Taking aim squarely at a society that demands that its women be obedient, or at least self-effacing, ELLA ENCHANTED, based on the classic book by Gail Carson Levine, uses the archetypal story of Cinderella to skewer convention with that most deadly and effective of weapons: humor. Theres not a trace of bile or vitriol, either, in this perfect sugar plum of a film, nor is the funny business condescending or puerile. This is a hip take on a classic tale that turns more than the just pumpkin on its head. The story, it should be noted, is based only loosely on the book, director Tommy O Haver, who brought us the equally charming and smart BILLYS HOLLYWOOD SCREEN KISS, has put his own particular puckish spin on the proceedings while still being true to the spirit, if not the letter, of the book.
The Ella of the title lives in Frell, making for a plethora of mellifluous introductions throughout. Frell is a magical place, where the better homes have a house fairy (manic Minnie Driver), and every child has a randomly selected fairy godmother who gives her charge one magical gift at birth. Unfortunately, Ellas feisty fairy godmother, Lucinda (Viveca A. Fox) is known for giving the worst presents ever the which she refuses to take back, no matter what. In this case, its the gift of obedience, which in short order reveals itself to be a more of a curse. Begging, pleading, and cajoling only makes Lucinda huffy and just a little dangerous. So Ella is at the mercy of every offhand imperative and figure of speech, even stopping in midair when told to freeze. A childhood birthday party where she is told to dig in and make of pig of herself, well, you get the picture.
No one else knows, not even Ellas father (Patrick Bergin), a kind man with a noble title but no money. After Ellas mother dies, he marries again, bringing home a rich but evil-stepmother (divine diva Joanna Lumley) and her two wretched daughters, Hattie (Lucy Punch), who nurses a profound and profoundly unwarranted vanity, and the merely dim-witted Olive (Jennifer Higham). Things go from bad to worse when Ellas father has to hit the road selling watches to make ends meet when it turns out his rich wife isnt, and Hattie figures out Ellas peculiar condition. Theres also a prince, Prince Char to be exact, and his evil uncle Edgar (Cary Elwes), the regent who murdered Chars father and is plotting something along those lines for the charming prince himself. Naturally, Ella and Char meet. Shes less than impressed by his politics, shes pro-ogre and well get to that later, while hes entranced by the one maiden in the kingdom that doesnt get weak in the knees and even softer in the head over him.
When Hattie orders Ella to tell her best friend (Parminder K. Nagra) to get lost, Ella decides to go on a quest to find her fairy godmother and plead once again to be released from her gift. Shes helped en route by a magical book that used to be Mandys boyfriend (Jimi Mistry) before one of Mandys spells went wrong, and Slannen (Aiden McArdle) a snarky elf with a chip on his shoulder about the Brothers Grimm and their propaganda about elves. Actually, in a nice jab at stereotypes, all the magical creatures in the kingdom (ogres, elves, giants and such) have that chip and another one about Uncle Edgar, in a nicely delivered metaphor on racism, declaring them second-class citizens, taking their land away, and forcing them into servitude. Elves, for example, can only be singers, jugglers, or merrymakers no matter what their personality types.
This is a first-rate cast starting with Hathaway, the camera loves her and it should. She sparkles with classic movie star glamour and a sprightly intelligence that shines even when she takes a pratfall. For contrast, McCardle is dourly ironic as the elf that dreams of a forbidden career in juris prudence, and harbors even bigger dreams of a romance that may not be exactly forbidden, but is improbable. Dancy is properly handsome, Elwes, who used to play the Prince Charming parts, exudes the proper oiliness, and Eric Idle pops up as the frowzy minstrel who narrates the proceedings in rhyme. Theyre set in a Mucha-meets-Renaissance-Fair world with some quirkily familiar touches thrown in, like Crockery Barn and an open-air mall complete with treadmill-operated escalator.
The special effects are less than stellar, though competent, particularly the conceit of having Bennies three-dimensional face appear on the cover of the book hes become, surviving even sudden changes in perspective. Yet effects dont matter when you have characters that are larger than life, even Slannen, and a script that crackles with wit and smarts. And while the film has its own moral about taking control of your own life, that bit about the effects has its own moral. Whiz-bang, state-of-the art isnt what makes a classic, such as the timeless treasure that ELLA ENCHANTED most surely is. Seventies dance music score notwithstanding.