Toon Talk: Ella Enchanted
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Disney Film & Video Reviews by Kirby C. Holt
From the moment when the familiar New York skyline of the Miramax logo transforms into a fantasyland castle, you know that this won't be the typical Oscar-bating angst-fest usually offered by that company. Instead, Ella Enchanted is more along the lines of what Disney, Miramax's parent company, usually serves up: a frolicking fairy tale filled with picture book vistas, fantastical characters, a splashy production number or two, and a heroine and hero destined to live happily ever after.
Based on the award-winning novel by Gail Carson Levine, Ella is a rich amalgam of such childhood favorites past as Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella, with a decidedly modern sensibility. But unlike such previous fractured fairy tales as The Princess Bride and Shrek, this film doesn't wear its glibness on its sleeve: filled with cheeky anachronisms and A Knight's Tale-like uses of contemporary pop songs, Ella manages to entertain through the pure charming enthusiasm of its storytelling and performances, somehow avoiding the potholes that often litter such an attempt to blend the new with the ye olde.
The story begins, once upon a time, with the birth of Ella to a simple family in the land of Frell. Cared for by her parents and her ‘house fairy' Mandy (Tarzan's Minnie Driver), the infant is visited by foolish fairy godmother Lucinda (Kill Bill's Vivica A. Fox), who bestows upon her the gift of obedience: in other words, Ella is compelled to do whatever she is told, regardless of her own wishes. Ella grows up (into the form of the still-beguiling Anne Hathaway of The Princess Diaries fame) with this curse, and promises her dying mother never to tell anyone about it. But when her kindly father (former Robin Hood Patrick Bergin) is forced to marry the shrewish Dame Olga (James and the Giant Peach's Joanna Lumley), her two spoiled daughters, the conniving Hattie (Lucy Punch) and the doltish Olive (Jennifer Higham), soon discover Ella's secret, and plot to use it to their own selfish advantage.
Meanwhile, all is not well in the kingdom, as the reigning king, the Prince Regent Edgar (another former Robin Hood, Cary Elwes, in a medieval evil role opposite his Princess Bride hero) has banished all non-human creatures (such as elves and giants) to the outer provinces, where he has secretly enslaved them. (In a nod to Disney's own version of Robin Hood, Edgar has as his adviser the Sir Hiss-ish Heston, a computer animated serpent voiced by Steve Coogan, soon to be seen in the flesh as Phileas Fogg in the upcoming update of Around the World in 80 Days.) In a Scar-like move, Edgar killed his own brother, the true king, and told his nephew, Prince Charmont (Heath Ledger look-alike Hugh Dancy), that it was a pack of monstrous ogres that murdered his father.
As would be expected, the enchanting Ella and the hunky Prince Char meet, and he is immediately smitten with a damsel who does not swoon at his every gesture. But Ella doesn't return the attentions of this prince charming, as she soon sets out on a quest to find Lucinda, the only being who can reverse her curse of obedience. Joining her in her mission is Mandy's boyfriend Benny (Jimi Mistry), who the fairy accidentally turned into a book (albeit a very useful one), and Slannen (Aidan McArdle), a truculent elf who wants to be a lawyer instead of what all elves are forced to be in Edgar's kingdom, an entertainer. Reluctantly, Ella allows Char to help her as well, and the expected storybook love blossoms. But when Edgar himself discovers the truth about Ella, he schemes to have her do his dirty work for him, insuring his place as king.
Director Tommy O'Hare (who also helmed the little-seen, underrated Get Over It) handles all these bustling plot lines with ease and a loose pace, and folds in the modern touches so they (mostly) don't draw an over-attention to themselves, and the whole production displays a handsome, fanciful look, from the lush cinematography to the gilded production design and the inventive use of colors in the costumes. As one would expect by a script from a trio of women (Laurie Craig and Legally Blonde's Karen McCullah Lutz and Kristen Smith), the film is heavy on the female-empowerment that all reconstructed fairy tales must have these days, but for once its not distracting.