Once upon a time, Disney had the market cornered on wholesome, pure-of-heart fairy tales — films like “Cinderella” and “Sleeping Beauty” featuring fairy godmothers and charming princes. But somewhere along the way, academics and feminists and a new generation of ironically inclined kiddos realized the underlying message of these films wasn’t so magical, teaching young girls to be little more than passive wives. The Mouse House (as Variety referred to the studio at the time) was slow to address its shortcomings, while others stepped in — from “Shrek” to “The Fairly OddParents” — to parody the formula and push its politics into the 21st century.
A glorified TV movie debuting straight to the Disney Plus streaming platform, “Godmothered” is meant to signal to the world that Disney is in on the joke, an acknowledgment that “happily ever after” doesn’t necessarily follow a fairy-tale wedding but is in fact a sign of lazy storytelling. (Honestly, what could be more boring — not to mention more unrealistic — than uneventful bliss for the rest of one’s days?) As veteran fairy narrator Agnes (a looks-the-part June Squibb) puts it, interrupting her own storybook introduction, “Oh, blah, blah, blah … Fairy tales end with ‘happily ever after,’ and that’s where we begin.”
Overseen by “Bridget Jones’s Diary” director Sharon Maguire, the movie takes place in the present day (minus the coronavirus, of course) and focuses on what might be considered “ordinary people” — average middle-class folks rather than once-and-future royals. Single mom Mackenzie (Isla Fisher) works at a local news station, turning ho-hum events into ratings-friendly stories, while her co-worker, the auspiciously named Hugh Prince (Santiago Cabrera), tries to keep things a little less … fake. Up in the Motherland, as Melissa Stack and Kari Granlund’s script dubs the realm of fairy helpers, Mackenzie’s situation looks hopeless to all but an overeager trainee named Eleanor (“Brittany Runs a Marathon” star Jillian Bell).
Eleanor is the last of her kind to care about intervening in the love lives of humans, while the others all complain, “Again with the formula? Can’t we do anything different?” Over the years, fairy godmothers have been embodied by everyone from Helena Bonham Carter (Disney’s live-action “Cinderella”) to Whitney Houston (in the musical version) to Jennifer Saunders (“Shrek”), though none has had much of an identity beyond conjuring gowns and magic spells.
Indefatigably upbeat (and rather exhausting to everyone around her), Bell’s Eleanor is younger and more inexperienced than most, which is half the joke, setting up a situation in which she’s totally overwhelmed by the modern world when she arrives to help Mackenzie. The other half involves the fact that Mackenzie was a little girl when she wrote to the godmothers for help, whereas now she has two daughters of her own and doesn’t really need such intervention.
This is a weird thing for the movie to get hung up on (the idea that Mackenzie is too old, I mean), confusing fairy godmothers with the Tooth Fairy perhaps. It implies that girls stop believing in these magic matchmakers at a certain point and learn to help themselves, which puts Motherland at risk of being rendered irrelevant unless Eleanor can make this mission a success. More likely, the movie’s age issues reveal what kind of demographic Disney was going for with this project, targeting audiences closer to the age of Mackenzie’s teen daughter, Jane (Jillian Shea Spaeder), who loves to sing but freaks out when asked to do it in front of people — which sets up a big feel-good concert finale.
“Godmothered” isn’t the first time Disney has tweaked its own legacy. The movie has echoes of “Enchanted,” the 2007 live-action princess movie in which a cartoon character crosses over into contemporary New York, but few of its charms. There, it was fun to see Amy Adams’ fish-out-of-water routine, whereas Bell is mostly obnoxious as she does things like redecorate Mackenzie’s house as a medieval castle and flubs the spell for a stunning gown, conjuring instead some kind of ugly sleeping-bag outfit. Come to think of it, the fairy godmothers weren’t much help to Briar Rose in “Sleeping Beauty” either — more like well-meaning busybodies, and that’s roughly the mode of Eleanor’s incompetence.
Maguire has directed just four features this century, two of them Bridget Jones movies, but there’s hardly any sign that the person behind the camera has the magic touch that have made that franchise a hit. Her work here is only marginally more accomplished than whichever for-hire talent helms your typical Disney Channel episode, distinguished only by the effects-heavy/animation-enhanced Motherland sequences that bookend the story. The movie does serve up a rather satisfying ending, suggesting the studio’s latest politically correct reinterpretation of “true love.” The rest looks cheap and lacks much of a personality, whereas the same concept might have worked better at any studio other than Disney, which pulls its punches and plays it safe, winking at its legacy without doing anything that might actually tarnish it.