Anne Hathaway, teen star of The Princess Diaries, is back in a new film, Ella Enchanted, in which she plays a role that is part Cinderella and part Sleeping Beauty. With a snake reminiscent of the slithering serpent in Robin Hood, and plot twists reminiscent of The Princess Bride, the film multiplies its allusions. As in The Princess Diaries, here too the plot is slight, and the characters, predictable. But Hathaway's charming performance once again makes believers of the audience.
In this case, she is not the geeky, self-conscious teen undergoing a transformation to royalty; instead, she is burdened by an unusual birth gift from her fairy godmother, Lucinda (Vivica Fox). Less the wicked Maleficent of Sleeping Beauty fame, Lucinda is more bumbling and clueless. When she visits the newborn Ella and finds her weeping, she decides to make her behave and so bestows upon her the gift of mechanical docility.
The gift causes only minor trouble in Ella's youth — a schoolyard dispute ends humorously after her nemesis taunts, "Bite me!" When Ella's widowed father marries a cold woman with two self-indulgent daughters, the gift of obedience becomes somewhat more dangerous. As worn as the theme of the wicked stepsisters seems, their roles work comically here. The sisters spoof themselves, as when one of them insults Ella, "That just shows what you know, a.k.a., nothing."
The film twists the Cinderella story in such a way that Enchanted becomes a commentary on the vices of unthinking obedience. Ella is never thoughtless; she struggles against fulfilling commands to act in ways she knows to be wrong. Rather than simply working toward Ella's liberation from her blessing/curse, the film might have developed the rich, comic possibilities of Ella outwitting her opponents by simultaneously fulfilling and subverting commands imposed on her. Only in one case does she do this — and ends up giving her stepsisters a wicked case of poison ivy.
But the film does not opt to make Ella a rebel against authority; nor does it suggest that obedience itself is necessarily oppressive. This is not a kids' version of Thelma and Louise. Ella uses her charm and her verbal skills of persuasion to bring others around to seeing the world aright.
Her chief target for transformation is Prince Charmont (Hugh Dancy), a heartthrob featured regularly in the magazine Medieval Teen. A number of scenes of young women stampeding after the prince are reminiscent of scenes in the Beatles' Hard Day's Night. The prince himself is good-hearted but naïve, trusting his crafty uncle, who has enslaved the innocent giants and is stealing from his people. It does not take much for the prince to see the world aright — just the gentle reproof of Ella and the sight of the giants' being beaten.
If Hathaway's Princess Diaries had a purely contemporary setting into which was introduced an element of old-world royalty, Enchanted is set in a medieval world with heavy doses of contemporary life interjected. There is an elf who desperately wants to be a lawyer, but is forbidden to do so by a legal precedent mandating that elves shall be limited to careers involving "singing, juggling and/or tomfoolery." The film does not contain much in the way of juggling, but it does feature much singing and large doses of tomfoolery. Some of the action in the film calls to mind the zaniness of The Princess Bride. By far the best scenes in the film are the musical numbers; particularly humorous are Ella's impromptu karaoke performance of Queen's "Find Me Somebody to Love" and a rousing finale of the Elton John and the Kiki Dee song, "Don't Go Breaking My Heart."
Ella Enchanted is not a weighty film, or even all that memorable a film. But if you are looking for a film that is safe for the whole family and that provides an entertaining distraction for 95 minutes, you'll likely be enchanted with Ella.