I’m going to try not to gush, but it’s hard when a movie is this delightful. Enchanted is even more than that, it’s original — lovely, fresh, funny, and charming to a princely degree. And this is where you and I can start to lose each other, because there’s no reviewer so smitten as the one who expected to endure a so-so movie and was surprised to find something really very good. Gratitude produces a review with a rosy glow, but if you read that review and buy a ticket expecting to see the best thing next to Citizen Kane, you could well be disappointed. It’s the very same movie, but it depends on where you’re coming from. That gap between discovery and verification is a communications hazard for readers and writers of all kinds of reviews. I know all that, but I can’t help it. Enchanted knocked me out.
This is the latest in a long, long line of “princess movies” from Disney, as anyone with a daughter under seven can wearily confirm. It begins stylishly, lingering on the Disney logo of a moonlit castle, and then the camera zooms right in through a tower’s high window. In that room there is a big old book with “Enchanted” on the cover, and the pages begin to turn just as in the prologue of many older movies. But this time it’s a pop-up book, and the folding and sliding planes, the dazzling angles, give that old convention a jolt of new life. They had me at “hello.”
Enchanted starts where other princess movies end: Within the first ten minutes, Prince Edward and Giselle meet, fall in love, and prepare to be wed. But the prince’s wicked stepmother, Narissa, fears losing the throne, and tricks the lovely Giselle into standing within shoving distance of a magic well.
Till now, the movie has been in the form of classic animation. But as Giselle falls she undergoes a transformation, turning into a real flesh-and-blood young woman (Amy Adams, suiting the part to perfection). She comes to rest on a mysterious disk which is pierced with holes, through which light comes streaming. The image rotates, and we realize that she is looking up, not down, at daylight coming through the holes on a manhole cover. Giselle shoves the lid aside and struggles out — she’s wearing her wedding dress, with an immense hoop skirt — into the middle of hectic Times Square.
I knew that this was going to be a story about fairytale characters trying to cope with city life, and I was stoically prepared for a brassy, cynical romp on the order of Shrek. But it isn’t that, and it isn’t the opposite, an oldstyle princess tale, either. Enchanted is a whole new thing. Giselle in New York is kind of like Forrest Gump: she’s naïve to the point of absurdity, and yet you come to feel that she’s the one who has things sized up right, after all.
Amy Adams couldn’t be better in this role, with a cheerful innocence and kindness that remain absurdly unshaken, no matter what she encounters. She finds shelter her first night in the apartment of a world-weary divorce lawyer, Robert (Patrick Dempsey) and his young daughter Morgan (a very able Rachel Covey). In the morning Giselle decides that the place needs a good cleaning, and opens the window to call the wild creatures to help. But the appeal isn’t answered by bluebirds and bunnies; from all across the city, rats scurry from sewers, pigeons lumber into flight, and a swarm of flies lifts gracefully from a street vendor’s cart. Giselle is only momentarily surprised by their arrival, then sets all her new friends to work. Cockroaches quickly nibble away a bathtub’s grime, and three of the crunchy critters perch on Giselle’s finger as she sings to them a “Happy Working Song.”
That’s an example of the film’s careful balance: it references classic moments in the earlier princess films (surely you recognized Snow White’s “Whistle While You Work”), but without falling either into cynical parody or vacant replication. Allusions to earlier films keep showing up — I particularly enjoyed seeing the entire Snow White-Wicked Witch poison apple dialogue enacted wordlessly by a chipmunk — but they are kept low-key enough that they don’t snap us out of the flow of the story.
This is a thoughtful story, actually. Stout-hearted (but empty-headed) Prince Edward (James Marsden) dives into the magic well to seek his true love, Giselle, and after many trials the pair are reunited. But is he really her true love? Against his will, Robert has been awakened to something fresh and joyous in Giselle. She’s been awakening too; we see her briefly but profoundly distracted by a glimpse of Robert’s chest, and the very subtlety of that moment gives it more punch than hours of more graphic entertainment.
There’s a surprisingly overt anti-divorce message, too. When Giselle visits Robert’s office, she approaches an estranged couple and begins praising the wife’s beauty and sparkling eyes. Robert tries to hush her, saying that it’s not a good time for the couple because they are separating. “Oh, how long will they have to be separated?” she asks sympathetically, and then tears spring to her eyes: “Forever and ever?” Robert murmurs to hush because they’re in pain, and she says, “Of course they’re in pain — they’re being separated forever!” By now, the husband is dabbing at his eyes. Later in the movie the reunited couple reappears, now quite cuddly. The wife delivers this forthright line: “Everybody has problems, everybody has bad times. Do we sacrifice all the good times for that? No.”
I would run out of space long before I finished detailing everything I savored in this movie, from Marsden’s princely style, to the immense song-and-dance routine in Central Park, to the concluding bits which tell us “the rest of the story,” staged as pop-up pages even more astonishing than those at the start. Only a couple of things missed the mark. There’s a noisy CGI sequence near the end in which Narissa (Susan Sarandon) turns into a dragon and climbs a tower; it had a hyperventilating quality and wasn’t as original as the rest of the film. And it struck me as depressing, even tawdry, that when the story wants to show the growing bond between Giselle and little Morgan, it doesn’t show them roller-skating or visiting the zoo, or even watching a princess movie; it shows them on a shopping spree. When Giselle needs a ballgown fast, Morgan says, “I have something better than a fairy godmother,” and pulls out a couple of gold cards. After that comes a sprightly montage as they go in and out of shops accumulating more and more shopping bags, laughing, laughing, hideously laughing. It was like something out of Edgar Allen Poe.
We’re about to get run down by the biggest shopping weekend of the year, coming hard on the heels of Thanksgiving. Avoid the crowds at the cash registers and head straight for the movie theater, and give a little thanks of your own. If you have kids in your house, take them to see Enchanted, but if you don’t, go anyway. They’ll be there already, and their laughter will further sweeten this movie for any but the sourest grouch. Enchanted is like that: enchanting.
— Frederica Mathewes-Green writes regularly for NPR’s Morning Edition, Beliefnet.com, Christianity Today, and other publications. She is the author of Gender: Men, Women, Sex and Feminism, among other books.