In keeping with the fairy tale theme, I will begin this review with a warning: If you want to experience the real pleasures this movie has to offer, do not expect a faithful re-creation of the book. The plot, the characters, even the tone are very different, and the fans of the marvelous book, who can all but recite it by heart, may feel affronted. But the book’s theme and lessons are all there, and in its own way, the story it tells is endearing, enduring, and lots of fun.
Both book and movie start with the question a 21st century girl would ask about the classic Cinderella fairy tale. Why did Cinderella do whatever her evil step-mother and step-sisters told her to? According to author Gail Carson Levine, it’s because a well-meaning but careless fairy named Lucinda (Viveca A. Fox), tried to give a gift to Ella (Anne Hathaway) when she was born, and cast a spell so she would always be obedient. But that meant that whenever Ella was given a direct order, she had to do whatever she was told. Literally. This is an inconvenience in a loving household but becomes downright dangerous when Ella’s mother dies and her father marries nasty Dame Olga (Joanna Lumley). And it becomes downright deadly when an evil usurper orders Ella to commit murder.
Ella’s journey to find a way to break the spell has its own dangers as she meets up with elves, ogres, giants, fairies, and of course a very charming prince (Hugh Dancy).
Like Shrek, this is a fairy tale with some broad (and occasionally crude) humor and winking references to modern times. Ella attends the local community college and shops at the Galleria include the “Crockery Barn.” The soundtrack includes covers of pop classics from “Respect” to “Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart.” And Ella’s support for the rights of ogres, giants, and elves (including an elf who wants to be a lawyer despite rules that require all elves to be entertainers) shows us her heart and spirit and gives her something to discuss with the prince beyond who should rescue whom and his latest appearance in Medieval Teen magazine.
The movie works so hard to be entertaining that it can feel a little hypercharged at times, cluttered with too many talented performers with too little to do. But the production design helps maintain the sense of magic, with storybook castles and forests. And Hathaway (now something of an expert in this genre after The Princess Diaries) is so radiantly lovable that she could make an ATM withdrawal feel like a fairy tale. When Ella is ordered to entertain the guests at a giant’s wedding celebration, she breaks into Queen’s “Somebody to Love” and dances across the tabletop with such joyous gusto that even Freddie Mercury would approve. Dancy makes the prince more than the usual arm candy/swordsman and the way they learn to trust and respect each other enough to stop fighting the attraction they feel is unexpectedly tender.
Parents should know that the movie has some crude language (“bite me” “cute butt”) and social drinking. It is supposed to be humorous when a character gets tipsy and has a drinking problem. There is violence, including fighting, knives, and swordplay and characters are in peril. A character is hit in the crotch in a slapstick fight. In a more serious fight, it appears that a character is killed, but it turns out not to be the case. Ella’s mother becomes ill and dies. Ella is ordered to shoplift and due to the curse, must obey. An ogre’s pants reveal the top of his butt crack. One strength of the movie is that it deals with themes of discrimination and prejudice as Ella fights the kingdom’s restrictive laws segregating giants, ogres, and elves. And Ella herself is a strong, brave, independent, and loyal role model.
Families who see this movie should talk about what it was that made it possible for Ella to break the curse? What did she have to learn or feel to make that happen? They may want to talk about the theme of discrimination and segregation in the story. What creates prejudice? Part of the fun of the movie, and explored in more detail in the book, is the way that the literal meaning of the words in direct orders to Ella have unexpected results. Families should talk about the way that the way listeners hear words can mean something different from what the speaker intends.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy another modern re-imagining of the Cinderella fairy tale, Ever After with Drew Barrymore. How does that movie handle the problem of explaining why the main character allows herself to be treated so badly? They will also enjoy more traditional versions, including Rodger and Hammerstein’s musical Cinderella made for television with Lesley Ann Warren 1965 and remade as Cinderella in 1997 with Brandy and Whitney Houston. Along with Disney’s animated Cinderella all are a treat for families. And every family should see The Princess Bride, with Cary Elwes, who plays Prince Char’s uncle in “Ella Enchanted,” as the dashing hero. Robin Wright is the woman he loves who is betrothed to a prince who is anything but charming. Families should read Gail Carson Levine’s superb book and might also want to try some other modern takes on fairy tales, including a thoughtful literary retelling of Beauty and the Beast called Rose Daughter and the story collections The Outspoken Princess and the Gentle Knight and Tatterhood and Other Tales.