Thursday, April 20, 2017

Ella Enchanted

Year 9, Day 110 - 4/20/17 - Movie #2,604

BEFORE: I know it seems weird, a man in his late forties watching fairy tales and other films for kids, like those damn Dalmatian movies - call me a completist if you have to.  But I was raised on animated films and other Disney movies, in fact it's all that my mother would let me watch on the big screen, so is it any wonder that I work on animated films now for a living?  I can make a case for watching those "Ice Age" or "Madagascar" films, because they're sort of aimed at the whole family - but having straight-out fairy tales on the watchlist is harder for me to defend.  (I taped tonight's film to fill up the DVD with "Into the Woods", for example.)

Maybe that's why I keep putting them off - when it would have been so easy to work them in any time I had some room in February (all fairy tales are about romance, right?) but I didn't.  I even watched two other films with Anne Hathway already this year, and didn't take the opportunity to get to this one.  But instead of sandwiching this between "The Intern" and "Bride Wars", or something like that, I'm going to invoke the new "linking between characters" rule and knock out all three Cinderella-based films on my list this week.  And I've got some more kiddie films coming up next month, like "Strange Magic" and the latest "Ice Age" film.  I've also got Snow White films to deal with, but there's no direct link, so I'll have to circle back later for those.

Eric Idle carries over from "102 Dalmatians", where he was the voice of the parrot, to be the narrator of today's fairy tale.  Another bonus actor, Jim Carter, carries over too.

THE PLOT: Ella is under a spell to be constantly obedient, a fact she must hide from her new step-family in order to protect the prince of the land, for whom she's falling.

AFTER: Reviving the old fairy tales is big business these days, with "Grimm" and "Once Upon a Time" on TV, and that big-screen "Maleficent" a couple years back, and now "Beauty and the Beast" being re-made again.  But the trend goes back past "Tangled" and "Into the Woods" all the way to "Shrek" in 2001, which jammed all the fairy tale characters into one film, "Roger Rabbit" style, and also put that PC spin on the stories, making an ogre the hero and the king-like character into the bad guy.

This seems like the sort of film that got green-lit in post-Shrek Hollywood, because it similarly makes the villain the rich white guy in power, and jams together elements of "Sleeping Beauty", "Gulliver's Travels", "The Princess Bride", Disney's animated "Robin Hood", "Hamlet", and, I don't know, let's say "The Lord of the Rings" for good measure. Make sure that the film's message resonates with today's popular trends and doesn't offend anyone, throw in a couple of easily-licensed pop songs, and boom, there's your movie, don't forget the happy ending.

To be fair, it's based on a book, and I can't say whether that book came before or after the publication of the "Shrek" book that got turned into that other film.  But there are similarities in the modernization of the fairy-tale world, like here the elves, ogres and giants are the oppressed minorities of society, they're marginalized and told what occupations they're allowed to have, and making each species of fairy-tale creature live in their own land seems like a comment on the immigration issues in the U.S., something that's in the news more and more these days.

And I understand the inherent problems with the Cinderella story - she's a doormat, and she doesn't seem to be willing to change her situation, preferring to wait for both a fairy godmother and Prince Charming to come and rescue her from domestic drudgery.  The original fairy tale sends the wrong message to young girls, because she represents the opposite of female empowerment.  Plus, she never goes anywhere, she's stuck at home cleaning most of the time (sweeping up cinders, that's how she got her name...) so where's the fun and romance in that?  She only gets to sneak out to the ball once, and that's only one scene change, not enough to support a whole movie.

This film tries to solve those problems by making Ella's fairy godmother less of a benefactor - she puts a curse of obedience on her instead, back when she was a baby.  What kind of a dotty fairy curses babies?  But if you try to complain about this fairy's "gifts", she turns you into a squirrel or something, so you've got to make the best of it, apparently.  So now whenever someone tells Ella to do something, she HAS to comply.  Eventually one of her step-sisters figures this out (while attending school in fairyland, which seems a bit weird) and takes advantage of her curse whenever possible.  And Ella's budding romance with Prince "Char" gets off on the wrong foot when his accidental commands cause her to act in unusual ways.

So she sets off on a quest to find the original fairy who cursed her - and it's certainly more cinematic to get out of the house and go on a quest - along with a magic book that used to be her aunt's boyfriend, umm, or something, and along the way she befriends an elf who dreams of being a lawyer, and a few ogres and giants as well.  This is where the PC police enter the screenwriting process, because we're clearly supposed to view the non-human story characters as the "undesirable" oppressed ethnicities of this fantasy society.  It's funny, the "Lord of the Rings" movies makes it seem like elves are a higher life-form than humans, but here they're second-class citizens, good only for singing and dancing.

All of this PC nonsense means that there's not much room for the traditional Cinderella story elements - you know, the coach that gets turned into a pumpkin, Cinderella leaving the ball in haste at midnight, and the stepsisters trying on the glass slipper in vain.  All that's gone, but the nutsy fairy godmother does return in time to get Ella dressed up for the ball - but the twist here is that she doesn't want to go, because someone's used the obedience spell to program her to be some kind of "Manchurian Candidate" assassin, so there's a really good reason why she doesn't want to be at the ball at midnight this time.  This was probably the best addition to the plot, because in the regular story, Cinderella is so wishy-washy, running out on the Prince just when their relationship was heating up.  (Jeez, do you want to be with the Prince or not?  Mixed signals, girlfriend.)

And we're therefore spared that ridiculous search by Prince Charming, searching the whole kingdom for a girl with a particular shoe size.  That never made much sense to me, I mean, don't a lot of women have the same shoe size?  "Hmm, I was looking for a redhead I saw the other night, this girl's a brunette, but her foot is a size 6, so that must be her!"  And if he's in love with her, wouldn't he be able to recognize her face, and not just her feet? It's ridiculous - or does he have some weird kind of foot fetish?

The special effects here are particularly bad - whenever they wanted to mix creatures of different sizes - elves, ogres and/or giants - they just green-screened them all together into the same scene, with little respect for maintaining proper eyelines, or matching the relative speeds or positions of the different characters.  So it's extremely hard to believe them all existing in the same space at the same time.

Also starring Anne Hathaway (last seen in "Bride Wars"), Hugh Dancy (last seen in "Martha Marcy May Marlene"), Cary Elwes (last heard in "The Adventures of Tintin"), Aidan McArdle (last seen in "Me and Orson Welles"), Joanna Lumley (last seen in "The Wolf of Wall Street"), Lucy Punch (last seen in "Into the Woods"), Jennifer Higham (last seen in "Cassandra's Dream"), Minnie Driver (last seen in "Return to Me"), Jimi Mistry (last seen in "2012"), Vivica A. Fox, Parminder Nagra (last seen in "Bend It Like Beckham"), Patrick Bergin, Donna Dent, with the voice of Steve Coogan (last heard in "Minions") and a cameo from Heidi Klum (last seen in "The Devil Wears Prada")

RATING: 3 out of 10 protest signs

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