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Happily N’Ever After: Widescreen Edition

Lionsgate/Vanguard Animation (January 5 2007), Lionsgate Home Video (May 1 2007), single disc, 87 mins plus supplements, 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, Dolby Digital 5.1, Rated: PG, Retail: $28.98

Storyboard:

The “ever afters” of several well-loved fairytales get the heave-ho when evil strikes back in the form of Cinderella’s wicked stepmother, who causes a rift in Fairytale Land that undoes the happy endings for such characters as Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel and Jack from the Beanstalk. Cinders, known in this updated spoof fairytale world as Ella, gives up on her stoopid Prince Charming and teams with the creatures of Fairytale Land to put right the wrong and get those dream stories restored.

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The Sweatbox Review:

In the early 2000s, two things happened that, to an extent, changed the face of the way certain animated films were created and released. Disney, mindful of the lack of strong releases put out in theaters early in the new year after the usual bounty at the end of the last, was able to market the President’s Day weekend as family movie time by issuing some of their better than average direct-to-video titles in spruced up colors, which led to initial success with Return To Never-Land and a string of Winnie-The-Pooh knockoffs. Also around this time, DreamWorks put out the first in their Shrek series, the phenomenal success of which meant almost as much as the debut of CGI features themselves a few years earlier.

While Shrek cemented the fact that all CGI films “needed” to be comedies in order to succeed, and changed the landscape of all animated fairytales now having to be post-modern and self-referential, the Disney releases did show that there was an audience for new family product earlier in the year than was felt traditional. Into both camps fell Hoodwinked, a “fractured fairytale” that played in Disney’s annual February spot and made an unexpected mint. Clearly itself modelled on the Shrek ethos, Hoodwinked boasted a tight script and good vocal performances that made up for (cracking character designs apart) its less than inspired animation.

And so it’s a bit of a case of Shrek-meets-Hoodwinked here in Happily N’Ever After, and I know you’re thinking, “didn’t those two fractured fairytale features already turn those conventions on their heads?” The answer is yes, though this new take on what’s fast becoming an overburdened sub-genre (and remember we still have more Shrek and the Hood Vs. Evil sequels to come!) should have been in the running with a fair chance, seeing as it lists one John H Williams amongst its (many) producers. Williams, as I’m sure you’ll remember, is “a producer of Shrek and Shrek 2” as the packaging rather weakly points out, hoping that you’ll find that enticement enough to hop on the fairytale-spinning bandwagon once again. But Williams’ name and the over reliance on the green ogre to sell his new wares might also be a major hindrance, with expectations impossibly high to meet (even the third Shrek is finding it hard to shake off the “been there, done that” feel that audiences are already feeling).

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In actuality, this feature is the second to come from Williams’ own Vanguard Animation pipeline, previously responsible for the World War II carrier pigeon adventure Valiant, picked up by Disney but dumped in a busy summer with little promotion due to their own birdy movie, Chicken Little, waiting in the wings. With Happily N’Ever After, Williams is supposedly back on more solid and previously known ground, with a fairytale spoof that sounds, on paper at least, not so far off the recipe that made both Shrek films hits. The ingredients are certainly there, though perhaps a little too obviously it seems that everything’s been thrown into the mix in a bid to create the perfect result.

The opening is a mess, and it’s clear from the get-go that Happily is a Shrek wannabe that’s “Hoodwinked” without the script attention. In fact, this is a poor, poor script, with so many spots for truly classic gags that it frustrates in that so much potential has been squandered, especially in the central idea of mixing up these stories’ characters. After some early, very limited, changing of a few fairytale endings, it’s all really about Cinderella, but we saw this better done in Disney’s A Twist In Time, which debuted on DVD as this hit theaters. And quite how producer Williams could get away with being involved with Happily while at the same time as executive producing the ridiculously similar sounding Shrek The Third – couldn’t DreamWorks be concerned about a conflict of interests? I think I only actually laughed out loud at only two genuinely funny lines, and at one point someone says, “This is gonna get a whole lot worse”, and I had to wonder if they meant the events in the story or the film itself!

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Of the star names, big catch Sigourney Weaver embarrasses herself, confusing cartoon-evil acting as the stepmother Frieda with overacting, chewing up the scenery and shouting out her lines with maniacal glee, but not much depth. The rest, led by ex-Buffy Sarah Michelle Gellar are a mixture of either all seeming a bit bored, or well-worn voices that serve their roles without any distinction. Thus we get Patrick Warburton as silly charming Prince Humperdink, Wallace Shawn as Munk and George Carlin (barely) as the Wizard, all of whom are consummate professionals but whose roles could never be described as a stretch for any of them. You know you’re in trouble when the rest of the cast is made up of such names as Andy Dick and Gellar’s husband Freddie Prinze Jr, here as “Rick” – what kind of fairytale name is Rick!?

