Ella Enchanted

To watch the witless, ham-fisted attempt at fairy-tale romance that is “Ella Enchanted,” you’d never know the book it’s based on is actually rather clever and charming. The travesty of the film — which I hasten to add would be a bad movie even without comparing it to its source material — isn’t quite on the level of “The Cat in the Hat,” but it is a crass whoring-out of a once-lovely story.

Set in the far-off kingdom of Frell, it is the tale of a poor teenage girl named Ella (Anne Hathaway), who upon her birth was given a “gift” by a visiting fairy named Lucinda (Vivica A. Fox). Lucinda blessed Ella that she would be unfailingly obedient all her life — the result being that it is physically impossible for her to disobey even the most metaphorical of orders. Tell her to “hold her tongue,” and she’ll literally hold it with her fingers. Casually suggest she accompany you to the mall by saying, “Come with me to the mall,” and she will have no choice but to comply, even if she doesn’t want to.

Needless to say, this fairy gift is a curse, and it could be dangerous if the wrong people knew about it. The only people who do know about it are Ella’s dead mother and a woman named Mandy (Minnie Driver) who I guess is like a nanny or a maid or something. (OK, I know what she is from reading the book, but the movie is unclear, and that’s what we’re reviewing.)

Alas, Ella’s poverty-stricken father remarries for money, the haughty Dame Olga (Joanna Lumley) being the sap who weds him, for reasons I cannot fathom. She has two daughters to serve as wicked stepsisters in this Cinderella arrangement, dumb Olive (Jennifer Higham) and mean Hattie (Lucy Punch), the latter of whom figures out Ella’s secret burden and begins to exploit it. And so Ella goes off in search of Lucinda to persuade her to take back the gift.

There is a prince in all this, Prince Charmont (Hugh Dancy), who is a teen idol in the kingdom and whose path keeps crossing with Ella’s. Char’s father was recently devoured by ogres, so the story goes, so his uncle Edgar (Cary Elwes) and Edgar’s exceedingly fey talking pet snake are in charge. If you are literate enough to suspect a “Hamlet” scenario is also in effect here, kudos to you for not being distracted by the presence of a talking snake.

Adapted from Gail Carson Levine’s book by Laurie Craig, Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith (the latter two also wrote “Legally Blonde” and “10 Things I Hate About You”), the script is an utter mess, hitting most of the points required by the story but subsequently forgetting about half of them. The issue of equality among the various species — humans, ogres, giants and elves — is trifled with but never properly addressed. And what happened with Ella’s friend Areida, played by “Bend It Like Beckham’s” Parminder K. Nagra? Hattie makes Ella shun her, but they’re friends again at the end of the movie, a loose end that apparently got tied up when we weren’t looking.

For some reason, there are two musical numbers in the film sung by Anne Hathaway, even though — follow me closely here — Anne Hathaway is a poor singer. I guess someone noticed that most female teen stars these days are singing in their movies — Mandy Moore, Lindsay Lohan, Hillary Duff, etc. — and hence decided Hathaway should, too, without stopping to consider whether it was a good idea.

Some of director Tommy O’Haver’s (“Get Over It,” “Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss”) interpolations are amusing, especially as he depicts Frell as a cross between modern and medieval sensibilities. (They have escalators, for example, but they are made of wood and hand-cranked.) The thing is, that stuff doesn’t belong in this movie. It belongs in a more raucous comedy. It goes under the same heading as O’Haver’s other “edgy” ideas, like showing an ogre’s butt crack, having a baby pee on someone, and depicting the fart of a giant. They make a simple story seem ragged and juvenile. Like most films aimed at girls age 7-17, this one assumes they’re idiots and talks down to them. I’m not saying teenage girls AREN’T idiots, but that’s no reason for their movies to treat them like it.

C- (1 hr., 37 min.; PG, some crude humor, some very mild innuendo.)