When the quality of a film series has noticably declined, those… MoreWhen the quality of a film series has noticably declined, those responsible for the series often attempt to rectify things with a last-ditch sequel. Many of these last-ditch efforts try to recapture the spirit of the original, both to remind fans of how good the franchise once was and to put memories of the bad apple out of sight and mind. While it sounds like a cynical tactic, it can occasionally be very successful, as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade ably demonstrates.
Shrek Forever After (originally titled Shrek Goes Fourth) is a somewhat successful attempt to achieve the same effect with the Shrek series. It is both a partial return to form and an admission on the part of Dreamworks that they really screwed up with Shrek the Third. While not everything about it is as remotely satisfying or as funny as the series was as its peak, it is also better than we had any right to expect, and is all things considered a decent way to say goodbye.
Certainly, the film is better than you might expect given the background of its director. Mike Mitchell did work as an animator on the second Shrek, as well as working as a story artist on the passable Monsters vs. Aliens. But his directorial output has been largely awful, from the schmaltzy Surviving Christmas to the painfully unfunny Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo. The relative success of this film is either a stroke of good fortune or a testament to the fact that film is a collaborate medium.
As far as its plot is concerned, Shrek Forever After is essentially an attempt to recapture the spirit of the first film via the narrative of It's A Wonderful Life. It has the same basic plot of Frank Capra's film, with a protagonist who despairs of what his life has become and who firmly believes that the world would be better off without him in it. Jimmy Stewart's suicidal tendencies have been commuted to angry, empty frustration, but the fact remains that Shrek is now effectively George Bailey.
To this end, all the elements of his life which Shrek has taken for granted are played out with a sense of detachment. All the integral elements of the Shrek canon - his love for Fiona, his friendship with Donkey, the taming of Dragon and so on - are restaged without him, creating a sense of unsettling familiarity. To children who are coming to the series for the first time, this will seem like a novel and compelling idea. For adults who have grown up with the series or remember Capra's film, it's more of a pleasant rip-off, lacking the overt sentimentality which for many renders Capra unwatchable.
One of the things the film does to justify this device is showing how depressing Shrek's life has become to warrant his wish with Rumplestiltskin. We might roll our eyes at how domesticity is so easily demonised, but few of us would wish to live our entire lives out as the "loveable lug" circus attraction that he has become. The film could have gone further with this, using Shrek to send up the vapidity of our celebrity-obsessed culture, but in the end it settles for the outburst at the birthday party and leaves it at that.
Scenes like this are clearly intended to poke fun at the series, showing that it can laugh at the commercial behemoth that it has become. But drawing attention to these features is a double-edged sword, because it also highlights how tame and ungamely the series and character has turned out to be. To use a musical analogy, it's a bit like listening to The Who play 'My Generation' today: you're impressed that the band can still belt it out, but it's also rather tragic to hear a 70-something sing "I hope I die before I get old."
The result of this is that all the funniest jokes in Shrek Forever After come with an unusual sense of sadness. It's quite a logical idea for Puss in Boots to have let himself get fat, but equally it feels like a desperate ploy in the absence of more meaningful characterisation. When the series restages key moments from the first film and then tries to surprise us, it's both a welcome alternative to repetition and an obvious thing to do. Take Donkey's attempts to woo Dragon: we know that some kind of deliberate punchline is coming, even if we can't be precisely sure what form it will take.
The most successful characterisation in the entire film is Fiona, who has regained much of the agency which she lost in Shrek the Third. The film might try and position her as somewhere between Braveheart and Joan of Arc, but she does eventually emerge as a woman of some emotional depth outside of her masculine trappings. Many films fall into the trap of believing that a strong female character is one who can simply behave like a man, and Mitchell deserves some credit for not reducing Fiona down to just another ogre.
To this end, the film benefits from the growing emotional bond between Shrek and Fiona. Unlike many other aspects of the film, it doesn't entirely suffer from an over-resemblance to the first film: here Shrek is actively trying to make Fiona fall in love with him, whereas in Shrek he was trying to do anything but. While the character dynamic is very predictable, it does become believable enough, so that by the time Shrek's day is up, we really feel for them.
While it is more emotionally resonant than the previous entry in the series, Shrek Forever After's attempts to send up fairy tales are just as half-baked. To its credit, it does solve one of Shrek the Third's biggest problems, having a villain who is convincing in both his motives and his methods. But while Rumplestiltskin himself is both memorable and funny, he's the brightest star in an otherwise ordinary firmament.
