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.
One of the most disappointing things that can happen to a film series… MoreOne of the most disappointing things that can happen to a film series is when commercial pressures begin to dictate the creative shape of sequels. While many film series begin life as cash cows (including many modern comic book adaptations), most series start to lose whatever edge they originally had as they become more successful. The second something becomes a commercial hit, any follow-up tends to play it safe to protect the brand and the dozens of people who are working on it.
When Shrek was released, it was a big gamble for a studio that was still finding its feet in a marketplace that was still in its infancy. Shrek 2 built on the phenomenal success of the first film while generally retaining its spirit. But after that film became Dreamworks' biggest hit (which it remains to this day), Jeffrey Katzenberg and his cohorts sought to eke out the series, providing more money at the expense of allowing genuine creativity to flourish. Through a combination of playing it safe and being short of ideas, Shrek the Third is desperately mediocre.
Defenders of Shrek the Third (yes, they do exist) would argue its worth in one of two ways. The first and less substantial angle is that it's not as bad as it could have been, given the general quality of threequels and animated sequels in general. But while it's true that this is not as much of a mess as, for instance, Evil Dead 3: Army of Darkness, it misunderstands and waters down its central character every bit as much as, say, Superman III. In the hands of Raman Hui and Chris Miller, the title character is reduced from his substantial beginnings to a hollow and wearisome pastiche.
The second school of apologists will argue that the film's ideas are very much in keeping with the first two instalments. The plot is still based on a subversion of fairy tale tropes, in this case with the bad guys defying narrative convention and wanting their 'happily ever after'. And the execution of these ideas, at least at first glance, appears tp be very similar, with plenty of action scenes set to popular music and our villain having a misplaced sense of ambition and moral outrage.
There is some truth in this, and it is possible that these ideas could have been executed in a better-written, more fulfilling way. But neither Hui nor Miller are able to carry through the ideas to their spirited, natural conclusions, either because they were constrained by decrees from on high or because they lacked the talent in themselves. Neither has gone on to demonstrate any real potential outside of this series, with Miller participating in the seemingly endless Madagascar franchise and Hui doing little outside of short films based off already successful features.
If there is a single word that can sum up Shrek the Third, it is weak. The script is particularly weak, being more concerned with moving from one joke to the next via predictable plot points than it is about developing the characters and moving our fantasy world on a little bit. It's easy to forget, as I stated in my review, how well-written the first Shrek was, both as a deconstruction of Disney tropes and a genuinely insightful love story. Shrek the Third, by contrast, goes for the obvious and predictable route in all its developments, and often feels like it has forgotten what it is and where it came from in the first place.
Many of the narrative touches in Shrek the Third have been done better elsewhere. The Sword in the Stone painted Arthur as a reluctant weed more than forty years earlier, and for all the baggage that Wolfgang Reitherman brings with him, it is a much better film. The Princess Bride toyed with the idea of the prince being a completely pompous slimeball, and while Rob Reiner's film has issues, Prince Humperdinck has more of a motivation than Prince Charming.
Not only is the plot less original than the first two films, but it feels far more inconsequential and innoucuous - it feels, in other words, like an awful lot of padding. While there are moments of humour, the film doesn't take the characters forward from where we left them in Shrek 2, feeling more like the next instalment of an episodic TV series than a genuinely worthwhile sequel. Most of the plot points are distractions to get Shrek out of the picture, because if he was in the same place as Prince Charming for too long, it would all fall apart.
This brings us on to Charming himself.. As enjoyable a presence as he was in Shrek 2, the fact is that he can't hold his own as a villain. While his motivation is perfectly okay, his modus operandi is altogether flimsy and pathetic. Farquaad and the Fairy Godmother were compelling villains because they had threatening goals, namely driving out fairy tale creatures and gaining control of a kingdom. Charming's plan, to cathartically kill Shrek as part of an overly elaborate stage show, is devoid of ambition or common sense, and its execution is laboured to the point of being tedious.
The cast of Shrek the Third sound laboured too, with most of the main performers doing just enough to hold our attention. Mike Myers seems less at ease with the character; he plays the part like he's doing an impression of his earlier performances, and there's less of a spring in his step. Eddie Murphy and Cameron Diaz are both passable but unmemorable, and even Antonio Banderas is reduced as Puss in Boots.
The supporting cast are equally disappointing. Justin Timberlake would later prove his worth in The Social Network, but his casting here seems entirely motivated by brand name recognition; he's in the film because he's a hearthrob that will bring in teenagers, not because he can act. Likewise Eric Idle makes the very least of his role as Merlin, which is surprising given his previous dabblings in Grail lore, but entirely unsurprising given his status as a complete sell-out.
