Dir: Tommy O'Haver. US. 2004. 95 mins.

Somewhere underneath the decorative clutter of characters, effects, jokes and name actors which over-stuffs Ella Enchanted, director Tommy O'Haver has fashioned a sweet, good-natured fantasy which wisely banks on the delightful new star Anne Hathaway to provide its heart.

With Home On The Range and The Prince & Me also in the US marketplace when it is released on Apr 9, it faces competition for the family buck but is distinctive enough to cast a moderate spell on the box office before summer blockbusters kick in next month. Internationally, it could wither next to Shrek 2 and the third Harry Potter film (June 4), but Hathaway's name from The Princess Diaries movies will help buoy it in ancillary markets.

The film is freely adapted from the best-selling book by Gail Carson Levine, with elements of Shrek, The Princess Bride and Ever After thrown in. Set in a fairy-tale world of ogres, giants, fairies, spells and wicked stepsisters, Ella is also loaded with contemporary references, wisecracks, visual gags and 2004 teen sensibilities which are as irksome as they are amusing.

Fortunately O'Haver has a leading lady in Hathaway who cuts through the clutter to keep the film's narrative on course. Hathaway, a bright discovery in The Princess Diaries, blossoms into stardom as Ella Enchanted, exuding a guileless blend of awkward naivete, intelligence and sexual magnetism. She will only seal her status further when The Princess Diaries 2 opens in Sept.

Hathaway plays Ella of Frell, a teenager cursed by the gift she was given as a baby by a wayward fairy godmother called Lucinda Perriweather (curiously cast Vivica Fox) - perfect obedience. Forced by the gift to do anything she is commanded to, however stupid or dangerous, she is protected as she grows up by her mother, who dies when Ella is a teenager, and nursemaid (Driver, more miscasting). But when Ella's father (Bergin) remarries the vile Dame Olga (Lumley), Olga's daughters Hattie (Punch) and Olive (Higham) move in, discover her secret and torment her.

She sets out on a journey through the kingdom to find Lucinda, the only being who can lift the obedience spell, and on her way teams up with an ambitious elf (McArdle) and the prince of the kingdom Char (Dancy) who falls in love with her and gets an education in the tyranny of his uncle Sir Edgar (Elwes) and his evil snake Heston (voiced by Steve Coogan).

The producers clearly got as much as they could, in CGI terms, from their non-tentpole budget but the film still has a cheesy look and some sub-standard effects (Heston the snake in particular) which might put make demanding kids squirm.

Perhaps more should have been spent on the effects than the cast which wastes the talents of Lumley, Driver and Fox, not to mention Eric Idle as the narrator, Parminder Nagra as Ella's schoolfriend, Heidi Klum as a giantess and Jimi Mistry as Mandy's book-bound boyfriend. Family audiences are unlikely to be impressed by such names, who make little impression next to Hathaway and bright English up-and-comers Dancy and Punch.

Two exhilarating musical numbers - Hathaway sings Queen's song Somebody To Love and the ensemble end the film singing Elton John and Kiki Dee's Don't Go Breaking My Heart - are performed with campy joie de vivre and add a not-inappropriate pantomime flavour to the film.

Prod co: Jane Startz Prods, Miramax Films
US dist:
Miramax Films
Int'l dist:
Miramax International
Exec prods:
Su Armstrong, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein & Julie Goldstein
Jane Startz
Laurie Craig, Karen McCullah Lutz & Kirsten Smith, Jennifer Heath & Michele J Wolff, from the novel by Gail Carson Levine
John De Borman
Prod des:
Norman Garwood
Masahiro Hirakubo
Shaun Davey
Main cast:
Anne Hathaway, Hugh Dancy, Cary Elwes, Aidan McArdle, Joanna Lumley, Lucy Punch, Jennifer Higham, Minnie Driver, Jimi Mistry, Eric Idle, Vivica Fox, Patrick Bergin