Disney’s Enchanted goes down very easily. It is one of those movies that the whole family can stretch out all about the family-room floor after a huge meal of ham and turkey and enjoy without worrying about being frightened or made to blush uncomfortably. It’s a perfect holiday movie which is how I just experienced it. Unfortunately, what it delivers isn’t quite what it promises and is ultimately a bit dishonest and suspicious.
The Internet Movie Database offers a plot summary cribbed from Enchanted’s official website that includes: “… classic Disney fairytale collides with modern-day New York City … Can a storybook view of romance survive in the real world?” This manages to hold both the film’s pleasures and its missed opportunities all tied up with nice little bow.
It’s fun to watch Enchanted’s animated opening sequence which simultaneously captures and lampoons the well-known Disney style. It is Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and The Little Mermaid by way of Shrek. After Giselle (played very appealingly by Amy Adams, the film’s greatest asset as is the case with all films starring Amy Adams) is sent tumbling into a live-action New York City, her fish-flapping-about-on-the-sidewalk adventures continue to draw smiles. It’s the same kick one gets from Elf in spite of a thin layer of mold now growing around the edges. After all, who doesn’t find revolving doors at least a bit confusing?
Where suspicion creeps in is with the notions of “modern-day New York City” and “the real world.” Gissele first appears in the city rising from a manhole in the middle of a downtown street. (Did you expect her to rise up out of anything else?) But, does she get knocked on the head by a racing taxi? No. At first, the streets appear to be as unpopulated by traffic as in Eyes Wide Shut, allowing Giselle ample time to struggle free, enormous white gown and all. And when the traffic does show up, it is as politely choreographed and genteel as the dancers in the climactic ball. One has to strain to hear the gentle sounds of horns honking.
Later, walking through a park, Giselle begins to sing and is quickly joined by street musicians, construction workers, and random passers-by. This isn’t the real, modern-day New York City Giselle has fallen into. She has tumbled from an animated Disney fairy tale into a live-action Disney fairy tale. This is much more the New York of Madison (Splash) or Molly Gunn (Uptown Girls) than Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver) or even Buddy (Elf). To truly plunge Giselle into an alien world and force her to struggle with its challenges, Enchanted needed to be more “all the animals come out at night – whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal…” than street people who swipe the crown from her head and scurry away like squirrels stealing morsels from a picnic blanket.
Enchanted quickly settles in to tell the story of Giselle and her budding and flowering relationship with Robert (a lawyer with a heart of gold borrowed from the same story department as hookers who refuse to be paid) and his daughter Morgan. This all unfolds rather predictably with a heart-broken single dad left to care for a charming little kid, a girl-bonding trip to a beauty salon, that costume ball, “love’s one true kiss,” and a rescue from great scary heights from the clutches of a big, not very scary, CGI dragon.
In spite of the overly familiar quality of all of this, some scenes still do shine. Alan Menken’s “Happy Working Song” is engagingly used when Giselle decides to tidy things up a bit. (What else do fairy tale future princesses do when faced with apartments badly in need of a woman’s touch?) And that kind of scary, CGI dragon scene is fun. It’s sort of like King Kong in reverse.
It is when Robert tells Giselle that he doesn’t like to expose Morgan to fairy tales that Enchanted most captured my attention. When Robert says he doesn’t want Morgan misled into thinking that dreams really can come true, is it just a bit of foreshadowing (as if anyone watching Enchanted holds any doubt that things will turn out magically and perfectly well for Robert and Giselle and Morgan)? Or is director Kevin Lima being just a tiny bit subversive?
In his extraordinary book The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim discussed the meaning and importance of fairy tales to a child’s development. He suggested that if children are allowed to read about the horrors faced by the heroes of fairy tales, this will better prepare them for their own lives. He went on to attack what Disney has done to cleanse and make palatable the tales by the likes of The Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson. Gone are all the dark and scary and gruesome elements that Bettelheim suggested are of the greatest value to a child. (Did you know that Cinderella’s stepsisters originally had their toes chopped off to try to cram their huge feet into that tiny slipper?)
With its wall-to-wall happiness and lack of bloody stumps, does Lima feel that Bettelheim would have found little use for Enchanted?