“Ever After” provides a sincere re-imagining of a classic story and shines through its strong heart and wit
A Movie Review by Victor DeBonis
“Ever After” is a smart, amusing, and heartfelt example of the fairy-tale film genre that embraces the same spirit and playfulness of its heroine and makes one want to see how she achieves her dreams with every step. The tale of Cinderella has been retold through countless cultures and storytellers before, including the animated Disney film as arguably the most popular and familiar retelling. Where this 1998 film takes a few steps further in its approach, however, is utilizing a clever script that gives the soon-to-be princess and the story itself a highly courageous, outspoken, and slightly modern reimagining that still feels timeless and endearing as well. Director Andy Tennant is known mostly for filming romantic comedies, such as “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Fools Rush In” and, while romantic comedies tend to have more misses than hits when done with certain audiences (such as myself) from their formulaic approach and often saccharine demeanor, this movie of his strives and rarely feels predictable. It takes impressive through how it tells its story and brings a credible life through its appearance, talented actors, and distinct characters who excel in winning our hearts and attentions in about every imaginable way.
The setting of this movie (France during the Renaissance era in 1502, to be precise) makes for a terrific background for this story, and this is further helped by the great work of production designer Michael Howells. Costumes look appropriately elegant and elaborate with rich colors and nice touches that add more of a fantastical vibe to them, such as Barrymore’s ball dress with those lovely wings attached to the back. The palaces and markets have an old-fashioned yet lively personality and appearance to them that matches well for a town of this type in something from a book taking place in Europe within this era, but they also create the perfect setting for a fairy tale that wants to feel more grounded in reality.
Beyond the setting for this story, though, the actors and actresses further enhance the lovable nature of this story by bringing plenty of talent and vibrant personality to their given characters. Dougray Scott plays the romantic interest of the film, Prince Henry, rather well. He looks handsome, and he has the stubbornness and yearning to follow his own path as is not uncommon for many characters of this type. Yet, this prince also has a quiet curiosity and bold wit that balance with each other nicely, and he appears to be more willing to patiently listen to someone when they’re giving advice or a helpful philosophy that changes him for the better. Other side characters in this movie and the people who play them make for welcome additions as well. Consider a fictionalized version of Leonardo da Vinci, who serves as an incredibly wise and warm-hearted advisor and faithful companion to Henry. Or, there’s the servant companion of Barrymore’s who maintains his friendship with her from his childhood days to help her out and has a knack for painting an exceptional piece of art. In addition, Melanie Lynskey plays one of Danielle’s stepsisters, Jacqueline, and, rather than display the same cruelty and stuck-up demeanor of her other sister as done in countless other versions of the Cinderella story, she demonstrates a silent, visibly uncomfortable disagreement with her stepmother and sister’s selfish ways, and she displays a compassion for Danielle that brings some brief light to the latter’s home life, even if she has a harder time, earlier, standing up against her stepsister’s mistreatment.
Drew Barrymore absolutely shines as this movie’s version of Cinderella in the form of Danielle. Barrymore strays far away from more traditional versions that show Cinderella as someone who doesn’t speak out much and can be viewed as rather dainty. Here, her character demonstrates a more tomboyish and outspoken nature, and she knows a thing or two about fighting for herself and what she believes in. Moreover, she isn’t afraid to get dirty or venture beyond her prison of a home, and she shows off vast intelligence in a way that throws many off. Yet, in addition to bringing a much-welcome fighting spirit, Barrymore evokes a warm optimism, hard-working nature, and sweetness that stays true to her character’s roots. She also sells every comeback and witty remark to both allies and adversaries with a playful smirk, and they’re great fun to hear.
The scene-stealer, however, might arguably be Angelica Huston who is a fine example of pitch-perfect casting as the wicked stepmother, Baroness Rodmilla. While the villainess from the Disney version still came across as a wicked force through several intimidating sneers and glares, Huston takes her version of the character in so many more interesting and fun directions. Within a few minutes, she can leap from absurdly laughing to snidely echoing disappointment to delivering a cold, tightly-lipped grimace and glare of her own concoction, and she’s believable and amusing in every moment. Her character doesn’t even have as much money as she would like, and she doesn’t raise her voice that much in this movie, but she still arrogantly grins and rests herself in her chair with the same confidence that a malicious queen would. And, Huston speaks and looks at Barrymore with such barely contained disdain that it’s hard to not simultaneously love and hate this amusing, cunning, deceitful villain.
