When it comes to the Cinderella story, I'm a big fan of fairy godmothers, wicked stepmothers, and pumpkins as transport vehicles. I even like the whole prince-toting-glass-slipper thing, with him schlepping around the countryside looking for just the right Barbie-size foot and the lucky, demure heroine (so recently stuck sweeping up after her slobby stepsisters) winning the romance lottery. A Cinderella without mice as coachmen, in other words, had better have a mighty fine excuse for tampering with a successful formula.
Against many odds, Ever After comes up with a good one. This novel variation is still set in the once-upon-a-time 16th century. But it features an active, 1990s-style heroineshe argues about economic theory and civil rights with her royal suitorrather than a passive, exploited hearth sweeper who warbles "A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes." She even has a '90s name: Danielle. And as played with tough innocence by Drew Barrymore in Andy Tennant's unwieldy, uneven, but nevertheless unexpectedly witty, girl-positive production, Danielle's a feisty, independent thinker whose stepmother (Anjelica Huston) isn't so much incorrigibly wicked as she is pretentious, conniving, histrionic, and very, very shades-of-Faye Dunaway campy. Huston does a lot of eye narrowing and eyebrow raising while toddling around in an extraordinary selection of extreme headgear, accompanied by her two less-than-self-actualized daughters -- the snooty, social-climbing, nasty Marguerite (Megan Dodds), and the dim, lumpy, secretly nice Jacqueline (Melanie Lynskey). "Nothing is final until you're dead," Mama instructs her girls at the dinner table, "and even then I'm sure God negotiates."
Ever After is weirdly paced. Between bouts of decisive action, the characters mill around the French countryside (in lovely costumes, to be sure, by Jenny Beavan) as if unsure of which sexual stereotype to bust next. Prince Henry (Scottish-born Dougray Scott), a nice enough guy, doesn't generate any real hero heat. But then, in the oddest moments, Tennant and Co. wink, provoking smiles: Leonardo da Vinci (Patrick Godfrey) joins the action as the king's genius-on-callhe walks on water in nifty boat-shaped wooden shoes and fearlessly tells the prince to get over his class snobbery. Henry's worldly-wise mother (the ever wonderful Judy Parfitt) rules as a shrewd and sardonic queen. Danielle, decked out to pass as nobility at court, never mistakes perception for reality. "I'm just a servant in a nice dress," she says, proving that, although dreams can come true, a '90s Cinderella always has her feet planted firmly on the ground. B-