The comedy in Shrek the Third is much more laboured than before. It's not just that the writing is weaker, it's that the franchise is trying too hard to be cool when its strength always lay in being edgy - the cool factor came as a result of being willing to take a risk. Hearing Shrek trying to talk street to Artie is downright painful, and even Pinocchio's verbal acrobatics, which should be funny, takes an age to unfold.
In spite of all these massive problems, there are brief passages in which Shrek the Third hits its mark and remembers how good it can be. The sight gags at the start are funny, whether it's Shrek sinking the ship he's meant to be launching or causing a chain reaction which leads to a massive fire. There are some nicer sadder moments too, with Damien Rice's soundtrack contribution being a stand-out.
The two highlights of the film come at complete opposite ends of the spectrum. One is Harold's death scene, with John Cleese wringing out every last ounce he can: he plays up the laughs while understanding its serious underpinning, something that Cleese has always done well. The other is Shrek's nightmare, in which he becomes swamped by a sea of ogre babies. If you're a horror fan, you'll simply be impressed that anyone could reference Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist and The Brood in less than a minute.
Shrek the Third is a mediocre third instalment and represents the low point of the Shrek series. It's not completely terrible, possessing small pockets of visual humour and occasionally hitting the emotional marks of its predecessors. But for the most part it's a poorly-told pale imitation, with its eyes firmly on the audience's wallets rather than their heads and hearts.
Making a sequel to Shrek was both a complete no-brainer and a cause… MoreMaking a sequel to Shrek was both a complete no-brainer and a cause for great concern. The first film was a huge hit, taking more than eight times its budget at the box office and winning over critics and audiences alike with its intelligent storytelling and witty script. But with the continued success of PIXAR, first with Monsters, Inc. and then Finding Nemo, you would have been within your rights to doubt that any sequel could compete.
Fortunately, Shrek 2 is a great second outing, thanks in part to the continued presence of Andrew Adamson behind the camera, as a co-writer now as well as co-director. The film may not be quite as edgy as its predecessor, perhaps due to Dreamworks head honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg wanting to play it safe to secure further outings. But the film is every bit as funny as the first one, if not slightly moreso, and continues to develop and deepen its unique fairytale world.
Making a sequel to any film can go one of two ways, depending on the attitude of the people behind it and the potential present in the characters. On the one hand, the film can repeat all the basic rhythms of the first film, either with the main character being replaced (so that the journey appears to be new) or by the stakes being raised (so that it feels like the action is more significant). Occasionally this approach works wonders - as on Evil Dead 2 - but often it results in tired, formulaic offerings, such as the many straight-to-video sequels produced by Disney.
On the other hand, the film can attempt to tell a new story, with the characters undergoing a new challenge and more characteristics of their universe being revealed. This approach is harder to get right, but when things come together the results regularly outclass their predecessors. The Empire Strikes Back, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior and The Rescuers Down Under are all examples of this approach working well - and now we can add Shrek 2 to that list.
The basic principle that operates in Shrek 2 is the same one that operated in Shrek: taking familiar aspects of the fairy tale genre, and turning them on their heads with plenty of humour. But rather than simply create Lord Farquaad Mark II, the obstacles facing Shrek are different and perhaps more nuanced. Not only that, but Shrek is a slightly different person (or ogre), having married Fiona at the end of the first film.
Both of the main villains are as entertainingly subversive as Farquaad, or any characters from the first film. The Fairy Godmother (played brillaintly by Jennifer Saunders) is not a benevolent aid to our heroes, but a scheming, manipulative, power-hungry despot wanting to rule the kingdom through her son (not unlike Livia in I, Claudius). Magic is not the universal force for good that it is in Disney's Cinderella; the Fairy Godmother is more like her Mafia namesake, granting favours in return for power and influence.
As for Prince Charming, he anything but lips up to his name. While many of his Disney counterparts are painted as (occasionally bland) ideals of masculinity, Charming is vain, self-centred, effeminate and a total Mummy's boy. Rupert Everett's clipped yet world-weary delivery perfectly conveys the frustration of the character, whose ego and sense of entitlement take a severe blow over the running time.
As far as the story of Shrek 2 goes, it's a natural continuation of the first film in terms of theme and plot. Beneath all its fairy tale trappings and pop culture references, Shrek is a film about inner beauty, the hard work that goes into relationships, and why the rules of a given world aren't always fair. Bringing Fiona's parents into the mix is a logical decision, adding a new obstacle or source of prejudice with the twist of wanting acceptance from said source for the sake of those one loves.
