Born into a fancifully modern medieval world filled with magic, fairy dust and evil stepsisters, baby Ella is given the gift of obedience by her fairy godmother. As she grows up, though, she discovers it’s more of a curse. It strips her of free will, and puts her at the mercy of unscrupulous family members and enemies. If she’s told to “hop to it,” the spell forces her to literally begin hopping to it.
Just like Cinderella, Ella’s mother dies when she’s young and her father marries a mean, status-obsessed intruder. Naturally, the woman brings with her two vile girls who use and abuse Ella’s good nature and willing spirit. Then Ella meets her land’s handsome prince, who’s taken by her intelligence, forthrightness and outright refusal to fawn over him. She quickly realizes that if she’s ever to wed this man of her dreams, she must break the curse that enslaves her to the mean-spirited whims of her unseemly family. So she sets off on a elf, ogre and giant-infused adventure to find her fairy godmother and beg her to take back her “gift.”
The story’s narrator tells us early on that Ella’s curse made her obedient, “but her heart made her kind.” Indeed, Ella is a compassionate, friendly teen, filled with a lust for life and a passion for worthy—social—causes. One of the central themes of the film is her desire to see all people treated with dignity. She’s dismayed that elves, giants and ogres aren’t equal under the law, and goes to great lengths to rectify the situation.
After reading the film’s synopsis—but before viewing it—I was concerned that Ella’s “obedience curse” might be used to teach children that obedience is to be disdained and circumvented whenever possible. Thankfully, it isn’t. Ella has a loving and respectful relationship with both of her parents. (Her response to her evil stepmother is less desirable, but it doesn’t become a point of fixation.) The curse is used to illustrate the supreme value of free will, not a misguided desire to rebel.
As Ella searches for her freedom, she’s quick to turn aside from her own path to help others on theirs. She (rather violently) lends aid to an imprisoned elf and orchestrates much-needed mediation between the human prince and the giants.
Fairies cast spells, animals talk, a man is trapped inside a book, ogres and elves exist, etc. No supernatural explanation is given for the movie’s preternatural occurrences, they just happen because things like that always happen in fairy land. [Spoiler Warning] Ella ultimately breaks free from the bonds of her curse using willpower alone. While that means she doesn’t summon up some dark force to lend her aid, it also means she sets an example of total self-sufficiency easily interpreted by young viewers as an admonishment to look inwardly rather than “upwardly” when the going gets tough.
With the mindless adoration our culture associates with the crowds of females who strained to touch Elvis or the Beatles, this land’s teenage girls pant after Prince Char. During a tour of the palace, they giggle over the idea that he gets naked to take his showers, and go so far as to lick the floor of the foyer in which he’s walked. (They’re sternly told to “stop tonguing the floor.”) When the king instructs Ella to “shake her booty,” she’s forced to oblige. Several feminine medieval costumes reveal cleavage. Ella and Char kiss.
Pushing, shoving and biting. And a few more pointed conflicts usually involving ogres. To stop other humans from torturing an elf, Ella attacks them with spinning karate-style moves. After ogres capture Ella, but before they can lower her into a boiling cauldron, Char rides in with his sword and takes on the lot of them. A later sword fight has everyone from the prince to Ella to the guy in the book all fighting for their lives. A human is seen whipping an enslaved giant. A man is poisoned. Guards are attacked and neutralized during a prison break. And things get really tense when Ella, still under her spell of obedience, is ordered to stab a man to death.
A brawl near the end of the film may include a couple of muffled misuses of God’s name. Parents of very young children should know that terms such as “moron,” “idiot,” “bite me,” “numbskull” and “twit” are bandied about as well.
Giants drink at a wedding. Attending fairies get drunk; one is so intoxicated she falls off her (very tall) chair. Ella’s fairy godmother is arrested for FWI (flying while intoxicated).
Ella’s sisters instruct her to steal items from the town’s “mall.” (One of the things she takes is a pair of glass slippers.) Instructed to pick flowers for her stepmother and sisters, Ella intentionally mixes poison ivy with them to get back at the women for being mean to her. An ogre’s rear end peaks over the top of his low-hanging pants. An elf is knocked off a bench when a nearby giant breaks wind (creating a great deal of it).
Fairy tales deserve better treatment than this. It seems as though the filmmakers tried to do it up right. But that almost makes things worse. Sitting in the dark watching the tattered results of someone’s hard work is considerably more depressing than watching someone else’s couldn’t-care-less shot at it. Don’t misunderstand, there are numerous sugary cinematic treats to devour, such as when Cinderella’s glass slippers show up at the mall, and Ella leads a teeny-bop political protest. Ultimately, the curse of Ella Enchanted is one of too many good ideas. It’s a patchwork quilt on which the blocks are thrown haphazardly on top of each other rather than sewn skillfully side by side. It’s The Princess Bride plus Ever After plus A Knight’s Tale plus Shrek. And that many plusses, not quilted together carefully enough, end up a minus.
Themes are similarly jumbled. It’s great to advocate the equality of all races (species, in this context) and show the value of free will, but the alternative given—to follow your own heart and look for strength within—is beyond trite, it’s foolish. (Read 1 Corinthians 3, Psalm 18 and 119, Job 6 and Exodus 15 to see where our strength and wisdom should come from.) Still, admirable restraint in the areas of language, sex and violence will allow many families to succumb to Ella‘s silliness, and safely sort out the details afterwards.