April 20, 2004

Ella Enchanted (Review)

Ella (Anne Hathaway) is a young woman with a unique problem. When she was born, a fairy godmother gave her the gift of obedience. That is, whenever she is asked to do something, she is forced to do it. If that doesn’t seem like much of a gift to you, you’re right—it isn’t.

How strong is the enchantment? When told to “kick someone’s butt,” she suddenly has the martial arts chops of Jet Li. When told to “stay there” she’s not able to get out of the path of a speeding coach. Yeah - it has its moments, but it mostly sucks to be magically obedient.

Ella Enchanted follows the story of Ella into her young-womanhood. Her mother has passed away, but not before instructing her to never reveal the secret of her “gift.” Ella is able to pass off her odd behavior as quirkiness. Her father has remarried and she now has a stepmother and a couple of stepsisters in the picture. In a fairy tale, you know what that means (CinderElla).

But she’s developed as a person. She’s got a strong opinion on the politics of the kingdom and where other girls are swooning over the hunky prince Charmont (Hugh Dancy), Ella shows up at events with her friend to protest the policies that the prince’s uncle (Cary Elwes) has imposed on the kingdom ever since the death of the benevolent king.

Things get complicated when it turns out that the prince appreciates a woman who can think for herself and who isn’t overtly interested in him. It’s too bad that the prince isn’t more interested in the slavery imposed on the giants (the large folk are made to tend the royal gardens) and the elves (all elves are made to sing and dance for the entertainment of the kingdom).

As Ella has more contact with her stepsisters and the prince, her gift of obedience becomes more of a problem. If anyone were to find out about it, they would have complete control over her. And more contact with t he prince means more chances for Ella to try to explain to him what he’s been missing in politics, and get him to see that people like her friend Slannen the Elf (Aidan McArdle) ought to be able to decide on their own whether they should be an entertainer or a lawyer.

In both subtle and heavy-handed ways, this is a film about self-determination. Ella knows what it’s like to be a slave, you see, and is sympathetic to the plight of the folk who have been banished to specific parts of the land. Issues of real-world slavery and societal roles imposed on women are just below the surface here and handled in a way that makes a pretty good allegory.

The film has attracted comparisons to Shrek andThe Princess Bride. I’d say it’s more like Shrek, but it definitely has its own mojo. This does not have the cross-generational appeal that either film have. It is a great film for kids, but while there is enough to keep adults mildly entertained, there is not enough for them to embrace here as there is in both Shrek and especially The Princess Bride.

Anne Hathaway looks like a princess in this film, and makes the obedience enchantment convincing, as she goes slightly glassy-eyed every time she is given a command. Performances by Vivica A. Fox, Minnie Driver and Joanna Lumley will entertain the parents. Parminder K. Nagra is horribly underused here after her excellent performance in Bend It Like Beckham.

Ella Enchanted is a worthy children’s film about the choices we make, the choices we are barred from making and the role of the heart in breaking free of limitations. If you appreciate a change from vacuous Disney animations with the same warmed-over insipid lessons, you’ll enjoy it doubly.

Posted by James at April 20, 2004 10:56 AM
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