Sunday, January 07, 2007

Happily N'Ever After

Critics have been pretty rough on Happily N’Ever After. To an extent, the film’s producers ask for it by daring to invoke the legacy of Shrek in their advertising merely because one of Happily N’Ever After’s ten producers also produces the three Shrek films. But despite the critical drubbing received by Happily N’Ever After, I thought the movie was okay. Sure, that’s not high praise, but read other reviews of this film, and you’ll think I just gave it an Oscar.

Perhaps I should explain my personal stake in this movie. You see, I have a niece who worships the Disney princesses. Despite my persistent efforts to discuss the political and cultural responsibilities that fall to a princess, my niece Susannah remains exclusively devoted to the fashion and beauty inexorably tied to the princess allure. When I gave her a book in which the princess breaks up with her bum of a prince boyfriend, Susannah asked with despair, “you mean, she doesn’t get married?” This is the worldview thrust upon young girls: the dream is the prince and the end goal is marriage. What century is this?

Happily N’Ever After is the clarion call of the dastardly Frieda (Cinderella’s stepmother cum Empress of Evil, played with charisma by Sigourney Weaver). She lives in Fairy Tale Land, a world in which happy endings abound because The Wizard (George Carlin) uses magic to maintain the balance between good and evil. In The Wizard’s absence, Frieda steals his magical staff from underlings Monk (Wallace Shawn) and Mambo (Andy Dick) and takes over the kingdom. Chaos ensues, so Monk, Mambo, Ella (short for Cinderella, of course), and reluctant servant Rick (Freddie Prinze, Jr.) seek out the prince (Patrick Warburton) to save the day.

Screenwriter Robert Moreland offers a relatively tame portrait of a world ruled by evil. Frieda plots to little effect in the castle tower, and her greatest physical threat is her blatant sexuality. Female sexuality is scary, you see, especially in an older woman. Baddies like Little Red Riding Hood’s Wolf drink and boast in the castle dining room but fail to impose their menace in more serious ways. Sleepy Beauty’s story is interrupted when her prince also falls asleep, Rapunzel falls out of her tower (more confused than hurt), and Jack gets smushed by the Giant’s foot. Predictable disruptions like these fail to capitalize on the possibilities offered by the incursion of true chaos into a world dependent upon routine.

More problematic is that Moreland includes too large a cast of characters to develop any one person deeply enough to make us care. Monk and Mambo provide the weak comedic relief seemingly mandatory in today’s animated films but otherwise they have little impact upon events. They function like sports announcers, but their commentary isn’t entertaining enough to justify their relatively purposeless presence here. The Seven Dwarves act as one pact without evidencing individuality and again, their intrusion into the action acts as a distraction without truly altering the course of the narrative. Same could be said for the bad guys in general. Moreland is content to depict a safe and contained vision of evil, completely in opposition to the danger implicit within the original fairy tales alluded to so frequently in this movie. He tries to be clever but in his refusal to test boundaries, Moreland delivers a bland story.

That said, the film isn’t completely boring. First time director Paul J. Bolger knows enough to keep the film moving, so it will likely hold the attention of children. Happily N’Ever After offers novelty if for no other reason than to see how Moreland and Bolger alter the storylines of traditional fairy tales. Perhaps I am too easily impressed by simple breaks with fairy tale conventions, but there is something awfully fun about seeing the prince portrayed as deeply stupid. Further, Sarah Michelle Gellar’s Ella has short hair and isn’t blonde. Shocking, I know. She even takes up arms against the bad guys when necessary. Her actions come off as little more than spunk, but I’ll take spunk over female passivity any day. In fact, Ella eventually defeats the evil stepmother with a few quick punches to the gut while Rick lies unconscious on the sidelines. Don’t worry, Rick gets plenty of opportunities to be heroic, but it was refreshing to see Cinderella confront her oppressor directly.

More intriguing still is the moment in which Ella learns that her story traditionally closes with the happy ending. Mambo explains that she marries the prince, and that’s it—her story (and thereby life) are over. Ella is confused and distraught, saying that she expected there to be “more.” Perhaps not a deep realization, but who can’t relate to this adult discovery that dreams are not always fulfilled as expected and life is not always as satisfying as planned.

Cinderella’s questioning of the satisfaction of marriage as the culmination of life doesn’t stop her from marrying Rick, and Bolger does not examine how Fairy Tale Land might be forever altered by their union. For instance, what does it mean for the prince to be single and the princess to be poor? Happily N’Ever After is far from a feminist battlecry. Moreland and Bolger affirm the traditional ending of romances—wedded bliss and a kiss. But despite this conventionality, there are moments within the film that offer striking alternatives to the usual princess lore. And I would take my niece to this movie to see if she might notice them and consider that there is more to being a woman than wearing a long gown and crown.


At 8:29 PM, Blogger Jimski said...

I was inclined to essentially ignore this film until your review. Although... if you are interested in another film where the prince is depicted as stupid and clueless, might I suggest The Little Mermaid?

What's that? Unintentional, you say? Oh.


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