Director – Paul Bolger, Additional Direction – Yvette Kaplan, Screenplay – Rob Moreland, Additional Material Written by Doug Langdale, Producer – John H. Williams, Photography – David Dulac, Music – Paul Buckley, Additional Music – Nick Amour, Andy Carroll, Will Johnstone & Phil Sawyer, Animation Director – Dino Athanassiou, Production Design – Deane Taylor. Production Company – Vanguard Films/Odyssey Entertainment/BAF Berlin Animation Film/BFC Berliner Film Companie.
Sarah Michelle Gellar (Ella), Freddie Prinze Jr. (Rick), Andy Dick (Mambo), Wallace Shawn (Munk), Sigourney Weaver (Frieda), Patrick Warburton (Prince Humperdinck), Michael McShane (Rumpelstiltskin), George Carlin (The Wizard), Lisa Kaplan (Fairy Godmother), John Polito (Wolf 1)
At the Department of Fairytaleland Security, a wizard has the job of maintaining equilibrium to make sure that good always wins in fairytales. The wizard departs for a holiday in Scotland, leaving his two bumbling assistants Mambo and Munk in charge. Meanwhile, the tale of Cinderella is playing out. Prince Humperdinck’s dishwashing boy Rick feels that he should more rightly be with Ella than the dim-witted prince should. Ella is duly granted a dress and pumpkin coach by the fairy godmother and goes to the ball. On the way there, the wicked stepmother Frieda overhears Mambo and Munk fooling around and enters the wizard’s lair and snatches his staff from them. Seeing what their job is, she starts upsetting the scales that keep balance, disrupting the various fairytales and allowing evil to win. About to kiss Prince Humperdinck at the ball, Ella finds her dress suddenly vanished and everything back to normal. With Humperdinck heading off on a quest trying to find what has happened to the girl he was dancing with, Ella and Rick have to deal with Frieda as she declares herself the Empress of Evil and allows the bad guys from the fairytales to overrun the kingdom.
Shrek (2001) and its various sequels created a modern fad for children’s films that deconstruct fairytales. Prior to Shrek, the deconstructed fairytale – see the likes of The Company of Wolves (1984), Freeway (1996) and Snow White: A Tale of Terror (1997) – had remained in the province of grown-up films. This family movie deflation of the originals went into overdrive with Shrek 2 (2004), which ran the fairytale milieu over with a manic pastiche of in-jokes and contemporary pop culture references. This approach was soon echoed in other films like Ella Enchanted (2004), Hoodwinked! (2005), Enchanted (2007) and Tangled (2010). Happily N’Ever After could easily be a companion piece to Hoodwinked!, which similarly ran a fairytale (Little Red Riding Hood there, Cinderella here) over with a series of jokes and pop-culture asides to the point of major irritation.
Happily N’Ever After is a co-production between several German companies and Vanguard Animation, an up and coming US animation company responsible for films like Valiant (2005) and Space Chimps (2008). Vanguard have been angling for a big breakthrough hit that will allow them to compete with the likes of Pixar, DreamWorks Animation and Blue Sky Studios in the increasingly overcrowded theatrical animation market. In fact, Happily N’Ever After strains with the effort of trying to appeal to the hip, ironic fairytale genre. The problem with Happily N’Ever After is that it is trying to compete in the same arena as Pixar, Blue Sky et al but is stuck with a B-budget. The filmmakers try very much to be in the same league and make the film look like an A production but it is obvious at times that corners are being cut in the animation.
Very quickly, Happily N’Ever After heads down the trail of the Shrek sequels and Hoodwinked! in piling on an irritating barrage of hip pop-culture jokes and sarcastic modern asides. The film sinks to one’s worst expectations from the opening scene where the Wicked Stepmother is interrupted in her tyrannical rant by a broken frame and a voiceover: “Would the owner of a light blue vehicle with Narnia plates please move their vehicle – you’re parked in a troll’s only zone … You see that there – that’s what we call the Wicked Stepmother. Feel free to boo. I know what you’re thinking – who put a Wicked Stepmother in charge? Without free elections. Any chance for a recount?”
There are constant contemporary culture in-references – a Department of Fairytaleland Security; the witches ride broomsticks that are designed like Harleys and when Rick climbs aboard a broomstick it makes the same sound effects as the pod racers in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999); while the Seven Dwarfs have Southern accents like they were a support act for ZZ Top and are revealed to have turned their cottage into a heavily armoured fort.
There is much sarcastic puncturing of standard fairytale characters. It is noted: “Rumpelstiltskin – still going for custody. I think he wants weekends, right?” and later he gets all paternalistic and protective of the baby, remonstrating the Wicked Stepmother: “I’m concerned about the effects of violence on the baby.” The film’s low point is surely when we see the trolls after they have taken over the castle and are holding a disco with them dancing to the Monster Mash (1962). All of this goes well past the amusing and into the smugly irritating.
The basic concept, while promising in its meta-fiction, is thinly stretched and not very convincingly set up. Indeed, the filmmakers seem to have no concern for anything beyond making these constant fairytale in-jokes. There is next-to-no interest in the romance between Ella and Rick, who have an off-puttingly bitchy and sarcastic relationship. In fact, the film never even seems interested in the threat posed by the Wicked Stepmother.
A sequel Happily N’Ever After 2 (2009) was made but released directly to dvd.