By Steve Biodrowski
Disney’s self-mocking combination of animation and live-action is not without its charm, but so slim is the satire that the result comes dangerously close to resembling a cheap imitation by a moderately talented wannabe – instead of the self-reflexive piece of sophistication that was obviously intended. The premise has Giselle (Amy Adams) expelled from the animated wonder land of Andalasia and winding up in live-action modern day New York, where her quaint ideas about True Love make her seem like a delightful if addle-headed kook. She hooks up with a divorce lawyer (Patrick Dempsey), who has plenty of reason not to believe in story-book romances. Giselle is followed to New York by Prince Edward (James Marsden), who wants to rescue her. Nathaniel (Timothy Spall) pretends to help Edward while actually serving as a secret agent of the evil Queen Narissa (Susan Sarandon), who shows up for a climactic confrontation at the end.
Initially, ENCHANTED seems like an ill-designed attempt by Disney to grab the SHREK audience.* ENCHANTED begins with an animated sequence in Andalasia that serves up a series of fairy tale cliches; when Giselle arrives in the real world, the too-good-to-be-true fancies serve as fodder for cheap gibes that invite the audience to feel superior by virtue of their cynicism.
Then the film does an impressive about face. In a fine example of eating one’s cake and having it too, ENCHANTED endorses the fairy tale tropes it has been mocking. Instead of using the contemporary setting as a means of undercutting the “happily ever after” scenario, it recreates that the familiar animated elements in live-action (with a generous assist from computer generated imagery).
You get motifs and imagery lifted from CINDERELLA, SNOW WHITE, and many others. You get the song-and-dance numbers. You get the cute animal sidekick (here a tempermental chipmunk). You get True Love’s Kiss. You even get a scene wherein the fairy tale heroine uses a snatch of song to lure the local animals into helping clean up the lawyer’s messing apartment. (Because this is New York, the animal helpers consist of pigeons, rats, and cockroaches, but what the hell?)
The cockroach-cleaning scene is a highlight; the remainder of the set pieces fail to match it. Part of the problem is that the target of the satire is out-of-date: it has been decades since Disney made an animated fairy tale about a passive princess who needs a handsome prince to rescue her. When Giselle morphs from naive naif to self-actualized woman, she is just barely catching up to a fairly long list of strong female characters, icnluding Ariel, Belle, Pocahontas, and others.
It hardly helps that the songs and the animation are somewhat second-rate. The music and lyrics (by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz) sound less like good-natured spoofs of their past work than like weak imitations. The animated sequences aim to recapture the classic Disney style (which is nice to see on the big screen, so dominated by computer animation lately), but the artwork falls short, resembling a low-budget imitation. Queen Narissa, in particular, lacks the glory of her animated ancestors; her cartoon incarnation is less reminscent of classic Disney villains than of the opening titles from the old BEWITCHED television show.
The digital effects do a good job of recreating familiar animated moments in what looks (more or less) like live-action. Only the dragon at the end falls short: Narissa’s transformation into a reptilian beast obviously echoes the climax of SLEEPING BEAUTY, but the monster too cute and cartoony to be truly menacing. ([SPOILER] For some reason, the dragon has no wings – apparently, so that it can fall to its death – and even more bizarre, it bursts into flames during its descent, rather like the tired movie cliche of a car crashing down a cliff. [END SPOILER])
Adams is bland as Giselle; this is supposed to make her seem like a fairy tale character brought to life, but it hardly makes for a dynamic screen heroine. Perhaps because his character does not have to carry the film, Marsden fares slightly better as the good-looking but not-too-bright prince. Dempsey does well as the real-life cynic who turns out to be a romantic at heart. Spall plays more or less the same character (an evil sidekick) that he did to perfection in SWEENEY TODD, although here he is given less room to shine. Sadly, Sarandon gets only a few minutes of live-action to bring the villainous Narissa to life. At least her appearance as an old hag (a nod to the Evil Queen in SNOW WHITE), is wonderfully realized, thanks to an excellent makeup by Rick Baker. (But why, oh why, was she not given a pet? All the best Disney villains have one.)
Perhaps the best realized character is Pip, the chipmunk; of all the elements in the film, he comes closest to matching his obvious models (Sebastian the crab, Flit the hummingbird). You like him not just because you recognize the similarity; he is funny in his own right. Unfortunately, he spends most of his time in the company of Prince Edward and Nathaniel, when a good Disney pet really should be accompanyng his princess. Also, he disappears for big chunks of screen time, perhaps to give his human stars a chance to shine without being upstaged by the upstart animal.
Despite the out-of-date satire, ENCHANTED was good-natured enough to connect with holiday audiences who wanted to see a fun movie for the whole family. In a Fall season that saw other fantasy-comedies (FRED CLAUS, MR. MAGORIUM’S WONDER EMPORIUM) falter or outright fail, the success of ENCHANTED showed that the appeal of this kind of film had not diminished. The moral seems to be that cynicism may be the hip way to appeal to modern audiences, but people want to believe in magic, as long as it is presented with a certain amount of sincerity and at least a small sense of wonder.
*The SHREK films were produced by DreamWorks, which was formed by former Disney head honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg along with Stephen Spielberg and David Geffen. Since Katzenberg’s depature, Disney has seldom been able to equal the blockbuster success of their earlier animated films (except for Pixar productions like THE INCREDIBLES), so it is hard to resist the idea that the company would try to capture some of the success of their former employee.
ENCHANTED (2007). Directed by Kevin Lima. Written by Bill Kelly. Cast: Amy Adams, Patrick empsey, James Marsden, Timothy Spall, Idina Menzel, Susan Sarandon, Rachel Covey.
Copyright 2007 Steve Biodrowski
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