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 unknown.
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.