Are kids today too knowing to accept their fantasies without a wink of self-consciousness, or are adults too jaded to supply them? Based on the popular youth novel by Gail Carson Levine, Ella Enchanted works in the same fractured-fairytale spirit as The Princess Bride, A Knight's Tale, and Shrek, cluttering the feminine medieval world of unicorns, elves, and dashing royals with such modern embellishments as pop songs, mall openings, and teen magazine heartthrobs. The results are reasonably clever as far as they go, but the film succeeds most when it drops the hip veneer and plays things straight, mainly because star Anne Hathaway, a charming and luminous screen presence, takes so well to open-faced earnestness. Until she gets older, fires her handlers, and breaks out of the family-film ghetto that has limited her to Pretty Woman-for-girls fare like The Princess Diaries and its upcoming sequel, Hathaway will be stuck elevating kid stuff like Ella Enchanted to a little above average.
Making the most of a B-list supporting cast and econo-budget special effects, director Tommy O'Haver (Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss) fills out the standard Cinderella fare with sophisticated adult references, a sneaky political subtext, and a good message about not always following the rules. Born into an oppressive kingdom where creatures are "segregated" from their human betters, Hathaway grows into a kind and conscientious young woman, but she's bound to a spell cast by her fairy godmother (Vivica A. Fox), which requires her to obey all orders. Hathaway's weakness is exploited by her evil stepsisters, who manipulate her to get closer to dreamy prince Hugh Dancy, naïve heir to a throne currently occupied by his murderous uncle, played by a shrewdly cast Cary Elwes. As Hathaway journeys across the kingdom to have the spell reversed, she opens Dancy's eyes to the sad plight of ogres, giants, and elves, good-hearted creatures forced into indentured servitude by Elwes' sinister edicts.
It's not often that children's films openly encourage them to think independently and rouse their political conscience, but Ella Enchanted, for all its haphazard Shrek-isms, treats its young audience with an unusual degree of respect. While it follows the fairytale playbook to the letter, the film never betrays its heroine's sense of decency and will by turning her into a vacant, doe-eyed princess in the end. But none of it would work without Hathaway, whose self-possession and lack of irony represents a throwback to old-fashioned Hollywood wholesomeness and glamour. If nothing else, Ella Enchanted should help lay the bridge to a promising grown-up career.