One of the smaller hard lessons a modern child faces is realizing that the people who make movies often have no idea what they're doing. "Ella Enchanted," the 1997 book by Gail Carson Levine, is by all accounts a classy, nimbly written satire of fairy tales that serves as an exemplary fairy tale itself. "Ella Enchanted" the movie is an overcalculated fusion of "Shrek" and "The Princess Bride" with all the smarts replaced by smartass. It appears to be based on the book in the same way that mammals are based on land.
At least the cast is engaging and familiar, although the actors have been coached to flail around the cheap-looking sets. Anne Hathaway ("The Princess Diaries"), she of saucer eye and amiable demeanor, is Ella of Frell, who at birth was given the gift of obedience by a well-meaning fairy named Lucinda (Viveca A. Fox, shaking her boo-tay in a misguided homegirl turn). This unfortunately means that when someone says "Bite me!" -- and in this movie they do -- Ella does.
Ella's mother dies, and her penniless nobleman father (Patrick Bergin) marries the horrid Dame Olga (Joanna Lumley of "Absolutely Fabulous"), who comes with the appropriately horrid daughters (Lucy Punch and Jennifer Higham). Flitting around the action is Mandy (Minnie Driver), the family's domestic housefairy who acts more like a guest who arrived 20 years ago and never left.
More plot: The kingdom is ruled by the villainous Prince Regent Edgar (Cary Elwes, the one-time Westley of the very far away "Princess Bride"), who has enslaved the giants, exiled the ogres, and forced the elves into dinner theater. This is almost as funny as it sounds. The future king is Prince Charmont (Hugh Dancy), who is chased about the realm by screaming hordes of teenage girls and who is clueless to his evil uncle's machinations up to and including the poisoned crown.
And even more plot: Ella, desperate to be rid of her "gift," searches the kingdom for Lucinda, acquiring on her journey a talking book that contains Mandy's enchanted boyfriend (Jimi Mistry), a disgruntled elf who wants to be a lawyer (Aidan McArdle), and Prince Charmont, to whom she teaches sociopolitical responsibility and with whom she falls in love.
All this and many, many jokes about medieval shopping malls. The makers of "Ella Enchanted" -- including the writing team behind "Legally Blonde" and "10 Things I Hate About You" -- seem cowed by such recent phenomena as "Lizzie McGuire" and Lindsay Lohan and have thus retrofitted the script with as much jokey postmodern sass as the slender story can bear. It might even work if the pop-culture references -- Crockery Barn stores, Bat-Ox injections -- weren't so tepid. Even the kitschy 1970s music nuggets on the soundtrack feel pandering; when Hathaway whips off her gown at the end to reveal a miniskirt and boogie down to a strident version of "Don't Go Breaking My Heart" you cringe for the actress.
She's not the only one left stranded. Lumley, Driver, Elwes, and Eric Idle (as the onscreen narrator) play it broad and silly, while Parminder K. Nagra, the star of "Bend It Like Beckham," is wasted in an insultingly tiny heroine's-best-pal role. McArdle scores some laughs as the petulant elf, but even he has to suffer the indignity of getting farted off a bench by a giant.
The problem is that even good timely humor requires a film to relinquish its potential for timelessness. I admit I haven't read the book, but I have a daughter and a wife who have and who came to the screening with me, and, let me tell you, they are ticked. Some preliminary nosing around on the Web suggests they're not alone: The wholesale changes wrought by the producers on Levine's characters and plot -- let alone any larger message of think-for-yourself empowerment -- are engendering the sort of preteen disgust reserved these days for Britney Spears.
The producers of "Ella Enchanted" probably assume, correctly, that many more kids haven't read the book than have, and they're out to give that audience a slick, shallow good time. They forget that you don't have to have read a book to recognize a sell-out when you see it.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.