It’s easy to watch Sharon Maguire’s Godmothered, and see two different movies at war fighting for supremacy. One a smart acerbic darkly funny satire on fairy tales. The other a slap-stick filled made for television Disney movie with famous talented actors mugging the camera for a paycheck.
At times we can see glimpses of the former in Kari Granlund and Melissa Stack’s script. Moments such as when Eleanor (Jillian Bell) tells the friendly woman truck driver who picked her up, that she doesn’t want to be a tooth fairy. The driver understands, ”Yep, I lost my heart to a tooth fairy one night at Burning Man in 2004.”
It’s lines like these hint at a deeper and more adult movie inside of Godmothered. Meanwhile, the rest of the movie is filled with half-baked ideas and gags that are badly edited which end up undercutting the comic timing and ruining the laugh. At times the movie is grating despite the talent displayed onscreen.
The problem is that Godmothered gives us a world but does little to build on it or explain it to us. Being a Disney film about fairy tales, godmothers, magic, and happily ever afters, it perhaps assumes that we’ve seen a Disney movie before. In large part, they are correct in the assumption. But the world of the Godmothers, the Motherland, ran with a somewhat iron fist by Moira, played by a wasted Jane Curtain, feels barely formed.
The Motherland is a magical land, I guess. It’s a place where fairies are trained or where people go to become fairies. It’s never made clear. The narrator, Agnes (June Squibb), tells us that Eleanor is the youngest volunteer. Maguire shows us Eleanor in class with the other fairies and she is by far the youngest, but what she’s the youngest and exactly hold old she is in comparison is never explained.
Weirdly Granlund and Stack’s script give us a curiously underwritten world and hope that our knowledge of previous Disney magical kingdom’s fill in the blanks. But they don’t. Especially when Moira announces that due to no new assignments being available because nobody believes in fairies or ‘happily ever afters” Motherland is being shut down and the fairies will be tooth fairies.
Eleanor finds what she believes to be a new assignment in the library, ten-year-old Mackenzie wishes to marry her Prince Charming, and proceeds to go to Earth, our world, who knows? What exactly the barrier is between our world and the Motherland is never made clear other than it is a magical one.
Godmothered does a lot of this sort of short cut storytelling. The other Disney fairytales were specific whereas Godmothered feels bland and generic when it comes to its own mythology. It’s a symptom of the storytelling as a whole, as large swaths of the movie feel as if both Maguire and her writers expect us to fill in the gaps.
Mackenzie is of course no longer a ten-year-old girl. Now a grown adult, played by Isla Fisher, and admittedly a genius bit of meta-casting. Like Bryce Dallas Howard and Jessica Chastain, Fisher and Amy Adams are forever linked in the popular consciousness as doppelgangers. Credit where credit is due, Godothered tries its level best to convince us that Fisher is a homely crone in desperate need of a makeover.
Characters remarking on how bad her skin is while her children scoff at her atrocious clothing are nice little nods to the mythos of the homely girl one make-over away from perfection. In fact, when the moment comes in Godmothered it has the courtesy of not even bothering with a montage. It merely shows us Fisher’s Mackenzie walk into a hair salon and walks out looking like, well, Isla Fisher.
Though I couldn’t help but feel as if the movie pushed the gag one joke too long. Mackenzie’s youngest daughter, Mia (Willa Skye) looks at her mother’s party outfit and gasps. “You can make yourself look like that without any magic?”
Ultimately Godmothered is, in turn, frustrating because Maguire seems trapped between the demands of a Disney movie and the movie she wants to make. There are large swaths of the film where it feels like Maguire and her writers are merely spinning their wheels. Worse, much of the film feels too manufactured and artificial.
Both Motherland and Mckenzie’s world never seem like anything more than sets. There’s an odd dissonance between the feel of the movie and the dark undercurrent of the film. To the surprise of no one Mackenzie’s husband was killed in the car crash four years ago, leaving her to raise her two daughters, Mia and Jane (Jillian Shea Spaeder) along with her sister Paula (Mary Elizabeth Ellis).
Eleanor, hardly deterred, about Mackenzie being an adult, attempts to help her find her happily ever after, magical whimsical shenanigans ensue. She enlists the help of a raccoon, Gary, who, despite the potential Godmothered does little with. Many of the jokes, like Gary fall flat.
