narration, the audience is swept into a brilliantly colored fantasy with galloping unicorns. The introduction ends abruptly when we meet baby Ella, a fairy godmother gone wrong (Vivica A. Fox), Ella's house fairy (Minnie Driver) and Ella's middle-aged mother, who doesn't stick around for long.
Ella, grown into wide-eyed Anne Hathaway (The Princess Diaries), is cursed with a lifetime of obedience to others. Following her mother's departure, Ella's father remarries, and soon Ella is obeying humiliating orders from her evil stepsisters. Once it's apparent that the whole movie means watching Ella snap to it every time someone barks a command, the plot wears thin.
Hathaway's Ella is too strident, especially for someone so weak-willed about removing her curse. Instead, she stomps around complaining about the Kingdom's treatment of ogres. Even when making her way into the forest, where she finds elves, ogres and giants, she is easily distracted. Various characters—a talking book, a snake, an elf—are forgettable.
Ella also falls for a prince (Hugh Dancy), though the romance is hardly royal; Ella may be thrust into uncontrollable duty to others at any given moment and the device makes her as appealing as a witch's wart. Worse, when she's not serving others against her will, Ella is altruistic by choice. Director O'Haver, too busy putting on a show to notice, lets the plot run amok.
One character is poisoned and drops dead only to reappear seconds later in a song and dance routine, apparently just wounded. Musical numbers surface indiscriminately; Ella breaks into song at a pub filled with oppressed giants.
Yet, when it's time for the giants to rebel against the royal tyranny, something like two giants show up—and, despite Ella's preaching about the plight of the ogres, there appear to be three in the vast empire. Eventually, Ella finds the solution to her curse. Like the movie's musical routines, it springs from nowhere.
Ella Enchanted collapses under the excess, bearable only thanks to John de Borman's stunning cinematography, production designer Norman Garwood's inviting fantasy world, and the sole performance worth watching: Parminder Nagra (Bend it Like Beckham) as Ella's best friend. Nagra gets less screen time than the snake.
O'Haver stresses overhyped style over the slightest hint of substance. He never bothers to explain the impetus for Ella's obedience curse, which appears to be a whim. Though Ella is rated PG, its frenzied plot, pace and dialogue are not appropriate for children. Subjecting a child to such incomprehensible nonsense—death, murder and show tunes mixed with wild abandon—is a cruel punishment.
Like its name, Ella Enchanted is half-formed, and it bears no resemblance to the fairy tale Cinderella, whose gracious, gentle manner is replaced by high camp and a chip on her shoulder the size of a pumpkin.
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