Disney films often get accused of presenting a shallow view of what constitutes beauty; in The Little Mermaid, for instance, the female lead signs away her most distinctive features just so she can get a husband. Shrek 2 does the opposite, using a radical physical transformation to show how little such a transformation changes, and how little such a change matters. The filmakers deserve enormous credit for following through with this idea, and it resonates really strongly right up to the end.
It's arguable that because Shrek 2 has a more tongue-in-cheek, parodic sensibility, it can get away with such a heartwarming message purely by virtue of not looking or sounding like a Disney film. In reality, it earns the right to do this by developing the characters we love in a genuine and convincing way. Fiona has become so comfortable in her ogre self that it makes sense for her to scream when she first sees her human face in the mirror. Likewise, Shrek may still be bad-tempered and cantankerous, but he's more noble in the causes for which he fights, and a little more cunning in the fights that he chooses to pick.
What this means is that the increased amount of reference humour in Shrek 2 doesn't jar like it does in later Dreamworks efforts. There are some cracking reference gags here, whether it's Prince Charming's slow-motion hair flick (Heartbreakers), the wire rescue of our main characters (Mission: Impossible) or Donkey fearing that he will melt when it rains (The Wizard of Oz). And that's not to mention all the pops at brands like Starbucks, Baskin Robbins and Versace. But like the best work of Aardman, these touches or little sight gags take a back seat to the plot, and the film still works whatever age or however culture-literate you may be.
On top of everything else, Shrek 2 is really, really funny. Many of the best gags are those which are completely unexpected, such as Puss in Boots' hairball or Pinocchio's brief stint as a real boy. Others are the product of really good editing, such as the dinner table sequence (a nod to Rocky Horror) or the parallel conversations when Shrek first meets Fiona's parents. The big set-pieces are inventive and fast-paced, and the film is never afraid to take its characters down a peg or two by things not climaxing quite as we might expect.
The performances in Shrek are all extremely good. Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy and Cameron Diaz remain as convincing and enjoyable as before, with Adamson and his co-directors managing to focus the two male leads. Of the newcomers, Jennifer Saunders is very impressive and John Cleese is a very fine choice for King Harold. But of course, the show is stolen by Antonio Banderas, who ribs on his own work in The Mask of Zorro to make Puss in Boots truly unforgetable.
Shrek 2 is every bit as good as the original, and may even be slightly funnier in terms of the quantity and quality of its jokes. Despite being more rounded than its edgy predecessor, this is still a very intelligent offering, populated by interesting ideas and a host of compelling characters. In hindsight it's a shame that the series couldn't continue to progress in such a positive way after this instalment, but Shrek 2 remains a sterling effort, both in this context and on its own terms.
When I reviewed Byzantium, I spoke about the horrors genre's… MoreWhen I reviewed Byzantium, I spoke about the horrors genre's reputation regarding its female characters and general attitudes to women. I praised Neil Jordan's film for avoiding many of the pitfalls associated with female characters in horror, possessing as it did two well-written, very different women with agency and complex personalities. While the film was not without its problems, it was a refreshing example of how something so easily written off as tacky and tedious still has the power to innovate and reflect changes in social attitudes.
Jennifer's Body is a similar attempt to create a horror film (or in this case a horror-comedy) primary driven by and about women. While both films are written by women (Moira Buffini and Diablo Cody respectively), this one also has a female director in the shape of Karyn Kusama (Aeon Flux). Ultimately it's neither scary nor funny enough to match the standards of the best horror-comedies, but it's an interesting little film worthy of its cult status which deserved to do better at the box office.
Broadly speaking, there are three different categories of cult film. The first, and rarest, are those which achieve success and whose cult status comes from being entrenched in a specific sub-culture - films likes Flash Gordon and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The second, and most typical, are those so far outside the mainstream that they never stood any real chance of turning a profit. Pink Flamingos, The Bed-Sitting Room and Eraserhead never courted popularity in the first place, being either knowing and provocative trash or at the weird end of the arthouse circuit.
Jennifer's Body belongs in the third and final category: films which could and should have been hits, but for some reason failed to resonate. Like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, the film contains at least one bankable star with mainstream hits behind them (Michael Cera and Megan Fox respectively), and a screenwriter or director with critical and commercial acclaim (Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz with Edgar Wright, Juno with Diablo Cody).
Numerous explanations have been offered as to why Jennifer's Body failed at the box office, ranging from American preconceptions of horror-comedies to the R-rating it received and the exploitative marketing, which played up the lesbian aspects of the film in a vain and shallow attempt to bring in the boys. None of these reasons are entirely plausible and none of them have any impact on whether or not the film is any good. It is simply depressing that a film made with such good intentions failed to find the audience which needed to see it the most.
