Sunday, November 28, 2010

Enchanted (2007)

By Cinema Muse

Ten years after they made their first film questioning the princess archetype, Disney would revisit these problems with their hilarious parody Enchanted. I have to hand it to Disney for making a film that satirizes its bread-and-butter, especially when it was the first traditionally animated feature (or at least partially so) they'd produced in the better part of a decade. Of course admitting that their starry-eyed optimistic take on life is wrong would be shooting themselves in the foot, but they do a good job mocking the over-the-top nature of some of their stories anyway.

Our protagonist Giselle is the typical sweet, mindless Disney princess of the pre-Renaissance era who looks only for her handsome prince to come and take her to her happily ever after. She gets her wish by literally falling into the lap of a prince, who vows to marry her in the morning. Before this can happen, however, the prince's evil stepmother contrives to send Giselle to another world where there are no "happily ever afters," thus preventing the prince from ascending to the throne upon his marriage. The whole sequence is such a clever amalgamation of iconic scenes from other Disney movies, especially the three original princess films, and it's so delightfully tongue-in-cheek that I can't help dissolving into  giggles every time I see it.

Of course the dismal land of "no happily ever afters" is our own sweet reality, and Giselle drops right into the middle of the particularly inhospitable New York City. Very quickly she learns that her particular skill sets--singing, sewing, etc--will not get her far in the Asphalt Jungle. Again displaying great fortune, she happens to run into a kindly man named Robert whose young daughter is convinced that Giselle is a real princess right out of her storybooks, something Robert emphatically refuses to believe.

One essential problem with the Disney princess character becomes abundantly clear when Giselle meets Robert. After he catches her when she falls off a billboard, she tells him her story, in which she mentions getting to New York by falling down a well. Catching the irony, Robert asks her, "Is this a habit of yours, falling off things?" Giselle responds, "Well, usually someone catches me." Giselle, you see, relies on other people to get her out of scrapes instead of learning to take care of herself. That kind of attitude is a flatly unhealthy. Of course there's nothing wrong with having your friends help you out in a pinch, but that's no excuse for staying helpless yourself. After all, you can never tell when you'll be alone and need to get by on your own abilities. You can't always count on even the best of friends being there for you every time. I'm sorry for spelling out something that should be completely self-evident like this, but it needs to be said for the sake of rhetoric. Because it's the rightly-noted problem with the old school Disney Princesses.

Most of the film is taken up in the iconoclast between Robert's hard-nose practicality and Giselle's resilient idealism. Like most studies of this nature, Enchanted concludes that the best road is somewhere in the middle, but just how close to each side is this happy mean? I don't think this movie clearly states where exactly that mean lies, but the thesis seems to be that it's in different places for different people. In fact the conclusion may simply be to avoid the extremes personified by Robert and Giselle in the first place. I say this because Robert's streetwise ways are a great help to the inexperience of Giselle, and so is her optimism for him when he begins to despair. In that sense their personalities greatly complement each other.

Giselle's two big character moments as a princess are when she asks Prince Edward to take her on a date before they get married and when she scales the skyscraper to rescue Robert. Obviously the first part is important because she realizes that she needs to get to know the man she loves before she marries him, and thus base their relationship in more than just emotions. The second scene is equally important, however, because it shows that she's learned to continue fighting even when things look bleak. Earlier in the film when Giselle realizes that she cannot be with Robert, her despair leads her to fall prey to the evil queen's poison apple, which she tells Giselle will make her forget her heartache. Becoming cynical or giving up on true love, therefore, should not be our answer when we realize that the path of true love is a daunting obstacle course with many dead ends.

That brings us to the sad reality at which this movie hints, namely that the reason characters like Robert and his fiance Nancy are such jaded individuals is because they became disenchanted with the Disney fairytale mentality. In Robert's case we learn from his backstory that his first wife left him shortly after their daughter's birth, destroying his illusion of true love. Nancy too seems to yearn for a fairytale life, but she remains ready to believe the worst of the man she loves the first time she finds him in a compromising situation. Finally Giselle falls victim to this disenchantment, and in her case it nearly proves fatal. And I can't help thinking that the Disney idealism is what created this mess in the first place, since without that kind of idealization of romance, those characters would not experience a disconnect with reality in the first place. Which leaves me to wonder if this whole project isn't just Disney's way of making amends for a problem that they themselves create and perpetuate.

In the end, though, our belief in true love is affirmed, and the film turns out to be a pure joy to watch. The score by Alan Menken is memorable with tongue-in-cheek moments, euphonious melodies, and just enough sincerity to win us over in the end. The plot is well-crafted--except I can't help thinking that it would be more efficient to have Prince Edward murdered than trying to kill any girl he falls for--and the characters believable except for the cookie-cutter villain. Just when we all thought Disney was dead, it's so pleasant to find that you can teach an old mouse new tricks.

**Please check out Cinema Muse's blog of classic Hollywood and book adaptation reviews, Seeing Sepia

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