Ella Enchanted

Rating:

IF THE SHOE FITS

Main Cast: Anne Hathaway, Hugh Dancy

Director: Tommy O’Haver

I spent some time with the YouTubes the last few days looking at old episodes of Dancing with the Stars, doing the research necessary to make sure that I appropriately twinkle in my return to network television.  I haven’t had a recurring role on a television show in some years; not since I played Helen Lawson’s upstairs neighbor in her sit-com Booze and Broads that aired on NBC sometime back in a previous decade. If I recall correctly, we were done in in the ratings by The Brady Bunch when they added Cousin Oliver. Dancing with the Stars appears to be some sort of dancing competition show which is really not what I am looking for as I really have no competition in that department. I have sent the producers a gracious little note on my gardenia scented stationary suggesting that the title be changed to Dancing with the Star and that I be featured in all of the numbers. (Although I will have to brush up a bit on my rumba as it’s not a style that allows for tap breaks and therefore clearly inferior).

Normy is urging me to take the gig whether they change the competition format or not. He thinks it will be a perfect way to get my personal style and glamour into living rooms all over America. Plus, I will have it written into the contract that I must supply all of my own costumes and it will be incredible free advertising for my line of haute couture, GlamourPuss gowns and for my more inexpensive VickiWear which is available at Pic-n-Saves nationwide. I already have an idea for my introductory dress, all in fire engine red sateen and marabou with rhinestone inlays. When I take the floor and the lights hit me, the studio and home audiences won’t be able to see anything else.    My seamstresses Kim Dee and Mary Gee still have the patterns from the medieval princess bridesmaid gowns they made for Neely O’Hara’s wedding and they’ll be a good place to start but I am not wearing one of those cone hats. They make me look like Larraine Newman.

Visions of singing and dancing and medieval style gowns were swirling in my head when I headed off to the home theater. Flipping through what was available on Netflix, I ran across the 2004 film Ella Enchanted starring a young Anne Hathaway as the title character. The film is a sort of post-modern snarky deconstruction of the traditional Cinderella fairy tale, part of the continuing cycle of reexamination, female empowerment and rebooting of traditional stories that’s been going on for the last couple of decades. In this particular version, young Ella (who is never referred to as Cinderella despite fairy godmothers, wicked stepmothers and a handsome prince at a ball) is a resident of the kingdom of Frell, an amalgamation of Disney, the Brothers Grimm, and Terry Gilliam. As an infant, a scatterbrained and apparently drunk fairy (Vivica A. Fox) gifts Ella with obedience. Any time someone tells her to do something, she must do it without question. This leads to some problems when the characters, who speak in modern Valley Girl vernacular, say things to her like ‘Bite me’.   After young Ella grows into the coltish Hathaway, the death of her mother leads her father to remarry the nasty Dame Olga (Joanna Lumley doing a medieval variation on Patsy Stone) who brings with her two daughters (Lucy Punch, Jennifer Higham). Her new step-sisters waste no time figuring out that they can control Ella with commands and relegate her to subservient status in her own home.  All the girls in the kingdom of Frell are in love with the handsome prince Char (short for Charmant) played with tousled hair, twinkling eye and zero charisma by Hugh Dancy. Of course, when Char and Ella meet cute they are destined for each other but with a lot of rather predictable complications in the way.

Most of the complications come from a set of highly unnecessary political subplots involving Char’s royal uncle, the evil Edgar (Cary Elwes in black hair dye) who is channeling Snidely Whiplash and travels everywhere with a talking snake borrowed from the Disney version of Robin Hood. Edgar wants the kingdom for himself you see and, as part of all his nefarious plots, has banished all the non-human races from the realm on various pretexts (shades of Shrek) and it is up to Ella to unite Elves, Ogres and Giants and return them to their rightful place as peaceful subjects of the kingdom. There’s also Minnie Driver as some sort of house fairy who has no real function other than to deliver the occasional one liner and to have a love interest who is a talking book (Jimi Mistry) that becomes necessary for overly complex exposition and plot.

The film, as a discerning reader can tell from the previous paragraphs, is muddled in plot, character development and tone. There are moments that are somewhat cheeky high school updates of a classic story (a la Clueless) that almost work and the younger members of the cast are game at trying to put them over. Only Lucy Punch as the step-sister Hattie usually succeeds. There are other moments that hint at the psychological and mythopoetic underpinnings of the story. They usually don’t work. The director, Tommy O’Haver, working from a screenplay credited to no fewer than six individuals, wanders all over the place and ultimately it becomes a movie by committee, each with their own agenda working independently of the others. Ultimately, they try to cobble it all together with a Pythonesque sensibility which is driven home by the presence of Eric Idle as a completely useless narrator who keeps popping up in odd costumes and speaking in doggerel quatrains.

The one performance that consistently worked for me comes from Irish actor Aidan McArdle as an elf, Slannen, who wants to escape from his lot in life. In Frell, elves are only allowed to be entertainers (and our introduction to the elf village with dozens of them in green sequins breaking out in a lovely tap production number to Let me entertain you is a hoot) but poor Slannen wants to be a lawyer. This part of the plot seems to have been lifted from the Christmas perennial Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer. I half expected Yukon Cornelius to turn up and call one of the ogres Bumbles.   Mr. McArdle plays it dead serious, no matter how loopy the situation and injects a bit of sanity into the proceedings. Too many of the rest of the cast know their scenes are ridiculous and seem to be winking at the camera, especially when the entire cast breaks into Don’t Go Breaking My Heart as a grand finale.

I’m not quite sure for whom Ella Enchanted was made. Children will not understand the political allegories and be confused by the plot. Teens will recognize that it’s made by adults trying to be hip and failing. Adults will appreciate the good but notice that there is a lot of bad mixed in. It’s a divertissement for a rainy afternoon when you’re folding laundry, but other than that, skip it.

Poison ivy. Wooden escalators. Baby hanging. Banner ripping. Gratuitous Parminder Nagra. Drunk flying. Heroine dangled over pot. Heroine tied to a tree. Poisoned crown. Gratuitous hall of mirrors. Stabbing assassination plot. Tear away wedding gown.

To learn more about Mrs. Norman Maine see our Movie Rewind introduction and visit her complete back catalog.

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