Despite its politically correct trappings, Ever After still casts a charming spell
Considering current Hollywood trends, it finally had to happen: a politically correct Cinderella. After Disney perfected this revisionist type of storytelling in its animated versions of classic folk tales with heroines (Pocohantas, Mulan, etc.), live-action producers aiming at the same youth market niche were bound to do likewise.
Regarding Cinderella, first you have to dump the fairy godmother and the magic pumpkins. Post-feminist heroines who rise from rags to riches must do so on their own — even if the action is set in the 16th century. They can't let some sappy, supernatural creature wave a silly wand and make it all come out right.
Next, you can't permit an intelligent, liberated young woman to wait passively for Prince Charming to make his move. She must be an activist in all things, particularly romance. It's her energy that has to push the courtship forward, and if he refuses to treat her as an absolute equal, the whole thing must be called off lest her self-esteem be damaged. The surprising thing about the use of this post-feminist ideology is how little harm it does to the original tale. Ever After: A Cinderella Story — which is P.C. to the max — proves that the romantic elements of the fairy tale are virtually indestructible. The audience winds up rooting for the good-hearted young woman to best her wicked stepmother and grab the prince despite the ideologically fashionable packaging.
Writer-director Andy Tennant (Fools Rush In) and co-screenwriters Susanah Grant and Rick Parks invent a 19th-century prologue in which an unnamed aristocrat (Jeanne Moreau) tells the Brothers Grimm that Cinderella was a real person, her ancestor, and that certain key elements of their story are wrong. Now, the noblewoman has decided, is the time to set things right.
The action flashes back to Renaissance France where we meet the real-life Cinderella named Danielle. An eight-year-old tomboy, she has been raised by her loving father, Auguste (Jeroen Krabbe), who has taught her to read and think for herself. His favorite book is Sir Thomas More's Utopia, which she has learned contains great wisdom.
Auguste is remarried to a haughty Belgian, Rodmilla (Anjelica Huston), whose two daughters are the kind of perfect, feminine little ladies Danielle and the filmmakers despise. Almost immediately, Auguste dies of natural causes, and Danielle is left to be raised by her stepmother.
Ten years pass, and Danielle (Drew Barrymore) is treated as a servant in what was once her father's house. She waits on her stepsisters, the beautiful Marguerite (Megan Dodds), and the plain-looking Jacqueline (Melanie Lynskey), who've nicknamed her “Cindersoot” because she's dirty from sleeping with the pigs.
The action cuts away to the crown prince of France, Henry (Dougray Scott), who's rebelling against his father's wish that he marry a Spanish princess for political reasons. The young hunk wants “nothing more than to be free of my gilded cage” and runs away to be his own person.
Pursued by the king's guards, Henry steals a horse from Danielle's manor. She stops his escape by beaning him with an apple. He, of course, is taken with her feistiness, but she doesn't yet reciprocate even though she knows he is the prince.
To make sure we grasp that Danielle is the equivalent of a feminist for her time period, the filmmakers show her using Utopia as a handbook for political action. When her cruel stepmother sells to the royal family a servant who had worked for her father, she rushes off to the court where she delivers to Prince Henry a lecture on human rights that would bring cheers at a present-day Amnesty International meeting. The family retainer is quickly freed.
Henry's father takes pity on his son and decides to allow him to marry the woman of his choice if he can make up his mind within five days. Rodmilla pushes forward her darling Marguerite, but the prince pines for Danielle whose true identity is unknown to him.
The filmmakers engineer a series of encounters between the two. Moments of dewy-eyed romance alternate with lectures from Danielle on the responsibilities of privilege, and as a result of her influence, the young royal asks his parents to endow a university for the poor.
During one romantic interlude, the couple is kidnapped by gypsies. After both prove their physical prowess in fighting the outlaws, Danielle rescues Henry by literally carrying him on her shoulders. But the two decide to stay and party, and Danielle, ever politically correct, teaches him not to be so prejudiced against people from another ethnic background.
Also present at the royal court is Leonardo da Vinci (Patrick Godfrey) whom the couple befriend. Leonardo, though carrying a canvas of the Mona Lisa, seems less involved with painting than with his visionary, screwball inventions that provide everyone with a few laughs.
In keeping with the legend, the evil stepmother manages to thwart Danielle's plans on the night of the big ball. The filmmakers have Leonardo assume part of the fairy godmother's traditional role in helping her overcome obstacles. He even designs for her a breathtaking costume that includes another holdover from the original, the glass slipper.
Credibility is sometimes stretched as the filmmakers try to construct a happy ending without any kind of rescue by the prince, and the dialogue occasionally sounds more like a TV soap than the conversation of the 16th-century upper classes. But the movie's most significant departure from the original is to make the Cinderella character seem almost too good for her Prince Charming. This may reinforce certain post-feminist prejudices about the general superiority of women to men. However, it's also an excellent dramatic device which traditional romances have often employed with telling effect.
Most importantly, in this version as in all others, Cinderella's prince recognizes her beauty and virtues that have been hidden from the world by her stepmother, and he makes a special effort to win her heart. The trappings may be politically trendy, but how can we resist?
Arts & Culture correspondent John Prizer is based in Los Angeles.
Ever After: A Cinderella Story is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America.------- EXCERPT: