The past couple of years have seen some pretty dreadful animated films. Sure, every once in while we get a great flick like 'Happy Feet' or 'Cars' or even the humble charms of the underrated 'Monster House.' But more and more, audiences are having to wade through a lot of CGI gunk to find the gems.
Seemingly scrapping the very bottom of the Pixar-lite barrel (and that's saying a lot) is 'Happily N'Ever After.' A quick perusal of the film's Rotten Tomatoes score shows an absolutely abysmal 96 percent(!) rotten rating, and the user comments over at IMDB are just as awful. Add to that a total worldwide box office take for the movie of about $12.50, the chances that 'Happily N'Ever' might be some sort of overlooked sleeper -- a gem-in-the-rough just waiting to be discovered on Blu-ray -- seem highly unlikely
Still, having not seen the film myself, I wondered how bad could 'Happily N'Ever After' really be? So, as I popped the disc in the player, I decided to disregard the naysayers and give film the benefit of the doubt. Alas, my optimism lasted for about the first five minutes of the movie.
Swiping a page from the trusted "it's public domain so we can rip it off with impunity" playbook, 'Happily N'ever After' features a score of familiar fairytale characters, including Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel and Jack (of "the Beanstalk" fame). Early on, we're introduced to The Wizard (voiced by George Carlin), the man responsible for happy fairytale endings. When The Wizard goes on vacation, Cinderella's evil stepmother Freida (Sigourney Weaver) takes the opportunity to disrupt the traditional balance between good and evil in fairytale land, leaving it up to Cinderella, aka "Ella" (Sarah Michelle Gellar), to save the day by taking on her power-hungry stepmother. But this time, Ella will have to do it without her Prince Charming (Patrick Warburton), as she joins forces with The Wizard's bumbling assistants, Mambo (Andy Dick) and Munk (Wallace Shawn) and an unlikely army of dwarves and fairies.
'Happily N'Ever After is pretty much as bad as everyone says it is. The box cover touts the flick as coming "from a producer of 'Shrek' and 'Shrek 2'", which is true, and goes a long way in explaining why this flick is such a blatant rip-off of that blockbuster franchise. Every plot point, every character, and every post-modern in-joke is a stale regurgitation of all the far better, genuinely clever moments in the 'Shrek' movies. Quite frankly, after watching this disaster of a film, I'm really shocked that 'Happily N'Ever After' didn't just go straight to video.
Granted, there is some fine voice talent on display, especially Weaver's fanciful take on the classic Disney evil queen archetype, and the underappreciated Warburton, who brings a roguish charisma to the script's stock interpretation of Prince Charming. But such bright spots are far from enough to elevate 'Happily N'Ever After' from the absolute lowest rung of recent animated offerings. The story is unoriginal, the characters are uninspiring, and none of the music is catchy or memorable. Even the animation is second-rate, with a bland, paint-by-numbers look that makes 'South Park' look accomplished.
Sadly, it seems the only reason 'Happily N'Ever After' was even made was to con kids out of their lunch money, promising a land of enchantment and 'Shrek'-like delights. Don't fall for it.
Well, at least 'Happily N'Ever After' looks good. Lionsgate has produced a rather spiffy 1080p/MPEG-2 transfer for the film, which quite frankly is more than the film's lackluster animation deserves.
A direct digital-to-digital telecine, the image is appropriately flawless. The movie's color palette is somewhat unique in that it is so on dark side -- reds are crimson, blues just shy of midnight -- and that certainly makes for a vivid, eye-popping look. Hues remain rock solid and incredibly rich, almost to the point of being distracting (in a positive way). Detail is first-rate, with an often tremendous sense of depth. 'Happily N'Ever After' almost always looks three dimensional, with excellent sharpness and detail in the shadows superior.
Unfortunately, there is a bit of obvious noise in a few shots, usually on flat surfaces that feature intense, solid patches of red or blue. There is also a slight bit of banding on smooth gradients. To be fair, these compression problems are don't occur very often, but they are noticeable enough to prevent 'Happily N'Ever After' from earning what would have otherwise been a perfect score for video.
