“You’re about to become king. You’ll have the power to make a difference in the world, and you don’t even care. ”
I’ve wanted to see Ella Enchanted for years: I love a good fairytale, despite the problems endemic to the genre, and the premise sounds kind of awesome.
As a baby, Ella is “blessed” by a notoriously incompetent fairy godmother with the gift of obedience. In practical terms, this “gift” means that that she has to do whatever anyone tells her to do, literally and immediately (which obviously provides much of the comedy on which the film runs). When her requisite evil stepmother orders her racially to insult her best friend Areida, Ella decides she’s had enough, and goes on a Quest to locate her fairy godmother and convince her to lift the curse. Along the way, she meets Prince Charmont, whom she cordially hates for not challenging his wicked uncle’s policies of oppression towards the elves and giants of the kingdom. And, well, you can guess the rest, I suspect.
Ella Enchanted, then, is fairly obviously a story about growing up; about escaping the influence of one’s parents and becoming one’s own person. Incidentally, it’s interesting to note at this point that the main parent figures in the film (Ella’s stepmother and Prince Charmont’s uncle) are both evil and both not actually blood parents to Our Protagonists. While I was studying Children’s Literature at university, I’m fairly sure I stumbled across an interesting theory (was it Jung? Probably not) about how very young children separate out aspects of their parents into different people: so Angry Mummy is in fact an entirely different person to Nice Mummy. So here, it’s the stifling, strict aspects of parenthood that Ella and Charmont have to escape, not the nurturing aspect of being part of a family; not the family itself, but the lack of self-definition that comes with being a child in a family.
And with growing up, of course, comes sexual maturity: the love story. This isn’t (alas) a story in which the heroine strikes out on her own; it’s a story about creating a new family, a new community, in which one is in charge. This is why Ella and Charmont (spoilers) end up becoming King and Queen: their new kingdom is symbolically their new family, a family at whose head they sit. What’s nice about this is that, unlike many fairytale-inflected films of this ilk, Ella and Charmont’s marriage actually feels equal: Ella brings her social conscience to the union, and Charmont brings his, um, princeliness and good looks? I especially love the fact that Charmont’s uncle wants to get rid of Ella because she has Ideas – as a woman, she’s important enough to pose a threat to his plans, a threat based on her political leanings rather than the fact that she’s the “wrong sort” of woman or whatever.
So far, so good (if not very original). But now we’re heading into some troubled waters. Here, there be narrative monsters.
See, the harmonising of the body politic, the recreation of a new status quo, explicitly involves (most unusually for this kind of film, it has to be said) cutting down on racism; reversing the wicked uncle’s policies, which condemn the giants to hard labour and the elves to lifetimes of singing and dancing to amuse humans. It does feel important that the film sees equality as an important part of a healthy body politic, and that this would only be a return to equality rather than an innovation, since it’s only with the regime of the wicked uncle that oppression has become a problem; equality is seen as a natural state of affairs, the only thing that is right. The film does, at least, have its heart in roughly the right place.
But, equally, that declaration that equality is natural has its problems: like many popular anti-racism narratives, it lends an unhelpful simplicity to the problem. It’s only evil people who are racist, says the film. And it’s easy to deal with institutional oppression: just replace the evil people, and it’s done! Whereas, of course, the reality is very different. It is possible for reasonable and pleasant people to be racist, and replacing the evil people is just the start of the work of undoing institutional discrimination, changing attitudes, dismantling oppressive structures, reconstructing cultural defaults.
There’s also a whiff of the White Saviour trope about all of this, using racism as a prop for the story of literally the most privileged person in the kingdom. Should we not be watching the story of Slannen, the Irish elf whom Ella encounters on her Quest, who wants to be a lawyer instead of an entertainer? Now that would be a subversive fairytale narrative.
But herein lies the final and most insidious problem with the film’s treatment of racism: it just cannot take its minority characters seriously. It can’t help but laugh at this belligerent Irish elf who just wants to be a lawyer, despite its insistence that elves should in all seriousness be able to become lawyers. It treats its minorities as caricatures rather than characters; we can’t help but see them as inferior, because the film never gives us a chance to do otherwise.
So. A tricky and problematic tale that’s not quite as subversive as it would like to be (hardly anything ever is), and disappointing because of it. Its problems are depressingly typical enough, and its fairytale plot conventional enough, that despite its best intentions it never manages to be more than watchable.