Saturday, April 02, 2011

Happily, Ever After

This review was originally published in Singapore's The Peak magazine shortly after the release of the fantasy film Ever After. Looking back at one's own writing is often a painful process, and while I'm reasonably pleased with this review, there are some bits that make me cringe, and overall the piece lacks any real depth or analysis. You can tell I banged this out on a deadline.

Happily, Ever After

Some stories need to be told again and again; they are that important, that enduring. As the centuries pass, their mythic power continues to touch something deep inside the human heart, undiluted by the passage of time or the creeping cynicism of the ages. Such stories remind us of our essential humanity; they help us to recall what it is to experience joy, wonder, and love. They rekindle our sense of adventure, and awaken us to possibilities undreamed of. One of the greatest of these tales is that of the little cinder girl who became a princess: Cinderella. 

But there's a danger in reinterpreting classic tales for the modern era; any new version will inevitably be compared to the great interpretations of the past, and the audience already knows the story - or at least, they think they do. Even today, most audiences think of Walt Disney's animated Cinderella (1950) when they recall this classic story. Despite working in the shadow of Disney, director Andy Tennant has managed to produce an engaging fairy tale that will please audiences young and old alike. This newest interpretation of an old favourite is called Ever After.

In the unlikely event that you're unfamiliar with the original story, a quick recap: Once Upon A Time, a beautiful but poor young girl, Cinderella, lived with her Evil (with a capital E) stepmother and two equally Evil stepsisters. A handsome prince held a costume ball, which Cinderella crashed with the help of her fairy godmother. Said fairy godmother gave Cinderella a new dress, cleaned her up a bit, and slipped a pair of gorgeous (if improbable) glass slippers onto her feet. The transformed Cinderella swept the Prince off his feet, but ran off as midnight approached, for that is when the fairy godmother's magic will come undone and the charade will be revealed. As she ran off, Cinderella lost a shoe, which was eagerly snatched up by the Prince. Cinderella managed to escape into the night and returned to her normal bedraggled state. But the Prince, inflamed by desire for the mysterious princess at the ball, scoured the countryside, searching for her. Only the slipper could reveal the identity of the woman, so the Prince took the shoe with him, telling every woman he met to slip her foot into the shoe. If the shoe fits...she's the one. Naturally, it wasn't long before the Prince arrived at the household of the Evil Stepmother. The Stepmother and her two daughters vainly tried to force their oversize feet into the glass slipper, but to no avail. In the end, the soot-covered Cinderella was asked to try on the slipper. Naturally, the shoe fit, the Prince and Cinderella were married, and they lived...happily ever after.

Ever After takes a slightly different approach. The film's central conceit is this: the Brothers Grimm, having just published their version of the Cinderella story, visit an old woman who has in her possession a remarkable glass slipper. As they gape in amazement, the old woman tells them the true story of Cinderella...

Tennant has fun with the tale, removing all of the fantasy elements and turning it into a kind of costume drama, a romantic period piece. The film is set in a France where slaves still toil in filth, where desperate gypsies rob the rich, and where Kings and Queens play intricate games to decide the fate of nations. It's got a spunky heroine, malicious adversaries, an incredible sword fight, amazing sets, and lush cinematography. The film is laced with wry humour, warmth, and a touch of gentle irony.

If you'd asked me before I saw this film if Drew Barrymore could have made a convincing Cinderella, I would have snorted derisively. But the child star of old has grown into a capable actress; her Cinderella (Danielle, in this film) is a warm, well-rounded person, quite believable and likeable. Danielle has no fairy godmothers or magic to bail her out of trouble. She has to succeed using only her own innate talents. There's a definite '90s feel to this Cinderella - she's an outspoken champion of the proletariat, tweaking the nose of nobility as she fights for the rights of the common people. Born of nobility but raised as a servant, she straddles two worlds, hoping to break down some of the barriers between them.

Dougray Scott is an equally likeable Prince Henry. He's an arrogant young man, but not beyond redemption. Henry's eyes are opened, of course, by Danielle, and before long he, too, becomes something of a champion of the common man. Scott infuses the character with humour and doesn't take himself too seriously; it's easy to sympathize with this poor little rich boy. 

