Directed by: Tommy O'Haver
Starring: Anne Hathaway, Hugh Dancy, Cary Elwes, Minnie Driver, Vivica A. Fox, Joanna Lumley
Ella Enchanted is one of those movies that comes just near enough to working that it's all the more infuriating that it finally doesn't.
This is further aggravated because parts of the film are quite charming and you just know that a few million bucks in improved special effects and some work on the script could have put the whole thing over the top. For that matter, a more accomplished director than Tommy O'Haver could have smoothed over some of the budgetary shortcomings -- or even made a virtue of them by playing up or making fun of the camp value in the shortcomings they produce.
But O'Haver has no sense of irony -- something he demonstrated a couple of years back with Get Over It. Sure, what he has here is a crossbreed of A Knight's Tale and Shrek; nonetheless, O'Haver still stages a musical number with elves using the Stephen Sondheim-Jule Styne song "Let Us Entertain You," missing the joke that it's supposed to be annoying a la Shrek's "It's a Small World" parody -- despite the fact that latter script obviously means it to be.
Ella needed the kind of balance that followed the "Camelot" song in Monty Python and the Holy Grail -- just as it needed someone to puncture the budget constrictions by injecting a Holy Grail-like comment ("It's only a model") as concerns the poor model work. Instead, O'Haver merely ignores it all. In so doing, he even botches the otherwise splendid version of Queen's "Somebody to Love," done with just the right blend of respect and fun by Anne Hathaway and the arranger. In this, Hathway is great -- though O'Haver keeps shoving in our faces the hokiness of the process-work giants watching her performance.
However, standing side-by-side with this is a pretty clever story, occasionally beautiful production design by Norman Garwood, great costumes by Ruth Myers and some pretty pleasant performances from actors with occasionally clever lines. In the film's title role, Hathaway nicely cashes in on the success of The Princess Diaries; her Ella is suffering from a nasty enchantment spell from an inept, foul-tempered and generally intoxicated fairy godmother (Vivica A. Fox). This magic makes Ella obedient to an alarming degree -- she has no choice but to do exactly as she's told, no matter how wrong those orders might be.
The bulk of the movie details her quest to find her fairy godmother and get the spell reversed; it's largely formula stuff. Yet it's an agreeable formula, especially for its target audience of children, since it contains a theme of tolerance, a longing for social justice and a message about finding one's inner strength. The film is also reasonably amusing much of the time, even if it's rarely laugh-out-loud funny and far too many of the jokes are painfully corny.
The worst thing about the movie is that it squanders the comedic talents of Erica Idle and Joanna Lumley (the latter better served in the outtakes from Eurotrip); the best thing is its pleasant tone and its smaller touches. Ella is a movie that most succeeds when it's not trying so hard -- particularly when it's not trying so hard to be another movie. Quite the least successful thing in the film is its all-talking-all-singing-all-dancing finale, which uses the old Elton John-Kiki Dee hit "Don't Go Breakin' My Heart" in a brazen effort to copy the "I'm a Believer" finale from Shrek.
Ella Enchanted just doesn't work. There's lots of activity and energy, but no joy nor sense of spontaneity. The film never seems like anything other than a weak copy of someone else's idea -- and it really could have been a keeper. Ultimately, though, it's only passable as something kids will like and parents can sit through without fidgeting.
-- reviewed by Ken Hanke