Friday, 20 February 2015

KIDS' STUFF: Ella Enchanted (2004)

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Ella Enchanted (Ireland/ UK/ USA, 2004)
Directed by Tommy O'Haver
Starring Anne Hathaway, Hugh Darcy, Cary Elwes, Steve Coogan

British films often have a reputation for being creaky, twee and altogether more modest than their American counterparts. Ken Russell's mother used "a British picture" as shorthand for any film that was drab and dreary, in contrast to the glossy Stateside offering available when she made those comments in the 1930s. Sometimes critics on this side of the pond attempt to embrace, defend or reappropriate this creakiness, usually as a defensive criticism of Hollywood. We defend films that don't quite work on the grounds that at least they're not as sanitised, manicured and anodyne as American fare. 

 
Ella Enchanted is a classic case in point where our common sense, objective reaction comes face to face with this apologetic tendency. There is a lot about Tommy O'Haver's film which is creaky, or half-cocked, or just a little bit twee. It feels like a film out of another time, before the goalposts for fantasy and fairy tale cinema were irreversibly shifted by Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings. But in spite of all its flaws, the film is ultimately a passable affair which does have one or two surprises in store.
 
The most natural point of comparison within the fantasy genre would be Stardust, another British (or part-British) film in which the somewhat second-rate production values are ultimately trumped by our empathy for the characters. Purely on a cast level, Ella Enchanted boasts a slightly more A-list roster, with future Oscar winner Anne Hathaway in the lead and fantasy veteran Cary Elwes as our villain. But Stardust is drawing from the well of fantasy tropes more deeply and affectionately, while Ella Enchanted is essentially a romantic comedy in a period frock, with magic.
 
Both Stardust and Ella Enchanted are aimed very consciously at more of a family audience than The Lord of the Rings. While the films achieved similar certificates from the BBFC, Peter Jackson's trilogy is darker, more multi-layered, and altogether more ambitious. It's not just that he has a bigger budget to play with, or that J. R. R. Tolkien's books are longer and more complex: it's that his ambitions for the characters and what they represent are greater and more fully realised. Stardust and Ella Enchanted are much flimsier affairs, whose appeal comes from whimsy and escapist enjoyment rather than anything more profound or visceral.
 
Don't presume, however, Ella Enchanted is a film with nothing between its ears. Strip away the fantasy trappings and you discover a film about women taking charge of their own destinies. Our heroine goes through her entire life being at the mercy of other people, most of whom exploit her for their cruel, near-sadistic satisfaction. She obeys because she has no choice, her gift (or should that be curse) reflecting a world in which women are often denied the agency or independence they deserve.
 
Considering that the film is at its heart a frothy romantic comedy (with big dollops of pantomime), the way in which it approaches this idea is surprisingly sophisticated. A lot has been written about how misogyny is caused as much by women shaming other women as it is by the actions of men, something which is reflected in the film. Many of Ella's tormentors are other women, who pick on her because they are jealous of her, insecure about themselves or too lazy to improve their lot in life. And unlike some of Hathaway's subsequent rom-com run-ins (for instance, Bride Wars), the film avoids just degenerating into one long catfight, in which all the women are fighting amongst themselves and all the men are completely innocent or oblivious.
 
When doing publicity for this film, Hathaway said that one of the reasons she liked it was the way in which it "makes fun of itself for being a fairy tale". It's certainly the case that the film is attempting to poke fun at many fairy tale tropes, including the lack of agency in some of the roles accorded to women. Ella's sisters are clearly inspired by the ugly stepsisters in Cinderella, and there are vague nods to Snow White and Sleeping Beauty when the lovers first meet. But the film doesn't act too deferentially towards these elements, putting a sense of fun over any form of fidelity.
 
Unfortunately, this tactic of sending up the fairy tale trappings has the side effect of bringing the film's creakiness to the fore. There are some nice visual touches along the way, such as the escalator in the mall which is made of wood and cranked by hand. But the film lacks the edge or energy of Shrek both in its vague desire to be satirical and the strength of its relationships outside of this. Much like The Princess Bride, it ends up wanting to have its cake and eat it, and it isn't as funny or as well made as Rob Reiner's film.
 
A great deal of Ella Enchanted plays out like a ramshackle pantomime. I've spoken before about the shared roots between pantomimes and fairy tales, and so this is not entirely a surprise. But unlike Sleeping Beauty, the pantomime spirit here comes out in how shakily the film is assembled, both aesthetically and narratively. Pantomime is driven by characters reacting to events rather than acting in spite of them, but many of the obstacles our characters face are shoddily executed.
 
The scene with the giants is a very good example of this. The sequence puts us in familiar fairy tale territory (Jack and the Beanstalk and all that), and we have a romantic element to drive the plot forward. There are some good, fun moments, the best being Hathaway's spirited and convincing rendition of Queen's 'Somebody To Love' (like Les Miserables, it's all her own singing). But we also have to deal with the bad forced perspective and the ropey CG effects which make the film look like it was made in the 1950s.
 
Many of the scenes with Cary Elwes fall into the same camp. Elwes is a versatile actor, and he does do lip-curling antagonists rather convincingly. But everything about his character is made a little bit more ridiculous than it needs to be, right down to the laughable size of his massive staff. While Elwes works hard to make it look like he's not telegraphing the plot to the audience (which, of course, he is), you're always left wondering whether his appearance is a sly joke or simply a poor piece of design.
 
Much of the blame for this lies with the director. Tommy O'Haver is at best a nuts-and-bolts filmmaker: he's well-meaning, and can make a plot move for a certain amount of time, but his visual decisions are unconvincing and often derivative. In this case he is ill-equipped to create an absorbing fantasy universe, in which every piece has a logic behind it or represents a compelling idea. In his hands the fantasy world feels like a parade of half-finished concepts, endless sidekicks and poor special effects.
 
As far as the performances are concerned, O'Haver does fare a little better. As with his previous film, Get Over It, he does give his female lead the room she needs to express herself; like Kirsten Dunst, Hathway's presence gradually grows and her comedic potential increases as the film goes on. It's not exactly a career-making performance, nor is she playing against type in her Princess Diaries period of roles. But she's charming and capable, and does manage to carry the story on her own.
 
Much like Get Over It, however, many of the supporting cast don't get the same amount of flexibility. Lucy Punch has gradually carved out a niche for herself in Hollywood comedies, but here she's largely one-note and regularly over-eggs it in an annoying way. Joanna Lumley is the ideal choice for the wicked stepmother figure, but she's less convincingly wicked here than she was in James and the Giant Peach. Jimi Mistry doesn't get as much screen time as his work on East is East would lead us to expect, and Eric Idle's narration is as flat and superfluous as his Stardust counterpart.
 
Ella Enchanted is a passable romcom in a fantasy outfit which will entertain young viewers quite happily over its running time. While aspects of its characterisation are sophisticated and it is sporadically good fun, it is far too creakily mounted and limiting in places to be given a clean bill of health. Stardust remains the superior family fantasy, but for a quite afternoon in with the grandchildren, there are worse things you could throw at them.

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NEXT REVIEW: Sabrina Goes to Rome (1998)

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