Saturday, December 01, 2007

Reviews to Mildly Astonish: Walt Disney's Enchanted

Starring Amy Adams, Patrick Dempsey, and James Marsden
Directed by Kevin Lima
Script by Bill Kelly

It's not too hard to see why the conventional wisdom says the future of animated films is in 3-D: all the 2-D movies lately suck. For the last ten years or so, the words "Disney" and "animation" have aroused cringes anytime they haven't appeared in the same sentence as "Pixar." And not without good reason; while we've seen a handful of somewhat decent pictures (Treasure Planet in particular got poorer treatment than it deserved), there's really no excuse for dreck like Home on the Range and Brother Bear. I will not even deign to mention their recent live-action material by name.

So I find it interesting, and apropos, that on the eve of what will hopefully be a creative renaissance for the company under John Lasseter, the best Disney movie in a long, long while is a genre-bending mixture of animation and live action that reminds us why Disney became synonymous with great family entertainment in the first place.

The first seven minutes or so of Enchanted would make Terry Pratchett cringe if they were the entire movie. In the fairy tale world of Andalasia, Giselle, a fair maiden who lives alone in the woods with her helpful animal friends, meets Edward, a dashing prince who falls in love with her beautiful singing voice. There's some business with a hungry troll, and the very next day Giselle is on her way to her wedding. Edward's stepmother, Queen Narissa, can do without this eventual heir to the queendom, and so sends her down a magical passage into "a world where there are no happily ever afters." More specifically, Times Square, under a manhole on 42nd Street. Things go about as well for her as you'd expect, until she literally falls into the arms of Robert Philip. Robert is a divorce lawyer whose wife walked out on him not long after their daughter was born, so you can imagine how he feels about fairy tale romance. (Hint: Instead of Snow White and Cinderella, he reads to his daughter about Rosa Parks and Marie Curie.) Meanwhile, Edward (accompanied by Pip, a chipmunk with a Brooklyn accent that's never really explained) bravely journeys into the frightening and dark kingdom of Manhattan to rescue his ladylove, and Narissa sends the scheming majordomo Nathaniel to make sure Giselle has a fateful meeting with a poisoned apple.

You can pretty much make out where the plot goes from there; there aren't really any surprises on that score. The fun of the journey is getting there, and there is a lot of fun to be had. It's wonderful to see the contagious effect Giselle has on the world around her, whether it's working her animal magic on rats, pigeons and cockroaches, or leading street musicians in a joyous song and dance number through Central Park. And it's also fun to see the effect the world has on Giselle, as she confronts the not-so-nice nature of reality with a smile on her face and kindness in her heart. It's a testament to the script, and to the talents of the delightful Amy Adams, that we believe Giselle can confront the unkind realities of the world, accept them, and still come away with a sense of optimism about life. It's not at all surprising that Robert falls in love with her so quickly; you would, too.

Patrick "McDreamy" Dempsey plays an excellent balance to Giselle's optimism. He's not a relentless, heartless cynic, just a heartbroken realist who's trying to make his way the best he can. He cares about his daughter (played in a refreshingly unannoying manner by young Rachel Covey), and wants to prepare her for the world, and if that means no fairy tales, then he can live with that. He can also live with taking things slow with his girlfriend Nancy (five years and no ring, no wonder she gets pissed at him so easily). But life is more than just living with things, which is, I suppose, rather the point.

Harry Potter fans will recognize Timothy Spall carefully balancing comic pratfalls with a deft character turn as Nathaniel. Susan Sarandon performs well as the animated and "real" Queen Narissa, but it kind of goes pear-shaped when she turns into a giant dragon. (Read the Evil Overlord list, dearie; that bit never works). And James Marsden has an absolute blast hamming it up as Prince Edward. His ability to step so effortlessly into the role lends credence to my personal theory that his Cyclops was so wooden, not because he's a bad actor, but because he's very good one who took one look at the character and saw the right way to play it.

The filmmakers use New York City, a modern enchanted land if there ever was one, to great effect (although, really, they couldn't have had the finale take place at the Empire State Building?), including what's probably the briefest and best portrayal of the New York subway system in film. Alan Mencken, my generation's Disney Maestro, turns in a wonderful score and song list, ably helped by lyricist Stephen Schwartz. Really, if "How Does She Know That You Love Her?" doesn't get a Best Song nomination, then I will officially lose all hope in the Oscars.

Like the collision of fairy tales and reality it portrays, Enchanted isn't perfect. But that doesn't stop it from being an absolute joy of an experience, and from making us believe, if not in "happily ever after," then at least in "happily enough." If you were ever eight years old and swept off your feet by a Disney movie, or even if you weren't, and especially if you know an eight-year-old who hasn't yet been, you owe it to yourself to see Enchanted. I can give it no higher recommendation than to say dear old Walt Disney himself would love it with all his union-hating heart. (Hey, nobody's perfect.)

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