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Animation, I Luvs it, throw it on me. Whether it’s prime Warner Brothers, Ralph Bakshi, the Rankin-Bass Christmas specials, all-things Aardman, or the endless varieties of anime, I always venerated animation and never underestimated it as an art form. Possibly too much…?

This is why one of the worst things I could possibly say about an animated film is that it’s “Cute”, or “Great for the Kiddies”. That is a cop-out that puts truly good animation in a very small box. All that to say this; Happily N’Ever After is indeed occasionally cute as a button, but I don’t know how great it is for the kiddies. Happily N’Ever After is a fractured fairy-tale about fractured fairy-tales created by the good folks that brought us Shrek. And while I was not a huge fan of the Shrek films (the 2nd one was better), I can appreciate their sense of fun that entertained on every level. Happily N’Ever After makes a half-hearted grab to duplicate that spirit, but it’s almost a dumbing-down compared to Shrek’s much sharper wit and fearless skewing of fairytale (and pop-culture) canon.  Perhaps the goal was to be a gentler, version of the DreamWorks megahit; the dialogue is much less swift, but also there is a strong sense of “girl-power”-ism to Happily N’Ever After that isn’t as prevalent in Shrek (though Fiona’s Kung-Fu fighting is certainly one of my favourite moments).

What would happen if your favourite fairytales didn’t quite end up the way we all remember? What if Sleeping Beauty kept snoozing despite the smooch from her prince? What if the Princess never learned Rumpelstiltskin’s name and had to hand over her baby? What if the Wicked Stepmother got her way and triumphed over Cinderella? (- Keep an eye on that last query) Well, you can rest easy because it turns out that all our favourite bedtime stories are carefully watched and protected by The Wizard of Fairy Tale Land (George Carlin), who uses his magic staff, scales, and crystal ball to make sure that all fairytale endings go strictly “by the book”, exactly as we all know so well. 

All is as it ever was in Fairy Tale Land, there’s Cinderella (Sarah Michelle Gellar) being maltreated as usual by her Evil Stepsisters and her Wicked Stepmother, Frieda (Sigourney Weaver). Will she make it to palace of Prince Humperdinck who intends to choose a bride (-just it like it tells the Prince to do in his own copy of “The Book”)? ‘Course she will, silly, it’s in The Book! However, this time, we get to see another character that never really got a share of the spotlight before, Prince Humperdinck’s put-upon servant, Rick (Freddie Prinze, Jr.), whose friendship and secret love for the oblivious Cinderella only makes his servitude under the hollow-headed Humperdinck that much more unbearable. Still, everyone knows their place in the story, and Cinderella only has eyes for the thickly built and thickly brained Prince, and Rick knows he will never stand a chance.

That is, until the Wizard goes on holiday and leaves his two assistants, the dutiful, responsible Munk (Wallace Shawn), and the freewheeling, fun loving Mambo (Andy Dick), to take over his duties. *Cue the cute little critters* Cinderella’s Wicked Stepmother Frieda finds out the secret of their collective destinies lies in the hands of the two bumbling helpers, and she immediately gains control of Fairy Tale Land and lets all the bad guys have their day. The Frog Prince’s smooching princess now shares his lily pad. Sleeping Beauty’s prince discovers her lipstick is laced with Lunesta. And Rumpelstilskin finally gets custody of the little baby. Cinderella’s entire existence is turned upside down, and she now has to rely on herself as she’s never had to before to put things right again. The question is, after having seen how her life could be after making her own decisions and choices, does she really want to go back to living her life by someone else’s script, “by the book”?

The whole idea of people - and girls in particular - creating their own destinies, regardless of how easy it might be to take the road more traveled, is a great message. The voice cast is perfect; Patrick Warburton as the vacuous Prince Humperdinck is easily the funniest thing in the film. Munk and Mambo quite literally look like stuffed toys you can just reach into the screen and hand to the kiddies. Cinderella closely resembles Audrey Hepburn (-which was exactly the animators’ goal), and Rick, the hero, looks more like he should be in a fairytale boy band, instead of scraping Prince Humperdinck’s boots. But it’s hats off to whoever came up with the design for Frieda, the Wicked Stepmother, far and away the attention-grabber of the entire film. Completely tossing aside the old gray-haired matron ideal of the classic Cinderella tormentor, Frieda is a cross between Jessica Rabbit and Jerry Hall in her 1970’s prime.  This sexy redhead slinks along in ultra high-heels, corsets and bustiers, and clearly is meant to be the first S.M.I.L.F ever animated. The obvious fanboy-fodder of Frieda’s appearance is a completely at odds with the real sweetness and light in Happily N’Ever After that makes it different to its sharper, wittier, green skinned relative.

Which brings me to the sour bite of the apple: I can’t help but think that while the director may have wanted the film to be a little more child-friendly than Shrek, there are obvious attempts for the same all ages appeal: The deep-cleavaged Frieda, the Sopranos-edged theme announcing a Jersey -accented Big Bad Wolf, the Disco Inferno-Monster Mash mash-up that plays over the bad guys’ party scene, an HR Pufnstuf homage, and most originally, the appearance of the Seven Dwarves, who reveal themselves to be an armed militia of Good Ol’ Boys in training for their moment of Anti-Bad Guy warfare. I wish they had gone for more hip jokes and sharper dialogue, but director seems to have shied away in favour of fluffier, less edgy fare. Also, while I am all in favour of more children’s fare being directed to young girls, I can’t help but think that boys will feel excluded by the lack of thrilling action, and the comedy falling flat more times than not. Even the animation seems lacklustre and uninspired; I swear I saw joint articulation on the human characters, which made me wonder if that wasn’t some sort of subliminal sales pitch for any upcoming action figures.

Sadly, the result of this softer retread of the Shrek formula gives us a fairly dull film, not being having any real bite as a “girl-power” statement, or even simply as a satisfying cartoon.

 

~Mighty Ganesha

Dec 29, 2006

 

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