Opening the first Friday in January, “Happily N’Ever After” marks a New Year’s resolution of sorts, kicking off 2007 with a shift away from talking-animal toons. Yet, this underwhelming entry is a kind of equally overused fairy tale revisionism, this time depicting what might happen to all such tales if Cinderella’s wicked stepmother took control. “Happily” even shares a producer with “Shrek” (John H. Williams). Still, this colorful, crowd-pleasing toon is likely to deliver, if Lionsgate can take a page from the Weinstein Co.’s “Hoodwinked” playbook by adding marketing muscle and a wide release to its modest investment.
Premise is something of a sham in that all fairy tale characters — from poisoned-apple-eating Snow White to solitary-confined Rapunzel — are miserable for the greater part of their own stories. And though “Happily” threatens to deliver an unhappy ending, it really only offers the same unhappy middle as the stories it sets out to subvert.
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Story begins with the resident wizard (George Carlin), whose job it is to make sure Fairy Tale Land’s many romances all go “by the book,” leaving his two dim-witted assistants in charge while he goes on vacation.
Rather than allowing for a “Sorcerer’s Apprentice”-style scenario, in which Munk (Wallace Shawn) and Mambo (Andy Dick) accidentally turn Fairy Tale Land on its head, the wizard’s absence serves as the device by which malicious stepmother Frieda (Sigourney Weaver) takes charge. In command of the wizard’s staff, Frieda invites all manner of evildoers into the kingdom, tipping the scales toward unhappiness on all the fairy tales in progress.
Greatest effect is Ella (that’s short for Cinderella, voiced by Sarah Michelle Gellar) and her dunderheaded Prince Humperdink (Patrick Warburton), who romance is short-circuited before the stroke of midnight.
But other fairytales are going awry, too: One prince falls into a deep slumber after kissing Sleeping Beauty; another yanks Rapunzel out of her tower by the hair.
Screenwriter Rob Moreland is good with the one-liners but weak on plot, which means the movie’s moment-to-moment riffs, references and sundry puns satisfy considerably more than its insincere love story ever could. It’s a clever idea that Ella should prefer Rick (Freddie Prinze Jr.), the servant boy, to the more conventionally attractive prince, but the romantic tension never really takes hold.
Wearing her hair in a Winona Ryder-style pixie cut, Ella is one thoroughly modern young maiden, and Rick is presumably every 10-year-old girl’s fantasy, designed to look like a big-eyed, long-haired Bratz boy doll. One of the pic’s many unresolved mysteries is where exactly this guy gets off calling the prince “pretty boy.” The animators seem to enjoy watching Rick walk and typically pose him with one hip thrust out in defiant contrapposto.
Meanwhile, the female characters all boast hourglass figures that would make even Jessica Rabbit jealous. There’s something unseemly in such over-sexualized character design, matched by an equal lack of imagination in most of the backgrounds. The castle, for example, looks like some kind of giant kitchen appliance, a letdown compared with the breathtaking alternatives presented in the countless Disney films that director Paul J. Bolger so flippantly dismisses.
Luckily, the voice talent elevates the pic above its visual limitations. Casting director Ruth Lambert hasn’t gone star-crazy the way so many other animated movies do (though Pixar generally trusts character actors, most toons court A-list names with little or no sound-booth experience). “Happily” taps strong voices such as Weaver and Gellar for key parts, but otherwise relies on animation regulars to elevate the repartee. Warburton, Dick and Shawn are all old pros.
Polished sound design enhances the experience, making the giant’s footsteps and witches’ brooms vibrate all four walls when they pass, while Vanguard Animation (responsible for lo-fi carrier pigeon flop “Valiant”) injects plenty of color wherever it can’t afford to animate detail.