[20 November 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It’s amazing that the House of Mouse never thought of this before: taking one of their signature, slightly saccharine animated heroines and tossing her – pen and ink pell mell – into the modern world. Via careful character matching, or the company’s patented cartooning techniques, this forlorn beauty could come in contact with some real metropolitan beasts. Even better, the anthropomorphic world of 2D fantasy could come crashing into the realities of a 3D world, with lots of satiric hi-jinx ensuing. And just imagine if, for once, Disney had a sense of humor about it all. Instead of lording over its legacy like a deranged demagogue, it could use the effort as a knowing nod and wink to all the critics and complainers who’ve labeled the studio out of touch, both in its aging artistry and its lack of contemporary commercial appeal. Handled properly, you’d be looking at a monster hit – and a celebrated return to form. Well, get ready audiences, because Uncle Walt’s wise men have indeed devised such a stunner – and it’s called Enchanted.
When we first meet the fair Giselle, she’s singing about love’s true kiss in the far off fairytale realm of Andalasia. With the help of her woodland creature friends, she is making an effigy or her dreamboat desire, the spitting image of none other than Prince Edward. Naturally, his highness’s evil mother, Queen Narissa, wants to keep her seat on the throne. If her son gets hitched, he inherits the realm. Hoping to avoid a meeting (and a marriage), she puts loyal servant/sidekick Nathaniel on the payroll. He thwarts Edward every step of the way. Sadly, it’s all for naught. Giselle and her true love meet, and prepare for their wedding. As a last ditch effort, Narissa sends her future daughter-in-law to the one place her boy can’t find her – the real world. Manhattan, New York actually. There, Giselle is ‘rescued’ by a cynical divorce attorney named Robert Phillip. A single dad raising six year old Morgan, he’s been dating the Type-A career gal Nancy for nearly five years. As Edward and Nathaniel head to the big Apple themselves, Giselle tries to teach Robert about love – and starts to discover her true feelings as well.
Enchanted is a sugar spun delight. It’s as fluffy as a bunch of newborn bunnies and as cute as an entire collection of buttons. It features a fantastic, star-making performance by actress Amy Adams, a wicked sense of humor, and enough cartoon/CG spectacle to keep even the most easily distracted tweener happy as a clambake. As an entertainment, it’s beyond chipper. As acknowledgement of the standard fairytale formulas, it’s wonderfully wise. Not really a parody in the traditional sense, Enchanted earns a lot of its wit from shamelessly embracing the archetypes that many feel have deadened hand drawn animation in the last three decades. Toss in a classic score by long time Disney hit maker Alan Menken (working again with lyrical collaborator Stephen Schwartz) and a flawless meshing of animation with actuality, and you’ve got something that stands as a post-modern Mickey-made classic.
The main reason for the movie’s unflappable appeal is lead Amy Adams. While Oscar nominated for her turn in Junebug (how many remember her…or the film?), she is simply astounding here. So perky and upbeat she could make a corpse conga, there is an amazing amount of bright spirit and uncomplicated emotion in this pure, pretty princess. Even when working with New York’s notorious wildlife (a classic moment has her straightening up Robert’s apartment with the aid of cockroaches, flies, rats, and pigeons), she’s snowier than Ms. White and sunnier than a certain Cindy. Without Adams’ dead-on performance, Enchanted wouldn’t work. Instead, it would be Aquamarine. In fact, the closest any previous film comes to this is Ron Howard’s hilarious Splash – and that fabled literal fish out of water tale had the late great John Candy around to keep things rib tickling.
No, what Enchanted has is a noble supporting cast including James Marsden as your typically dense Prince, Susan Sarandon as a workable wicked witch, beefy Brit Timothy Spall as Nathaniel, and a goofy animated chipmunk named Pip that steals every scene he/it is in. Grey’s Anatomy fans might wonder about their favorite manly medico, Dr. Derek “McDreamy” Shepherd. Luckily, Patrick Dempsey is very good here, doing quite a bit with what is, clearly, the film’s most underwritten role. We don’t really see his character’s warming to Giselle as much as expect it, and his last act heroism is oddly uninvolving. Indeed, if Enchanted has a flaw, it’s the lack of an emotional epiphany. Since we are dealing in predictability (it’s part of a cartoon’s model), we know who’s ending up with whom. While getting there is fun, it’s not the three-hanky happiness we could have received.
Still, Kevin Lima deserves as much credit as Ms. Adams for pulling this off. As a director, he worked on previous Disney efforts like A Goofy Movie, Tarzan, and 102 Dalmatians, and he really outdoes himself here. Taking a savvy script by Bill Kelly and introducing all manner of genre in-jokes into the mix, we wind up with a slightly surreal, decidedly non-sappy lark. The musical moments – both drawn and danced – are expertly handled, and Lima really understands how to build a scene. When Pip disrupts a pizza parlor, or a costumed ball clashes with fairytale villainy, we completely buy the jarring juxtaposition. Thanks to the expert performances, the naturally unreal feel of New York itself, the careful controlling of the narrative, and the heartfelt sense of happiness and fun, any minor missteps are instantly forgiven and forgotten.
In a legacy that once saw the studio dominate both the live action and hand drawn cinematic realm, Enchanted is a real renaissance. It proves that Disney was only down, not out, when it came to challenging up and coming classicists like Pixar – and they didn’t need to rely on crass, pop culture heavy efforts like Shrek or Ice Age to restand its ground. Certainly set up to be a frequently revisited future franchise (we get a happily ever after, but there’s clearly more material to explore here), they’ll be no complaining as long as the sensational standards created here are kept. Who would have thought that after a year which saw a formidable Fred Claus, a middling Mr. Magorium, and an underachieving Underdog, that the best family film would find the House of Mouse embracing and redirecting years of aesthetic atrophy. The results are as charmed as the title suggests.