by Mel Valentin
If the glut of computer animated family-oriented films (e.g., "Over the Hedge," "Open Season," "Barnyard," "Flushed Away") hasnít sated your appetite yet, thereís one more to add to the mix, "Happily N'Ever After," a "Shrek"-like fantasy/fairy tale/pop culture-referencing spoof. Calling "Happily N'Ever After" "Shrek 2 1/2" or, if youíre not in as charitable a mood, "Shrek 2 1/4," isnít far from the truth. John H. William, one of "Shrekís" producers, shepherded "Happily N'Ever After" through production, this time working with BAF Berlin Animation Film and BFC Berliner Film Companie (instead of DreamWorks Animation) to animate a script by only one screenwriter, Robert Moreland ("Thunder Pig," "Ground Control," "Space Marines"), instead of the usual phalanx of writers typical of animated films.Fairy Tale Land, the present. Following the script, Ella (voiced by Sarah Michelle Gellar), better known as Cinderella, is on her way to meeting and marrying the vain, slightly dim Prince Humperdink (Patrick Warburton). To get to that "happily ever after," Ella needs magical intervention and gets it via a slightly spacey Fairy Godmother (Lisa Kaplan) who makes Ella's wishes come true. Standing in her way, of course, is her Wicked Stepmother, Frieda (Sigourney Weaver), Ella's two unattractive, obnoxious stepsisters, and a magical evening scheduled to end promptly at midnight. There's also the prince's valet (and dishwasher), Rick (Freddie Prinze, Jr.), but he's of little consequence. So far, so true to the fairy tale. But we're in post-modern Fairy Tale Land and Ella's future is about to change.
"Shrek 2 1/2 or is it Shrek 2 1/4?"
With the wizard (George Carlin) who makes sure the fairy tales go according to script on vacation in Scotland, his two apprentices/assistants, the over-cautious Munk (Wallace Shawn) and the mischief making Mambo (Andy Dick), are left in charge of a magic globe (think a VCR or TiVo) where they can watch the fairy tales unfold, magic scales, a storybook, and the wizard's staff. Mambo wants to alter the fairy tales for amusement's sake, but Munk disagrees. Frieda, however, overhears the Mambo and Munk's argument, intercedes, and takes control of the magic staff. Now aware that she's just a character in a fairy tale, she decides to rewrite a better ending for herself. Frieda forces Ella to flee for her life with Mambo, Munk, and Rick joining her later.
Like Shrek I and II and Hoodwinked, Happily N'Ever After name checks popular fairy tales including Cinderella, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (they make an appearance, but as Southern-accented miners this time around), the Frog Prince, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, Rumplestiltskin (reinterpreted into a more palatable, family-friendly character), and various other, generic fairy tale characters (e.g., giants, trolls, witches, wolves, etc.). Director Paul J. Bolger and writer Robert Moreland go no further (Hansel and Gretel didn't make the cut). What they do, though, is give Ella a character arc that involves self-empowerment (e.g., no longer depending on a fairy tale romance for happiness or a prince to save her). Rick, a self-described dishwasher who barely hides his contempt for the shallow, egocentric Prince Humperdink, also has to go through an arc of his own, from a complaining, inactive character to confident man-of-action.
Fairy tale references are only one part of the Shrek formula that's earned DreamWorks Animation a highly profitable return (in the billion dollar range). The formula also includes name actors voicing the characters (check), pop culture and otherwise contemporary references (check), pop songs (check), and meta-commentary (check). Familiar they may be, but Bolger and Moreland make sure to throw in a few spins to each fairy tale after Frieda takes control (happy endings are anything but). Some are more imaginative (Rumplestiltskin) than others (Snow White), but that's to be expected from the Shrek formula (where they fairy tale twists range from lame to not-so-lame). And Happily N'Ever After is nothing if not formulaic.Formulaic, though, doesn't mean "Happily N'Ever After" is unwatchably bad or awful. "Happily N'Ever After" may not have Pixar-level storytelling or computer animation (few films do) and it doesn't come close to Pixar's closest competitor, DreamWorks Animation, but at least it moves quickly, the jokes work (well, mostly), and the animation is passable (the animators are better at backgrounds and objects than they are at character design or movement). With "Shrek III" just months away, fans of that franchise could do far worse than "Happily N'Ever After." That might not sound like much, but given the glut of family-oriented animated films released in the last year alone, it's actually a net positive.
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originally posted: 01/05/07 13:09:30