'Happily N'Ever After' also sounds quite swell. Lionsgate has produced a true DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 surround track for the film (with optional English and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 surround tracks also included, each at 448kbps). Even though current Blu-ray hardware is only capable of extracting the DTS-HD track's 1.5mpbs core, the film's sound design is still lively enough to make for an engaging experience.
The surrounds are frequently active with a variety of discrete sound effects, from the whoosh of a broom to the Wizard's many magic spells. Pans between channels are quite effective and near-seamless, while the accuracy of directed sounds is generally excellent. Dynamics hold their own nicely, with strong and tight low bass that never breaks down even at high volume levels. Dialogue is nicely rendered as well, and I never had trouble understanding even the usually indecipherable ramblings of Andy Dick.
However, the soundtrack is not truly exceptional. The score in particular is quite weak, with most of the music spread across the front channels. A completely immersive, 360-degree soundfield is also never really achieved -- discrete effects tend to sound a bit too isolated in the mix, and thus gimmicky. But while I never felt a true "wall of sound" this go around, hopefully when Blu-ray hardware finally can decode DTS-HD fully, this track will really come alive.
Despite 'Happily N'Ever After's poor box office showing, Lionsgate hasn't skimped on the extras, gifting the film with a spacious BD-50 dual-layer disc, and porting over all of the extras from the standard-def DVD release of the film. Of course, why anyone would actually want to know about the making of 'Happily N'Ever After' remains a mystery.
Things kick off with a suite of three featurettes. "Journey of the Characters in the Enchanted Forest" (16 minutes) and "Creating the Happily Story: Bringing N'Ever After to Life" (also 16 minutes) are straightforward EPK-like materials. Director Paul J. Bolger is our tour guide, giving us a peek at the development of the characters in the movie. I suppose I can give some praise to the film's animators, who (as it is shown) at least tried to bring a new spin to the proceedings by updating and modernizing hairstyles, clothes, etc. Otherwise, there is little here of interest. The third featurette is about 5 minutes of "From Storyboard to Fairy Tale: A Comparison," which provides a before-and-after split-screen montage highlighting various scenes from the film.
Bolger reappears for a screen-specific audio commentary. This is one of those commentary tracks that is tough to judge, because though Bolger is a pleasant, thoughtful speaker, he is either unaware or unwilling to admit that the film he toiled away on for years is downright awful. In any case, he covers the typical bases, going over some of the same points he touched on in the featurettes, but offering further detail on individual performances from the voice talent, and some of the changes/deletions made to the final cut. Still, this is one long 87 minutes.
Next we have the "Lost in Fairy Tale Lane" deleted scenes and the "Happily N'Ever After?'" alternate ending. The quality is a spotty, and none of the excised material adds much that is missed. In total, the footage runs about 6 minutes.
Finally, for the kiddies, we have three "Games from the Department of Fairy Tale Security" -- "Munk's Fairy Tale Fix," "Mambo and Munk's Magical Matchmaker" and "Create Your Own Witches Broom." Pretty standard stuff, with basic graphics and simplistic gameplay. "Magical Matchmaker" is probably the most fun (I'm using the term loosely), allowing you to pair off various characters in the film, with amusing results. Still, it's hard to imagine even the youngest tots getting much replay value out of these games.
Note that there is no theatrical trailer included for the movie. Also, all the video-based supplementary material is presented in 4:3 full screen and 480i/MPEG-2 only.
'Happily N'Ever After' was a critical and commercial bust during its brief theatrical release this past winter, and it's easy to see why. The film is highly derivative of 'Shrek' and a million other better animated fairy tales -- even the film's animation is lackluster. On the bright side, at least Lionsgate has delivered an above-average Blu-ray release, with a transfer, soundtrack and supplemental package far better than the film deserves. But is it enough to rescue 'Happily N'Ever After' from the "One to Avoid" dustbin of next-gen releases? Sadly, no.