Cynthia Fuchs, 16 April 2004
Parminder K. Nagra won all kinds
of well-deserved praise for her winning performance in Bend It
Like Beckham last year. Over this year, she's been visible on
ER, the soapy series allowing for lots of dramatic stretching.
Now she appears, all too briefly, in Ella Enchanted, an
updated fairy tale that, for all its charms, can't quite break out
of its old-time constraints.
Nagra plays the Best Friend, Areida,
who appears when Ella of Frell (vivacious Anne Hathaway, star of the
mini-franchise Princess Diaries) needs backup for her
"independent-minded" activities. The context for these activities is
lifted in equal parts from Cinderella, Shrek, and
The Princess Bride, with seemingly general inspiration from
The Bullwinkle Show's beloved "Fractured Fairy Tales." The girls
live in a kingdom ruled, temporarily, by a self-involved martinet,
the Prince Regent Edgar (Cary Elwes, neatly inverting his own most
famous role, in Princess Bride). Among his most effective
laws is institutional segregation, subjugating ogres, elves, and
giants to the service of humans.
Ella Enchanted's obvious
parable sets Ella and Areida's naïve belief in fairness and goodness
against easy-to-dislike adversaries ("Say No to Ogrecide!" and "Stop
the Giant Land Grab," read their protest placards at one rally).
Aside from Edgar, these include Ella's nasty stepmother Olga (Ab
Fab's Joanna Lumley) and her daughters, go-getting Hattie (Lucy
Punch) and slow-witted Olive (Jennifer Higham), who endeavor to
demonstrate their own superiority by insisting on Ella's
subservience. Ella's resistance is immeasurably complicated by a
"gift" she receives at birth from the tetchy fairy Lucinda (Vivica
A. Fox), namely, the "gift of obedience."
It is a terribly literal gift: Ella
does precisely what she's told, from holding her tongue to hopping
to it. At first, no one knows of this curse except Ella's
soon-to-be-dead mother and Aunt Mandy (Minnie Driver), a flitty
house fairy, know about the gift. When they finally inform Ella of
her condition, she's relieved to know there's a reason for her
irrational acting against her own wishes. Following her mother's sad
death and her traveling salesman father's (Patrick Bergin)
remarriage, her stepsisters discover Ella's secret (mainly because
Hattie is indescribably bossy).
Her life now intolerable, Ella
resolves to find Lucinda and get her to "take back" that gift.
Reasonably worried over her niece's welfare, Mandy stays behind
(she's a house fairy, thus, apparently immobile), but also gives her
a gift, the use of her fiancé, Benny (Jimi Mistry, of The Guru),
whom she accidentally turned into a book some time ago. He is, both
conveniently and inconveniently, now able to show locations of
people Ella might be seeking. So, she sees Lucinda crashed out on a
bed following a drinking-binge, but the location of the bed is
When Ella takes off with Benny
under her arm, she is otherwise alone, as her terrible stepmother
has commanded Ella to tell Arieda she never wants to see her again
because she is "Arethean" (read: not like Ella and her step-family,
or maybe just not white). Both girls tear up at this terrible
directive, though Arieda can't know why she is so betrayed. And so,
she's banished from the movie until the inevitable happy finale's
reunion. Still, as in most fairy tales, the heroine's road trip
leads her to pick up a few new friends along with way, including a
chatty elf, Slannen (Aiden McArdle), who aspires to be a lawyer but
is condemned by Edgar's law to "entertain," as that is all elves can
do. (He's especially angry at the "stinkin' Grimm Brothers," who
have instilled prejudice in their readers.)
A fourth team member -- after the
girl, the book, and the elf -- at least in spirit, is Prince Char
(Hugh Dancy), who is scheduled to be crowned king within a week.
Edgar, of course, is not crazy about this prospect, and so he is
plotting feverishly against losing his position, with the help of a
magical CGI snake named Heston (voiced by Steve Coogan). As Char
contemplates his future, Edgar convinces him not to change the laws
Edgar has enacted, and to follow his own dictate: "Image is
everything." While Char is pretty, he's also pop-starrishly vapid,
easing into his inherited position without any thought of what it
means. He's just as happy to let Edgar run the show.
Plainly in need of inspiration by
the much smarter Ella, Char finds her resistance to him seductive.
Whereas every other girl in the kingdom keeps his poster on her
wall, imagining she'll marry him like boy band boy (for instance,
Hattie, who feels threatened by Char's attraction to her
stepsister), Ella insists on following her own socially activist
conscience: she wants to free the slaves and oh yes, free her own
essentially enslaved mind. "Nobody should be forced to do things
they don't want to do," she asserts.
Based on Gail Carson Levine's book,
Ella Enchanted brings clever fairy tale credentials
(including narrator Eric Idle) in its energetic pursuit of a finale
where Ella can have her cake and eat it too, that is, her
proto-feminist independence and her prince. As fairy tales go, this
one looks healthy, at least for the white girl. That she must also
serve as the spokesperson and agitator for the many other oppressed
peoples of Frell is rather less adorable. A little more Areida might
have gone a long way.
Vivica A. Fox
Parminder K. Nagra
Gail Carson Levine
Karen McCullah Lutz
PG - Parental
Some material may not
be appropriate for