Apparently, the director wasn’t able to sit in on all the recording sessions, and this immediately explains the disjointed performances. Prinze’s drab narration is a major reason why the opening doesn’t work – not only have we been in this stop-start movie scenario before, most notably with The Emperor’s New Groove, but Prinze (doing his best Bruce Willis it seems) and his flatly scripted lines just can’t hold the attention, leaving more room for the eye to wander around the visuals. Here it’s clear that the secondary characters (the stepmother and the Prince – probably the most satisfyingly designed, right out of a Warners classic) are the better animated. There is no warmth to the other designs, especially the humans, and overall the animation is of slightly better than television quality, perhaps the CGI equivalent of all those Princess And The Goblin or Tom Thumb And Thumbelina-level rip-offs we got after bona-fide classics The Little Mermaid and Beauty And The Beast came out.

The worst thing about Happily N’Ever After is the completely synthetic feel everything has, from the recycled jokes (yet another film that has celluloid breaks, which makes no sense showing sprocket holes in a digitally created CG feature), to the look of the thing, to even the musical score. If there’s really one thing that can help make a picture it’s a good, memorable musical score, and the worst thing that can break it would be to literally create kids’ TV-level music without any substance or nuance. Unfortunately, and it’s a pet-hate of mine, the computer samples that we’re lumbered with here are not up to the job, and Happily’s music is a fake-sounding as the visuals are to look at. A few contemporary tracks are thrown into the mix in a futile attempt to jazz up some “action” scenes, but the mis-mash of styles is so conflicting that it just ends up making the “orchestral” score stand out much more for what it isn’t. Such a great deal of added production value could have been added to Happily N’Ever After with the music being played by real musicians, but it seems the producers were more than keen to cut corners and settle all too much for the mediocre.

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We also get the crossing over of individual fairy stories, again as has almost become a CGI tradition, with the Shreks, of course, but also more general genre-spoofing fare such as Hoodwinked and Chicken Little. Then there’s our lead heroine, Ella herself, bringing to mind the alternative version of Cinderella that we already saw play out in the fun movie Ella Enchanted, though here just not as much fun. The problem seems to be that Happily N’Ever After, in being all too eager to please, is all too happily n’ot coming up with anything distinctly new. It’s best just isn’t as clever as it thinks it is, even for younger eyes and ears, and proves more than anything that a good story crew and time to finesse is an imperative part of any animated film; certainly something that Williams’ partners on the Shrek films at DreamWorks understand.

I wonder what role Williams did actually play in the production: though the credits list his Vanguard banner among them, animation was actually handled not by the Ealing Studios facility set up for Valiant, but by German outfit Berlin Animation Film (an interminable five company logos open the film, plus a boring list of cast and crew titles that mean the “story” doesn’t actually start for a good two minutes, and there are ten minutes of end credits too). The production notes that the film was completed in just over a year as some kind of achievement; yes, it would be if your characters and world had been set up by an experienced crew, as with Ice Age 2, allowing a fast animation turnaround, but not where everything, story and studio included, is starting from scratch.

Apparently, and going against the well-oiled sales machine that will tell you that “story is king” and that the animation medium used in the production of a film is based on the kind of feel the director wants to achieve, Happily N’Ever After was created as a classic style, traditionally hand-animated movie. Late into pre-production, the producers felt it was clear that only 3D computer animated movies were being picked for distribution, so they refinanced and turned the film over to the CGI process. With production contracts in place, BAF were required to complete the animation they had started in 2D, and the result was having to put together a CGI pipeline while also actively making the movie. Without the facilities to completely pull this off, BAF had to outsource sequences to companies in Australia and Canada…further leading to a final quality that is simply, and visibly, uneven.

And that’s Happliy’s real shame, because the visuals in a traditionally animated sense would have perfectly suited the ideas in the film and would have made it stand out from the crowd as opposed to being the next in a long line of CGI fairytale rip-offs. What certainly don’t work are the colors which, while strong purples and deep blues fill many a traditional animation background with lush, inviting tones, don’t sit at all pretty against computer animated puppets that wouldn’t look out of place in a Barbie direct-to-DVD offering. The whole thing is reminiscent of a bad theme-park attraction – garish to look at before anything starts moving and even more off-putting once things do, usually with jerky movements and an uncertainty that anything could break off at any moment. The feel here is equally fake.

