Thursday, November 29, 2007

Review: Enchanted - Once upon a 2007!

Enchanted is an idea so obviously perfect for Disney that it is a wonder it took the studio as long as it did to come up with it. Uprooting the stock characters of classic Disney cartoons and tossing them into 21st Century Manhattan, Enchanted celebrates the classic films of Walt Disney, all the while recognizing that in this age of irony, those stories may no longer speak to the general audience in the way they once did. The film opens with an image of a storybook (natch!); a voice-over narration supplied by the dulcet Julie Andrews (double natch!) sets the scene for a story not unlike the myriad Grimm’s adaptations that Disney so specialized in during the 30’s and 40’s. We are introduced to our cartoon cast: a princess, a prince, a wicked witch, her stooge and a forest of adorable, chatty woodland creatures. After a brief scuffle with an ogre, our lovers sing a sweeping ballad, riding off into the sunset like Nelson Eddie and Jeanette MacDonald. Nuptial plans are interrupted when the wicked queen pushes Giselle down a magic well. The princess winds up in the sewers of New York City, presented in the flesh and blood body of Amy Adams. One by one the cast of characters comes through the portal (manhole), reeking havoc on Manhattan. The main plot involves Giselle’s relationship to a jaded New York Lawyer and single dad (Partick Dempsey) who discovers a helpless Giselle outlandishly barking for shelter at a tacky castle shaped casino billboard advertisement. Giselle is all the things he has rejected. After his wife abandoned him he no longer believes in “Happily Ever After” or "true love." About to propose to a JAP-y and business minded girlfriend (Idina Menzel, again playing the serious heavy to “Glinda the good”) he has resigned himself to a sensible and reasonable life that aspires to no fairy tale dreaming.
The fish-out-water in New York City scenario has been used ad naseum in movies ranging from Splash to Elf to Home Alone 2. What elevates Enchanted above this fray is it’s playful interaction with the audience's collective memories. Also a notch above is Amy Adams' shockingly good performance. What could have been a gratingly one-note portrayal is, in Adams' capable hands, a delightful exploration of sincerity and optimism. She even sings well; a skill best displayed in a delightful musical number sung amidst a bubbling, dancing central park, perhaps the location on earth most like a fairy tale anyway. (The memorable new songs are by Disney stalwarts Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz.) Patrick Dempsey is sweet in his role as real-life (though reluctant) Prince Charming while James Marsden plays the classic cartoon equivalent, once again (following Hairspray) allowing Marsden a focused comedic turn after years of playing unsmiling stiffs.
The mythology of Disney has been deconstructed and lampooned before, primarily in the remarkably popular and deeply shallow Shrek films. Enchanted does not aspire to mock old Disney cartoons, condescendingly exposing all of their na├»ve conceits the way Shrek does. What the filmmakers here attempt is comic release predicated by our cynical contemporary reaction to the fairy tales that we so clung to in our collective childhoods. Since we know that we should no longer enjoy these pre-feminist, (pre-sexual, really) unrelentingly earnest stories, as Enchanted serenades us(figuratively and literally) into it’s spell we feel both pleasure and shame; the latter emanating from a recognition of how jaded we have become, anticipating ourselves incapable of the simple joys that these movies once brought us.
Despite all it’s warm hearted ambition the movie doesn’t quite have the courage of it’s convictions. In the end, Enchanted wants to have it both ways. Can fairy tales come true? Is Giselle’s wide-eyed optimism to be admired? Should we expect a fairy tale life? Or, is the complex and painful struggle of existing in the real world ultimately the more rewarding existence? The movie posits that both are true and concludes with a neat, happy ending that provides neither cause for contemplation nor thematic (as opposed to narrative) resolution. Ultimately, Enchanted is a children’s movie with a children’s moral. An conclusion that actually owned up to the complexities of adult life would undermine the frothy entertainment that Disney no doubt is striving for. Similar ideas were dealt with powerfully, and unsettlingly, in Stephen Sondheim’s wonderful 1988 musical Into The Woods, a fairy tale where heroic characters commit adultery, betray one another and even die-all after "happily ever after." Enchanted is a smash hit, and deservedly so, but the price it pays for success is the chance it had to become a lasting, meaningful work of art.

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