Based on the Gail Carson Levine book, Tommy O’Haver’s Ella Enchanted is about a girl living in a mythical land that’s kind of a hodgepodge of different fairy-tale archetypes (think of the Brothers Grimm after suburban gentrification). Ella herself is played by Anne Hathaway, she of the distractingly huge eyes, perfect hair, and pleasant demeanor. Ella’s problems started not long after birth when a local fairy, Lucinda (Vivica A. Fox), gave her the “gift” of obedience, meaning she must do everything that anybody asks of her.
Years later, the teenage Ella has a new evil stepmother, Olga (Joanna Lumley of Absolutely Fabulous fame), who’s determined to marry one of her girls to the charming Prince Charmont (Hugh Dancy), and is royally peeved that Charmont seems to like Ella better. After one of Ella’s new sisters figures out Ella’s curse and uses it to force her to renounce her friendship with an old friend (Parminder K. Nagra), Ella sets off on a journey to find Lucinda and make her remove the curse. Why she didn’t do this before is anybody’s guess.
From the very beginning, the film’s primary dysfunction is that it can’t decide exactly how smarmy or adorably postmodern it wants to be. We’ve got Lucinda as a fairy with a drinking problem, jokey scenes that reference shopping malls and Pottery Barn, and occasionally weird crude humor, as well as a barely developed subplot about Charmont’s uncle, Edgar (Cary Elwes), trying to take over the kingdom by enslaving all other races (elves, giants, etc.) and ultimately murdering Charmont. It’s all just a little too Shrek by way of The Princess Bride, though not as energetic as the former and not nearly as witty as the latter.
Which is a shame, really, because it’s during those moments that O’Haver’s frenzied direction makes the most sense and the film attempts to win you over with a devil-may-care, goofy attitude; Eric Idle even pops in from time to time with a song, and that’s never a bad idea. But Hathaway doesn’t have much more to offer here than a nice smile, and most of the rest of the actors (many of whom seem to have been cast by roulette wheel) don’t fare much better. Ella Enchanted is a ramshackle mess that is all the more frustrating for those brief times when it pulls itself together; it raises your expectations before smashing them again.