Fairy tales represent a culture’s way of explaining a brutal world to its children. This is what happens when you step off the path, they warn — or leave your family, or come of sexual age. At the same time, they reassure listeners that endings can be happy, if entertainingly bizarro. (Grandma and Little Red Riding Hood stepping whole and undigested out of the wolf’s belly? Whatever.)
A movie like Ever After makes you wonder whether it’s children or grown-ups who need reassurance most. The Drew Barrymore vehicle is a gently revisionist version of the tale of ”Cinderella,” but it’s not really aimed at kids — even though an earthy Anglo-Saxonism was eliminated for the PG-rated video (the DVD, still PG-13, retains it). Nor is this the first time the movies have repackaged fairy tales for adult consumption. What makes ”Ever After” notable, though, is its yearning lack of cynicism.
The squareness of ”Ever After” comes as a bit of a shock. And, then, a pleasure. The greatest concession that director Andy Tennant makes to winning over the grown-up audience is to set his Cinderella story in a semi-realistic historical context: 16th-century France, with Leonardo da Vinci, of all people, serving as fairy godmother. Actually, that’s a tip-off to ”Ever After”’s angle. Here, Danielle (Barrymore) is a force for enlightenment, a fan of Thomas More’s Utopia who instructs her Prince Charming, Henry (Dougray Scott), in the delights of democracy, universal education, and equality.
If that sounds like an agenda cooked up by a Massachusetts school board, it doesn’t play that way. It’s more an empowerment story for teenage girls, and while earnest to a fault and blind to darker currents, the movie benefits from the sweet belief the cast has in its characters and their dilemmas. Even Anjelica Huston grounds her stepmother in a bitchy insecurity that rings true to both fairy-tale logic and modern psychology. ”Ever After” doesn’t begin to approach the magic of Cocteau’s ”Beauty and the Beast,” but, like that film and unlike many since, it allows the audience innocence — knowing that when we read fairy tales to our children, we’re really reading them to ourselves.