“Disney,” how can we loathe thee? Let us count the ways. The brand has watered down numerous folktales, once vivid and far more entertaining, while now many take Disney’s versions as holy writ. It’s easy to think of Walt foremost as an egomaniac – the kind of guy who, according to legend, would fire employees for denouncing his golden child, Mickey. (Even famed speculative writer Harlan Ellison was canned from Disney for joking on Mickey and Donald’s expense.) The serious devotion attributed to everything Disney can make it all the more ridiculous.
The brand name inspired only cynicism in me until about a year ago, when I had a chance to view “Snow White” (1937) on the big screen. As the classic hand-drawn cells rolled, I thought of computerized animation and its cold, precise lines. Our newest animated films seem deadened next to this classic work, whose scenes radiate with life as numerous hand-drawn cells animate the screen. To watch this film is to witness the birth of what was a new art form: we can see how the Soviet innovator Sergei Eisenstein could praise the work as a landmark of cinema.
So the devotees have a point, after all. And they are so strong in number that Disney has served a reworked version of its product. The hybrid animated/live-action pic “Enchanted” both tributes Disney and playfully comments on its tradition. By sending a princess into modern day New York, fans get their archetypes and have their pop-sensibility too.
As the movie opens with animation, a stock Disney maiden named Giselle meets her prince charming, Edward. Soon after, his wicked stepmother, Queen Narissa, shoves Giselle down a well that magically thrusts her into downtown Manhattan. (The Queen will lose her throne should her stepson marry). As Giselle, now a live-action Amy Adams, wanders in an oversized dress, we feel the banality of numerous fish-out-of-water setups. Think of “Splash,” which took the turn-of-phrase literally – Giselle, emoting a Disney princess in crowded streets, is just as alien as Daryl Hannah’s mermaid. While Edward (an effectively goofy James Marsden) soon comes through the portal to save her, Giselle meets Robert (Patrick Dempsey), who just so happens to have a daughter in need of a good mommy. And there’s no guessing what the ending will reveal (though it will probably surprise the kiddies).
As self-flattering as the premise may sound, “Enchanted” does a lot to overcome it. Adams finds a fairy-tale cadence and a charm that minimizes her character’s syrupy nature. She sings and graces along like a performer trained for the stage. Her mishaps make for a number of in-jokes which should work for even those not so keen on Disney. Dempsey is basically along for the ride, but does well to maintain credibility in a banal role. (His job as a divorce lawyer seems to have been tossed in during a last-minute rewrite.)
Giselle eventually turns modern as she experiences the real world (hence the obvious climax to come). She gets angry for the first time and begins to see things with more perception, like a grown woman who’s finally maturing. (Before she goes mod, Giselle, like many Disney maidens, is a warped male fantasy: a gullible beauty who exists to find a man.) Disney comments on its own tradition’s artificiality to push a hohum sentiment. Luckily for those behind the film, Adams captures the classic element while working to realize a forgettable message.
But for the record, she has been granted a spot-on number with a calypso group in Central Park. The kids and adults can dig this one, though adults may be stricken with Disney deja vu by this point.