A fairy tale goes bad. An unlikely hero emerges. Classic characters from different stories join forces. And we discover things aren’t exactly as we assumed “once upon a time”. All with a modern self-aware coolness.

Ella and Rick – trying to figure out what they see in each other.

No, not that film – or the sequel. No, not that one either. No, that one hasn’t come out yet. This one is Happily N’Ever After, the latest in the recent line of CG animated “fractured fairy tales”. Predictably, this one brings nothing new to the table. For a film that complains about the blandness and lack of “edginess” in the classics, Happily itself takes no risks, features vanilla characters, and is downright old-fashioned at times.

From the first minute of the film you know something is not quite right. After the Lionsgate production logo the screen goes dark and you wait for the film to begin. But first there is another production logo, Vanguard Animation’s. No big deal – Disney and DreamWorks do that too with their Pixar and Aardman films. But then another… and another… and at this point you almost think it is a joke, but no, there is one more. FIVE different production company logos run before the film! With that many cooks in the kitchen maybe the film that follows is the inevitable result.

The story is loosely centered on the Cinderella tale. Ella, as she is oh so hiply (but not so uniquely) called here, is no modern princess. She is a fawning, shallow girl whose only thought is getting her prince. Prince Humperdink is a preening, mindless dolt who lives his life trying to recreate the perfect fairy tale. They’re made for each other, right? But the Prince’s servant Rick, a modern kid who we’re supposed to think is very cool but who just comes off as annoying, is secretly in love with Ella and can’t understand what she sees in a moron like his boss. What Rick sees in Ella we don’t know, though it could be that he is just as shallow as she and is into her for her looks. Unknown to them all their whole world is watched over by a Wizard who has to keep the scales of good and evil in balance to ensure happy endings for all. So he of course decides to go on a golfing vacation and leave things up to his inept assistants. As you can see not a lot of time was spent of trivialities such as clever plot devices. When Ella’s stepmother Frieda discovers the truth she takes over and gives the bad guy’s their due.

While the basic premise doesn’t sound that bad, if derivative, the execution is just plain uninspired. From shlocky film tricks (“That’s me” style cheesy narration; starting in the middle of the film and then saying “but let’s go back a bit”; pausing the “film” askew so you can see the sprocket holes), to smarmy modernness (the witches ride Star Wars style pod-racing brooms that shoot lasers; Rick tells a guard “just trying to put money in your pocket, playa”), everything seems to be done in a calculated way to fit a preconceived story formula. In other words, instead of telling a story they want to tell the filmmakers decided to copy other popular films so their film can make some money.

Worse than the uninspired story is the lackluster voice performances by Sarah Michelle Geller as Ella, Freddie Prinze Jr. as Rick, and Sigourny Weaver as the Stepmother Frieda. To be fair, a good deal of that could be put down to some of the embarrassing dialogue written for them.

Mambo and Muck – bright spots in an otherwise dull film.

The filmmakers have apparently hailed as a good thing the fact that this film was created in a short amount of time. But there is a reason it usually takes years to bring an animated film to the big screen. The animation in Happily, while serviceable, is hardly top quality. The voice actors do not mesh with their on-screen personas, and at times hearing their voices coming out of their characters’ mouths can be jarring. And of course cutting time off production means cutting corners with your story – stock characters, cliched situations, limited and rushed character development, and a general lack of anything clever or new.

There are a few bright spots in the film. Andy Dick and Wallace Shawn are great together as the Wizard’s assistants Mambo and Monk, though Dick’s shtick does get old after awhile. And Rumpelstiltskin is very funny as the Stepmother’s sidekick.

The fun factor isn’t high here, but it won’t put you to sleep either. For the kids, if they love this type of story or are new to it they will probably like this. However, about an hour into the film it slows to almost a dead stop. If you haven’t lost them to this point, you may lose them here. For adults, if you do get bored make a game out of counting how many times the frame centers on Ella’s legs. The filmmakers must have been proud of the animation here because the “camera” point of view seems to focus on them an inordinate number of times!

Overall not even more time could have saved this movie as it was just a film that did not need to be made. It has been done (and done better!) several times this decade, and will, unfortunately, be done again in the years to come. C’mon Hollywood! Take risks! Not every animated film has to be something that has been done before. But I guess it could have been worse. At least it wasn’t a fractured fairy tale with ants!

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?

Happily N’Ever After
Lionsgate Films/Vanguard Animation
January 5, 2007
87 minutes
Rated PG
directed by Paul J. Bolger