We just can’t stop rewriting our fairy tales.
It didn’t begin with Shrek, although the runaway success of DreamWorks’ sophomore animated feature inspired an ongoing wave of sequels and imitators, from Happily N’Ever After to Hoodwinked to a planned Puss in Boots feature.
Fairy-tale spoofs and goofs have always been with us; Bugs Bunny mugged his way through shorts like “Little Red Riding Rabbit” and “Jack-Wabbit and the Beanstalk.” In the 1980s, Peter Beagel’s self-aware fairy tale The Last Unicorn became a modestly successful cartoon, and William Goldman adapted his own fantasy pastiche The Princess Bride for the screen, creating a cult classic.
In the 1990s, James Finn Garner’s Politically Correct Bedtime Stories: Modern Tales for Our Life & Times gleefully satired the foibles of modern culture by holding them up alongside the traditional values of the fairy-tale canon. More subversively, Gregory Maguire reversed this experiment with his revisionist novels Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West and Confessions of an Ugly Step-Sister, undermining the traditional moral world of his fairy-tale source material.
That last work isn’t the only feminist take on the Cinderella story. Other recent books and movies in that vein include Ever After: A Cinderella Story, Ella Enchanted, and Just Ella.
Happily N’Ever After offers yet another take on the Cinderella story. Like Maguire’s novel, it displaces one of the traditional leading characters in favor of a less-noticed supporting figure — in this case, the Prince’s disaffected servant, Rick (Freddy Prinze Jr.), who’s secretly in love with the pixieish Ella (Sarah Michelle Gellar), though the latter is too overawed by the musclebound Prince’s star status to see the gimlet-eyed servant in his shadow.
This is a pretty decent premise for a fractured fairy tale, and to its credit Happily N’Ever After plays it fairly straight, with less postmodern irony and pop-culture riffing than Shrek or Hoodwinked. Unfortunately, cheap-looking computer animation isn’t the only lackluster aspect of the production from first-time director Paul J. Bolger. The characters are poorly conceived and no more interesting than they look, with their plasticine skin and molded hair; and the story runs out of steam less than halfway through.
Take the Prince, whom Ella worships but Rick knows is a buffoon. Of course, no prince is a hero to his servant — but in this case Rick’s contempt is thoroughly warranted.
Ella’s so blindly devoted to the Prince, and so convinced that he’s the one to save the day, that she seems just another swooning groupie rather than a worthy heroine. If she hasn’t any more sense than that, what exactly does Rick see in her? What does that say about him?
Fortunately, Happily N’Ever After has at least one other good idea. It seems there’s a reason stories in Fairy-Tale Land always end happily ever after. Watching over all the lives and stories of fairy-tale characters everywhere is a benevolent and powerful wizard (George Carlin), who administers the scales of justice, maintaining the “balance of good and evil.”
As with the notion of “bringing balance to the Force” in the Star Wars prequels, this “balance of good and evil” seems to mean not a yin-yang equilibrium giving neither good nor bad the upper hand, but rather the ultimate triumph of good over evil. Like clockwork, the villains are vanquished while the heroes and heroines live happily ever after.
But then the wizard goes on vacation — leaving the scales of justice in the hands of a pair of comic sidekicks named Munk and Mambo (Wallace Shawn and Andy Dick). Before you can say “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” the balance of good and evil is in jeopardy. Restless Mambo is itching to “mix things up” a little, though conscientious Munk insists, “We are not tampering with the scales of justice for your amusement!”
Left to themselves, Munk and Mambo might not have made too bad a mess of things. But then another crank enters the works: Through the duo’s bungling, one of the fairy-tale characters — Ella’s imperious stepmother, Frieda (Sigourney Weaver) — gets a glimpse of what’s going on behind the curtain.
First comes the nasty, eye-opening revelation that her stepdaughter, of all people, is destined to get the Prince every time. Then Frieda discovers that Fairy-Tale Land is bigger than just their story: There’s also Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, etc. And finally comes the realization that the whole ball of wax is controlled by the scales, along with an all-powerful wizard’s staff.
Naturally, Frieda takes matters into her own hands. Like a malevolent version of Jack Skellington rallying the citizens of Halloweentown to seize Christmas for their own, the evil stepmother summons the villains of all the fairy tales to rise up and create their own Happily N’Ever After, with her own heavy hand on the scales of justice to seal the deal.
In this new fairy-tale world, when Prince Charming kisses Sleeping Beauty, instead of rousing her, the kiss puts him to sleep. Rapunzel’s Prince fares no better. The Wolf and the Giant make short work of Red Riding Hood and Jack. Oh, and Rumplestiltskin finally steals the baby.
So far, so-so. As archvillainess, Frieda is at least more interesting than her opposite numbers, even if the most fanciful thing about her is her outrageous comic-book villainess figure. The script bounces along acceptably on decent throwaway gags and one-liners that will make kids laugh, and may get occasional chuckles from adults.
But the story stalls, and never recovers. For much of what follows — too much — Rick tries to persuade Ella that the man for the job at hand is not the Prince, but him. Granted, the Prince isn’t the man for any job, anywhere, ever — but what makes Rick such a qualified hero? Why does he think he’s so special?
Better yet, why does the movie think he’s so special? Why is Rick the hero? Like Shrek 2, with its arrogant, Gaston-like Prince Charming, Happily N’Ever After proclaims that just being a prince doesn’t make you a hero — and that a hero doesn’t have to be a prince. Fine. But does just not being a prince make you a hero? Or is it Rick’s cynical, ironic attitude that qualifies him?
Perhaps a hero doesn’t have to be anyone special — perhaps he can be an ordinary guy, without extraordinary courage or skill in battle. Fine. Even so, shouldn’t a hero at least be committed to the cause of good? When evil bad guys start taking over the world, starting with the castle you work at, does a hero just shrug and go to work for the new administration?
Even Rick’s attitude toward the Prince is ultimately grating. Unlike Shrek 2’s Prince Charming, this Prince isn’t insufferable, merely helpless and clueless. A better film would have eventually humanized the Prince a bit, maybe even slightly redeemed him, and given Rick a chance to realize that he’d been unfair to him.
Not here. With characters this indifferent, what difference does it make whether Ella winds up with Rick or the Prince?
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.