Faraway in the fairytale kingdom of Andalasia, cartoon cutie Giselle (Amy Adams) is doing what all Disney princesses do: singing merrily with her animal friends and longing for true love. Shortly thereafter, she is swept into the arms of handsome, troll-slaying Prince Edward (James Marsden), but their tuneful romance raises the hackles of Queen Narissa (Susan Sarandon), since it could spell the end of her evil reign. Disguised as a warty witch, Narissa shoves Giselle down a magic portal that leads to “a place where there are no happy endings.”
Which is hardly the most flattering description of New York City, but there you go. Reborn as a live-action lovely, winsome Giselle struggles to keep cheery in the harsh, cynical real world, until she is sheltered by divorce lawyer and single father Robert Philip (Patrick Dempsey). His little daughter Morgan (Rachel Covey) pegs Giselle as a real princess right away, although Robert’s girlfriend Nancy (Broadway star Idina Menzel - sadly given no opportunity to sing) isn’t too happy some strange woman is staying with them. For his part, Robert doesn’t know what to make of this girl who is seemingly always happy, bursts into song, and cajoles a load of rats, pigeons and cockroaches into cleaning his apartment. Eventually, Prince Edward leaps into reality in search of Giselle, aided by plucky Pip (voiced by Jeff Bennett in the animated scenes) a talking squirrel who loses his voice in the real world (unintelligible chirps provided by director Kevin Lima), and hindered by the queen’s lackey Nathaniel (Timothy Spall - who seems to be channelling Kenneth Williams). But it seems Giselle may have found true love elsewhere.
Somehow fairytale spoofs became this decade’s most prevalent genre: Shrek (2001), Ella Enchanted (2006), Happily Never After (2007), Hoodwinked (2006) (Giselle delivers her own twist on Little Red Riding Hood here), Bedtime Stories (2008), even the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, to a certain degree. In an era when traditional fairytale ideals were being bitch slapped into post-modernity and old fashioned, two-dimensional animation was dying at the box-office, Walt Disney Pictures did something rather remarkable with Enchanted. Firstly, the sprightly cartoon prologue reminded many how much they missed traditional animation and helped revive the studio’s 2-D animation unit. Secondly, what seems at first to be a kind of “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” spoof, is actually a defiant defence of the Disney spirit.
Back in the Nineties, the Disney animation revival coincided with academic claims that the values promoted by such films were actually harmful to children. Enchanted seems to tackle this head-on, as Disney ideals of romance, true love and happy ever after clash with a more pragmatic reality of divorce, mistrust and uncertainty. Robert, whose wife ran out on him, doesn’t want Morgan to grow up believing in “that dreams come true stuff” and tries to steer her towards more tangible heroines like Marie Curie and Rosa Parks. But the lure of romantic idealism proves too strong to resist, not just for Morgan, but for Nancy who swoons over Prince Edward’s sincerity and even Robert, whose heart melts over Giselle.
The script was rewritten extensively from Bill Kelly’s original draft (which was alleged to be a lot raunchier!) and occasionally struggles to balance fantasy and reality in wholly satisfactory ways. Giselle’s growing need for a more substantial romance and a disarming moment when the conflicted Nathaniel asks Edward if he really likes himself, are grace notes in a plot that could have been perhaps just that little more profound.
The real find is of course Amy Adams, whose spirited song and dance numbers (the calypso themed “That’s How You Know” is a real showstopper, complete with brightly coloured extras cavorting around a hilariously bewildered Robert) coupled with her dewy-eyed vulnerability make her a real Disney heroine made flesh. She really lights up the screen, in a performance critics hailed even better than her Oscar-nominated turn in Junebug (2005). Adams effervescence makes her the natural heir to Julie Andrews, who actually narrates the story, one of several neat in-jokes that extend to the presence of Paige O’Hara (Belle in Beauty and the Beast (1991) as a soap opera actress, Jodi Benson (Ariel in The Little Mermaid (1990)) as Robert’s secretary, and Judy Kuhn (the title character in Pocahontas (1995)) as a mother overrun with kids. “You’re too late”, she grumbles when Prince Edward mistakenly knocks at her door.
Several familiar Disney set-pieces are rather wittily reworked into the scenario. These include a costume ball that provides the live action equivalent of all those soul-ballad scored slow-dancing bits in the Nineties Disney features, plus the regular rom-com “my God, she’s gorgeous in that dress” moment. And indeed she is. Also a poison apple is dropped in as a nod to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), which leads to a confrontation with Susan Sarandon’s wicked Queen who turns into a very impressive CGI dragon.
Robert delivers the life-affirming kiss, but it’s Giselle who takes up the sword to save her true love, thereby aptly underlining this film’s message. Disney seem to argue that for all our cynicism, deep down we do want to believe in happy endings and that their fairytales are really about characters fighting to turn seemingly unattainable ideals into a reality. It’s a kind of “never give up” idealism, Walt himself would approve and marks this as a return to form for the studio that bears his name.