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Okay…all these criticisms could be levelled at Hoodwinked too, but that one scraped through resting heavily on its airtight, and naturally very funny, script. If anything does work here, it’s the central plot concept, though even this in light of the aforementioned recent Cinderella retread A Twist In Time comes off as something of a hand-me-down. There’s quite a lot of fun to be had in the switching of fairytales, their characters and their endings, much of it to comic effect, but here it’s heavy handed and uninspired. That we’re not seeing it in its intended hand-drawn, and much more suitable, rendering is equally frustrating, and the now de rigueur modern pop-culture references or age old film tricks that come crashing into the picture do nothing but pull the audience out of the story in a flash, the majority of them wondering where they’ve seen the gags before (and in much better films).

It wouldn’t be fair to mark Happily N’Ever After up as being in the same league – no matter what distributor Lionsgate wants you to believe – as Pixar or DreamWorks’ work, nor even that of a Blue Sky, who are consistently getting better and better and surprise with every new outing. While the characters aren’t as bad as the Barbie videos mentioned earlier, they’re perhaps better equalled to those in The Polar Express, though less creepy, slightly more caricatured and not as well animated. There are some instances of flashes of inspiration, but it lacks a singular vision and the film just doesn’t possess the kind of magic that’s at the heart of its story. With much better having come before, and continuing to come after, Happily N’Ever After finds itself struggling to sustain its entertainment level and make its mark in an already oversubscribed genre.

Is This Thing Loaded?

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Despite a poor reception at the box office just a few short months ago, Lionsgate is doing the right thing by Happily N’Ever After and has put together a package that may appeal to collectors as much as it aims for the generic family audience.

First up are the main menus, here given a “good” and “evil” theme which one decides upon as the disc plays for the first time. Whichever you plum for, the layouts are pretty much the same, with various crystal ball video shots or still frames accompanied by Wallace Shawn and Andy Dick’s Munk and Mambo characters babbling away.

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In keeping with the theme of the main feature is a two-minute Happily N’Ever After? Alternate Ending, presented in letterboxed 4:3. It isn’t quite clear where this would have deviated from the ending in the movie, but it is markedly very different. It’s fully animated, with original voices, but comes without any musical score, which doesn’t help it come over with any warmth. There are several more Deleted Scenes next, all of which really play out as scene extensions or alternate versions of existing scenes. Running almost seven minutes in letterboxed 4:3, only a couple are interesting, one for a truly bizarre gag odder than anything in the entire theatrical cut, and another for an awfully simplistic attempt at a character song moment.

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Going behind the scenes, you’ll actually have to go to the Set Up options to access director Paul Bolger’s full-length Audio Commentary track, which opens the lid on the production of Happily N’Ever After, and what an “interesting” one it must have been. With putting a studio together while completing an ambitious, but unsuccessful, project, Bolger’s remarks don’t really do anything to inspire a re-watch of the film even though he’s enthusiastic about explaining the choices made during production. To be honest, and while I found his Irish brogue a delight to listen to, the track, covering tricks used in cutting down production time, justifying the artistic and architectural decisions, hearing about some ideas that were decided against that could have saved the movie, as well as the blatant pointing out of sheer steals from other projects, was such a downer that I skipped through it instead of having to sit through the whole movie again. If watching Happily N’Ever After isn’t a guideline on how not to make an animated fairytale, Bolger’s comments will certainly convince you, despite his candid nature.

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A handful of Bolger-hosted behind the scenes featurettes continue the collectors’ features while also leaning over into family territory. Development Of The Characters, Posing Out The Action, Playing Out The Part and Color, Light & Effects pretty much do what they suggest, running a combined 16:16 with the “play all” option. Once again, the traditionally sketched characters pop off the page much, much more than their bland, non-expressive CG counterparts, and a glimpse at some early pencil test animation just shows the lightyears in difference between good hand-drawn technique and what we ended up watching in the complete movie. With a traditional approach and a tighter script, Happily N’Ever After could have been something quite special indeed. Shame.