Even the subplot with Mackenzie’s co-worker Hugh Prince (Santiago Cabrera) seems to go nowhere. Though for a time, Maguire and the script seem to be doing a good job building tension between the two. A divorcee himself, he is a single father, whose relationship with his son is fraught with issues.
This is the other problem with Godmothered. Granlund and Stacks keep piling on plot points and never developing them. The film is a graveyard of false narrative and character arcs. They litter the film with quirky characters like Squibb’s Agnes or Stephanie Weir’s Barb, a spray-tanned blonde newscaster with more peroxide than scruples.
But they feel crammed into an overstuffed movie that somehow feels as if it’s just goofing around with no real aim. Granlund and Stacks even give Mackenzie a job and spend time with her co-workers as a way to make Mackenzie feel real and fleshed out.
Mackenzie’s job is a fifth-place news channel in a four-channel market. Her boss, Grant (Utkarsh Ambudkar), values clicks and views over actual news. Grant encourages reporters to supplement their own theories when they don’t have an answer for things. It’s how aliens and satanic cults become blamed for things such as a firework display over Bruin stadium, or a field of demolished pumpkins.
None of this is helped by the dingy lighting and atrocious bland framing of every scene. For all the heart that seems to bubble to the surface from time to time, Godmother looks dull and feels mundane. This is despite Bell’s absolute Lucille Ball-level of commitment to Eleanor.
Bell fireman carries much of the movie with her earnest portrayal of a fairy desperately trying to understand the world around her. While there’s a great deal that doesn’t work, Bell isn’t one of them. She even highlights some of the cleverness which feels squashed by so much extraneous “fun”. Eleanor is struggling to try and reconcile what she was taught in the Motherland with what she is learning about in the modern world.
Mackenzie’s husband died. His death had a devastating emotional impact on Mackenzie and her daughters, the likes of which Fairy Godmother school did not prepare her for. Nor did they prepare her to realize how harsh the world is. Happily Ever After is more than difficult… it’s impossible because there is no end. Weirdly, Eleanor is discovering, since there are so many characters in Godmothered that there is more than one way to love.
Godmothered has problems and flaws galore. But towards the end, it starts to reveal a sly wit and even bigger heart and observation than previously assumed.
Mackenzie rightly calls Eleanor out for trying to force her happily ever after on her, pointing out her motives are selfish and misguided. Eleanor, thunderstruck by the revelation, agrees. So much of the structural issues I had up until this point with Godmothered stem from this. Eleanor is forcing herself onto every situation, casting spells on people without consent, and doing things she’s been asked not to do.
But here is where Maguire and her writers swing for the subversive fences in the finale (so much that I could almost, almost buy they set up on purpose). They wind up smashing the ball out of the park. Granlund and Stacks have Eleanor realize a very simple and basic fact. Fairy tales, and indeed, stories themselves, have been hobbling us, not helping us. Yes, they tell us that there are dragons and that they can be defeated.
But they also tell us, either intentionally or unintentionally, that there is only one way to love. Anyone who has ever read a queer Tumblr post or seen online discourse about representation already knows this. But still, it is a powerful thing to see one of the most beloved and well-known purveyors of fairy tales admit that there may be more than one way to love, indeed the possibilities and ways to love are as endless as our imagination.
That love and happily ever after comes with or without a man. Princes and Princesses are nice but not necessary. Sometimes sad things happen but you shouldn’t let it make you forget of the happiness that’s possible. What’s more, it’s okay to love more than one person, love is such a grand and immutable concept. How can you ever tell someone there is only one way to express it?
It is of itself a message so powerful and heartfelt that you forgive everything else. Maguire and her writers nail the ending with earnestness and heartfelt magic. The moment is so effective that I found myself tearing up.
Godmothered is Disney’s satirical answer to the multi-corporate conglomerate magical kingdom. A cynic’s response of sorts to Ella Enchanted, albeit a fractured mess. Fractured though it may be, it nevertheless has heart. Which, in these troubling times, is no mean feat.
Image courtesy of Disney+ Walt Disney Studio Motion Pictures
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