Several years ago, a prominent Hollywood production company tried to develop a movie based on C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The famed children's tale had been adapted for television a few times before, but Narnia fans like me were still waiting with high hopes for the definitive film treatment of Lewis's story So imagine our shock, indeed our outrage, when Lewis's step-son, Douglas Gresham, reported that the screenplay he had seen had introduced all sorts of modern, and distinctly non-Lewisian, elements to the story. Cheeseburgers had replaced Turkish delight, and the Allied Leopards of Narnia had formed their own trade union.
That movie, thankfully, was never made; the film rights reverted to the Lewis estate, which has since permitted an entirely different company to adapt the story. But I was reminded of that near-catastrophe while watching Ella Enchanted, Tommy O'Haver's campy adaptation of Gail Carson Levine's charming fairy tale about a girl who is cursed with the gift of perfect obedience. The film keeps the book's interesting premise—ever since a fairy visited her home when she was a baby, Ella (The Princess Diaries' Anne Hathaway) simply cannot refuse to do what anybody tells her to do—as well as some character names and a few basic plot points, but it changes everything else.
Levine's book makes just enough nods to existing fairy tales to qualify as "post-modern," in some sense of the word; the basic tale, which includes wicked stepsisters, glass slippers and the like, is a revision of the Cinderella story, and the characters even remark that tales like The Shoemaker and the Elves perpetuate false stereotypes. (Elves in the real world aren't that short!) But that's about as far as that goes.
On the other hand, the film, written by Laurie Craig (Paulie) and Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith (Legally Blonde), is rife with creative anachronisms; what The Flintstones was to the prehistoric age, Ella Enchanted is to the Middle Ages. Thus Ella's giddy stepsisters put hand-drawn pin-ups of the Prince on their bedroom walls and read Medieval Teen, while the coaches are painted like taxi cabs and the village market looks like an open-air shopping mall, complete with a wooden, hand-cranked escalator.
And then there is the dialogue, which is chock full of contemporary jargon. When Ella is still quite young, a girl taunts her and says, "Bite me!" Ella, of course, takes this literally and replies with her teeth. Asked to take back the "gift" of obedience that she has bestowed on Ella, the fairy Lucinda (Vivica A. Fox) says, "I have a no-return policy." Rescued from some bigoted bullies in the woods, the elf Slannen (Aidan McArdle) says, "I'm going to need so much therapy after this." After Ella tells Prince Charmont (Hugh Dancy) a few things about her obsessive, stalking stepsister Hattie (Lucy Punch), the Prince says, "Now I know what name to put on the restraining order." And so on.
In fairness, there can be a place for this sort of thing. The "panto"—short for pantomime, which takes frequent jabs at local politics and pop culture—is an established part of the British theatrical tradition, and I could not help but laugh when Slannen, who wants to be a lawyer, cries out, "If the gauntlet doesn't fit, you must acquit!" If I had known nothing about the book, I might have enjoyed the film as a purely silly twist on classic fairy tales, not unlike The Princess Bride. Indeed, the star of that film, Cary Elwes, appears here as a scheming villain with designs on the Prince's crown; his gleefully over-the-top mannerisms would be right at home in a panto. And Anne Hathaway is simply a joy to watch; she is one of those rare radiant actresses who is equally at ease conveying the tragedy of losing a friend, the joy of finding new love, and the sheer physical absurdity of springing down a castle corridor just because someone told her to "hop to it."
But this film is based on a book, and the story loses a great deal in the translation. For one thing, the book's characters expressed a genuine curiosity in the ways of other cultures, a curiosity that is lost in the film's constant pop allusions. Take Ella's visit to the land of the giants. In the book, Ella attends a wedding between two giants which includes a ritual pantomime expressing their desire to live together, raise a family together, and ultimately die together. But the film turns the wedding party into a mere karaoke night, as Ella belts out a cover of Queen's Somebody to Love and modulates her performance to suit the demands of her audience ("A little more soul!" cries one giant).
And then there is the question of how Ella's "curse" of obedience is ultimately resolved. Without giving too much away, suffice to say that the book emphasizes Ella's self-sacrificing love, whereas the film falls back on contrived gimmicks and a politically correct climax in which the oppressed ogres, elves and giants rise up against their common enemy. Like Shrek, A Knight's Tale and Black Knight before it, Ella Enchanted may be set in medieval times, but it never shakes off its 21st-century habits of mind. The film's Narrator (Eric Idle) begins and ends the story with poems about the role of fairy tales, and how they transport us to another place before leaving us back in the real world, but the sad fact of the matter is that Ella Enchanted lets us stay right where we are.
