As a child growing up in the enchanted kingdom of Frell, young Ella (Anne Hathaway) was the recepient of an unfortunate gift from her irresponsible fairy godmother, Lucinda (Viveca Fox) - the gift of “obedience.” Consequently, Ella must obey anything anyone tells her to do. As if a lifetime of blind obedience were not bad enough, things grow worse once Ella’s father (Patrick Bergin) remarries. Not only does wicked stepmother Dame Olga (Joanna Lumley) treat Ella with outright contempt, but her spiteful daughters Hattie (Lucy Punch) and Olive (Jennifer Higham) unearth Ella’s secret. Poor Ella ends up framed for robbery and forced to spurn her best friend, Areida (Parminder Nagra). Having resolved to track Lucinda down and ask her to remove the enchantment, Ella sets forth on an adventure that leads to encounters with elves, ogres, giants and, most importantly, the handsome Prince Char (Hugh Dancy).
Ella Enchanted was the film whose premise launched a thousand lewd comments on the internet. What if Anne Hathaway were magically compelled to do anything anyone told her to do? Perverted geeks aside, this was based on an award-winning children’s book written by Gail Carson Levine, although the author was bemused by how far the film deviated from its source. Featuring Monty Python alumnus Eric Idle as onscreen narrator, this has an awkward balance of Pythonesque irreverence, Disney cosiness, feminist fairytale and MOR karaoke tunes. Such a mix had already achieved success in Shrek (2001) although the blending of pseudo-medieval setting with anachronistic humour (e.g. carriages styled like New York cabs, hand-turned escalators, pin-up posters of Prince Char, Ella as a right-on campaigner for equal rights for all fairytale folk, giants who dance to Bollywood tunes, gags about botox!) had precedent with A Knight’s Tale (2001) to say nothing of the classic Fractured Fairytales cartoons created by Jay Ward.
Few critics seemed to notice but fairytale spoofs became one of the defining genres of the Noughties. Aside from the Shrek films there was Prince Charming (2001), Hoodwinked (2005), Happily N’Ever After (2006) and Enchanted (2007) to name only a handful. Whether these reflected filmgoers growing disillusionment with traditional concepts of romance, heroism and morality or simply sprang from the desire to see fairytale characters sing pop tunes, the fact remains that few delivered any truly worthy counterpoints to the supposedly outmoded values they held in obvious disdain, as proven by the increasingly misanthropic direction taken by the Shrek sequels. Although commonly considered an inferior copy, Ella Enchanted’s core themes of female empowerment and individuality in the face of state-sanctioned prejudice prove more persuasive than Shrek’s muddled “beauty is only skin deep” message.
The script is solid but Tommy O’Haver’s scattershot direction fumbles several dramatic beats whilst the unfocused storytelling smacks of post-production tampering in the familiar Miramax tradition, losing track of seemingly crucial characters including Parminder Nagra as Ella’s best friend, Minnie Driver as her sweet but magically inept aunt and Aidan McArdle as an elf who aspires to be a lawyer. An eclectic cast also includes Jimi Mistry as a talking book, Steve Coogan voicing an evil serpent, Cary Elwes in an ironic about-face from his role in cinema’s finest fairytale spoof The Princess Bride (1987) as the villain of the piece, and even supermodel Heidi Klum as a giantess. Amidst the hit-and-miss gags stand a number of disarming moments, including one where an ogre (Jim Carter) quotes Rodney King reinforcing the film’s anti-prejudice stance, albeit in semi-jokey fashion, alongside a sweet element to the fairytale romance as Ella falls for Char because he subtly encourages her to do what she wants not as she is told.
Lovely Anne Hathaway makes for a sympathetic, spirited, very engaging lead while Hugh Dancy is a likeable comic foil rather than the usual blandly heroic hunk. Ella Enchanted also gave filmgoers their first sample of Hathaway’s fine singing voice via her cover version of Queen’s “Somebody to Love” - a talent she has had too few chances to display since. An ingratiating eagerness to please hangs over the admittedly goofy goings on, right down to the climax that throws an airborne bout between ninjas (!) and a kung fu kicking Hathaway (!!) into the mix before roping the entire cast into a song-and-dance cover of “Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart.”