A romantic fairy tale with a contempo pop culture sensibility, “Ella Enchanted” draws from the well of everything from “The Princess Bride” to “Ever After,” from “Shrek” to “A Knight’s Tale” in its bid to sell medieval mores to mall-rats. While the mix is as uneven as the performance styles, the glue that holds the sweet teen-fantasy together is star Anne Hathaway, who continues to evolve into a luminous young lead. Gail Carson Levine’s original novel was much loved by young girls, who should flock to this disarming Miramax adaptation, though it lacks the edge to encroach on more adult markets.
As anyone who’s read the impassioned email exchanges on the Web sparked by casting news and by the film’s trailer will know, fans of Levine’s book are fiercely opinionated over any tampering with a story that clearly struck chords with pre-teen readers. Those devotees may be hostile to the liberties taken by a committee of screenwriters that includes the “Legally Blonde” team of Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith.
Chief among the film’s innovations is the choice to contemporize aspects of the story and language, with references to medieval teen mags and fan clubs, a shopping mall replete with hand-cranked escalators, a predominantly ’70s-retro soundtrack, and period damsels spouting lines like “Bite me” and “Cool trick.” The filmmakers also pushed the tone into a far more jokey comic realm, which dilutes the romantic-magical chemistry of the book, downplaying its central idea of a “Cinderella” overhaul.
Opening with some rumination about fairy tales, director Tommy O’Haver (“Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss”) wades through some voiceover-heavy exposition but settles on an agreeably breezy tone once the title character’s mission becomes clear — and once she assumes the teenage form of Hathaway.
That mission stems from the tradition in the kingdom of Frell that each newborn child is given a gift by a fairy godmother. One such benefactress, Lucinda (Vivica A. Fox), endowed Ella (Hathaway) with the gift of obedience, which turns out to be more of a curse. When Ella’s widowed father (Patrick Bergin) remarries shrewish Dame Olga (Joanna Lumley), the girl’s compulsion to do exactly as she’s told makes her a helpless pawn in the hands of her stepmother’s wicked daughters Hattie and Olive (Lucy Punch, Jennifer Higham).
The animosity of those period-frocked Hilton sisters is stoked when royal heartthrob Prince Charmont (Hugh Dancy) passes through town and Ella catches his eye. Char’s uncle Edgar (Cary Elwes) has cared for the lad since the mysterious death of his father and is only marginally less sinister than his CGI pet snake Heston (voiced by Steve Coogan). Edgar has made the kingdom an unjust place, enslaving its elves, giants and ogres.
When cruel Hattie and Olive cost their stepsister her best friend (Parminder K. Nagra), Ella sets off to find Lucinda and have her take back the obedience curse. Ella’s clumsy nanny Mandy (Minnie Driver) gives her a book for guidance in which the latter’s boyfriend Benny (Jimi Mistry) has been trapped by a spell gone awry. They are joined on their journey by Slannen (Aidan McArdle), an elf wanting to become a lawyer.
Levine’s book kept a steady focus on Ella’s empowering quest to lift the obedience curse while the overly processed script here embellishes her personal journey with numerous diversions and a political agenda. In “Wizard of Oz” fashion, the film also makes transient characters from the book into tag-alongs during Ella’s trek through the kingdom, and invents villains (Edgar and Heston).
O’Haver’s most amusing touches are the musical inserts, notably an interlude in Giantville, during which Ella is instructed to entertain a wedding party with a song. Underlining the cross-epochal similarity with “A Knight’s Tale,” which also prominently featured a hit by Brit group Queen, Ella launches into a rousing version of “Somebody to Love” — spiritedly sung by Hathaway — that may be the film’s high point.
As she did in “The Princess Diaries,” Hathaway lights up the screen. A thoroughly charming performer with a bracing freshness about her that carries the film, the actress establishes credible chemistry with Brit thesp Dancy (“Black Hawk Down”), who makes a serviceably sweet natured, sensitive hunk.
Around the core couple, however, the film indulges in the Miramax tendency to throw in name actors regardless of their being right for the role. “Bend It Like Beckham” star Nagra is barely used, as is Driver, whose character is upgraded from a plump hag in the book. Fox seems to be in another movie, and supermodel Heidi Klum should be exiled back to the catwalk based on her wooden appearance here as a giantess besotted with diminutive Slannen — a direct rip-off of the donkey-dragon tryst from “Shrek.” Lumley and Elwes give unrestrained pantomime perfs, the latter stopping just short of twirling his moustache, while Punch and Higham are like nauseating sitcom teens.
Visuals — including Norman Garwood’s colorful production design and Ruth Myers’ period costumes graced with 1960s and ’70s flourishes — are plenty vibrant and the Irish locations are handsomely captured by John de Borman’s sweeping camera. Visual effects are refreshingly low-tech, particularly in the Giantville scenes, which resemble “Elf” in their old-fashioned perspective tricks. But the heavy CGI component seems undernourished and often poorly integrated, giving the underpopulated pic an artificial look and hinting that the material might have been better served by deluxe Disney treatment.