Ella Enchanted (2004)

2004, Miramax. Directed by Tommy O’Haver. Anne Hathaway, Hugh Dancy, Cary Elwes, Minnie Driver, Vivica A. Fox, Joanna Lumley, Patrick Bergin, Jimi Mistry, Eric Idle, Parminder K. Nagra.

Decent Films Ratings

Overall
Recommendability
?B
Artistic/
Entertainment Value
?
Moral/Spiritual
Value (+4/-4)
? +0
Age
Appropriateness
?Kids & Up

External Ratings

MPAA ?NR USCCB ?NR

Content advisory: An instance of mild profanity and a few crude expressions; mild sensuality; mild action violence; brief comic intoxication.

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Ella Enchanted (DVD)

Gail Carson Levine, Ella Enchanted (book)

From a National Catholic Register review

By Steven D. Greydanus

When Gail Carson Levine set out to retell the story of Cinderella in her first novel for children, she realized that the heroine of the classic fairy tale was "too much of a goody-two-shoes" for her tastes, and concluded that there had to be a reason for Cinderella’s submissiveness to her her wicked stepmother and stepsisters.

Borrowing a page from Sleeping Beauty, therefore, Levine came up with the central dramatic conceit of her Newbery Honor-award winning book, Ella Enchanted: From her infancy Ella has been under a fairy curse (here bestowed in cluelessness rather than malice) obliging her to obey any imperative statement directed at her, from anyone. The moral of the story, in the author’s own words in interviews and letters to readers, is: "Don’t be too obedient!"

Of course there are genuine limits on a child’s duty of obedience even to parents and other legitimate authority figures. And certainly for a child to feel obliged to obey random commands from siblings, classmates, and even total strangers would be a serious problem. Still, it seems an odd point to make the basis of a fairy tale, however revisionist.

Be that as it may, for better and for worse, in adapting Levine’s story for the screen, director Tommy O’Haver and a half-dozen credited screenwriters retained little of Levine’s Newbery Award-winning story, other than Ella’s essential dilemma and a few character names. This Ella Enchanted is more an homage to the Cinderella story than a retelling of it; gone are the enchanted pumpkin coach and field-mouse steeds, the magical slipper and the spell-breaking stroke of midnight. (Actually, the spell-breaking stroke of midnight does make an appearance, but in a completely different connection.)

Levine’s story has been considerably softened in several respects: Ella’s father, though not quite sympathetic, is no longer the cruel figure from the book, and Ella herelf (Anne Hathaway, The Princess Diaries), though obviously unhappy to be so vulnerable to capricious orders, lacks the rebellious spirit of Levine’s heroine.

Where Levine’s book adopted a straightforward magical-realist style, the movie aims for Princess Bride self-awareness and the kind of anachronistic comedy lately popularized by the Shrek movies but rooted in the British stage "panto" tradition.

Ella’s condition has goofier results on the screen than on the page: In the book, Ella simply feels an overwhelming compulsion to comply with any order and suffers physically and mentally until she does, but in the movie Ella’s body carries out orders with or without her consent, and expressions like "Bite me!" and "Hold your tongue!" are fulfilled with comic literal-mindedness.

The film satirizes the teen-idol-worship culture of its own target audience with scenes of screaming maidens swooning over dashing Prince Char (Hugh Dancy), while the more sensible Ella protests injustices committed by Char’s nefarious uncle (Cary Elwes, The Princess Bride). Of course Char is intrigued by Ella’s lack of interest in him, and she in turn begins to respond to his attentions. ("You shouldn’t believe everything you read in Mediaeval Teen," he tells her good-naturedly.)

Refreshingly, Ella avoids a misstep common among girl-empowerment flicks, which often feel compelled to emasculate the male lead in order to make the heroine truly heroic (e.g., Ever After: A Cinderella Story). This approach backfires, of course, since it’s unsatisfying for the heroine to wind up with a wimp who doesn’t deserve her; she needs a worthy suitor.

By contrast, Ella manages to make both its leads appealing and admirable, in no small measure to the credit of its appealing stars. Hathaway makes a quintessential fairy-tale princess, and radiates winsome sincerity and earnest charm. As Char, Dancy gracefully negotiates the tricky business of being at once clueless about his uncle’s evil machinations while also coming across as capable, gallant, and with the capacity for heroism under the right circumstances.

Tags: Fairy Tales, Fractured Fairy Tales, Comedy, Fantasy, Romance

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