Like its predecessor, many of Shrek Forever After's fairytale touches feel derivative. The inclusion of the witches as sidekicks does feel like the film was trying to cash in on the continuing (if perplexing) popularity of Wicked. Others feel like blatant and misguided attempts to get down with the kids, offering break-dancing and hip-hop where Smash Mouth was once king. Turning the Pied Piper of Hamelin into a silent assassin is a pretty nifty concept, but he's severely underused and is reduced by the script to a brief and disappointing cameo.
The final problem that the film has to offer is the 3D. Like any number of films which were designed in 3D, there are numerous shots which exist solely to enable things to poke out of the screen - a well-worn and pointlessly pointy novelty. Whether it's the tracking shot through the window of the royal carriage or the broom chase inside Rumplestiltskin's castle, such shots are unnecessary and distracting - not what you want when your film's plot is already on shaky ground.
Shrek Forever After is as successful a film as we could possibly have hoped for, given all the baggage which it carries with it. Most if not all of the magic of the earlier films is a distant memory, and it's just as derivative as its predecessor in many respects. But its moments of humour and more resonant emotional core stop it from being completely pointless and hollow. To return to our musical analogy, it's like watching a once-great band struggle through one last rousing rendition of their greatest hits. You applaud politely at they leave the stage, but pray against there being any encore.
I've spoken on many occasions about how screenwriters or novelists… MoreI've spoken on many occasions about how screenwriters or novelists don't always make the best directors. As much as we bemoan a director's vision for a given film not gelling with that of the writer, when writers get behind a camera they often fail to grasp the difference between cinematic and literary storytelling. This is true of the cult classic Westworld, the would-be cult classic Sir Henry at Rawlinson End, and the coming-of-age drama The Perks of Being A Wallflower.
The Inbetweeners 2 sees Damon Beesley and Iain Morris, the creators of the TV series, stepping behind the camera for a film which bids farewell to the famous foursome. Just as the first film was an exception to the rule that all films based on British comedies are terrible, so this film is an exception to the rule that writers can't direct. While some of the comedy still doesn't belong, it is both an improvement on the first film and a fitting way to say goodbye.
The first big success of The Inbetweeners 2 is that it actually looks and feels like a film. This may seem an obvious point, but it's one that you can very rarely say about British comedy adaptations, both in the past and in recent times. While the production values of The Inbetweeners Movie were pretty decent, it still looked and felt like an extended TV episode. This is all-round more cinematic, with better compositions, a wider choice of angles and a glossier feel.
The explanation for this is not straightforward. Had Beesley and Morris jettisonned all the old crew upon taking the helm, it would be easy to put this transition down solely to their creative talents. But the film is shot by the same person as before (Ben Wheeler), edited by the same person (William Webb) and produced by the same person (Christopher Young, for Film4). Most if not all of the production team have done the bulk of their work in television rather than feature films.
The true explanation lies in a combination of creative freedom and an understanding of direction in terms of purpose. Directing a film is not just about making sure that all the constituent parts fit together in a workable order: it is about communicating a story, theme or idea with a clear and preferably unique voice. Not only do Beesley and Morris have more freedom following the success of the first film, but they have a clear idea of where they want to go, regardless of audience expectations.
The second big plus of The Inbetweeners 2 is that it adds depth and humanity to the characters. This is also one of the characteristics which makes it feel more cinematic: we actually see the characters grow in a meaningful way (well, meaningful enough) over a long period of time. This is something that can be done on both film and TV but in different ways; while TV episodes can space out and break up character development, on film it has to be much more seamless, as it is here.
The difference between this film and its predecessor is a dominance of character over situation. The Inbetweeners Movie was essentially a genre exercise: it dropped these characters into overly familiar surroundings and sat back to see what would happen. This film may share some familiar characteristics of episodes, particularly in the Splash Mountain scenes, but this time the characters drive any given situation and the progression from one scene to the next feels a lot more natural.
Most of the boys have an emotional arc which we can follow through the film and which makes them more rounded and believable. Will's relationship with Katie sees him disown his friends, only to realise the emptiness of both his prep-school friendship with her and the lifestyle that she and Ben have chosen to inhabit. His tirades around the camp fires are right on the money, puncturing both the pretentiousness of spiritual tourism and the egos of the people who take part in it.
