Ella Enchanted (2004)
The bad news for fans of Gail Carson Levine's fairy-tale novel Ella Enchanted is that, other than the premise and a few character names, there's not much resemblance between Levine's charming text and the comparatively unambitious adaptation. The good news is that the movie version, starring Anne Hathaway as the young lady cursed from infancy by a “gift” from a thoughtless fairy compelling her to obey any imperative statement completely — perfectly and to the letter — is still worthwhile on its own, more modest, terms.
In place of Levine's fairly straightforward fairy-tale realism, the film substitutes Shrek-like anachronistic humor. But the comedy is both funny and pointed, satirizing the teen-idol-worship culture of its own target audience with scenes of screaming maidens swooning over dashing Prince Char (Hugh Dancy), while the more sensible Ella protests injustices committed by Char's nefarious uncle (Cary Elwes, The Princess Bride). Refreshingly, where many girl-empowerment flicks make the heroine heroic at the expense of the male lead (e.g., Ever After), Ella manages to make both its leads appealing and admirable.
Content advisory: Some mildly objectionable language and humor.
Toy Story 2 (1999)
It's too good to be true, yet true it is: Toy Story 2 is more magical, more heartfelt, more hilarious, more ingeniously plotted, more all-around perfect than the brilliant original.
Monsters, Inc. may have achieved a higher level of demented brilliance both in character design and in that insane climactic chase on the closet-door monorails, and Finding Nemo may be the high-water mark to date for mesmerizing visual beauty and sheer emotional power. But Toy Story 2 remains Pixar's gold standard for storytelling sophistication, and is not only its best all-around film, but one of the best films ever made, period.
In the first movie, Woody (Tom Hanks) helped Buzz (Tim Allen) come to terms with the fact that he was only a toy. Now it's Woody who has an identity crisis when he learns more about his own identity — he's the central figure in a highly collectible 1950s-era phenomenon called Woody's Roundup with vintage television episodes and numerous side-kicks — while Buzz is left to uphold the toy ethic that nothing matters as much as being loved by a child.
Content advisory: Some animated action and excitement.
Toy Story (1995)
Pure magic. Toy Story, the first-ever fully computer-animated feature and the film that put Pixar Studios on the map, is more than a technical tour de force. It's movie-making alchemy — a breathtaking blend of wide-eyed childhood wonder and wry adult humor.
For young Andy, the sun rises and sets on his lanky Sheriff Woody doll. And Andy is just as important to Woody (Tom Hanks), who presides in Andy's absence over the inhabitants of Andy's room. Until, that is, the status quo is upset by the arrival of a flashy new toy. Buzz Light-year (Tim Allen), space ranger, who impresses the other toys with his nifty features and threatens Woody's place as Andy's favorite — and, in an inspired stroke, doesn't realize he's a toy. Woody's jealousy and pettiness toward Buzz lead to a series of increasingly serious consequences. Of course, Woody must work through his resentment and redeem himself, Buzz must face the truth about himself, the two must learn to get along, and a bad boy must be taught a lesson. The joy, though, lies in the sure touch bringing all these elements together.
Content advisory: Some scenes of menace and mildly scary imagery.