Last night, I sat down and watched Enchanted, the 2007 Disney movie in which a cartoon princess played by Amy Adams falls through a portal into real-world Manhattan. Eventually, she comes to accept being “real,” while love interest Patrick Dempsey learns a valuable lesson about opening his heart to the magic of a child’s smile, or some such shit.
This is another one for the “I’m surprised how much I liked this” file. Well, I’m not all that surprised – the thing got fantastic reviews when it came out, and I’m kind of a sucker for fairy tales. Even so, Enchanted had a LOT going against it…
1) Its basic premise is about characters from the animated world having a hard time dealing with the real world. The track record on this kind of thing is not good. Okay, Roger Rabbit, sure. But Cool World? The Fat Albert movie? Looney Tunes: Back in Action? Space Jam?
2) Even more damning: there’s a cute CGI animal companion. The track record here is execrable, and if you doubt me I suggest that you watch Garfield The Movie 2: A Tale of Two Kitties. I don’t think I’m far wrong in saying that Enchanted is the only good film in this category to date, and even here it’s the most annoying thing in the film.
3) It’s a Disney musical written after 1995. Reports vary on when Disney’s silver age of animation ended… for me the last really good one was Aladdin, but I know a lot of Lion King fans, and some people would probably go to bat for Pocahontas. Then again, I know people who think it’s all been crap since Beauty and the Beast. In any case, they went into a hell of a tailspin in the late 90s. The best Disney cartoon of the past ten years is The Emperor’s New Groove, which started out as a dreary musical called Kingdom of the Sun (with songs by Sting, no less!) before they came to their senses, tore the thing down to bedrock, and started over sans music. And also sans love interest, which brings me to:
4) Patrick Dempsey. Color me McBored with his whole smirking, sad-eyed, holding-his-head-slightly-at-an-angle schtick.
Anyway, it turns out that Enchanted does work. It works remarkably well. Part of this is just the combination of clever writing with committed over-the-top performances. Part of it is the soundtrack: when he’s on top of his game, Alan Menken is one of America’s best living songwriters. I’m sure cinematography, costume design, editing… probably even craft services all played their part in the final product. But none of that is particularly interesting to overthink. What makes the movie thought-provoking, as opposed to merely good, is its overdetermined sense of nostalgia.
On the level of plot, Enchanted is a love letter to Disney’s classic princess narratives, and they do a great job of reinforcing this in pretty much every scene. (See the IMDB page or Wikipedia for just a small sampling of how it plays out.) But in a more abstract sense, Enchanted calls up nostalgia for a very different kind of film – what you could probably describe as the ludicrously-high-concept fish out of water comedy. The typical fish out of water film is about a culture clash: take this crazy Australian out of crazy Australia, and watch what happens when you put him in New York! The ludicrously-high-concept version of the same just replaces replaces Australia with a sci-fi/fantasy setting of some kind. You know the films I’m talking about here: the most perfect example is probably 1984’s Splash, starring Darryl Hannah as a mermaid – a literal* fish – who falls in love with Tom Hanks, but we could also point to My Stepmother is an Alien, Encino Man, or more recently, Elf. And of course, Enchanted also makes us nostalgic for the big budget live action hollywood musical. What with the success of Chicago, Dreamgirls, Hairspray, and Sweeny Todd, I think we can say that the hollywood musical is officially “back,” but the new face of the musical is much more cinematic, and for that matter cynical. Enchanted‘s elaborate production numbers are evocative of the classic Busby Berkely style, where the cinematic techniques are icing on a stagecraft cake. A tremendous amount of cinematic trickery obviously went into Enchanted, but it feels theatrical. As did My Fair Lady. As did The Sound of Music. And so on.
Enchanted isn’t a perfect example of any one of these models. The scenario demands that it be a lot more realistic than most of the Disney cartoons, and as you can see from the picture above, it’s also a lot more sexualized (kind of an odd choice, but whatever). It would be a pretty strange fish-out-of-water movie: those films all trade on awkwardness, with about %90 of the running time devoted to the outsider character doing something bizarre, everyone else getting offended, and the outsider’s friends making up excuses about how the outsider is their cousin from Estooooonia. In Enchanted, people pretty much take the “animated” characters’ behavior in stride, and Patrick Dempsey never bothers making up an explanation. (When his long-term girlfriend finds the princess straddling his chest wearing only a towel, his excuse is “She’s – well, uh, it’s complicated.”) Finally, Enchanted doesn’t have nearly enough songs to be a classic musical, plus, it breaks musical theater rule #1: whenever someone sings, the other characters notice it.
So what kind of film is Enchanted? Well, its an off-kilter hybrid. It’s tremendously fun to watch, not least because of its constant references to other movies. And it makes you feel tremendous affection for certain genres of film without itself being a textbook example of those genres. Does that make it unique? Not so much. There are a lot of films that fit that description. But they’re all gore-fests directed by Quentin Tarantino or Edgar Wright. Enchanted is Kill Bill, Disnified. Or possibly Disney, Kill Billified. And when I think of it that way, I’m a lot less surprised by how much I liked it.
* Here I am using the word literal in the special rhetorical sense, meaning “not literal”