NFK film review: Ella Enchanted
Nathanael Smith | On 29, May 2016
Netflix for Kids, VODzilla.co’s Geneva Conventions-defying monthly column, where an adult with no children works his way through the kids’ catalogue on Netflix UK. A poll was taken, the people spoke and so this month, our intrepid viewer takes on Ella Enchanted.
A challenge for British readers of VODzilla.co: find someone nearby who didn’t grow up in the UK and try and explain pantomimes to them. This curiously British tradition combines traditional fairy tales with bad jokes, covers of pop songs and middle-aged men in drag. It’s an annual occurrence that is largely baffling to anyone outside of the UK. It comes as something of a surprise, therefore, to find that Ella Enchanted is essentially a pantomime, except without the man in drag.
Ella Enchanted is yet another one of those reinvented fairy tales that followed in the wake of the Shrek franchise. We’ve been here before. This time, the twist is that Cinderella is cursed to do anything that people tell her and she has a side-interest in social action. She’s the kind of person who goes to royal speeches to protest the genocide of ogres. Wait, what?
Yep, Ella has a conscience that is, at times, startlingly on the nose. The giants are forced into farm labour, picking vegetables from the fields to serve the kingdom. Ella’s friend is picked on for having a different skin colour. Elves aren’t allowed in the city centre. Ella, naturally, fights all of this and wins the prince over to her cause as she goes. Which would all be hunky dory if there were more than two non-white members of the cast (a sidelined friend and an incompetent fairy). As it is, it feels shoehorned in and completely at odds with the daft pantomime elements.
It really is daft. The costumes are squeaky clean and look like they were bought in a party costume shop. It looks more like a low-budget pageant than, say, Game of Thrones. That said, the credits swooping over the kingdom and showing different settlements were almost certainly an influence on the gigantic HBO hit. Every shot in Ella looks entirely fake, but in a way that ends up working in the film’s favour. It’s bright, colourful and silly – like a pantomime – and will keep the kids entertained.
None of this can explain how strange it all is. For starters, the central plotline of her being forced to comply with whatever anyone tells her to do (including words like “wait” or “buy this”) leads to some unnerving scenes. She ends up dancing for a group of giants because they told her to, throwing all kinds of questions about consent into the mix. It’s also just really erratic, flitting between big musical numbers, broad comedy and weird asides – there’s a disastrous subplot about a boyfriend’s face being in a book. So many of the jokes fall painfully flat. You get the sense that the writers are more concerned with distracting children than writing anything coherent.
2004 was a huge year for Anne Hathaway, as she also released The Princess Diaries 2: A Royal Engagement, or the Greatest Sequel Ever, as it’s also known. She’s fun and sparky here and plays off well with baby-skinned Hugh Dancy. The rest of the cast are made up of people who really should know better, but who never quite became megastars. Minnie Driver, Eric Idle, Joanna Lumley and Cary Elwes. All of them are game but lumbered with a terrible script.
The result is fake, a little limp and insists on crowbarring in terrible covers of pop songs. But Ella Enchanted isn’t terrible; it’s got the same sincere gusto that makes pantomimes such a beloved annual tradition over here. That’s hardly a recommendation, but young children will at least have a good time.
Ella Enchanted is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.