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Saturday, January 06, 2007

Happily N'Ever After

This past weekend I scared Karen Chapman. I love Karen, she, along with her husband Dale, keeps the Essex Cinemas humming along like a well-oiled machine. Every time I visit I feel like I’ve entered some kind of funhouse. I don’t mean the weird, spooky kind, but a place where people come and have F-U-N. Everybody has a good time when they visit the Essex Cinemas and Karen is the mother hen who is always there to make it happen. If the Essex Cinemas was “The Love Boat” she would be our Julie McCoy, perpetually in the wings to insure you are having a great time on her watch. That’s how I scared her. I told her I was waiting for my husband because he wanted to see Happily N’Ever After. Poor Karen. I know she was just about to say something about the movie, and it wasn’t going to be a sparkling commentary on how she expected the movie to attract crowds of respected, brilliant adults rushing in from their Mensa meetings just in time to grab their seats as the opening credits rolled. I know how she feels. Let’s face it. Just from looking at the previews you can tell Happily N’Ever After isn’t exactly meant to challenge rocket scientists. Actually, I’m not sure who or what it might challenge now that I think of it. Maybe credibility, but that’s about all.

You see, I worry when movies brag about their pedigree instead of their content. In this case, all the publicity connected with
Happily N’Ever After has started with the tag-line “From the Producer of Shrek…” Well, actually, this movie has ten Producers, Co-Producers, and Executive Producers, and besides John H. Williams, who was indeed one of the ELEVEN Producers on Shrek, Happily N’Ever After could also boast of having the Producer of Boy Eats Girl, the Producer of Jake’s Booty Call, and the Producer of Æon Flux, but for obvious reasons they bury the credits of the other executives in charge and focus on the one bright and shiny lure they can pull out of their collective resources that just might get the public’s attention. Oh-oh. That ought to be a red flag to anyone who is truly expecting a Shrek-like experience. Promoting Happily N’Ever After in this way is much like saying George Bush is as respected a President as Ronald Reagan simply because they both came from the Republican ranks. It just doesn’t work that way.

Happily N’Ever After will never be Shrek, and it would have been much better off to have avoided the comparison in the first place. The fewest ties to that big green fella would help people seeing this movie so that it can live or die on its own merits. For one thing, the animation is completely different in style and quality, and those expecting a Shrek-style of look will be sorely disappointed by the sharper lines, the more angular cut of the drawings, and the harsher primary palette, lacking a pastel array of hues. The film is the brainchild of Berlin Animation Films, a popular German television and movie/anime studio. This is their first foray into the English speaking market, and they have wisely chosen to populate the fairy tale world of Happily N’Ever After with a cast of wonderfully recognizable actors. Sigourney Weaver (Infamous) rocks the castle as Frieda, The Wicked Stepmother of Cinderella fame who accidentally discovers a truth none of the residents of Fairy Tale Land were ever meant to know ~ that their lives are all predestined by the scales of Good and Evil, and that their actions play out over and over again as written in the Great Book of Fairy Tales housed in The Wizard’s (George Carlin; Dogma) tower. When Frieda realizes that the fate of everyone in the land can be changed, including her own and that of her annoying step-daughter Ella (Sarah Michelle Gellar; The Return), she orchestrates a coup and claims the all-powerful scepter of The Wizard from his bumbling assistants, Mambo, a cat and Munk, a warthog (Andy Dick; Employee of the Month and Wallace Shawn; Southland Tales, respectively), whose only jobs were to keep things in the lair safe and make sure the scales were in balance while he took a little vacation to Scotland.

If the vision of a bickering warthog and a wisecracking cat (but just a regular purple cat and not a gold meerkat) seems vaguely familiar I dare you to sit through the rest of the picture without thinking of Disney’s Timon and Pumbaa, the beloved featured players from The Lion King and not wonder if there will be a lawsuit pending in the months ahead. I couldn’t help but think
I was watching an expanded episode of “Timon and Pumbaa,” the 69 episode series of theirs seen on the Disney Channel a few years back. In that show, the meerkat and warthog donned various costumes and roamed the world to participate in any number of zany (and sometimes magical) adventures, unintentionally creating disasters, and then always eventually saving the day and setting things right by the end of the tale. In Happily N’Ever After, Mambo and Munk play pretty much the same roles. Because of them, Frieda is able to alter whatever stories catch her fancy. In her new world order, the Big Bad Wolf eats Little Red Riding Hood and the Three Little Pigs. Jack makes it up the Beanstalk only to get stepped on by the Giant (oops!) and every season is the Season of the Witch as the skies fill with storybook baddies from every direction.

As you can imagine (at least I could) the story might really pop with so much evil in the world, even storybook evil, but, alas, the filmmakers chose to focus on the good characters instead, which is about as exciting as watching milk pasteurize. The poor palace dishwasher Rick (Freddie Prinze Jr.; Brooklyn Rules) is hopelessly in love with Ella, and so it is inevitable that Mambo and Munk hook up with him since he is destined to be her real hero,
even if she delusionally believes the Prince (perfectly voiced as a dimwitted dunderhead by Patrick Warburton; I’ll Believe You) is who she must turn to for guidance. Personally, I’d have much preferred to see more of Frieda and what she might do by interfering in the lives of other storybook characters. Sure, she gives Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, and Rumpelstiltskin brief nods, but there is so much more she could do with them, or to them, and what about those annoying little home vandals Hansel and Gretel, always tearing the siding off of old witches’ houses and eating it? Or Goldilocks, the delinquent queen of breaking and entering. I’m not sure if Frieda should turn her over to the bears, turn her into a toad, or just call PETA and let them handle her, but that would have made for more fun than the singular sensation of Ella, who has absolutely no pizzazz going for her. I kept hoping a glimmer of Gellar’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” might inhabit her, just so we’d get the feeling that Frieda had a really good reason to be so worked up about the girl, but Ella is so dull she could put C-SPAN viewers to sleep. Still, Frieda comes off a tad too manic for someone whose only problem is a pesky teenager with hormonal urges. I’d love a little more back-story to make her anger have a purpose. Maybe she is just off her animated meds.

Whatever the reason, Frieda is the real star of
Happily N’Ever After, no matter what Ella, Rick, Mambo and Munk would have you believe. Sure, this is a kids’ movie and Good is destined to triumph over Evil, but how can anyone resist this creature’s Jessica Rabbit/Dolly Parton swivel hipped junk-in-the-trunk package? Frieda, crammed in the tightest gown in the Kingdom, must easily be a remarkable 38 -12 – 30 Playboy-friendly version of doom-and-gloom (I checked with my eagle-eyed husband for his expert opinion on this matter), and she is the real reason to see Happily N’Ever After. The truth be told, the drag-queen over-the-top hijinks she provides are the only bonafide reasons for anyone past eight to spend the 90 minutes the movie demands of your time, but if you are looking for a few good lines here-and-there and some great practice moves on how to wave your arms theatrically while grinding your pelvis and simultaneously tossing your hair with the most dramatic flair this side of Bette Davis then this is going to fulfill those needs. If you are eight or under, well, hey! You’re not reading this anyway, but it’s got pretty colors, silly talking animals, magic, and the usual poop jokes now and again, so enjoy. This will help you learn a new word: cliché. It won’t mean much now, but in a few years, you’ll look back and remember this movie and you’ll realize you were blessed with a whole bunch of them all in one dose. You just didn’t know it. Now that’s magic!

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