2-1/2 stars (out of 4)
What do a fairy-tale kingdom in upheaval, a heroine with a curious curse and a pair of species-mismatched sweethearts have in common?
All are elements shared by "Shrek" and the new movie "Ella Enchanted," a warm-hearted but unbalanced star vehicle for Anne Hathaway that unashamedly wears its influences on its screen.
A cinematic Frankenstein of movie parts, "Ella Enchanted" stitches together "Sleeping Beauty," "Shrek," "Cinderella" and "A Knight's Tale" with the sensibilities of "The Princess Bride," though not always successfully.
The winsome Hathaway stars as Ella of Frell, a young maiden who suffers from a peculiar "gift" bestowed upon her by troublemaking fairy Lucinda (Vivica A. Fox) - the gift of obedience. Against her strong-willed nature, she's magically compelled to follow orders from anyone.
Before her mom dies (tragically and on cue, like all good fairy-tale mothers), she tells Ella, "What's inside you is stronger than any spell."
Despite her cruel enchantment, Ella somehow makes it out of junior high alive, growing up a confident girl and (mostly) able to hide her ordeal.
But when her father (Patrick Bergin) remarries, her new stepmother Dame Olga (Joanna Lumley of "Absolutely Fabulous") and snobby stepsisters Hattie (Lucy Punch) and Olive (Jennifer Higham) hinder Ella's campaign to end the oppression of elves, ogres and giants under Prince Regent Edgar (Cary Elwes).
Edgar's nephew and successor to the throne, Prince Charmont (Hugh Dancy), becomes fixated on Ella, furthering the attraction-of-opposites myth.
The casting of Elwes, who starred as Westley in Rob Reiner's clever 1987 classic "The Princess Bride," perhaps best underscores the tone and intentions of director Tommy O'Haver ("Get Over It"). By unapologetically swiping from his predecessors, O'Haver creates a mostly computer-generated medieval township that's at once familiar. Edgar's slithery adviser Heston (a CGI snake) comes straight out of Disney's "Robin Hood." Ella's diminutive sidekick Slannen (Aidan McArdle), an elf with lawyer aspirations, is part Donkey from "Shrek" and part Hermey, the elfin dentist from the Rankin-Bass TV special "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer."
Recasting Brothers Grimm fairy tales isn't a new trope; Disney has been doing it for years, and writer Bill Willingham brilliantly breathed life back into storybook legends with DC Comics' darkly comic monthly title "Fables." But O'Haver, drawing from Gail Carson Levine's book, adds little to the fairy-tale playground. His musical numbers, including a rendition of Queen's "Someone to Love," should be foot-stomping rather than toe-tapping. In its present form, the number sounds muted, computer-constructed and routed through an AM radio.
Narrated by Eric Idle, "Ella Enchanted" delivers a handful of snarky, well-timed jokes, as when a flustered castle tour guide instructs starstruck Prince Charmont fans to "stop licking the foyer." The cast grins through the film's tongue-in-cheek tone.
The movie's computer-generated castles, magic visuals and sloppy effects echo a low-budget fantasy movie on cable. It's glossy, shiny candy that tastes oddly familiar yet lacks sugary punch.
Directed by Tommy O'Haver; written by Laurie Craig, Karen McCullah Lutz, Kirsten Smith, based on the book by Gail Carson Levine; photographed by John De Borman; production design by Norman Garwood; music by Shaun Davey; produced by Jane Startz. A Miramax Films release; opens Friday, April 9. Running time: 1:35. MPAA rating: PG (some crude humor and language).
Ella of Frell - Anne Hathaway
Prince Charmont - Hugh Dancy
Prince Regent Edgar - Cary Elwes
Mandy - Minnie Driver
Fairy Lucinda - Vivica A. Fox
Dame Olga - Joanna Lumley