Happily N'Ever After (United States/German, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The familiar fairy tales we were weaned on aren't good enough any more. First, Shrek playfully toyed with some of our old friends by having them interact in atypical ways with a big, green ogre. Then along came last year's Hoodwinked, which refused to leave poor Red Riding Hood alone. Now, Happily N'Ever After wants us to consider what might happen if a legion of bad guys were to band together in Fairytaleland to abolish happy endings. While I have no problem with a movie fracturing fairy tales, the results need to show more evidence of creativity and wit than what is on display in Happily N'Ever After. This movie is the worst kind of offender: it thinks its funny and clever, but it is neither. The filmmakers have mistaken banality for wit and silliness for humor, and that doesn't begin to address how visually clunky this motion picture is.

The main story is that of Cinderella, as told from a slightly different perspective: the Prince's dishwasher, Rick (voice of Freddy Prinze Jr.). He's pining for the lovely Ella (Sarah Michelle Gellar), who alas is lost to him because her happy ending has her marrying the Prince (Patrick Warburton). Despite his rugged good looks, he's not a prize catch because there's nothing but a vacuum between his ears. He preens and postures and gets his ideas from a "how to be a Prince" manual. Things take a turn for the worse when Ella's Wicked Stepmother, Frieda (Sigourney Weaver), discovers the secret room where happy endings are manufactured. It's run by a wizard (George Carlin) who is currently on vacation. He has left behind two assistants, Munk and Mambo (Wallace Shawn and Andy Dick), to run things in his absence, but Frieda quickly disposes of them. Now, with all endings under her control, the Wicked Stepmother sets out to change the fortunes of all those who live in the domain.

A comparison of Shrek with Happily N'Ever After can be useful in italicizing the latter's problems. Shrek had fun with fairy tales. It used them playfully and the script wrung humor from the familiar characters. The same cannot be said of Happily N'Ever After which believes that breaking the "fourth wall" and being self-referential and self-deprecating in the voiceover narrative automatically makes the movie smart and amusing. Sadly, the movie comes across as trying to be smart and amusing, but never succeeding. There are so many opportunities for humor in these circumstances that it's deflating to observe the filmmakers go for cheap shots. Shrek proved that fairy tale characters can be funny if handled with equal parts flair and affection, but Happily N'Ever After is clueless.

Is the big "joke" supposed to be that Prince Charming is neither princely nor charming, and that Ella would be better off living her life with Rick the dishwasher? Wasn't this sub-theme of a clueless fairy tale hunk mined out in the animated Beauty and the Beast, where Gaston had a whole song listing his accomplishments and limitations? And what does it say about Cinderella that she's determined to be with a brainless slab of meat? We're supposed to view her as a plucky, independent heroine yet she shows traits alarmingly similar to those of the three blond Beauty and the Beast bimbettes.

From a visual standpoint, this looks like the work of amateurs. One wonders if first-time director Paul J. Bolger did all the animation on his laptop. This is some of the worst CGI ever put on screen: blocky, unconvincing, poorly detailed, and lacking in anything to arrest the eye. Saturday morning cartoons are to a classic Disney animated feature film as Happily N'Ever After is to Shrek. Why am I using that comparison so often? Because it's what the marketers want. Their ad slogans trumpet: "From the Producer of Shrek!" This is technically accurate, since producer John H. Williams was one of the producers of Shrek and Shrek 2. However, it would be equally accurate to say that Happily N'Ever After is "From the Producer of Felicia's Journey!" (Producer Ralph Kamp worked on that.) When it comes to this sort of ploy, caveat emptor.

As if the film's look wasn't disappointing enough, the voice characterizations are weak. Freddie Prinze Jr.? Sarah Michelle Gellar? Both sound bland and generic. The music is odd and out-of-place, a possible misfire in an attempt to mirror Shrek's success of incorporating contemporary pop tunes in an animated setting. There are two reasons why it doesn't work here: bad song choices and worse placement.

2007's first animated movie is indicative of the downward spiral the genre has undergone in recent years. Now, CGI movies are no longer special. Because they have a built-in, undiscriminating audience, it's hard for them to lose money. Happily N'Ever After won't have a Shrek-like box office, but since it was made on the cheap, it doesn't need anything close to that to make money. Economics have killed the creativity that once dominated the three-dimensional animated arena. It's sad to realize that the great CGI movies, starting with Toy Story, paved the way for scrap like Happily N'Ever After.

Happily N'Ever After (United States/German, 2007)

Run Time: 1:25
U.S. Release Date: 2007-01-05
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Nothing Objectionable)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1