Whatever your ultimate feelings about it, you have to admire Jennifer's Body for what it is attempting to do as a horror-comedy. At their most essential, Cody and Kusama are trying to tell a story about female empowerment in a genre which so often reduces women to cannon fodder or base titalation. Even efforts like The Slumber Party Massacre and Sorority Row, where female characters outnumber male ones, all too often turn their women into screaming obstacles who have little to no intelligence or control over their own actions.
Jennifer's Body owes a big debt to two horror films about powerful women, one old, one relatively new. The first film it strongly takes after is Carrie, which is visually referenced in Fox's blood-soaked prom dress towards its climax. Both films have protagonists who are dealing with a sudden rise in their sexuality, whether through menstruating for the first time or being the most popular girl in school. And both films use their characters' ultimately malevolent power as a metaphor about underestimating women: the men who come a cropper in these films are generally those who try to take advantage of the main character.
The second film to which Jennifer's Body owes a debt is Ginger Snaps, a cult Canadian horror film which used lycanthropy (becoming a werewolf) as a metaphor for puberty. The film took many of the key elements of An American Werewolf in London, and turned them from a very male tale of lust and rage into a story about relationships between women, and how people deal with their best friends altering beyond all recognition. The relationship between Needy and Jennifer is to some extent an American version of Ginger Snaps, while Jennifer's feeding on men reflects her Canadian counterpart's first attack after she is bitten.
While Ginger Snaps is marginally the better film, Jennifer's Body does manage to get its message across in a fairly convincing way. We are lured into believing that Jennifer's changes after that fateful night are merely a sudden step up in her journey through adolescence. The film tricks us into condoning the male character's attitudes towards our leading lady, believing them to be either reasonable for people in that situation or warranted in some messed-up way. Jennifer's subsequent attacks are a wake-up call and a challenge to cultural attitudes wherein women are depicted as weak, submissive and harmless.
The film deserves props for managing to turn the pain of its female characters into something meaningful. So many horror films begin or centre around a painful act perpetrated against a woman, which is then used to justify all the vengeance and bloodshed that follows - I Spit On Your Grave being a prime example. Jennifer's Body does feature an awful moment, but it turns it on its head, first by the ritual backfiring to create an evil force, and then by the band receiving their comeuppance through Needy. The difference is that the violence is being carried out by the women who have been wronged, rather than men on behalf of women who are too broken or dead to avenge themselves.
The performances in Jennifer's Body are all of a decent calibre. It's easy to laugh at Megan Fox following her work on the Transformers series, but she is pretty capable here; even if she is a little old to pass as a teenager, she's playful and teasing enough to fit our expectations. Amanda Seyfried is a decent match for her, and while she has less material to work with overall, she still gets a few juicy lines in the pool scene. The supporting cast are generally unremarkable, with only Johnny Simmons of Scott Pilgrim fame making an impression.
Despite the best efforts of its cast, the writing in Jennifer's Body is one of several problems which prevent the film from fulfilling its potential. Cody is a talented screenwriter, as Juno demonstrated, but this time around her characters begin to blend together with very samey dialogue. When Mark Kermode reviewed the film, he remarked that Cody was in danger of becoming "the female Quentin Tarantino", namely writing dialogue in such a way that all her characters sound the same. It's not so bad that it runs the film into the ground, but having all one's characters as spiky and hipsterish isn't a good way to go.
The film is also conflicted from a visual point of view. While it is thematically subversive, it often looks every bit as scuzzy and sleazy as the horror films it is trying to subvert. The film is a very sexualised affair, and sometimes it's hard to tell whether the sexuality is there to challenge expectations or to simply pander to the whims of horny teenagers. As Aeon Flux demonstrated, Kusama has yet to find a distinctive style as a director, and the film suffers from having an aesthetic which all often resembles all the awful horror remakes produced by Michael Bay's Platinum Dunes.
The final issue with Jennifer's Body is that it isn't scary or funny enough to cut the mustard. It's definitely plumping for horror over the comedy more often than not, insofar as it doesn't try to turn Jennifer's killings into a gleeful gorefest, a la The Evil Dead. But the film is more unnerving that it is scary, and only moderately unnerving at that, while the comedy is fun but not fully realised. It's not enough to derail the film, and non-horror audiences may get more out of it, but for dyed-in-the-wool horror fans, it's not quite the hearty meal it needs to be.
Jennifer's Body is an interesting and enjoyable little film whose cult status will undoubtedly grow in the years to come. It remains one of the best things that Megan Fox has ever done (and perhaps will ever do), and thematically speaking it has its heart and head in the right place. Ultimately it's too riddled with problems to be given a clean bill of health, but for those wanting more from teen horror, it's not a bad way to pass the time.