Simon's relationshipwith Lucy (who has become a complete yandere) sees him finally stick up for himself when it comes to relationships; even if it's resolved in a rather convenient manner, he at least goes through the process of deciding who he values and why. Jay, arguably the least likeable character at face value, is developed the most when we discover his capacity for both remorse and genuine love. His insecurity and regret regarding Jane is very welcome and it prevents the film from repeating itself. The only one short-changed in this department is Neil; while arguably he's already happier than all the other boys, he's ultimately reduced to out-of-context comic relief.
The third big plus of The Inbetweeners 2 is that it is funnier than its predecessor. It's still every bit a gross-out comedy which treads the fine line between edgy and offensive, but there's much less of a reliance on set-pieces, and what set-pieces there are are much more memorable. With the log flume incident, it's as though Beesley and Morris saw Caddyshack, got to the infamous pool scene, and thought: "how can we make this even funnier?".
Many of the funniest moments in the film will simultaneously make you howl with laughter and grimace in disgust. The scene involving Neil in the pub with the dog may feature unconvincing prostethics, but for the brief glance we get (which is all we'll ever need), it does its job. The same goes for Will's falsetto singging around the camp fire, the aforementioned log flume incident, and Simon getting urinated on by Neil in the Outback.
While these scenes are funny, however some of the more sexual jokes are completely unnecessary. The scene where Simon is accused of being a paedophile is really uncomfortable; it's not attempting to say anything clever or expose any kind of absurd attitude, it's just plain gruesome and should have been cut. The same goes for the various mentions of rape which pop up over the running time. While the film holds back from out-and-out using sexual violence as a punchline, it seems content to use the word as a cheap laugh when it should be anything but.
There are other moments of the film which on deeper reflection don't make a lot of sense. The scene with the four boys holding hands in the Outback as they die of thirst is very touching, being somewhere between the existential loneliness of Walkabout and the incinerator sequence in Toy Story 3. But then you notice that the boys are avoiding their only source of shade, and leaning against a car which is roasting hot. It doesn't throw the film completely off-balance, but it's a niggle that lingers afterwards.
The Inbetweeners 2 is an improvement on its predecessor which merits its existence as a means of deepening the characters. Beesley and Morris both write and direct well, with better jokes (by and large) and a greater focus on the characters rather than the situations in which they find themselves. Just like its predecessor, it's not without its problems, but if this is the last we see of Simon, Will, Neil and Jay, then it's a fitting way to finish.
National Lampoon's Animal House has a lot to answer for. Ever since… MoreNational Lampoon's Animal House has a lot to answer for. Ever since John Landis' comedy became one of the biggest hits of the late-1970s, we have had to live with a steady trickle of second-rate comedies about high school or college students. While the level of edginess or rauchiness has greatly varied from film to film, the vast majority lack even the slightest degree of subtext, which is ultimately what made Landis' work distinctive and subversive.
In the post-American Pie landscape, this trend has further mutated, with all the retrograde sexual attitudes of the 1970s and 1980s coming back into plain sight under the misplaced notion that they are ironically funny or - heaven forbid - empowering. But for all the chauvinistic unpleasantness of Superbad, or any Judd Apatow film for that matter, they are at least memorably offensive. Accepted, on the other hand, is a largely forgetable film which isn't that funny and doesn't try hard enough.
When it comes to judging any film which is branded edgy or dangerous, there is a basic rule of thumb. The rule is that a film's actual amount of edge, danger, shock value etc. is inversally proportional to the number of times its creators or commentators claim that it is any of these things. If you constantly have to tell people that a film is scary, or shocking, or funny, it's increasingly unlikely that it can be any of these things. Quality speaks for itself, rather than needing every journalist and promoter in the land to shout about it.
This culture of the lady protesting too much, to borrow a term from Shakespeare, is a consequence of a film industry obsessively driven by marketing and strict adherence to convention. Every time a film comes out whose plot involves a fair amount of sex, it has to be presented as the rauchiest thing ever made, even if it clearly isn't. Just as Zac and Miri Make a Porno is actually very tame (at least by the standards of Boogie Nights or John Waters films), so Accepted is not a new Animal House or American Pie. Even by the low standards of so many of the films these two inspired, it's still very tame indeed.
