[box cover]

Ella Enchanted

In a fairy-tale land, a baby is born to a happy couple. Then along comes one of the local fairies to grant a magical gift upon the child… but this fairy (Vivica A. Fox) is known for giving truly lousy gifts. When she waves her wand and presents the baby with the gift of total obedience, the result is that young Ella of Frell (Anne Hathaway) grows up unable to resist any order that she's given — so that when someone tells her to "hold her tongue" or to "get hopping," she has no choice but to literally do so. As she grows up, the problem becomes worse when her widowed father (Patrick Bergin) brings home a horrible stepmother (Joanna Lumley of the BBC's "Absolutely Fabulous") and her two terrible daughters (Lucy Punch and Jennifer Higham). A sensitive, very forward-thinking young woman, Ella's concerned about the awful way that non-humans are treated throughout the kingdom, where giants are used for slave labor, ogres are hunted down and killed, and elves are only allowed to be entertainers. When Ella cute-meets the soon-to-be-king Prince Charmont (Hugh Dancy), she does her best to encourage him to make sweeping social changes — which puts her on the bad side of Char's evil uncle, Prince Edgar(Cary Elwes), who has designs on the throne himself.

*          *          *

Based on the immensely popular young-adult novel by Gail Carson Levine, Ella Enchanted (2004) takes a much-loved story and a crackerjack premise and manages to squander both rather shamelessly. This riff on "Cinderella" with modern-day sensibilities is never as clever or as original as it pretends to be — the anachronistic inclusion of songs by Queen and ELO was better presented in A Knight's Tale, the modern/medieval visual puns were better done in Shrek, the feminist-Cinderella schtick was better written in Ever After, and not a moment of the film can even hope to shine the shoes of The Princess Bride. In fact, the entire project feels like a rushed attempt to shove something into theaters to cash in on a somewhat newly popular genre and to get Hathaway (The Princess Diaries) back on-screen in a tiara. The look of the picture is very nice, but little real use is made of the locations or the special effects. On her journey to find the fairy who cursed her and ask to have the "gift" removed, for example, Ella travels with a talking book who can show her anything she asks — but the device never affects the outcome of the story, and even the cool, pop-up CGI map that he shows her ends up as sort of pointless, because Ella never has to traverse any of the terrain that the book presents. Excellent actors are cast in small parts and given nothing to do — Bergin, as the father, is hardly on screen, Lumley only has a few scenes and is utterly wasted, Bend It Like Beckham's Parminder Nagra, as Ella's best friend, appears to have ended up almost entirely on the cutting-room floor, and Minnie Driver — as a household fairy whose relationship to Ella and her family is unclear — just hovers around the edges of the story playing a completely pointless character with little dialogue. Elwes overacts so dreadfully as the villain that he seems to think he's in another movie entirely — and his talking CGI-snake companion, Heston, serves no purpose other than as a potential Happy Meal toy. Ella Enchanted isn't lacking in charm entirely — Hathaway is such a winning and jaw-droppingly beautiful actress that she could probably recite the federal tax code and be compelling — but as a mix of self-conscious cuteness with cold-blooded marketing, it would have been better suited to the Disney Channel than released as a theatrical feature. Buena Vista/Miramax's DVD offers a sparkling transfer in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) with exceptionally good, rich Dolby Digital 5.1 audio (in English or French with optional Spanish subtitles). There's a commentary track with director Tommy O'Haver, Hathaway and Dancy, which will probably delight young fans of the film — more mature viewers may find their giggly, inconsequential blatherings annoying. Also on board are seven deleted scenes (with optional director commentary), including the usually obligatory — and thankfully excised — "separated lovers thinking about each other, set to an overwrought ballad" montage and a lengthy alternate ending; "Prince Charmont's Fan Club," a very silly DVD-remote game; "The Magical World of Ella Enchanted" (28 min.), a standard "making-of" featurette; the "Ella Enchanted Red Carpet Premiere Special" (23 min.), an almost identical "making-of" featurette; a music video for "It's Not Just Make Believe" by Kari Kimmel, and a "make your own story" DVD-ROM feature that didn't work on this reviewer's computer. Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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