By JANE WILSON, Special Contributor | Published April 22, 2004
“Ella Enchanted,” a Cinderella story with a twist, has a lot to recommend it—if you can handle its frantic pace. And as a representative of its target audience, my 12-year-old niece gave it a very enthusiastic, positive review: “I liked that movie a lot!”
Taking its premise from the popular book by Gail Carson Levine, “Ella Enchanted” is the story of a girl who is placed under a spell as a baby: She must obey any order that is given to her. This “gift” is not as much of a blessing as it might first appear, because it puts her at the mercy of unscrupulous people who force her to do their bidding, even to the extreme of attempted murder. The movie is the story of how Ella leaves her home in Frell to find a way to remove the curse. Along the way, she acquires an evil stepmother, a pair of wicked stepsisters, and meets her Prince Charming (“Char” for short).
Do not go to the movie expecting the quiet, charming tale from the book, however. The filmmakers take quite a few liberties with the plot. Several major characters have been added, including Slannen, the elf who befriends Ella on her journey, and evil Prince Edgar, who is trying to gain control of the kingdom. In addition, a subplot about the oppression of marginalized members of the kingdom by Prince Edgar forms the basis for Ella’s relationship with Prince Char as she tries to show him how his uncle has been stripping the elves, ogres and giants of their civil rights.
These changes add more action to the movie, and they provide a definitive villain for the story. Prince Edgar is so bad there is no moral question about what Ella must do to stop his plans. His plot adds a measure of suspense to the movie (which was one of the best parts, according to my niece).
The focus on freedom serves to highlight Ella’s predicament, and the subtext on prejudice works especially well when Ella is ordered to reject her best friend, Areida (Parminder K. Nagra), who is from another kingdom. This scene is especially poignant as Ella has no choice but to obey her stepmother; it is this episode that convinces the girl she must go in search of Lucinda, the fairy who bestowed the obedience upon her.
The journey Ella takes teaches her many things about self-reliance and exposes her to more of the world outside her village. At the end of the film, she is finally able to confront Lucinda and begs her to reverse the curse. It is a shock when Lucinda refuses and tells Ella that she is the only one who can break the spell. Ella has to find the strength to refuse an order and do what she thinks is right.
As Ella, Anne Hathaway, known to her audience from the popular “The Princess Diaries,” is everything she should be: lovely, radiant, likeable and spunky. Hugh Dancy is good-looking but bland as Prince Char. Much of the humor in the movie comes from the first-rate supporting cast: Cary Elwes as power-mad Prince Edgar, Minnie Driver as Mabel, Ella’s wacky fairy godmother/housekeeper, Joanna Lumley as the selfish, vain stepmother, and Lucy Punch and Jennifer Higham as the hapless stepsisters are particular standouts.
Directed by Tommy O’Haver, the pace of the movie is fast, and the tone is a little over the top, much like the frantic elves constantly singing and dancing in the background when Ella visits Slannen’s home village. Though it may be picky to quibble about realism in a fairy tale, be warned that “Ella Enchanted” is the type of movie that adds anachronistic modern touches: Prince Char is a pinup in Medieval Teen magazine, Ella meets the Char at a mall opening, and she has a brush with juvenile delinquency when her stepsister orders her to shoplift a pair of glass slippers.
Ella is a fine role model for her audience though, as a heroine who shows strength of character, loyalty and self-reliance while crusading for racial equality. She even gets to rush in and save the prince at a crucial moment. In the end, her story makes for a very entertaining tale—even if its version of happily-ever-after includes Ella in go-go boots singing a duet of “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” with the prince.