To give the film some credit, there is a nice little idea at the heart of its attempts to be raunchy and broad. In its quieter moments, particularly towards its conclusion, Accepted does touch on how educational institutions often overlook potential talent on the grounds of tradition and social expectations. The film doesn't touch on this anything like as much as it could: it's much more Van Wilder: The Rise of Taj than Dead Poet's Society, or even Step Up. But equally it pays more than lip service to the notion, and that gives it some semblance of brains, if not heart.
In his seminal book On Liberty, the philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote: "Persons of genius are... more individual than any other people - less capable, consequently, of fitting themselves, without hurtful compression, into any of the small number of moulds which society provides in order to save its members the trouble of forming their own character." You would have a hard time defining any of our leading characters here as geniuses, but the fact remains that they have potential which is being overlooked or squandered by the narrow-mindedness of the American education system. Certainly it's hard to argue that America would be better off with all of its students ending up like Hoyt Ambrose.
If you were feeling equally charitable, you could view Accepted as a successor to the anti-establishment films of the 1960s. Even if we take the rambling, foul-mouthed, elderly teacher out of the equation, the film has a somewhat beatnik quality to it, populated as it is by people whose creativity thrives when not constrained by the established ways of doing things. If you're looking for a mid-noughties equivalent of Howl or Kill Your Darlings, you definitely won't find it, but this merest hint of subtext is there for those who want to see it.
The film also deserves credit for giving us a young male protagonist who isn't a completely unlikeable, unpleasant slacker. In Superbad we hated the characters, finding them so gormless or obnoxious that it was hard to excuse, let alone like, what they were doing. Bartleby's not exactly as likeable as Flounder in Animal House (or anyone else in Animal House, for that matter), but he is at least well-intentioned as a character. His need to lie to his parents to make them proud is certainly one trait with which many can empathise.
But despite all these plus points, the fact remains that, in the end, Accepted is still a pretty weak film. And its biggest weakness of all, ironically, is that it feels uncomfortable going as far as it needs to in order to justify either its reputation or its premise. If you are setting up a story about a school in which everyone breaks the rules, you can't pull any punches with the amount of carnage or excess you're prepared to show. You can't promise us Alice Cooper's 'School's Out' and then give us a tea party.
The reasons for this, to bring us almost full circle, lie in the marketing. Animal House had a raw energy and a spirit to it because it came from the same youth it was depicting; it was made by people who, at the time, didn't really know what they were doing. Accepted, on the other hand, is the product of a committee of middle-aged men, who want the film to be edgy enough to make a good trailer, but not so outrageous that it will alienate its core audience. It's a bit like giving someone a brilliant, bright red Ferrari and then telling them that they can only drive it when it's foggy, so as not to hurt the feelings of other drivers.
Steve Pink is a director who, at least for the present, plays by the rules of the Hollywood machine. His earlier work as a writer, such as Grosse Point Blank and High Fidelity, suggested someone who could bring something new to well-worn stories. But both here and on Hot Tub Time Machine, he has taken the executive's shilling and gone down the tried-and-tested route. While he's not unspeakably poor as a director, there's nothing particularly memorable or energetic about any of his compositions. Even though it's shot by Matthew F. Leonetti, who also shot Fast Times at Ridgmont High, it looks and feels like any other meat-and-potatoes teen comedy.
There are numerous points in its running time at which Accepted could and should have pushed things a little further, or gone for something that was a little more risqué. Teenage comedies of this kind don't always have to go down the Porky's route of just being gross or sexist; in fact, the film's ideas about the education system could have been a starting point to challenge such conventions. But even the biggest set-pieces involving destruction of property or swearing feel reined in, and as a result none of them are memorable.
A further problem with Accepted is its characters. Although our lead is relatively likeable (at least by the standards of similar films), none of the characters are distinctive enough to leave any impression after the film has finished. Some of the older actors are fleetingly memorable for being over-the-top, such as Bartleby's dad or Richard van Horne (Dr Chilton from The Silence of the Lambs). But the young cast, the people for whom we are meant to be rooting, are far too bland.
