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Ella Enchanted (Widescreen Edition)

Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment // PG // August 24, 2004
List Price: $29.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted August 23, 2004 | E-mail the Author
"I think it's only fair to warn you that I'm practiced in the ancient art of...ummm...origami."
"Paper folding?"
"Oh. I was hoping you wouldn't know what that was."
Based on the novel by Gail Carson Levine, Ella Enchanted stars Anne Hathaway as Ella of Frell, who was cursed at birth with the 'gift' of obedience. She must do whatever she's told, and despite that magical obligation, Ella has grown up to be a strong, confident young woman, one of the few willing to stand up for the rights of the giants and elves exploited under the regime of Sir Edgar. Ella's cruel stepsisters exploit her obedience after stumbling upon her secret, first seizing her closet space and then forcing her to shoplift and alienate her best friend. Feeling as if she's lost almost everything, Ella decides to find Lucinda (Vivica A. Fox), the fairy that cursed her, and seek her help in removing the spell. With a sentient book possessing the ability to show the location of anyone in-hand, Ella sets off on her journey, encountering many of the creatures Edgar has forced to eke out a life outside the kingdom. The elves have been forced to be chipper entertainers, much to the chagrin of Slannen (Aidan McArdle), who has his eye on a law degree forbidden to his people. Giants are being exploited for slave labor, and flesh-chompin' ogres now stalk their prey in the heavily-wooded forests. Ella thinks she's met an entirely different sort of monster when she runs into Prince Charmont (Hugh Dancy), the nephew of the oppressive Edgar. All of the girls of the kingdom fawn relentlessly over "Char", forming fan clubs and ravenously gobbling up his cover stories in "Medieval Teen", and the universally adored Char is intrigued by Ella's complete disinterest in him. Their reluctant journey together sparks a bit of romantic flame, and she's invited to join in on the celebration of Char's impending coronation. When Edgar sees her as a threat to his reign, he exploits her curse to rid himself of all barriers to the throne once and for all.
"I want to look 25 at tonight's ball. What do you suggest?"
"A time machine?"
"May I recommend our newest procedure? Bat feces and oxen blood -- batox."
I thought this was a fairly insightful analogy before I peeked at Tommy O'Haver's filmography and discovered he directed both of these movies, but I'm fond enough of the comparison to make it anyway: Ella Enchanted does for fairy tales what Get Over It! did for teen movies. The cores of both movies should be familiar to fans of their respective genres. In the case of Ella Enchanted, there's a downtrodden girl in a magical land who goes on a quest, encounters a bunch of strange beings who join her on her adventure, falls in love with a prince, is pulled away from her love at the last minute, sees the villain get his comeuppance, and cues the storybook ending. But like Get Over It!, Ella Enchanted infuses the skeleton of that formula with so much personality and so many eccentricities that the familiar premise seems shiny and new. The rampant anachronisms are a huge part of the fun. There's a community college, a mall complete with an escalator (my favorite background sight gag in a movie teeming with 'em), fan clubs and teen rags, nods to recycling, and a medieval quip about Botox, just to rattle off a few. The soundtrack is lightly seasoned with pop hits from a couple decades past, such as ELO's "Strange Magic", "Walking on Sunshine", "Respect", "You Make Me Feel Like Dancing", and the closer, "Don't Go Breaking My Heart". One of the movie's most memorable sequences has Ella belting out Queen's "Somebody to Love", and if I didn't have a crush on Anne Hathaway before that point, I definitely do now. Although at its heart, Ella Enchanted is a romantic fairy tale, it mixes in a decent amount of action, including some wire-fu butt whompin' from Ella. I mean, it has ninjas! If there was one thing the Brothers Grimm had sorely overlooked, it was ninjas.
"Stop tonguing the foyer!"
This is so much better than Shrek, a movie whose success almost undoubtedly propelled Ella Enchanted towards a greenlight at Miramax. I'm almost tempted to toss Ella Enchanted in the same category as The Princess Bride, and not just because of the presence of Cary Elwes. Ella isn't quite in the same league as that instant classic -- it's sillier and skewed towards a different audience, making a direct comparison not particularly useful -- but the fact that I'd even consider comparing it favorably to one of my all-time favorites should be pretty telling. I enjoyed its mixture of sincerity, adventure, comedy, and romance, and I thought it pulled off the "fairy tale with a modern twist" angle much more effectively than Shrek. Ella Enchanted is off-beat enough that it won't appeal to all tastes, and the critical reception definitely appears to be mixed. I personally enjoyed the movie greatly and have no qualms giving it a strong recommendation.

