Film: 'Ella Enchanted'

Ella Enchanted *** PG, 95 m with Anne Hathaway, Hugh Dancy, Cary Elwes, Minnie Driver and Vivica A. Fox. Directed by Tommy O'Haver. Opens tomorrow.

Based on Gail Carson Levine's award-winning young-adult novel of the same name, "Ella Enchanted" cleverly updates the classic "Cinderella" story with humor and intelligence to captivate audiences of all ages. With an engaging storyline, gutsy performances from an excellent cast starring Anne Hathaway of "The Princess Diaries" and lots of tongue-in-cheek humor, "Ella Enchanted" packs a bit more punch than a run-of-the-mill Disney fairytale film, and gives those who might not be enticed at the thought of taking in a movie aimed at a younger audience an incentive to go.

The film is perhaps most successful because it remains true to Levine's intentions in writing the 1998 Newbery Honor book - "to tell a story that can be enjoyed at any age."

Opening with sweeping, panoramic views that simulate the experience of flying, the film begins by immediately transporting its audience to the fairytale land of the title character, played by Hathaway. In this magical world, all children receive a gift from a fairy godmother at the moment of their birth. Having received the gift of obedience, Ella is unable to refuse any command and often finds herself at the mercy of unscrupulous personalities. Thus, she embarks on a quest to rid herself of the curse, encountering ogres, giants and wicked stepsisters in her adventures, unexpectedly finding love along the way.

The movie's premise is certainly fantastic, but it dons a remarkable credibility through the confident performances of the cast, many of whom have never before appeared in a fantasy film. Although the casting of Cary Elwes as the evil Prince Regent Edgar might not seem a surprising choice to audiences who know him as a veteran of comedic films in fairytale settings (such as the memorable "Robin Hood: Men in Tights" and "The Princess Bride") the casting of Vivica A. Fox and Minnie Driver as fairy godmothers is brilliant. Beautiful, sassy and a little kooky, they successfully reinvent the traditional fairy godmother role with their spunk.

Not only was Hathaway inspiring as the headstrong protagonist, but she also provided some of the biggest laughs of the film, particularly with her phenomenal song-and-dance performance of Queen's "Somebody to Love." In the midst of ogres taking guitar solos, Hathaway unabashedly rocks out, flailing as she belts out the ballad.

Although director Tommy O'Haver deserves credit for a rather comprehensive construction of a fairytale world, his vision appears muddled regarding the time period in which the film takes place. O'Haver juxtaposes scenes clearly invoking modern day youth culture, such as one in which Ella rides down wooden escalators in a Tudor-style shopping center, with ones which include musical numbers from the 1970s such as Elton John's "Don't Go Breaking My Heart." While he might have selected those songs in order to appeal to older audience members - perhaps the parents of the children most likely be drawn to this movie - the discrepancies in the time periods cause some confusion.

Because of consulting rights, author Levine had minimal input in producing the film. Nevertheless, she exudes excitement when speaking of the movie and does not hesitate to express how thoroughly pleased she is with the final outcome. Praising O'Haver's vision, she remarked in an interview that she was thrilled with one of the final scenes in which all of Ella's frustrations culminate with a flashback to all the times she obeyed, an essential moment in the book. Furthermore, she said, "Hathaway is the perfect embodiment of Ella."

While the film always maintains a light-hearted feeling, its irreverent twist on a traditional fairytale actually seems to underscore the changing nature of gender roles in modern-day society. Unlike the "Cinderella" story, the protagonist of "Ella Enchanted" takes command of her own life and, in the process, the handsome Prince Charmont (played by British actor Hugh Dancy) transforms himself for her sake - yet Levine denies that any feminist intentions underlie the story.

"I try not to be a moralistic writer," Levine said. "I write to tell stories."

Nevertheless, Levine concedes that Ella conveys an empowering message.

"The message is to me - that I shouldn't say 'yes' when I mean 'no,'" Levine explained. "It is a reminder to be assertive because I am more valuable to the world and to myself when I'm assertive."

Such sentiments seem reflective of Levine's experiences as a young writer. Although she had written short stories throughout her childhood, she stopped writing altogether after she received a blow to her confidence from a 12th grade writing instructor, who called her writing "pedestrian." Having given up her literary pursuits, she studied philosophy in college, only to have a renewed interested in writing at age 39.

With her latest success, she would advise aspiring writers to be suspicious of negative remarks. Furthermore, if she was a fairy godmother, she would give the gift of humility or humor because, as she notes with a grin spreading across her face, "Humor makes the world go round"

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