This is the movie that serves as the real genesis for the second Disney renaissance. Granted, the film is about 80% live action, but all of the fundamental tropes that formed the basis for the modern Disney model were essentially pioneered here: the princess who is an active hero rather than a mere love interest, the more realistic relationship writing, the emphasis on upending and even satirizing the earlier Disney conventions.
The film tells the story of a young maiden named Giselle from a cartoon world who falls in love with a Prince and runs afoul of his evil stepmother, who sees Giselle as a threat to her power. This standard-issue fairy-tale plot is utterly upended when the Evil Queen sends Giselle to real-life New York, “where there are no happily ever afters”. There, an embittered divorce attorney named Robert is basically persuaded by his six-year-old daughter Morgan, against his own better judgment, to essentially adopt Giselle, whom he believes to be a crazy woman. As he gradually realizes that she really is a fairy-tale Princess, the two come to understand and learn from each other’s worldview, ultimately leading her to reject her Prince in favor of Robert after saving them from the Queen herself.
Amy Adams is pure delight as Giselle, and Patrick Dempsey has a sufficient depth of quiet sadness in his part to make us pity his cynical pessimism rather than simply seeing him as a jerk. A nice touch is that neither viewpoint is portrayed as the ‘wrong’ one: instead the truth is shown to lie somewhere in the middle. Giselle has to learn that true love is not an automatic process and doesn’t simply happen overnight. Meanwhile, Robert has been so jaded by his own failed marriage and his years of working as a divorce lawyer that he has to be convinced that true love is indeed possible, and that a relationship can endure despite the problems of everyday life. Their relationship is surprisingly believable and nuanced, and they are both ultimately improved as people from knowing each other, which I suppose is as good a definition of “True Love” as any.
James Marsden is an absolute riot as Giselle’s utterly narcissistic and comically oblivious Prince, who follows her to New York and makes a much less smooth transition, shall we say, to adapting to this new world (his first act is to try to do battle with a city bus, believing it to be a dragon). Idina Menzel is extremely likable as Robert’s fiancée at the beginning of the film, who appears to be as no-nonsense and practical as him but secretly yearns for her own fairy-tale ending (even if a last-minute decision to cut her only song means that Menzel never actually gets a chance to sing in the film). Susan Sarandon is spectacular as the sardonic Evil Queen, sarcastically deconstructing every element of the story as she encounters it and generally playing the role of the mocking villainess to the absolute hilt.
Some people saw the film as little more than a retread of the popular fairy-tale parodies that were sparked by the success of Shrek and then run into the ground by the likes of Hoodwinked and Happily N’ever After. But Enchanted is actually a subtly but significantly different kind of commentary on the fairy-tale clichés. By introducing the ‘real world’ and the more grounded and human elements it entails to the mix, it created an effect that was more of a realistic deconstruction of fairy-tale tropes than a satirical parody in the Shrek vein.
This film also served as a glorious return to form for perennial Disney composer Alan Menken. Menken had been the composer of all but two of the top-level classics of the Disney Renaissance of the Nineties, but his last two musicals for Disney (indeed, his last two musicals period) had been immensely disappointing. Hercules was notorious for its generally poor musical components, and Home on the Range was just notorious in general.
Here, Menken provides one of the most varied collections of songs he’s ever delivered, from a savage pastiche of early Disney in “True Love’s Kiss” and “Happy Working Song” to the joyous Reggae of “That’s How You Know”, to the Luther Vandross-esque heartbreaker “So Close”, to the closing Country-Pop anthem “Ever Ever After”, memorably delivered by Carrie Underwood.
This film was an indispensable step in the reinvention of the Disney paradigm in the coming decade, and without it we would likely have never seen the likes of Tangled or Frozen. But even leaving that aside, it is such a delightful and fascinating film that it is well worth seeing and remembering simply for its own sake, and it ranks as one of the finest movie musical of the 2000s.