Jonah Hill's performance is a classic case in point. Hill's career has had its hits and misses, but his worst films (Superbad, The Sitter, Evan Almighty) have always been memorably bad. Here, on the other hand, he has very little to play with, neither excelling nor failing badly enough to make us watch him on a perverse level. His character generally fulfils the Flouder role from Animal House, being the socially awkward outcast who will never be properly accepted for who he is. But even with the girly scream and the jokes about his "weiner" (obvious but funny), he eventually blends into the background along with everyone else.
Accepted is a deeply forgettable film which demonstrates the problems with Hollywood's conservative approach to filmmaking. Had Steve Pink or any other director been given a longer leash, it could have been memorably outrageous, for better or worse. But as hard as it tries, it's still too tame and too boring to even risk challenging American Pie. As with so many modern Hollywood comedies, it's a slice of barely memorable disappointment which leaves a dull ache and then quickly fades.
Most films borne out of TV series are used as a means to bookend their… MoreMost films borne out of TV series are used as a means to bookend their characters. The Inbetweeners Movie and a host of lesser British offerings stake their entire appeal on the characters stepping out of their comfort zones into what may be their last adventure. It's a tactic that regularly backfires, with audiences being sold short with the plot and constantly bothered by the televisual nature of the script and visuals.
But alongside this group of films is another, smaller camp of offerings which tend to be more successful, or at least more bearable. These are the films which are made in the middle of a series' run, either as a necessary slice of canon, or as a compression of past plot points to pull in new audiences after the show becomes successful. Sabrina Goes to Rome is not as successful in this regard as, say, The X-Files, but it is reasonably good fun given its made-for-TV status.
The first thing to say about Sabrina Goes to Rome is that it is not designed to pull in any new fans. If you're already a fan of the series (as I was growing up), you'll recognise almost everything that made it so much fun and adjust to the few details that are different, such as the European setting. If, on the other hand, you are coming to Sabrina for the first time, you may get something out of it, but chances are you'll enjoy it less than if you'd seen a couple of episodes.
That said, there's very little about this film which makes it a vital part of the Sabrina canon. Unlike the Doctor Who TV movie, which attempted to reinvent the show's main character, the plot of Sabrina Goes to Rome is almost completely inconsequential. It doesn't have any influential bearing on the arcs of individual seasons of the show, nor does it run roughshod over the canon like many of the Doctor Who specials. It is, to use a motoring term, nothing more than an optional extra for the fans.
The second thing to say about this film is that it just avoids the trap of so many American films set in Europe, namely resorting to national stereotypes to make its main characters either stand out or seem superior. The film does lean on stereotypical notions of Italian food, and it can't resist throwing in plenty of shots of the Colliseum or people on scooters. But it's not quite in the same league as Sex and the City 2, whose vulgar tastelessness was as baffling as its utter lack of self-awareness.
Because the film was made primarily for US audiences who were already fans of the show, it doesn't feel the need to pander too greatly to British or European expectations of what the show should be like. Despite the immensely cliched depiction of its British character (more on her later), it's still very much the same tone as the TV series. There's still the odd but irresistable balance between the loopy, offbeat 1960s appeal of Bewitched and a more modern sensibility driven by 1990s pop culture and a mainstream version of teenage angst.
But while the TV series had the ability to be dark (or at least mysterious) every once in a while, Sabrina Goes to Rome is as light and frothy as a cappucino. While there is a mystery element to the plot, the film is predominantly a comedy with romantic elements, and even when the characters change into animals or go back in time, it's handled in a very Austin Powers, brain-at-the-door manner.
Rather than demonstrate the breadth and depth of its characters, like The X-Files film did, Sabrina Goes to Rome is an extended episode with a lot of the stakes removed. Not only is the plot self-contained, but the stakes are along the lines of a half-hour episode, and the jokes are broadly similar. The only noticeable difference lies in how the moral of the story is conveyed, with neither of Sabrina's aunts being present to guide her on her travels.
In my review of Conspiracy, I talked a lot about how the production values of TV movies today are on a par with the top-end offerings of Hollywood and Europe. We no longer live in an age when you can guess where a piece of footage was intended to be shown by looking at its aspect ratio (TV is traditionally square, while film is widescreen). But while this is great for new offerings, it does have the affect of making TV films that were once visually acceptable look very dated.
For its day, Sabrina Goes to Rome looks okay. Director Tibor Takács is an unremarkable but competent TV director, having helmed several episodes of the revived series of The Outer Limits. But even by the standards of the later series, the visuals are uninspiring; the colours feel washed-out and the lighting is substandard in places. The most noticeable problem is the special effects; they were fine in the TV series, but on the big screen they look really cheap and unconvincing.
