Note well that Ella is enchanted, not enchanting. The heroine of this fractured fairy tale, which tries to be a sort of live-action sendup of the “Shrek” sort, may be under the influence of magic, but with the possible exception of girls twelve and under, who will probably have read Gail Carson Levine’s popular “young persons” book on which it’s based, viewers aren’t likely to fall under its spell.
“Ella Enchanted” is basically a goofy version of the “Cinderella” story (the ultimate source, it appears, of virtually every picture targeted at young girls these days). Anne Hathaway plays the title character, a girl living in the medieval-with-modern-touches village of Freel; her mother is a “Bewitched” sort of fairy, and her father, Peter, a nobleman down on his luck (nondescript Patrick Bergin, who once had a career). Another, rather inept fairy, Lucinda (Vivica A. Fox)–the story’s “godmother”–grants the infant Ella the gift of “obedience,” which means that the poor girl has to do whatever anybody tells her to. After her mother dies, she and her dad live a relatively happy if penurious existence, even if Ella is an ostentatiously progressive sort, inveighing against the discriminatory policies of the royal regent Edgar (Cary Elwes), for which she also blames his handsome nephew (and imminent heir) Prince Charmont (Hugh Dancy), a teen-idol sort of hunk adored by almost all other girls her age. But things change when widower Peter marries a haughty widow (Joanna Lumley), who brings along with her two nasty daughters, the elder of whom, Hattie (Lucy Punch), discovers Ella’s secret and uses it against her. This causes Ella to run away and seek out Lucinda, who alone–we’re told–can rescind the “obedience” albatross. Along the way she’s accompanied by Benny (Jimmy Mistry), a talking book given her by the family’s loyal maid Mandy (Minnie Driver), and not only befriends a comic-relief elf, Slannen (Aidan McSrdle), but is rescued from hungry trolls by Charmont, who proves to be–not unexpectedly–a good-natured fellow, who’s shocked, shocked by his uncle’s mistreatment of giants, elves and trolls. The pair naturally fall in love, but their happiness is threatened by Ella’s unhappy affliction, which is used by Charmont’s enemies as a means of getting rid of the young man before he can be crowned as the new king.
“Ella” is, one supposes, intended as a fable on the importance of making choices for oneself–a kind of prepubescent “Clockwork Orange,” so to speak–but any instructive power it might have along those lines, in addition to any charm it might have possessed, is buried under reams of cuteness and silly anachronism. The big joke here is that this medieval-looking kingdom is thoroughly modern in its attitudes and many aspects of its appearance (celebrities are hounded by crazed fans, there are malls with “escalators” moved by human power, and of course Ella represents a proto-feminist, politically progressive stance), but it’s a gag that runs out of gas quickly. That leaves the audience with a host of irritating characters (some, like Lucinda, because of their stupidity, others, like Slannen, because they try too hard to be funny, and still others, like Uncle Edgar, because they’re such broad, badly-played caricatures), that simply don’t generate much amusement. One might also ask, in a picture aimed at young girls, why there’s such a streak of bathroom humor–a joke about “puking” in one case, a fart gag elsewhere, and some totally unnecessary shots of gigantic butt cracks (are the makers trying to appeal to the target audience’s younger brothers?) And periodically a song-and-dance is inserted, always contemporary in style. This was a bad enough idea when it was employed in “A Knight’s Tale,” and in the case it’s pervasive, culminating in an awful final number. Further demerits for being perhaps the tenth movie in recent years to use “Walking on Sunshine” on the soundtrack.
Hathaway is energetic, wide-eyed and slightly goofy as Ella–too much so, in fact, as though she were afraid not to keep things moving along in the face of slight material. (She comes across rather like a younger version of Julia Roberts–a comparison many may take as a compliment, though that’s not my intent.) Meanwhile Dancy does what he can with the pleasant but strangely obtuse figure of the prince, but many of the others–Elwes, McArdle, Fox–play to the gallery with unfortunate effect. Eric Idle appears throughout as a troubadour-narrator, mouthing rhyming platitudes so poor that one can only hope a fat paycheck made up for the indignity. The production makes use of models and CGI effects to reasonably good effect, though some of the images (of elves and giants, for instance) are badly managed. (The evil snake Heston, voiced by Steve Coogan, is nicely done, though.) Tommy O’Haver’s direction could have used more discipline; there are too many slack moments, and too many over-the-top performances. (It doesn’t show much improvement over his work on “Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss.”)
So “Ella” is far from enchanting. But not to worry; you can always rent Rob Reiner’s “The Princess Bride,” a movie that does this sort of thing to much better effect, and “Shrek 2” is on its way.