Directed with blissful ingenuity and the wink of an eye by Tommy O'Haver (2000's "Get Over It
"), "Ella Enchanted" is a tried-and-true fractured fairy tale. It skewers modern conveniences (such as a hand-controlled escalator and medieval shopping mall) and well-known song gems, placing them in a delightful fantasy involving evil princes, helpful elves, nasty stepsisters, ogres, fairies, curses, romance, comedy, and even hints of darker themesa veritable Brothers Grimm-like story with a fresh spin on the familiar. Think of "Ella Enchanted" as a loose retelling of "Cinderella," mixed with elements of 2001's "Shrek
," and you won't be far off. Even so, the film is not a blatant rip-off in the way "Johnson Family Vacation
" was of "National Lampoon's Vacation," and the proceedings never feel less than wholly original.
Set in the mystical land of Frell, Ella (Anne Hathaway) was bestowed as a baby the so-called "gift" of obedience from fairy Lucinda (Vivica A. Fox), so that when anyone would order her to do something, she would have no choice but to oblige their instructions. Now a community college student, this "gift" has grown into a real burden, all the more so when her father marries a shrew (Joanna Lumley) and new wicked stepsister Hattie (Lucy Punch) discovers her secret.
Determined to rid herself of obedience, Ella sets off to locate Lucinda and have the spell lifted. Along the way, she befriends elf Slannen (Aidan McArdle), whom she saves from ogres, and starts to fall in love with handsome Prince Charmont (Hugh Dancy). Trouble once again finds its way to Ella, however, when Prince Charmont's uncle, Prince Regent Edgar (Cary Elwes), plots to take advantage of her "gift" for his own dastardly means.
Based on the award-winning children's novel by Gail Carson Levine, "Ella Enchanted" is a pleasurable surprise, a superior family film that is destined to entertain both children and adults. Kids will be captivated by the creative story, plentiful special effects, good-natured humor, and a heroine in Ella who is worth rooting for. Meanwhile, older audiences can appreciate all of these things without feeling condescended toward, and will also catch the more satirical fairy tale spin on things that likely will go over the heads of younger viewers. As with "Shrek
," the film refuses to pander to any one target demographic, mixing frothy, occasionally irreverent humor with bright writing and characters that hold a certain wise maturity to them. And, of course, it is all wrapped up with a nice moral about being true to yourself that is refreshingly non-preachy.
As glimpsed in his previous features, 1998's "Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss" and 2000's "Get Over It
," director Tommy O'Haver has a signature flourish of incorporating unexpected musical numbers that enliven what otherwise would threaten to be overly conventional plots. The song uses are ironically appropriate in their medieval fantasy settings, and O'Haver has particular comic fun in giving the elf community a tendency to break out into choreographed song and dance numbers. There is also a lovely musical number called "Somebody to Love" that Anne Hathaway nicely sings midway through, and another cast dance during the end credits that ends things on a satisfying note.
The romance between Ella and Prince Charmont is easily more charming than the similar royalty-meets-commoner love story found in the recent "The Prince & Me
," and Anne Hathaway (2001's "The Princess Diaries
") and Hugh Dancy (2001's "Black Hawk Down
") share a plausible, easygoing chemistry with each other. Hathaway, although in danger of being typecast, is even better here than her breakthrough turn in "The Princess Diaries
." She is unafraid to look foolish in the name of comedy, which makes her performance as Ella all the more bewitching. It is this fearless accessibility that makes Hathaway a winning presence.
In a motion picture in which everyone involved seems to be having a grand time, Minnie Driver (2000's "Beautiful
") pops up for a funny supporting turn as Ella's kind godmother, Mandy; Vivica A. Fox (2003's "Kill Bill: Volume One
") is the sneaky, difficult-to-locate fairy, Lucinda; Cary Elwes (2000's "Shadow of the Vampire") unmistakably recalls his work in 1987's fairy tale, "The Princess Bride;" and Eric Idle (1999's "Dudley Do-Right
") makes for a deliciously unlikely narrator who is always showing up where the action is taking place.
Save for a few troublesome visual effects shots that give away its limited budget and a running time that overstays its welcome by roughly ten minutes, "Ella Enchanted" is a congenial fairy tale that reminds of a book's illustrations come to vibrant life. The film's inventive, sly sense of humor only aids in giving its familiar premise a flourishing identity to call its own. All things considered, "Ella Enchanted" is an ideal choice for parents searching for quality family entertainment, or anyone else looking to sate their appetite as they awaiting the release of "Shrek 2."