When it comes to the characters, the film is much of a muchness. On the one hand, it suffers greatly from the absence of many of the series regulars; the conflict between Sabrina's aunts was always one of the highlights of episodes, and none of the mortals react quite so well to Sabrina's evasive behaviour as Harvey did. In this vacuum, Tara Chanderoff (later Strong) is unconvincing as the incompetent Gwen, and Eddie Mills is largely unmemorable as Paul. That only leaves Salem, who is reduced here from a witty source of one-liners to having a one-dimensional obsession with food.
On the other hand, the film does feature Melissa Joan Hart in her prime, managing to lend credibility to the most ridiculous of situations - or at least doing so for just long enough before things move on. She's clearly having a lot of fun, particularly in the period drama scenes, and her natural charisma prevents the whole plot from collapsing into a feeble mess. While her performance isn't enough to completely redeem the film, it is the aspect which most makes it watchable.
The only other characteristic to note about Sabrina Goes to Rome is that its story is driven primarily by women. This was true of the series too, but series driven by women who are actually written as women are disappointingly rare. For all its shortcomings, the film does give us a strong female lead who is intelligent and resourceful enough to drive the plot forward under her own steam. Sabrina's romance with Paul is almost incidental, which both makes the plot more innocuous and prevents the film from being just another romantic comedy in which the woman takes a passive role.
Sabrina Goes to Rome is an innocuous TV movie which is watchable by virtue of being so similar to the series that inspired it. The fact that it is so inconsequential in relation to the wider arc of the series might lead one to conclude that it is actually pointless, but Hart's performance is ultimately enough to make the experience worthwhile. While it falls short of the heights reached by individual episodes, there are many worse ways to wile away one's time.
British films often have a reputation for being creaky, twee and… MoreBritish films often have a reputation for being creaky, twee and altogether more modest than their American counterparts. Ken Russell's mother used "a British picture" as shorthand for any film that was drab and dreary, in contrast to the glossy Stateside offering available when she made those comments in the 1930s. Sometimes critics on this side of the pond attempt to embrace, defend or reappropriate this creakiness, usually as a defensive criticism of Hollywood. We defend films that don't quite work on the grounds that at least they're not as sanitised, manicured and anodyne as American fare.
Ella Enchanted is a classic case in point where our common sense, objective reaction comes face to face with this apologetic tendency. There is a lot about Tommy O'Haver's film which is creaky, or half-cocked, or just a little bit twee. It feels like a film out of another time, before the goalposts for fantasy and fairy tale cinema were irreversibly shifted by Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings. But in spite of all its flaws, the film is ultimately a passable affair which does have one or two surprises in store.
The most natural point of comparison within the fantasy genre would be Stardust, another British (or part-British) film in which the somewhat second-rate production values are ultimately trumped by our empathy for the characters. Purely on a cast level, Ella Enchanted boasts a slightly more A-list roster, with future Oscar winner Anne Hathaway in the lead and fantasy veteran Cary Elwes as our villain. But Stardust is drawing from the well of fantasy tropes more deeply and affectionately, while Ella Enchanted is essentially a romantic comedy in a period frock, with magic.
Both Stardust and Ella Enchanted are aimed very consciously at more of a family audience than The Lord of the Rings. While the films achieved similar certificates from the BBFC, Peter Jackson's trilogy is darker, more multi-layered, and altogether more ambitious. It's not just that he has a bigger budget to play with, or that J. R. R. Tolkien's books are longer and more complex: it's that his ambitions for the characters and what they represent are greater and more fully realised. Stardust and Ella Enchanted are much flimsier affairs, whose appeal comes from whimsy and escapist enjoyment rather than anything more profound or visceral.
Don't presume, however, Ella Enchanted is a film with nothing between its ears. Strip away the fantasy trappings and you discover a film about women taking charge of their own destinies. Our heroine goes through her entire life being at the mercy of other people, most of whom exploit her for their cruel, near-sadistic satisfaction. She obeys because she has no choice, her gift (or should that be curse) reflecting a world in which women are often denied the agency or independence they deserve.
