Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
GODMOTHERED, a family-friendly holiday comedy about an over-eager fairy godmother trainee and her quest to bestow a fractured family with the gift of true love, is perfectly inoffensive and cute when it’s desperately aping the charm and magic of ENCHANTED. But when it strays from that fantastic film’s formula, its bubbly buoyancy sinks like a lead weight. With no propelling sense of urgency, a plodding run time, and sentiments that, while evergreen, contain nothing revelatory, this is a disappointing adventure. Yet, the inherent charisma and likeability of its two capable leading ladies elevate the proceedings to tolerable levels.
Fairy-godmother-in-training Eleanor (Jillian Bell) is the youngest to apply to The Motherland’s godmother program in years. This might be due to the archaic formula that Headmistress Moira (Jane Curtin), who wrote the book on fairy godmothering, has been teaching as their cornerstone for centuries. Her three-pronged steps are simple: conjure a glittery gown, find true love and then live happily ever after. But since humans have stopped believing in the natural third step, things have started to fall apart in fairy tale land. No one has been given an assignment in years and many of the students have begun to suspect their school is about to be shuttered.
To avoid catastrophe and fulfill her calling, Eleanor goes rogue and sets out on a mission to help a desperate 10-year-old Bostonian girl longing to make the cute boy in her class fall in love with her. However, when Eleanor arrives, it’s two decades later and the girl, Mackenzie Walsh (Isla Fisher) is a grown woman – a single mother whose life hasn’t gone according to plan. Eleanor needs her charge to start believing that Happily Ever After can still happen. Only she’s got a short time to do it before the portal to The Motherland closes and she’ll be stripped of her magic permanently.
It’s fairly obvious within the first 5 minutes what will happen, yet we continually have to run through the sparse reasons the filmmakers give us to care about why it’s happening. As soon as Moira lays down the rule book, we know that Eleanor is literally going to rewrite that book by upending traditions. TANGLED took care of this commentary 10 years ago, when Disney pivoted from their conventional princess mode to more modern, empowering messages that Happy Every After doesn’t have to end with a prince and marriage. Maguire and screenwriters Melissa Stack and Kari Granlund have a difficult time establishing Eleanor as anything but an empathetic underdog, but her journey is colored as if she’s transforming from selfish to selfless – though she’s never seen acting selfishly.
It’s lovely that this is a female empowerment narrative featuring women supporting other women. However, the filmmakers bafflingly can’t figure out how to write astute conflicts, neither between Eleanor and Makenzie, nor between Eleanor and Moira. Moira suffers from clumsy, incoherent character development, which is a shame given Curtin is a skilled performer. She isn’t an oppressive force in pursuit until the screenplay demands it, but it’s softened so as not to appear like “two women fighting each other.” Bell and Fisher do their best, but they’re faced with the impossible task of making the material feel magical.
The secondary and tertiary storylines are also lackluster. Mackenzie’s work conflict with her demanding, smarmy boss Grant (Utkarsh Ambudkar), who’s desperate to raise their TV station’s ratings, is dreadfully dull. Mentions of “going viral” elicit cringes, not laughs. So when an entire set piece (where Mackenzie and Hugh are totaled by Eleanor sledding) revolves around what will inevitably lead to this prevalent, stupid trope, it’s groan-worthy.
Nevertheless, it’s the love story aspect that suffers most. It’s a total time waste. Eleanor assumes that setting Mackenzie up with a colleague, divorced newscaster Hugh Prince (Santiago Cabrera), will solve both their problems and help aid her ulterior motives for godmother ascendancy. But he barely shows any interest in Mackenzie, so we quickly deduce that’s not where this story is headed. Plus, everything featuring June Squibb (who’s a treasured inclusion in all movies) reads as an afterthought, from her front-loaded narration over-explaining what’s shown, to the “Facetime” scenes where she appears on a clock to reiterate the stakes.
What does manage to connect, at least to varying degrees, are the funny, fish-out-of-water jokes Eleanor encounters when she’s acclimating to the real world. She assumes cars are pumpkins, states a backwards belief that women can’t drive (that’s what mice are for), and, just like Giselle, assigns wild animals to help with the cleaning. It also seems a little wild that they needle-drop Harry Nillson’s “Everybody’s Talkin,” which conjures memories of the very un-Disney-like film, MIDNIGHT COWBOY. Emotionally, the debilitating anxiety Mackenzie’s eldest daughter Jane (Jillian Shea Spaeder) experiences is a universal struggle and handled thoughtfully. The sequence where Eleanor encourages Jane to busk in a busy outdoor plaza and a SOUND OF MUSIC sing-a-long ensues is one of this film’s remarkably breezy, unforced moments.
Though the picture is 20 minutes too long and tends to overstate itself through cheesy dialogue (“I couldn’t believe in you because I didn’t believe in myself”), its motto of “Forget ever after – just live happily” resounds. It’s just too bad it sounds a little hollowed out.
GODMOTHERED will premiere on Disney+ on December 4.