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From Storyboard To Fairy Tale: A Comparison takes three scenes (Dance On The Ball, Frieda’s Takeover, Meet The Dwarves) and presents them split-screen into the four stages of animation: storyboard, layout, animation and final render. Running around three minutes, there’s not a lot to get excited about here. Creating The Happily Story: Bringing N’Ever After To Life cast and crew interviews catch up, in bite-sized segments, with vocal talents Weaver, Prinze and Carlin, as well as director Bolger, writer Rob Moreland and animation director Dino Athanassiou. The cast was obviously taped while the film was still in production – possibly as a two dimensional feature – so it’s hard to place any blame on them, and Weaver especially comes across as likeable and excited at what was surely a fun prospect in the recording sessions, with her “over enthusiastic” reading of the part certainly a departure for the usually serious Sigourney. The crew gush about how great everything is, how their story matches up against those originals from the Grimm Brothers, and how they wanted to get away from the “over-animated” look of other CG films. If only they hadn’t mistaken “fluidity” for “over-animated”… Each clip runs around two minutes, making up around 11:40 minutes of total interview footage.

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Moving over strictly into the land of kids’ activities, Games From The Department Of Fairy Tale Security offers up what you’d expect: a selection of set-top diversions destined to be checked out once and n’ever again played. Choose Your Own Fairy Tale Ending runs through a few famous stories with alternate versions playing out depending on viewer choices. Munk’s Fairy Take Fix has the player helping Munk fix Mambo’s undoing (but doesn’t make much sense), Mambo and Munk’s Magical Matchmaker is one of those things that find the character you most resemble from the movie, while Mambo’s Memory Mix-Up is a spot the difference game, and Create Your Own Witch’s Broom! merely allows the remote hogger to select accessories to put together a souped-up vroom-broom. Again, Dick and Shawn voice Mambo and Munk, and at least one of these leads to an animatic version of an ultimately deleted scene.

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Finally, there’s a page of previews for even less enticing fare (the likes of Bratz and multiple spin-offs which I won’t bother to list). Some of these previews play as the disc spins for the first time, where it might be worth sitting through the dross to catch a pretty nifty 25th Anniversary trailer for The Last Unicorn, but the Happily N’Ever After theatrical trailer – the one bit of marketing that worked in the film’s favor – is naturally missing.

Case Study:

Both the standard DVD and Blu-Ray Disc editions come housed in embossed, gold-foiled slipcases that replicate the sleeve art underneath. The cover almost goes with the original theatrical poster art, but makes some unneeded changes to further simplify the look of the characters, which does no one any favors.

Ink And Paint:

Presented in its created aspect ratio of 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, I can happily say that, whatever the actual picture’s shortcomings, the image transfer no doubt reproduces every garish color and texture as intended. Without going overboard, this is just as one would expect from a digitally created animated feature made in the past year and coming out so soon after on disc. A Blu-Ray version is also available, which should help give adult viewers a headache with even more clarity.

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Scratch Tracks:

Happily is more than suitably equipped here with a fine Dolby Digital 5.1 track that whizzes and sparkles as these things tend to do, especially a mix provided by Skywalker Sound. The reproduced quality warrants near top marks, but the sheer awfulness of the actual soundtrack gets points docked. English and Spanish subs and dubs are included.

Final Cut:

Although it just missed being released in late 2006, one has to look back over that past year and admit that, for all the record number of releases, we haven’t had the best twelve months in animation, with many more mis-fires than bona-fide classic hits and a Best Animated Feature win for a bonkers movie about dancing penguins. It’s hard to place Happily in that line up…while it is nothing but derivative, could it be more cohesive than those darned penguins, or is it worse than Doogal (which I missed entirely after seeing its original The Magic Roundabout incarnation)? It’s definitely nowhere near the inventiveness of my own personal pick of last year, Flushed Away, and the PG rating is here for a reason, with several questionable “gags” that felt out of place even in this mess. The film might, at a stretch, appeal to those who absolutely can’t get enough Shrek and Hoodwinked, but Happily N’Ever After is undeniably non-essential, and a rental at best for those who find themselves undecided. Save your money and put it towards supporting the truly charming Romeo & Juliet: Sealed With A Kiss instead.

On a more personal note, and the following is not intended as an explanation for my lack of enthusiasm (I simply didn’t warm to the film, as most audiences didn’t during its less than overwhelming box-office run), I was somewhat amused to find one John McKenna’s name as line producer in the credits. While head of Warner Bros Animation in London, where he oversaw such classics as Space Jam and Quest For Camelot, John turned down my proposed animated musical version of The Emperor’s New Clothes for not packing in enough emotion and staging one character’s empty “Baloo death”. Years later, it’s good to see that John has moved on and is now overseeing such valuable contributions as this to animation’s cinematic legacy. Bitter? N’Ever…!

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?

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