'Godmothered': Film Review

Godmothered
K.C. Bailey
Cute and comforting, if generic.
12/4/2020

Jillian Bell and Isla Fisher star in a Disney+ comedy about a rogue fairy godmother who seeks to help a grumpy widow.

Comedian Jillian Bell thrives as a wild woman. The pith of her comic persona is a grasping, inelegant id the kind of needy enfant terrible who undergoes antic slapstick and sour humiliations while the dangling carrot of maturity eludes her. Her characters inevitably leave some manner of destruction in their wake.

After watching Bell hone this half-callow, half-churlish onscreen identity in films and TV series like Rough Night, Brittany Runs a Marathon, Idiotsitter and Workaholics, I was surprised to find her lead role in the Disney+ fantasy flick Godmothered oddly deflated. Her fairy godmother Eleanor, clad in a pink buttercream cupcake of a gown, isn't a volcanic fuckup but merely a guileless one. Eleanor prattles and pratfalls, but her sweetness always triumphs. The problem is that I just don't believe Bell as a derpy do-gooder: The actress has too much lava in her belly for happily-ever-after speechifying.

Godmothered is pleasant enough, a cheeky and nostalgic Christmas-themed family comedy with ambitions to be this generation's Enchanted, the self-parodic 2007 musical rom-com starring Amy Adams as a cartoon Disney princess who gets stuck in New York City after a witch transmogrifies her into a flesh-and-blood humanoid. But Godmothered is something a little closer in texture to the Wonderful World of Disney TV movies of yore. In Toothless, a 1997 installment of that Sunday night series, Kirstie Alley stars as a tooth-fairy-in-training who pairs up with a lonely little boy (Ross Malinger) in need of her help. In a 2000 entry, Life-Size, Tyra Banks stars as a Barbie-come-to-life who pairs up with a lonely little girl (Lindsay Lohan) in need of her help. In 2020's Godmothered, Jillian Bell stars as a new-to-service fairy godmother who pairs up with a lonely widow (Isla Fisher) in need of her help.

Mirroring the best Disney classics, the film opens on an antique gold-trimmed book that flies open, introducing us to a professional institute for fairy godmothers in a far-off realm. Eleanor is the youngest and sunniest student in this cranky matriarchy run by an austere beldam called Moira. (Jane Curtin has never looked better or bitchier, here adorned in a creamy velvet cape, a dark glittering frock and a two-foot-high wig of ashen curls.) We're led to believe that faith in fairy tales has crusted over, much like these women have from years of redundancy.

To Eleanor's horror, the school is on the verge of foundering because of low demand for magic in the modern world. While her fellow trainees, all bored and complacent dowagers, continue to stagnate, Eleanor seeks to prove that their skills are still necessary, and soon finds a letter from 10-year-old redhead Mackenzie Walsh, begging for help with her crush. Unfortunately, Eleanor doesn't realize that the letter is from the 1980s.

With the help of her jaunty roommate Agnes (June Squibb, a stalwart of comedic timing), Eleanor sets off for wintry Boston … and finds Mackenzie (Fisher) a jaded and burned-out 40-something. (The woman carries such deadening weltschmerz that she discourages her own anxiety-prone daughter from performing a solo at her high school's holiday extravaganza.) A producer at a local news station, Mackenzie is browbeaten by her hotshot boss (Utkarsh Ambudkar) to put a digital-age spin on yellow journalism. Her misery inspires Eleanor to use her spell-casting abilities to renovate the woman's life, often to calamitous effect.

Godmothered is built on such a solid concept that Kari Granlund and Melissa Stack's script practically writes itself — which may be its exact problem. The film never surprised me: not in its conflicts, its characterizations or its conclusions. Eleanor is so preternaturally good-natured (if also a bit unshakably self-serving, given her motivations to locate Mackenzie in the first place), she becomes inaccessible as a lead. Eleanor fails and prevails, but her personality never ignites.

You've seen the klutzy enchantress battle the straitlaced killjoy innumerable times before. After all, the straight-man/comic-foil coupling endures for a reason: It's funny. And this dynamic is sufficiently funny here, too, even if Bell and Fisher enervate each other. But Godmothered would have distinguished itself with more narrational novelty. Given Bell's established talents, it might have been a real joy to meet a sneering, petulant or reluctant fairy godmother for once, instead of just another lumbering one.

Director Sharon Maguire (Bridget Jones's Diary), knows her way around femme-forward knockabout comedy, and Godmothered tenders plenty of the high jinks, tumbles and mishaps typically destined for kid-friendly fare. Eleanor accidentally enthralls raccoons, explodes pumpkins, sets off colorful lights above TD Garden and gives Mackenzie ghastly makeovers with her wand. An EpiPen becomes a weapon in Mackenzie's hands after inadvertent anaphylaxis. They both fall a lot, often in the snow.

The film, however, leaps with Bell's weirdo line delivery. Encountering Siri for the first time, she cowers, whispering, "Who said that? Is there a genie in there? (Don't answer that.)" Every time Eleanor bursts into song, Bell ends up croaking out foul, off-key melodies unbefitting your archetypal Disney heroine.

Bell, Squibb and Curtin each animate the screen with their playful vigor, and additional supporting turns from Stephnie Weir (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) as an oddball newscaster, Artemis Pebdani (Scandal) as a sharp cameraperson and Mary Elizabeth Ellis (It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia) as Mackenzie's warm sister all brighten the film. Fisher's albatross of a character is so draining, though, that I felt marginal investment in her burgeoning flirtation with nerdy co-worker Hugh Prince (Santiago Cabrera) or her requisite happily-ever-whatever.

With such little attention paid to Mackenzie's two children, I suspect Godmothered may have been specifically pitched as content for adult Disney fans who love to bask in the familiar comforts of the conglomerate's anodyne programming. In other words, people like myself. Jillian Bell is a fearless performer; I wish Godmothered wasn't ruled by Disneyfied fear of innovation.

Cast: Jillian Bell, Isla Fisher, June Squibb, Mary Elizabeth Ellis, Jane Curtin, Santiago Cabrera, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Stephnie Weir, Artemis Pebdani
Director: Sharon Maguire
Producers: Ivan Reitman, Amie Karp, Diane L. Sabatini, Justin Springer, David S. Grant
Premieres Friday, Dec. 4 (Disney+)