Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Film Review: Enchanted

I love Disney films. I love them unashamedly, unabashedly and un-ironically; I spent most, if not the entirety, of my childhood making my way through the Disney back catalogue and forcing my parents to take me to see every new release. Taking that into account, it's somewhat surprising that it has taken me this long to see 'Enchanted', Disney's own post-modern take on their illustrious past. What's less surprising is that I absolutely loved it.

The story is typical Disney fare and the opening ten minutes or so are very much evocative of the style of the hand-drawn films that Disney did so very well in its Golden Age and the Renaissance of the 80's and 90's; as the camera moves in through the window of the Walt Disney castle, towards a book atop a plinth, we are shown the story of a young girl named Giselle (Amy Adams) who lives in a tree with her animal friends and spends her days singing, making dresses and waiting to meet her dream man and experience true love's kiss. At the same time, the valiant Prince Edward (James Marsden) and his squire Nathaniel (Timothy Spall) are in the forest hunting ogres when they chance upon Giselle singing. A quick rescue later, and it seems like Giselle and Edward are bound for their happily ever after. However, the course of true love never runs smooth, and Edward's stepmother, wicked, of course (Susan Sarandon) tricks Giselle into falling down an enchanted well. When she awakens, Giselle climbs out of a manhole in New York, meets a cynical divorce lawyer (Patrick Dempsey) and the fun really begins.

One of the reasons why Enchanted works so very well is that it manages to be two things at once; on the one hand, it is a post-modern fairy tale in the vein of The Princess Bride or Shrek, offering up sly nods to the audience, particularly those who are well-versed in Disney lore and catch the many references to films of old, about the conventions of fairytales by, for example, having Giselle sing a ''Happy Working Song'' to clean up a house and, instead of being assisted by cute, woodland animals, who are rather scarce in New York, being helped by pigeons, rats and cockroaches. Incidentally, one of my favourite moments in the film has these cockroaches take part in an homage to Songs of The South, an under-rated, if terribly racist, film. However, it is also a real, genuine story about a princess done in a style beloved by so many, complete with evil witches, talking animals and catchy musical numbers. It would seem that these two aspects of the film would be at odds with each other but they really do manage to gel superbly, such as in the performance of 'That's How You Know' in Central Park where, despite the asides made by Dempsey about how weird the whole practice is, you can't help but find yourself being swept up by the sheer joy of seeing a huge crowd of people take part in a massive song and dance number.

Ultimately, what sets Enchanted apart from a lot of the films that have tried to do the same thing and failed (Happily N'Ever After, Hoodwinked) is that there is a classiness to it; director Kevin Lima, a Disney veteran who has been involved in several of their other classics, and Enchanted is a classic, brings a technical ability to the film which is quite refreshing and there's a real sense that a lot of care and attention has gone into it. It's clear that everyone involved haa a real reverence for the material and, even as they are poking fun at themselves, they never lose sight of the fact that what made the films they reference classics is that there was a real heart to them, and they've also given Enchanted a heart that is impossible to resist.

Much of this heart can be attributed to Amy Adams' central performance as Giselle. Adams has to really carry off the conceit that she is a fairytale princess brought to life, complete with overly mannered delivery, complete lack of irony or sarcasm, and an utterly charming belief in true love and happily ever afters. She also looks stunning, which helps when playing a princess (okay, so she's someone who, through marriage, will become a princess but that takes a lot longer to type). It's a really sweet, funny and charming performance that really adds to the verisimilitude of the film; it is just how you would imagine life would be if Snow White, Cinderella or Ariel stepped off the screen and into our world.

The rest of the cast, both as their animated and real selves, are very good; James Marsden as deliciously smarmy and self-centred as Prince Edward, Susan Sarandon is deliciously wicked and malevolent as the stepmother, though she's not quite as impressive once she arrives in the Big Apple, and Patrick Dempsey provides a solid romantic lead. The best of the supporting cast, though, is Timothy Spall as Nathaniel. As the character with conflicting loyalties, he's got the richest material to play with and he has a blast with it. He's also quite sympathetic and when he asks Prince Edwards whether or not he likes himself, hoping to get a look into his own life based on the Prince's answer, I couldn't help but feel really sorry for him. Then again, as with my affection for his performance in Sweeney Todd, this might just be because I think he's a wonderful actor, though I suspect it is just because he is that good.

There are a few minor quibbles with the film; the opening sequence, whilst setting the film up perfectly, is a tad too twee for my tastes. Of course, that's the point of it, illustrating as it does the world that Giselle comes from and allowing for a contrast with the real world, but even so it does seem like a bit too much. Furthermore, the ending feels a tad rushed and it doesn't quite provide the satisfaction that a big dragon fight should do. Then again, the ending is a very obvious nod to Sleeping Beauty, the ending of which is also quite rushed and unsatisfactory, in my opinion, so it’s not anything to complain about, really.

To be honest, I struggled to come up with even those criticisms; there's almost nothing not to like in Enchanted, unless you don't like Disney films, but why would you think about going to see it if you didn't? It's sheer loveliness in a big dress and a tiara and it's just great fun from beginning to end.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go dig out all those old Disney VHSs I have and watch a few. Hmm, Beauty and The Beast, The Little Mermaid, or Aladdin...