In addition to creating distinct and memorable characters, the rest of the writing from the screenplay by Tennant, Susannah Grant, and Rick Parks, maintains a cleverness and knowledge of how to make this story feel charming and different in its own creative ways. To be sure, there are occasional corny moments as one might expect to find in a film with a romantic yet humorous nature to it. For instance, there’s the familiar scene of a mean, self-obsessed woman hysterically going berserk for a moment in public and the trope of having to hide one lover’s attempts to hide one’s identity and break one’s heart when it’s revealed. Also, there’s the bit-too-chipper music that points to silly antics about to take place in seconds that one would expect to find in a standard rom-com.
With all of that said, the script doesn’t linger forever over such moments, and what stands out more is how it makes changes that help reimagine this story in a way that feels different and gives a bit more complexity or investment to what takes place. Consider the relationship between Danielle and the prince. Their romance doesn’t mainly consist from falling in love at first sight or sharing one dance together as one would find in previous versions. Here, the prince and princess-to-be have actual, meaningful conversations with each other, discussing passions, annoyances, and personal philosophies with each other. They have definite differences with each other, but that only leads to more interesting interactions in which one of them either learns something of great value from the other person in the relationship or starts to look deeper into himself in a way that they never did before. And, this is what makes great chemistry. As a result, their relationship feels believable, charming, and more investing than how it might be told in more traditional versions.
Another example of an interesting twist to the retelling of this story that resonates a little stronger than previous versions comes from what is done with the relationship between the wicked stepmother and this version of Cinderella. As opposed to the stepmother simply being mean to her stepdaughter for the sake of sheer cruelty, Huston has a fascinating type of jealousy for how her husband appeared to prefer her stepdaughter over her. In a scene that doesn’t even last long but speaks volumes with what’s presented, Danielle’s father dies, and, when both a younger version of Barrymore’s character and Huston rush out to be with him, the father glances at Huston, briefly, with a nearly blank expression on his face, but he looks over at his daughter with genuine fondness in his eyes, places his hand around her cheek, and tells her that he loves her right before he releases his last breath. This moment, by itself, brings a new level of complexity to the relationship between the stepmother and the stepdaughter, instilling a sense of resentment that lasts with Huston’s character from feeling jealous and probably insecure with her husband having shown more compassion and real love to Danielle than to her because of her cruel demeanor. One never sides with Huston for how she mistreats Barrymore, but the fact remains that there is more of a reason (and a fascinating one, at that) for why this stepmother loathes Cinderella in this version, and it lends to a more compelling dynamic between these two that adds to their strained connection with each other, even when the stepmother doesn’t speak aloud about her own insecurity.
Changes, such as these and others, to the story add a cleverness to how it’s being approached and helps this movie feel different in all the right ways. These developments help the characters come across less as the typical people that one would come to expect in this type (ie: typical prince, typical princess) and more like unique individuals that one would want to learn more about and become more invested in. Furthermore, the story gains a stronger identity to itself with a little more substance to it, and it maintains its lovable fairy-tale charm but also maintains a bit more complexity and grounded nature to itself as well, thus making it a pleasant tale for both older and younger audiences to resonate with. It also helps that all of the characters speak with an elegant style suitable for this type of narrative and period of time, but their words rarely come across as hard to understand and lead to some lines that are memorable, whether they’re from how wise or humorously witty they are.
From start to finish, “Ever After” is an immensely heartfelt and upbeat fairy tale that brings some modern changes to its source material but never loses sight of the warmth and hopefulness of its source material. Thanks to smart writing, great acting, a rich sense of character, and an impressive display of its own production design, the film strives from its innovative personality and romantic, youthful soul. Keep in mind, too, that this movie came out in the late 90’s, a time when a strong, awesome sense of “girl power” thrived in several shows and movies, such as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” “Mulan” and “Sailor Moon” to name a few examples. This film fits completely well within those other works through the soul of its heroine, the type who isn’t afraid to get tough, the type who ignores what chains or expectations her society and restricting home life tries to confine her with and, instead, chooses to create her own story as she chooses in her own brilliant, funny, and selfless ways. Here is an awesome movie about an unforgettable princess who doesn’t settle for simply falling in love at first sight and earns her happy ending with help from her independence, fierce, outspoken demeanor, and devotion to fighting for who or what she believes in and treasures the most. It’s an optimistic movie that lifts its valiant sword just as strongly to others, particularly girls and women, today as it did, back then, and it still makes one grin and warm one’s heart to view it.