Video: Although there were initially concerns that Ella Enchanted was only going to be given a fullscreen release, Miramax has opted to issue separate full-frame and widescreen DVDs. The version reviewed here, of course, preserves the film's theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 in anamorphic widescreen. The movie has a very distinctive appearance, with a palette that's colorful but unique, almost as if it were torn from the pages of a slightly yellowed storybook. Although the nod to yellowing pages is deserved, quite a bit of Ella Enchanted seemed to take on a blue or reddish-purple tint, though that may have been a stylistic choice. The hues are more subdued in the finished product than in the deleted footage elsewhere on the DVD, which could be attributed to the lack of proper color timing on those excised scenes. A couple of quick comparisons are provided below, with the deleted scenes on the left and the final images on the right. The brighter, more vivid colors would seem to be more in keeping with the subject matter, but not having seen Ella Enchanted theatrically, I'm not sure which set most closely represents the intended look of the movie. I wasn't terribly disappointed in either case.
Deleted Scene DVD
Deleted Scene DVD
The image is sharp, although fine detail looks like it's been smoothened out somewhat, perhaps a side-effect of all of the compositing and assorted tweaking that took place in the digital realm. There's a thin veil of film grain, but it's compressed well enough that it doesn't devolve into a microblocking mess, and I didn't spot any intrusive compression artifacts or edge haloes throughout.

Audio: The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio (448Kbps) is particularly well done, using the six channels at its disposal to really flesh out Ella's fantasy world. There's an extensive amount of ambiance, and some sort of sound -- even if it's fairly subtle -- is buzzing from the surrounds at any given time. There aren't a lot of obvious pans across speakers, but there are a number of discrete effects across the soundstage and reinforcement in the surrounds, such as clinking suits of armor, an ominous voice in the Hall of Mirrors leaping from channel to channel, and the twinkling stream of fairy magic. The movie's towering giants and lumbering ogres also offer up some activity in the lower frequencies as well. Although I already mentioned this elsewhere in the review, I feel obligated to note again how much I liked the music scattered throughout Ella Enchanted. Instead of relying on pre-fab popstars to sing formulaic tunes drenched in synthesizers, the movie dredges up pop hits from the past and gives them a new spin. Sure, maybe they're still sung by pre-fab popstars, but that's okay. Anyway, it's a great soundtrack that's implemented really well on DVD. This disc also includes a French dub, presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 and encoded at a bitrate of 384Kbps. Closed captions and subtitles in English and Spanish round out the audio options.

Supplements: Ella Enchanted is a pretty impressive special edition, beginning with an excellent commentary with director Tommy O'Haver and actors Anne Hathaway and Hugh Dancy. The three of them obviously had a great time making the movie and really enjoyed working with each other, and that helps strike that balance I like between a commentary that's fun to listen to while still being informative. Along with detailed descriptions of how the movie's many visual effects were accomplished, they point out some of the jokes scribbled in the margins and spout off stories about chucking $5,000 worth of inedible cakes and the omnipresence of some unusual almonds. It's a great listen and is definitely worth taking the time to check out.

The commentary makes frequent reference to scenes that had to be gutted or trimmed down, and a number of these are provided elsewhere on the DVD. There are seven deleted scenes, letterboxed and running a little over nine and a half minutes total. They include the unpleasant arrival of Ella's transplanted family to Frell, Ella being instructed to burn her clothes that are "so last century", Heston informing Edgar of a serious situation, Ella tracking down Lucinda's transmogrifying transgressions, an extended glimpse of the poisoning of the crown, a montage to show how dismal everyone is before the climax, and a closing scene that wraps up all the characters' various plot threads. There are also four extended scenes, including a peek at how Hattie snagged an invitation to the ball, what led up to Ella penning her "Dear Char" letter and enlisting help, some insistence that Ella's father be happy for Hattie, and our heroes trying to navigate their way through the labyrinthine castle. O'Haver and Dancy contribute optional audio commentary for all eleven scenes.

There are also two lengthy and fairly similar featurettes, each running close to half an hour. "The Magical World of Ella Enchanted" (28:31) features brief interviews with most of the key cast and crew, along with glimpses of the recording of the movie's pop covers, the application of makeup and digital effects, and costume design. Although the featurette is still obviously promotional in nature, it's substantial enough to make it worth a look. It pretty much renders "Ella Enchanted Red Carpet Premiere Special" (23:14) redundant. The special is hosted by a couple of the acts on the movie's soundtrack, rehashing a bunch of the footage from "The Magical World..." with interviews from the red carpet at the New York premiere tossed in at the end.

The DVD features a couple of interactive goodies, like the Minesweeper-ish game "Prince Charmont's Fan Club". The DVD-ROM portion of the disc includes the InterActual player and an online link to create your own Happily Ever After story on Miramax's website, although that link didn't seem to be working as of presstime or review time or whatever time it's called when I write DVD reviews. Finally, there's a kinda cheap looking music video for Kari Kimmel's "It's Not Just Make Believe", the song that plays over the movie's end credits. Rounding out the extras are plugs for The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement, Bionicle 2: Legends of Metru Nui, Around the World in 80 Days, and The Cheetah Girls. The DVD features a set of 16x9 animated menus and twenty-three chapter stops.

Conclusion: Try to imagine sort of cinematic hybrid of The Princess Bride, The Wizard of Oz, and any of Disney's 1950s fairy tale output, and you'll wind up with something remarkably close to Ella Enchanted. It's a funny, sweet movie that manages to effectively tackle a bunch of different emotions, deftly mixing dollops of action and drama in with its quirky, off-kilter sense of humor. Ella Enchanted is a...dare I say it?...enchanting film that should appeal to the whole family, and even though I'm not even close to fitting into the movie's target demographic, I enjoyed it immensely as well. Highly Recommended.
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Highly Recommended

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