When Gail Carson Levine set out to retell the story of Cinderella in her first novel for children, she realized that the heroine of the classic fairy tale was "too much of a goody-two-shoes" for her tastes, and concluded that there had to be a reason for Cinderella’s submissiveness to her her wicked stepmother and stepsisters.
Borrowing a page from Sleeping Beauty, therefore, Levine came up with the central dramatic conceit of her Newbery Honor-award winning book, Ella Enchanted: From her infancy Ella has been under a fairy curse (here bestowed in cluelessness rather than malice) obliging her to obey any imperative statement directed at her, from anyone. The moral of the story, in the author’s own words in interviews and letters to readers, is: "Don’t be too obedient!"
Of course there are genuine limits on a child’s duty of obedience even to parents and other legitimate authority figures. And certainly for a child to feel obliged to obey random commands from siblings, classmates, and even total strangers would be a serious problem. Still, it seems an odd point to make the basis of a fairy tale, however revisionist.
Be that as it may, for better and for worse, in adapting Levine’s story for the screen, director Tommy O’Haver and a half-dozen credited screenwriters retained little of Levine’s Newbery Award-winning story, other than Ella’s essential dilemma and a few character names. This Ella Enchanted is more an homage to the Cinderella story than a retelling of it; gone are the enchanted pumpkin coach and field-mouse steeds, the magical slipper and the spell-breaking stroke of midnight. (Actually, the spell-breaking stroke of midnight does make an appearance, but in a completely different connection.)
Levine’s story has been considerably softened in several respects: Ella’s father, though not quite sympathetic, is no longer the cruel figure from the book, and Ella herelf (Anne Hathaway, The Princess Diaries), though obviously unhappy to be so vulnerable to capricious orders, lacks the rebellious spirit of Levine’s heroine.
Where Levine’s book adopted a straightforward magical-realist style, the movie aims for Princess Bride self-awareness and the kind of anachronistic comedy lately popularized by the Shrek movies but rooted in the British stage "panto" tradition.
Ella’s condition has goofier results on the screen than on the page: In the book, Ella simply feels an overwhelming compulsion to comply with any order and suffers physically and mentally until she does, but in the movie Ella’s body carries out orders with or without her consent, and expressions like "Bite me!" and "Hold your tongue!" are fulfilled with comic literal-mindedness.
The film satirizes the teen-idol-worship culture of its own target audience with scenes of screaming maidens swooning over dashing Prince Char (Hugh Dancy), while the more sensible Ella protests injustices committed by Char’s nefarious uncle (Cary Elwes, The Princess Bride). Of course Char is intrigued by Ella’s lack of interest in him, and she in turn begins to respond to his attentions. ("You shouldn’t believe everything you read in Mediaeval Teen," he tells her good-naturedly.)
Refreshingly, Ella avoids a misstep common among girl-empowerment flicks, which often feel compelled to emasculate the male lead in order to make the heroine truly heroic (e.g., Ever After: A Cinderella Story). This approach backfires, of course, since it’s unsatisfying for the heroine to wind up with a wimp who doesn’t deserve her; she needs a worthy suitor.
By contrast, Ella manages to make both its leads appealing and admirable, in no small measure to the credit of its appealing stars. Hathaway makes a quintessential fairy-tale princess, and radiates winsome sincerity and earnest charm. As Char, Dancy gracefully negotiates the tricky business of being at once clueless about his uncle’s evil machinations while also coming across as capable, gallant, and with the capacity for heroism under the right circumstances.
(Written by Suzanne E. Greydanus) Where is the real man here? Giselle’s rapport with Morgan and sweet naiveté are endearing; are we supposed to find Edward’s incompetence and arrogance equally so? Do our female hearts swoon when he checks his teeth in his sword, or boorishly flails it about at everything that moves? Why can’t the prince be an idealized example of chivalry, bravery, strength and honor, as Giselle is of sweetness and goodness?
Rob Reiner’s great cult classic The Princess Bride is one of those rare satiric gems, like The Court Jester and Galaxy Quest, that doesn’t just send up a genre, but honors it at the same time, giving us the excitement and pleasure of the real thing as well as the laughs of a comedy.
Not only does it terrifically succeed where movies like Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood: Men in Tights miserably fail, The Court Jester also as merry, high-spirited, and wholesome as the adventures it parodies, with none of the cynical, anarchic spirit (or content issues) of the likes of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.