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Today, as we continue through “princess week”, Ferrebeekeeper introduces a whole new feature: movie reviews!  For our inaugural cinematic post, we are writing about a mediocre fairy-tale movie made thirteen years ago for little girls. “Ella Enchanted” stars Anne Hathaway, Cary Elwes (as the evil prince!), Eric Idol, and a whole bunch of people I have never heard of.

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Featuring jarring joke anachronisms, weird pacing, strange scenery, and some pretty hammy acting, “Ella Enchanted” is not “Citizen Kane”.  Yet the protagonist Ella is played by a young Anne Hathaway who brings her full emotive talents to the role and gives real poignancy to the nightmarish plight of central character.  And, even though this a children’s movie, the central problem is horrifying.

The movie’s magical fairy godmother is a mercurial entity who uses her magic capriciously. When presented with infant Ella, this fay sorceress is revolted by the chaotic nature of babies. She uses her power to endow Ella with a terrible gift: absolute obedience.  Ella must promptly do whatever she is told by anyone. Ella’s loving family shields her throughout childhood by home-schooling her, keeping her away from outsiders, and avoiding idioms & imperatives as much as possible, yet adulthood and the world inevitably intervene.

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In the wider world, obedience is a terrible curse.  Malicious and malevolent forces abuse Ella and make her into a pawn. Any stranger can kill her with a careless word or cause her to do the most terrible things imaginable.  At one point, she gets in a cooking pot while ogres light the fire.

Ella falls in love with the handsome prince (who seems quite taken with her beauty, wit, and seemingly impulsive character, however the realm’s other political players swiftly recognize and exploit her curse. Acting under the direction of the wicked regent, she must kill the handsome prince at midnight… Does she murder her true love, or can she find a way to break the compulsion of obedience laid upon her in her infancy?

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Now I don’t want to ruin Ella Enchanted for you…so I won’t.  You can go watch this thing if you want to find out the ending (if you can’t already guess how it turns out). I am writing about it because I can’t stop thinking about it.  The malevolent fascination of ineluctable obedience gives the movie far deeper resonance than it perhaps merits.  Watching someone trapped under a terrible compulsion do what others desire is enthralling.  There is fear and horror shining in Ella’s eyes as she goes around hurting people and destroying herself at the whim of others.  And yet, dare I say it, it all seems…familiar.

Society is built like “Ella Enchanted” and most people are acting under compulsion to do things they don’t care to do.  A great many of these things are self-evidently stupid and pernicious.  We live in a world where you have to drive or else be run over. If you answer your mail wrong you could go to jail. Social compulsion makes even the most powerful people into puppets.  And if you balk very much at all, you go out on the street to freeze and starve.

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And there is an even darker other half to “Ella Enchanted’ which we could think of as ‘Everyone Else, Entitled.”  In the movie, most people are perfectly happy to take advantage of Ella (just as most of us don’t care how we get out iphones and chicken dinners). People very quickly come to think “Now you work for me.  I own you and control you and tell you how you must feel and must act.”  Such ideas apparently just come naturally.  Exploitation seems to be a built-in price for society—fore REAL society, not just this stupid movie.

Yet, to leave the real world and return to Ella and princesses. The entities who control Ella never control how she feels about things.  A princess has autonomy even if, sometimes under duress, she can only use it in the smallest ways.

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Ella figures out the secret to breaking her enchantment and winds up a princess (oops, did I spoil the movie?).   In fact, she was always the hero (that handsome prince was a bit of a stuffed-shirt, if you ask me).  The real question is whether we can learn this lesson?  Can we find the right touch to make use of use little moments and fleeing opportunities in a life filled with compulsion?  Is there a way to escape, or at least partially master society’s oppressive burden of obedience?  Can we ever really be autonomous and star for a moment as the hero in our own life?  It is a big question, and the answers are not as certain as a princess’ storybook ending.

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