Shrek started a vogue for post-modern fairy tales, with self-aware characters, pop-culture jokes and retro needle-drops designed to keep the parents on message. Ella Enchanted attempted to do the same trick with live action, and Tommy O’Haver’s film deserves to be remembered as a kid-friendly movie with something more to offer adults than a few patronising tit-bits.
Ella (Anne Hathaway) is enchanted from birth; a wayward fairy godmother (Vivian A Fox, very 2004 casting) has given her the gift of obedience, meaning that whenever Ella is asked to do something, she can’t help but oblige. Ask her to hand over a precious necklace given to get by her late mother and she’ll oblige. The arrival of a wicked stepmother (ideally played by Joanna Lumley) means that Ella’s behavioural traits are taken advantage off, and even though Hugh Dancy’s prince is within reach, a plan is set in motion to sideline Ella. A quest is embarked upon, with a magic book (Jimi Mistry), an Irish imp, some ogres and some other predictable obstacles on the way to ap upbeat, all-singing all-dancing finale set to Elton John and Kiki Dee’s Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.
Although five writers are credited here, the original book by Gail Carson Levine is presumably the source of Ella’s principal notion; that speaking up for yourself isn’t easy. The wider political world Ella encounters underscores the notion; Ella doesn’t like being told what to do, much as the ordinary people round about her resent their authoritarian rulers. Ella Enchanted doesn’t do much to resolve such issues, but there’s a clear and heartfelt message at the centre.
On the edges, there’s also plenty of fun in the window-dressing, from Eric Idle’s storyteller to Steve Coogan’s Heston the hissing snake, while the film amusingly leans into the Americanisation of European fairy-tales by presenting Ella’s marketplace as a mall complete with wooden escalators. For kids bored with Frozen and Tangled, Ella Enchanted is a worthy next step; chunk and easy to watch, it’s got some hidden depths worth exploring.