Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Disney's Enchanted

It’s been a week, I know. More than a week, actually. I saw Enchanted on Friday last and am only now posting to tell you about it.

Your brains must have been all a-flutter, I’m sure, dear readers. Whatever could this mean? Was Enchanted really that terrible?

NOT AT ALL. The reason is that it took me a week to completely absorb the joy and wonder I experienced watching what I currently consider to be my favourite movie of all time.

Enchanted begins with a lavish, musical animated sequence, where Giselle (voiced and later acted by Amy Adams), a pure Disney princess from the top of her flowered tiara to the singing mice dancing at her feet, falls in love with Prince Edward (James Marsden, singing at the bottom of his range) after about 1.5 seconds of introduction. The marriage is planned for the next morning, but before they can tie the knot Edward’s evil stepmother Queen Narissa (Susan Sarandon) pushes Giselle down a magic well that leads to live-action New York.

The premise is reminiscent of Don Bluth’s A Troll in Central Park - in both of these films the villain sends the protagonist to New York because the Big Apple has somehow garnered a reputation for being the absolutely worst place a cartoon character could ever hope to end up. In Troll, the green-thumbed sprite is exiled there because New York isn’t supposed to have any greenery (which is why he hides out at Central Park), and in Enchanted, Narissa understands New York to be a place where “there are no happy endings.”

Giselle’s fish-out-of-water tale could have been cheesy beyond belief -- especially if they’d gone the expected route and had Giselle adapt to the real world. No - part of the magic of Enchanted is that while Giselle does learn a few things about reality, a good chunk of the movie concerns how the cynical, rational New Yorkers adapt to her. This is especially apparent once she is rescued by Robert (Patrick Dempsey) a single dad and seasoned divorce lawyer who is only too aware of how “true love” can go bad.

I’m parroting so many other reviews that say “Amy Adams is this movie” so I’ll go into more detail. She never abandons her persona as a Disney princess. She never steps out of character. New York doesn’t stop her from wearing flowing gowns sown by rodents and breaking into song. She is a character of such open innocence and goodness that she never comes across as cloying and overly cute.

My mother expressed a desire to see this movie from the first time she saw the trailer, but I remember her expressing concern over Giselle falling for Robert. “How old is Robert supposed to be? And how old does Giselle act? I think I can still enjoy the movie but that’s a little disturbing.” At first I thought it would be the case too, especially in a scene in which Robert and Giselle are caught in a seemingly compromising position by Robert’s girlfriend.

Robert: God, she thought we were --

Giselle: *wide-eyed* Kissing?

Robert: Uh, something like that.

This was another part of Enchanted that could have potentially ruined the film if they hadn’t handled it the way they did. If you don’t want a bit of a spoiler, stop reading this review RIGHT NOW -- but when Giselle does experience a sexual awakening, the scene in which she does is one of such subtle, unspoken potency it was like something out of Pleasantville. No talking birds, no sung explanations, just Amy Adam’s stellar performance.

This was just one of the facets of this movie that made it intellectually entertaining as well as being a family-friendly satire. Another part that really made this movie for me also involves minor spoilers, so you’ve been warned -- was an intelligent scene where Robert talks about his daughter’s mother with Giselle. I was completely expecting Robert to explain how his wife died -- and by Giselle’s reaction, you can tell she was, too -- because in my experience it’s incredibly rare for single fathers in family movies to be divorced.

There have been a growing number of divorced single moms in children’s films, but for family-friendly movies a single father has to be a widower. A divorced man with sole custody of a child suggests a) something negative about the mother, who would usually be taking care of the child, and that’s a dark element many family friendly movies see fit to do without; or b) that he’s romantically imperfect -- there’s a double standard when it comes to understanding divorced characters in films. When a woman divorces a man, it’s seen as female empowerment for freeing herself from an abusive spouse. When a man divorces a woman, it’s viewed as abandonment.

So the easy choice for Enchanted would have been to make Robert a widower, and I was fully expecting this, but (spoiler!) they didn’t. He reveals how his ex-wife, unhappy in their marriage, left him and his daughter, and in my surprise, I realized how hypocritical of Robert’s character it would have been to make him a widower. He’s the yin the Giselle’s sparkly yang -- her “true love is true” idealism is continually countered by Robert’s “true love is impossible” cynicism, and such a belief system would have been severely undermined had they made his relationship with his daughter’s mother one of love cut short by fate rather than love worn away by stress and mutual pain. After this scene, all I could think was “Good for you, Disney!”

And as I’ve been dithering on, I’ve been forgetting all about the satirical aspect of Enchanted - the central premise is a definite spoof of the Disney Princess movies, and the narrative homage, visual homage, and musical homage are all spot-on. Giselle and Edward’s speedy discovery of true love evokes the simplicity of Sleeping Beauty, Giselle’s helpful animal friends could have come straight out of Snow White and Cinderella, and Giselle’s colourful wardrobe throughout the movie evokes the classics in a way that is at once satirical and reverent. As well, Alan Menken and Steven Schwartz’s songs (they worked together on Pocahontas and Hunchback of Notre Dame previously) are toe-tappingly original and lyrically clever on their own as well as they are reminiscent of past songs (“True Love’s Kiss” is particularly funny as an example of a romantically operatic Disney finale all the funnier for being placed at the film’s beginning; “Happy Working Song” is a hilariously off-kilter parody of “Whistle While You Work” with a particular New York flavour that has to be seen to be appreciated; and “That’s How You Know” works with a steel drum beat reminiscent of Menken’s earlier classic, “Under the Sea”).

As I write this, I’ve read in the newspaper that Enchanted has been the #1 movie at the box office for two weeks running, and I’m not surprised. This well-written, layered movie works on so many levels I’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who wouldn’t enjoy it. Even as it spoofs Disney Princesses, Giselle’s performance makes Enchanted a Princess Movie in its own right -- and that will hook the younger set, while the in-jokes and subtle adult humour and homage will entertain the mothers and older sisters and aunts who’ve grown up with Ariel and Belle and Jasmine. Boyfriends, dads, and husbands will enjoy the gentle snarking on Disney tropes, as well as the lovely Amy Adams. I think even Disney-haters would be tempted to smile at the well-worn clichés Enchanted flaunts so casually.

Enchanted walks the line that Shrek missed entirely. Shrek, while poking fun at fairytales (with pointed jabs at Disney), did so in a way that, while funny, was funny in the mean way, like a good “yo mamma” joke. Shrek pointed out the absurdity of fairytales to make them easier targets for ridicule, but Enchanted jokes about the clichés of Disney movies in a way that reminds us of how much we need stories of fantasized, naïve romantic idealism to counter the darker side of real life.