Hmmm. Okay, maybe you need to hear specifics. Just what makes Ever After: A Cinderella Story such an energetic, satisfying and confident film?
I can say that the re-telling of the long-lived legend is both funny and sincere. It is basically good-hearted, good-spirited and sweet, without being cloying. And it helps that it has the ever-more formidable Drew Barrymore in the lead role.
Maybe it’s slightly overly modern – I doubt anyone 400 years ago would have said “Perhaps you can talk him into the 16th century!,” or that there were so many flying female fists back then – but who cares? Ever After is frequently exuberant and definitely fun. It is also stuffed with story touches that are both original and logical, and its star is no quavering waif.
The film has this basic premise: What if Cinderella had really existed? How could the tale work without the magic acts in the story copied down by the Brothers Grimm or the fairy-godmother-and-mice-and-pumpkin stuff Disney did?
We start in the 19th century, when the Grimm brothers visit an aged royal woman (Jeanne Moreau). She tells them a Cinderella story from 16th-century France, where a father of two – including young Danielle – marries a baroness (Angelica Huston). The father had wanted his devoted daughter to have a mother again after she lost her own, but Fate strikes him down, too.
Danielle grows up to look like Barrymore, who gets by despite slaving for her stepmother and two stepsisters (who call her “Cinderfoot” and “Cinderella”). Memorizing her treasured copy of Thomas More’s Utopia, the last gift her father gave her, Danielle uses its ideas when she dresses up like a lady of the court and goes to the capital to plead for a servant’s life.
Prince Henry (Dougray Scott), soon to be married, is impressed by Danielle and keeps tabs on her. We also meet Leonardo DaVinci, up from Italy on a special commission (“Michelangelo was stuck under a ceiling”) and who winds up on Danielle’s side when push comes to shove. Everyone schemes and there are capers galore; the baroness apparently goes so far in trying to keep Danielle in her place that she frames her for thefts. (I say apparently because this is one of the few confusing things in Ever After, but I can live with the plot hole.)
The blond stepsister, Marguerite, is a hoot – a striking and scheming beauty who’s trying reeeeally hard to get the Prince’s hand in marriage. I don’t know how to describe why she’s funny, but she is. Meanwhile, the other stepsister, Jacqueline, is…well, she’s a surprise. And there is a wedding that makes you laugh and smile – even though it involves a memorable crying jag.
To get high-falutin’ for a moment, this movie works because we always need to re-tell myths, legends and fairy tales to keep them modern and accessible. Their lessons need to be heard, but what reaches a 19th-century audience won’t reach a 20th-century audience with the same immediacy. This is partly why Ever After feels so modern; it’s a Cinderella story that’s a product of our times.
Magic, for instance, doesn’t fit into our minds as well. In one version of the story, Cinderella plants a tree at her mother’s grave and the tree becomes magical, attracting birds who can not only find dresses and those glass slippers, but who can even speak and steer the Prince towards his true love. And in the Disney version, there’s plenty of magic – again, a maternal magic (the Fairy Godmother) that can conjure up the precious things Cinderella needs to pass as a high society lady.
Ever After is more paternal and less magical than those versions, with at least one notable maternal touch. “Once upon a time there was a young girl who loved her father very much," Moreau says to begin this tale, and the closest to a magic force in Danielle’s life is Mr. DaVinci – but who definitely appreciates and celebrates the feminine in this film. (Speaking of Mona Lisa, a quietly satisfied DaVinci says, “The woman had many secrets. I painted one of them.”) And the positive maternal touch, there to balance the awfulness of the baroness and Marguerite, is the beautiful dress and glass slippers that Danielle wears at the end; they belonged to her dearly departed mother. The film was helped by having a mix of men and women write the script, to keep male and female perspectives better balanced.
Who knows how well Ever After will hold up – Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, which came to my mind during this, was more than a little confused in the way it re-wrote the Robin Hood legend – but I know that it’s good for now.
Ever After is PG-13, but really it shouldn’t be a problem for those who are younger – especially girls – to see it. It is a positive film about a Cinderella who is her own woman…and that’s good for young girls to see.