Given the recent glut of mediocre computer-animated movies, it’s only just that the New Year should start with yet another. The only difference between this one and most of the others is that it’s not about a bunch of furry animals; instead it’s in the “Shrek” mode of fractured fairy-tales. But it’s more like “Hoodwinked!” than the DreamWorks franchise—and even beside that far lesser film it comes over as awfully wan and tedious. As one of the main characters in “Happily N’Ever After”—the prince’s servant Rick, voiced by Freddie Prinze, Jr., who also narrates—says early on to the girl he loves from afar (Cinderella, voiced by Prinze’s real-life squeeze Sarah Michelle Gellar), “Sorry to be such a disappointment.” The words certainly fit the movie.
The kernel of the plot fashioned by Rob Moreland is that Cinderella’s wicked stepmother Frieda (Sigourney Weaver) gets hold of the magic staff wielded by the wizard (George Carlin) who sees to it that all of Fairyland’s tales always turn out happily and uses it to give villains like her the upper hand. Ultimately it’s up to Rick not only to persuade Cinderella that she should love him rather than the self-absorbed Prince Humperdink (Patrick Warburton) but to work with her and the wizard’s goofy assistants Munk (Wallace Shawn) and Mambo (Andy Dick)—who lost the staff in the first place—to outmaneuver Frieda and restore right order to their world.
There’s the germ of a clever idea here, but Moreland certainly doesn’t develop it. His script begins in a bland fashion, with tepid jokes voiced by Prinze and gags that strike one as watered-down Disney. But once Cinderella and her new-found allies find their way to the Seven Dwarfs, depicted here as wild-eyed militiamen, with trolls and witches in hot pursuit, the miniscule degree of charm the picture’s had to that point entirely evaporates. As Rick’s said at another point, in that interminable narration, “I hate to tell you, but it gets worse.” Again, the words are almost surrealistically correct.
To be fair, there are a couple of clever bits here. One involves the repeated mispronunciation of Cinderella’s name by her forgetful Fairy Godmother (Lisa Kaplan). And another concerns Rumpelstiltskin (Michael McShane), who gets the baby this time around but is so softened by the responsibility of caring for it that he becomes a less than stellar evil lieutenant to Frieda. But that’s about it.
Compared to the classiest examples of the genre, moreover, the animation here is decidedly second-rate. Coming from the same outfit (Vanguard Animation) responsible for 2005’s pallid “Valiant,” it looks threadbare, with unimpressive backgrounds and character figures that are stiff, ungainly and inexpressive. As to the voice talent, the distinctive tones of Shawn and Dick work best, even if their characters are run-of-the-mill goof-offs, and Warburton continues his streak of arrogant oafs to reliable effect. But Gellar and Prinze are pretty anonymous, and though Weaver throws herself into things with abandon, exhibiting a full-throated cackle, Frieda never challenges Disney’s notorious villainesses. Her svelte figure certainly rivals that of Jessica Rabbit, though.
Whenever I write harshly of a movie aimed at children, I’m invariably criticized by some readers who say, “It’s only a kid’s movie,” as though youngsters should be content with any junk that’s fobbed off on them. Sorry, but I can’t agree. A bad movie is a bad movie, whatever its target audience, and children aren’t stupid. Yes, pictures directed to them should be judged not against “Citizen Kane,” but against good examples of children’s movies; but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be judged at all. Compared to the best movies of its kind (“Shrek”), “Happily N’Ever After” is insipid. Compared to mediocre ones (“Hoodwinked!”), it’s not very good, either.