Dir: Paul J. Bolger. US-Ger. 2006. 87mins.

The animated subversion of fairytale conventions kick-started by Shrek continues in Happily N'Ever After, a thinly imagined, satirical retelling of the classic story of Cinderella that runs aground on the shoals of cheekiness courtesy mainly of an awkwardly forced irreverence.

A wide release and some colorful marketing muscle will benefit the film when it opens in the US on Jan 5, but the movie labours in the shadow of the Shrek franchise to such an untoward, lesser degree that breakout success seems unlikely. Theatrical receipts hinge on the film making inroads into the sort of family audience that might be more predisposed to the fanciful live action of Night At The Museum, though its status as the only wide-release animated fare of early January could lure in diehards of the medium.

Returns on par with the similarly themed Hoodwinked, which halved its $100m gross between domestic and international receipts in this same frame last year, would seem an analogous if not somewhat overly optimistic bet.

Happily N'Ever After is set in Fairy Tale Land, a place populated by all the usual mythic characters, and overseen by a wizard (voiced by George Carlin) who, through his crystal ball, assures that requisite happy endings play out in a continuous loop. Its story centres on Cinderella, aka Ella (voiced by Sarah Michelle Gellar), a shorthaired lass who labours under the severe and restrictive dominion of her stepmother Frieda (voiced by Sigourney Weaver).

The age-old balance between good and evil is thrown out of whack when Frieda makes a power-hungry grab for authority in the wizard's absence, marshalling an unholy alliance of evil characters to take on the good guys, change the endings of their respective stories and turn the tide for herself by winning the attentions of the vapid Prince Charming (voiced by Patrick Warburton) for one of her equally undesirable daughters.

With her own fairytale spinning wildly out of control, Ella is forced to shed her damsel-in-distress trappings and eventually team up with servant Rick (voiced by Freddie Prinze Jr), whose nurses an obvious infatuation with Ella to which she's been oblivious. With some help from the wizard's two mismatched animal assistants, Monk and Mambo (voiced by Andy Dick and Wallace Shawn), Rick and Ella work to save the day and restore order to Fairy Tale Land.

Full of exaggerated angles and physiques, the animation style on display in Happily N'Ever After is colourful, but short on the sort of enriching background detail and secondary visual jokes that have helped make the Shrek films as well as similarly densely packed Pixar efforts cross-generational hits. Much of the movie's action is kind of choppy, leading to Prince Charming's comically blundering third act assault on the castle being actually described rather than seen - a dubious choice in any film, but especially an animated one.

The biggest problem of Happily N'Ever After, from the point-of-view of slightly older kids and adult audiences, is that there's no firm adherence to the interior logic of the story, and not enough is made of some of its set-ups and situations. Interestingly, if not always successfully, for an animated film, many sequences seem arbitrary. Tonally, director Paul J Bolger veers all over the map. As with many kids' flicks, when painted into a corner, the picture falls back on big sound effects.

Sigourney Weaver, who previously did canted fairytale duty in the tele-pic Snow White: A Tale Of Terror, digs into her role with relish, and gives an engaging and deliciously malevolent vocal performance. But there is not enough memorable dialogue to make her villainess one to truly remember.

The other performances are adequate but hardly remarkable, with Andy Dick, Wallace Shawn and George Carlin all deploying down-shifted versions of their respective shticks. Offscreen husband and wife Sarah Michelle Gellar and Freddie Prinze, Jr evidence little chemistry; Prinze's Rick seems an especially dutifully bland characterisation.

Production companies/backers
Vanguard Films
BAF Berlin Animation Film
BFC Berliner Film Companie
Odyssey Entertainment

US distribution

International sales
Odyssey Entertainment

Executive producer
Rainer Soehnlein

John H Williams

Rob Moreland
Doug Landale

Ringo Hess

Production design
Deane Taylor

Paul Buckley

Main cast (voice)
Sarah Michelle Gellar
Freddie Prinze, Jr
Sigourney Weaver
Wallace Shawn
Andy Dick
Patrick Warburton
George Carlin
Michael McShane
Lisa Kaplan