Perhaps my favourite character was Richard O'Brien's Pierre Le Pieu, the malicious opportunist who fairly reeks of oozing, slimy evil. If he had twirled his moustache like a 1930s serial villain, the action would not have been out of place. I had a bit of fun cheering for him during the film, much to the aggravation of the female friend I'd taken along with me. Of course, like all bad guys, Le Pieu must eventually be thwarted. (I do wonder if Pierre Le Pieu is meant to be an homage to the Warner Brother's cartoon character - you know, the skunk who thought he was Rudolph Valentino.)

Notable, too, was Patrick Godfrey's turn as Leonardo da Vinci. Da Vinci is bumbling but well-meaning, a grandfatherly figure who serves as Prince Henry's conscience and a metaphorical fairy godmother - well, godfather - for Danielle. The scene where he walks on water with yet another of his ingenious inventions is a pure delight.

The real show-stealer, however, is Anjelica Houston as Rodmilla, the Evil Stepmother.  Not since The Addams Family has Houston been so much fun to watch; she is delightfully wicked. With an arched eyebrow alone, Houston can make those who attempt to stand in her way quiver in their boots. Audiences booed and hissed with vigour whenever she perpetrated some despicably evil act (giving Danielle's dead mother's dress to her own daughter to wear to the ball, for example, or selling Danielle into slavery). Unfortunately, the filmmakers chose to make the character more "three-dimensional" by hinting that she does have some tenderness for her stepdaughter. While it might be more "realistic", this device actually serves to weaken the film, as it leads to some disturbing inconsistencies in both Houston's and Barrymore's characters. If, as the film suggests, the two really do want to like each other at heart, why then do they do such terrible things to each other? (At film's end, Danielle, too, proves that she isn't completely forgiving.) Better, I think, to stick to stereotypes. Normally I would approve of attempting to build ambiguity into a character, but when you're retelling a fairy tale, it's better to keep the moral tone in strict black and white. Was Darth Vader made more interesting when he was revealed to have a warm and fuzzy side in Return of the Jedi? Not at all. The character's integrity was sapped, the triumph of the good guys watered down. Pure evil is much more interesting and unusual than the real world's banal depravity.

This minor quibble detracted from my enjoyment of the film only a little. In the end, it is a romantic, touching story with a touch of adventure and a healthy dose of escapist fun. There's no doubt that Ever After is pure, unadulterated fluff. But it's fun fluff, and the story is one that resonates even today. After all, what young woman cannot identify with the little cinder girl who is revealed to be a princess? What young man can resist thinking of himself of as the handsome prince, heir to a mighty empire, brave and noble, quick with a sword, and irresistible to women? 

Even today, not many can resist the fantasy. Thanks to these immortal tales, reaching to our era from a distant and wondrous past, we have not yet grown too jaded to enjoy the magic that comes from hearing the words "Once Upon A Time," or, even more, "...and they lived...Happily Ever After."

And thank goodness for that.

2 comments:

"Spectre Of The Jeff" said...

The Cinderella tale goes way back before the Disney Studio of the 1950's. One bit of the story arc that the House Of Mouse missed was how at the very end, the King punishes the Wicked Stepmother and her daughters for their attempt to fool the Prince. He brings them to court, has their bare feet encased in boots made out of iron and heated over coals until red-hot, and then forces them to dance for him until they die.

I remember going to the theatre to see "Ever After..." very clearly. My wife wanted to see a "chick flick", and I wanted to go to a war movie. We found a multiplex that had both and did a double feature.

That's why whenever I see "Saving Private Ryan", I always think of Drew Barrymore in a wimple. Trust me, those two films back-to-back make an unforgettable double-header. Yes, a traumatic date nite to be sure, but at least nobody's feet are getting burnt off.

Stephen Fitzpatrick said...

In "Grimm's Grimmest", a book which also goes back to the grisly original tales, first one step-sisters cuts off her heel and the other her toes in an attempt to make their feet fit into the glass slipper. Later, as they march up the aisle with Cinderella at her wedding, two birds come down and pluck out the left eye of each of them. After the wedding, as they conme back down the aisle, the birds return, and you can probably guess why...