12 December 2004 | divaclv
Doesn't quite enchant
Given the recent success of fantasy movies, it was probably inevitable that "Ella Enchanted" would get its turn on the silver screen. Like "Harry Potter," Gail Carson Levine's delightful re-imagining of Cinderella has been popular with both readers and critics, and contains plenty of imagination and engaging characters. One only wishes it had translated to screen better.
Levine comes up with a clever explanation for the reason why Ella (played in the film by Anne Hathaway) must slave for her horrid step-family: at her cradle, a well-meaning but rather dim fairy godmother (Vivica A. Fox) granted her the "gift" of obedience, forcing the poor girl to comply with any direct order regardless of how ridiculous or dangerous. Refusing to be resigned to her lot, Ella sets out to return the unwanted gift--and en route, find romance with Prince Charmont ("Char" for short, played by Hugh Dancy).
Unfortunately, it is here that the similarities to the source material end. In the film, Ella comes off as far less resourceful and clever as she does in the book, and mostly seems to wind up getting into embarrassing or awkward situations through her enforced compliance. Which is a shame, because Hathaway is a vibrant and talented actress who could have easily imbued the character with more spunk had she been called on to do so. It doesn't help that the screenwriters have seen fit to muddy Ella's quest with a standard-issue villain in the form of Char's Claudius-esquire uncle (Cary Elwes, channeling the spirit of Prince Humperdink and accompanied by a very unconvincing CGI snake), and some business about the oppression of the kingdom's non-humans.
Like "Shrek," "Ella Enchanted" takes the fractured fairy-tale route, throwing in sly references and anachronisms at every opportunity. Some of these work (I liked the man-powered escalator in the medieval mall), but more than a few fall flat (mostly Char's squealing fan club, who are perhaps too accurate in their annoying behavior). Hathaway and Dancy play it more or less straight, but everyone else camps it up grandly, especially Elwes. Unfortunately, both Fox and Minnie Driver as Ella's more sensible godmother feel miscast, and Parminder Nagra (the talented star of "Bend it Like Beckham") is virtually wasted as Ella's foreign-born friend.
"Ella Enchanted" is nice enough to sit through--Hathaway's presence keeps things going, and there are enough nice visuals. But in a genre that in the past few years has seen "Harry Potter," "Lord of the Rings," and "Shrek"--with "A Series of Unfortunate Events" and "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" among the films on the horizon--it takes more than nice to distinguish oneself in the field.