Talk About ItDiscussion starters
- Is obedience always a good thing? How do we decide what (and whom) should be obeyed, and what shouldn't? How should we respond when people—including our children—do not obey us?
- How should we obey? Just by following the "letter of the law" (as Ella does when she picks the flowers her step-mother asks for, but adds poison ivy to the bouquet)? Is the heart part of the deal? If we choose to disobey, how should we be disobedient?
- What is the significance of free will? How are we shaped by all the messages our culture sends us (through advertising, etc.)? To what extent should we allow ourselves to be shaped by our culture? To what extent should we resist it?
- What are the benefits and dangers of being exposed to the ways of other times and places? Does the Church tie us to older ways of thinking and being? If so, in what ways is that good, and in what ways not so good?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
This PG-rated film has some mild crude humor—an elf is blown away by a giant's flatulence, a poet catches himself and says the word "witches" instead of another word that rhymes, that sort of thing. The villain plots an assassination, during the course of which a knife is pulled, a snake attacks someone's leg, a poisoned crown is placed on someone's head, and a fight breaks out. The film encourages a let's-all-get-along philosophy, though it has to overlook the fact that ogres eat people in order to do so.
Photos © Copyright Miramax Films
What Other Critics Are Sayingcompiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 04/15/04
Seeking to entertain audiences with the same magical spell cast by The Princess Bride, director Tommy O'Haver's fairy tale film Ella Enchanted goes so far as to cast the former Prince Wesley (Cary Elwes) in a small role. Anne Hathaway stars as a "plucky damsel" who tries to break free from a lifelong curse. Based on the children's book by Gail Carson Levine, the movie packs its storybook fare with Shrek-like pop culture references and humor intended for grownups.
While it has a happy ending, of course, the movie failed to make mainstream critics happy. Similarly, religious press critics would prefer something a little more original and much more meaningful.
"If I had known nothing about the book, I might have enjoyed the film as a purely silly twist on classic fairy tales, not unlike The Princess Bride," says Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies). "Anne Hathaway is simply a joy to watch." But he concludes, "The book emphasizes Ella's self-sacrificing love, whereas the film falls back on contrived gimmicks and a politically correct climax. Like Shrek, A Knight's Tale, and Black Knight before it, Ella Enchanted may be set in medieval times, but it never shakes off its 21st-century habits of mind."
"Fairy tales deserve better treatment than this," says Steven Isaac (Plugged In). "It's great to advocate the equality of all races (species, in this context) and to show the value of free will, but the alternative given—to follow your own heart and look for strength within—is beyond trite, it's foolish."
Misty Wagner (Christian Spotlight) lists things that some might consider offensive. "The kisses in this movie … are not closed mouth. To go one step further there is a small amount of cleavage, an excess amount of bare midriffs, talk of liking someone's 'butt,' and a comment made about girls 'tonguing' the floor that the prince supposedly walked on." But she concludes that "It's a sweet movie, and in this generation of ratings often being far too lenient, it keeps its 'innocence' fairly intact."
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "While it is wholly in keeping with the church's teaching concerning the dignity of each person to encourage young girls to develop a healthy sense of self-empowerment, parents should be aware of the views being espoused underneath the film's breezy fairy tale facade. Once upon a time fairy godmothers didn't have to sleep off hangovers, and 'obedience' was not considered a curse."
"Once upon a time … blah, blah, blah," says Michael Elliott (Movie Parables). "That's the feeling one gets while viewing Ella Enchanted. Tired, stale, and lame are not adjectives that you want to hear attached to a light comedy/fantasy film."
I would add that it is misleading for moviemakers to believe that fairy tales are just for kids, and that adults need their fantasy films peppered with "humor for grownups" or self-conscious references to pop culture. C. S. Lewis was right to argue that any story that isn't good enough for grownups certainly isn't good enough for children. If a children's story is told well, it will also prove compelling for adults. What made The Princess Bride such a charmer was not a bunch of pop culture references, but an artful use of tongue-in-cheek comedy, memorable performances, characters that surprised you at every turn, and themes more meaningful than self-reliance—the sacred nature of marriage and the power of love to endure all trials and to redeem even those who are dead. (Or at least "mostly dead, not all dead.")
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