Considering that the film is at its heart a frothy romantic comedy (with big dollops of pantomime), the way in which it approaches this idea is surprisingly sophisticated. A lot has been written about how misogyny is caused as much by women shaming other women as it is by the actions of men, something which is reflected in the film. Many of Ella's tormentors are other women, who pick on her because they are jealous of her, insecure about themselves or too lazy to improve their lot in life. And unlike some of Hathaway's subsequent rom-com run-ins (for instance, Bride Wars), the film avoids just degenerating into one long catfight, in which all the women are fighting amongst themselves and all the men are completely innocent or oblivious.
When doing publicity for this film, Hathaway said that one of the reasons she liked it was the way in which it "makes fun of itself for being a fairy tale". It's certainly the case that the film is attempting to poke fun at many fairy tale tropes, including the lack of agency in some of the roles accorded to women. Ella's sisters are clearly inspired by the ugly stepsisters in Cinderella, and there are vague nods to Snow White and Sleeping Beauty when the lovers first meet. But the film doesn't act too deferentially towards these elements, putting a sense of fun over any form of fidelity.
Unfortunately, this tactic of sending up the fairy tale trappings has the side effect of bringing the film's creakiness to the fore. There are some nice visual touches along the way, such as the escalator in the mall which is made of wood and cranked by hand. But the film lacks the edge or energy of Shrek both in its vague desire to be satirical and the strength of its relationships outside of this. Much like The Princess Bride, it ends up wanting to have its cake and eat it, and it isn't as funny or as well made as Rob Reiner's film.
A great deal of Ella Enchanted plays out like a ramshackle pantomime. I've spoken before about the shared roots between pantomimes and fairy tales, and so this is not entirely a surprise. But unlike Sleeping Beauty, the pantomime spirit here comes out in how shakily the film is assembled, both aesthetically and narratively. Pantomime is driven by characters reacting to events rather than acting in spite of them, but many of the obstacles our characters face are shoddily executed.
The scene with the giants is a very good example of this. The sequence puts us in familiar fairy tale territory (Jack and the Beanstalk and all that), and we have a romantic element to drive the plot forward. There are some good, fun moments, the best being Hathaway's spirited and convincing rendition of Queen's 'Somebody To Love' (like Les Miserables, it's all her own singing). But we also have to deal with the bad forced perspective and the ropey CG effects which make the film look like it was made in the 1950s.
Many of the scenes with Cary Elwes fall into the same camp. Elwes is a versatile actor, and he does do lip-curling antagonists rather convincingly. But everything about his character is made a little bit more ridiculous than it needs to be, right down to the laughable size of his massive staff. While Elwes works hard to make it look like he's not telegraphing the plot to the audience (which, of course, he is), you're always left wondering whether his appearance is a sly joke or simply a poor piece of design.
Much of the blame for this lies with the director. Tommy O'Haver is at best a nuts-and-bolts filmmaker: he's well-meaning, and can make a plot move for a certain amount of time, but his visual decisions are unconvincing and often derivative. In this case he is ill-equipped to create an absorbing fantasy universe, in which every piece has a logic behind it or represents a compelling idea. In his hands the fantasy world feels like a parade of half-finished concepts, endless sidekicks and poor special effects.
As far as the performances are concerned, O'Haver does fare a little better. As with his previous film, Get Over It, he does give his female lead the room she needs to express herself; like Kirsten Dunst, Hathway's presence gradually grows and her comedic potential increases as the film goes on. It's not exactly a career-making performance, nor is she playing against type in her Princess Diaries period of roles. But she's charming and capable, and does manage to carry the story on her own.
Much like Get Over It, however, many of the supporting cast don't get the same amount of flexibility. Lucy Punch has gradually carved out a niche for herself in Hollywood comedies, but here she's largely one-note and regularly over-eggs it in an annoying way. Joanna Lumley is the ideal choice for the wicked stepmother figure, but she's less convincingly wicked here than she was in James and the Giant Peach. Jimi Mistry doesn't get as much screen time as his work on East is East would lead us to expect, and Eric Idle's narration is as flat and superfluous as his Stardust counterpart.
Ella Enchanted is a passable romcom in a fantasy outfit which will entertain young viewers quite happily over its running time. While aspects of its characterisation are sophisticated and it is sporadically good fun, it is far too creakily mounted and limiting in places to be given a clean bill of health. Stardust remains the superior family fantasy, but for a quite afternoon in with the grandchildren, there are worse things you could throw at them.