Also Not Appearing In This Film: Cinder

11-Oct-07 11:11 AM by
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It may be a children's movie, but I'll do anything for Showbits — so in the name of research, I can now admit to having watched Ella Enchanted. Fortunately, it wasn't as painful as I expected.

Based on the 1997 novel of the same name, Ella Enchanted is set in a fantasy world of elves, ogres, giants, and faeries. As an infant, our heroine was granted the gift of obedience, requiring her to do whatever she is told. (Oddly, no one else in the kingdom exhibits any other signs of giftedness.) For her own safety, she's not allowed to tell anyone of this vulnerability, so most people dismiss her odd behavior as quirky. There is some illogic to this power — for example, when she's told to say or do something, she never immediately follows it by setting things right, such as with an apology; also, she can be told to do things that she is otherwise unable to do, such as freeze in mid-air. And if you watch Ella Enchanted with a literal mind, you'll find a few instances where her obedience doesn't kick in. But hey, this is a fairy tale, right?

It's easy to pick out other such stories that influenced Ella and the people she meets in her quest to rid herself of this curse: there's a wicked stepmother and two stepsisters (Cinderella); an evil uncle who wants to rule (The Lion King); and numerous anachronisms and pop songs (Shrek). Yet though that last instance used its soundtrack to underscore on-screen action, the tunes in Ella seem forced. Sometimes they use even this to good effect, though, as with their stereotype of elves as singers and dancers: they so happily fit this bardic mold that they'll perform at the drop of a hat, to comedic results of a less puerile nature than Shrek's. More often, though, Ella seems an attempt to cash in on the green ogre's popularity and hip style.

But it's the actors, not the characters, that drew me into this film. Anne Hathaway plays Ella with puppy-dog eyes and ruby-red lips, reminding me of Julia Roberts and Kristian Alfonso of two decades ago. I was curious to see what Ms. Hathaway was doing before she was in Brokeback Mountain; with the pending release of Get Smart, surely this star is only going to continue to rise. Hugh Dancy plays her love interest with an authentic British accent and a hobbit-style do, while his wicked uncle is performed by Cary Elwes, doing what he does best: playing a caricature of a classic character, as he did in The Princess Bride and Robin Hood: Men in Tights. In minor roles are Minnie Driver as a sort of nanny and Monty Python's Eric Idle as the narrator. (See if you can spot the Holy Grail references!)

This well-rounded cast puts on a good show, complemented by a few minor touches. The scenery is bright and colorful as befitting a storybook land. One special effect witnessed therein is a talking book — imagine a magic mirror on a novel's cover. Though this surface was a bit too reflective, I found the appearance of a man's face on it, correctly adjusting for lighting and angles as the book is moved, to be impressive. The talking snake did not seem vital to the plot, but at least he was made to seem fantastic (necessarily so, as the movie's only talking animal) and not a CGI imitation of the real thing. The climax is also sufficiently climatic and tense — surprising for a kid's movie.

Though somewhat lacking in originality, Ella Enchanted is a simple and fun tale appropriate for the audience it's intended for.