by Tommy O'Haver
After Shrek, you would think a live-action film with a similar sensibility would be something of a success, especially when its script is superior. But Ella Enchanted somehow never caught on with audiences, despite a great cast, a witty story, and a fascinating predicament.
It is another postmodern fairy tale, but a tad more original than many others. Ella of Frell (Anne Hathaway) is put under a spell at birth by her fairy godmother Lucinda (Vivica A. Fox): a spell that compels her to obey any commands anyone gives her. If you tell her to hold her tongue, for instance, she will literally hold her tongue. She, of course, keeps this a secret from everyone, including her wicked stepmother, Dame Olga (Joanne Lumley).
Ella is something of a rebel, and meets up with Prince Charming (Hugh Dancy), the teen idol of the land. She is unimpressed with him -- her first meeting is to protest his visit -- but joins up with him in order to try to break the spell. And the regent, Sir Edgar (Cary Elwes) has sinister plans for the prince.
Like Shrek, the story plays with fairy tales and anachronisms. Price Charming is a mainstay in Medieval Teen. There's an elf who wants to be lawyer. Ella charms a group of giants by singing Queen's "Find Me Somebody to Love" (Queen seems to work well in medieval settings -- see "We Will Rock You" in A Knight's Tale). But the spell -- and the ramifications of it -- gives it all a stronger plot.
Anne Hathaway is certainly the most charming young actress in films today. She managed to make The Princess Diaries watchable, and her role as Ella is her at her best. She has a quirky sense of humor and is a delight in every scene.
The rest of the cast is first-rate and it's hard to single out a performance that doesn't work perfectly. Vivica A. Fox is terrific as the vain Lucinda, who cannot see beyond the reaches of her own enormous ego. Cary Elwes makes a great villain, as does Joanne Lumley, with special mention given to Lucy Punch and Jennifer Higham as Ella's dim but cruel stepsisters. Alas, Minnie Driver is a disappointment, with a role that gives her nothing to do.
For some reason, the film never caught on. Maybe it was hard to market; maybe it was too sophisticated. For whatever reason, it flopped. It definitely needs to be rediscovered.
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