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.

Hung Ogre

30-May-07 4:40 PM by
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I made my first trip to a "regular" (non-drive-in, non-IMAX) theater this weekend to see Shrek the Third. I'd seen each of the first two films only once (in English, anyway — don't ask) and was surprised at how well the second movie lived up to the standard of its predecessor. I thought the balance of kiddie and adult humor that creatively employed a variety of pop culture references created an attractive package for all audiences.

I guess Dreamworks was pushing their luck hoping for a three-peat. Oddly, I had exactly the opposite interpretation as David Ansen, who wrote, "It's a movie at war with itself: a kiddie movie that doesn't really want to be one." Though there were more than enough laughable moments for me to call this an enjoyable film, I felt it fell short of the Shrek and Shrek 2 by lacking a certain sophistication to its humor and a significance to its plot elements. For examples: in Shrek 2, Puss in Boots was introduced as a major character, and the connection between Prince Charming and the fairy godmother was developed slowly and naturally. In Shrek the Third, the character Merlin is almost trivial, as is the swapping of Puss and Donkey's bodies. And we get the gist of the plot far too soon, leaving no surprises for later.

But regardless of any story quibbles, Shrek the Third is a visual triumph. I've previously commented that CGI has become so commonplace that it's no longer a gimmick. That's not to say its quality is on par with hand-drawn animation; the two styles are distinctly unique, and I lament that the latter is falling by the wayside. But the level of detail possible in CGI is simply astounding. There were times I was marvelling not necessarily at the main action, but at Artie's hair, or Rapunzel's eyes. These minor elements don't add to the story, but they do make the the land of Far, Far Away seem not so distant.

Overall, an enjoyable film when taken on its own. Maybe films just don't stand up well to unplanned trilogies, as was the case with X-Men 3 and Terminator 3, both which fell far short of their earlier entries. Even earlier this month was Spider-Man 3, which was good but not great (though I hear Pirates 3 is better than its immediate predecessor). Leave it to Hollywood to try giving us too much of a good thing…

Nonetheless, if three films still isn't enough for you, fear not: our heroic party will be returning in a variety of formats. Look for the fourth film (possibly a prequel) in 2010 alongside a Puss spinoff, The Story of an Ogre Killer. And more immediately, the holiday special Shrek the Halls will be on TV this calendar year. You will believe donkeys can fly!

The Year In Preview

25-Feb-07 10:51 AM by
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Seeing as how the Oscars are to be presented tonight, I thought it time to stop looking backward to the best (and worst) of 2006, and have plotted my moviegoing for 2007. The pickings are slimmer than I thought.

Movies I want to see this year:

Spider-Man 3 (May 4th)
The Transformers (July 4th)
Harry Potter (July 13th)

Movies I wouldn't mind seeing:

Ghost Rider (now playing)
The Astronaut Farmer (now playing)
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (March 23rd)
Shrek 3 (May 18th)
Sin City 2 (September?)

Movies that I can't believe they're making out of TV shows, whether or not they'll be out this year:

The A-Team
Get Smart
I Dream of Jeannie
Land of the Lost
Love Boat

Or video games:

Dead or Alive (June 22nd)
Prince of Persia
Soul Calibur

Or other franchises:

Hot Wheels
Jurassic Park IV

What about you — what looks hot, or has you bothered, in 2007?