Monday, November 26, 2007

Cinematographicus: "Enchanted" (2007)

"Enchanted" is a story about fairy tale characters popping up out of a manhole in Times Square. This movie teaches us several important truths:
1. A lawyer always beats a prince.
2. Never trust a bumbling manservant.
3. Susan Sarandon is an evil dragon-witch.

The story begins with Giselle, a beautiful peasant girl who lives in the magical Kingdom of Andalasia, a saccharine world of gloriously flat animation (real animation, not CGI) where she spends her days singing arpeggios to summon woodland friends of all species to help her perform important household tasks such as cleaning, sewing, and swooning over her imaginary true love. One day she meets Edward the Prince (who is neither black nor of Wales) and they decide on sight to get married the next day. Unfortunately, that land is ruled by Edward's wicked stepmother who won't allow the marriage because it will take away her crown.

So The evil queen, Narissa, turns herself into a old hag and pushes Giselle down a magic wishing well that drops her underneath a manhole in Times square, which is in the live action world. Giselle waits for Edward to rescue her and meets a handsome lawyer, Robert, with a 6-year-old daughter, Morgan, who loves princesses. Eventually Edward figures out how to jump down the well and with his bumbling manservant (secretly in league with Queen Narissa) sets off after Giselle.

Enchanted's first and most obvious strength is its good-natured spoofing of the stereotypes of the Disney pantheon. Giselle is an amalgam of Aurora with hints of Ariel and Snow White. Narissa is a recast of Maleficent with a dash of Ursula thrown in. Prince Edward is a more airheaded version of Prince Philip, while his bumbling manservant, Nathaniel, is a more British, less French version of Gaston's bumbling sidekick, Lefou.

The film opens playing the satire note hard. Giselle's incongruity with New York gets the most emphasis. Her constant breaking into song, her clueless naivete, and her wide-eyed faith in true love are cast in stark relief to New York to point out and poke fun at these perennial staples of Disney stories. The satire hits a sublime high note of absurdity when Giselle sings her arpeggios to summon pigeons, rats, mice, and cockroaches to help her tidy up in a brilliant spoof on "Whistle while You Work." Amy Adams pulls it off so well, that you are almost convinced that roaches and rats are just as friendly as the animated chipmunks and rabbits. Just as the musical number finishes up, a pigeon suddenly eats one of the roaches in a hilarious reminder that this is New York, not Anadalasia.

After this strongly ironic opening, however, the satire takes a back seat and the love story begins playing the lead. While Giselle walks through Central park she begins giving love advice to Robert in song. She is joined by a passing calypso band and a few other street musicians, and eventually everyone in the park gets into the act, with a large scale song-and-dance number. The number is reminiscent of "The Little Mermaid" with it's Caribbean beat, but the hilarity of rats and roaches is missing it is almost a little too straightforward. The irony is almost not there.

This shift in irony leads NYT's Manohla Dargis to conclude that the film "disappoints." I disagree. While the satire was hilarious and spectacularly pulled off, to keep it up at that pace would have ultimately been unsustainable. Unless, perhaps, you have Eric Idle working on the script, a spoof can only work as long as it follows the main outline of the story it spoofs. Dargis' conclusion is also founded, I think, on a misunderstanding of the film's intended audience. While it is tempting to see this as a satire for adults, let's not forget that this is a Disney movie about a princess, and that one of the main protagonists is 6-year-old girl.

Another strength is that "Enchanted" is well-cast. Amy Adams steals the show with her completely and unbelievably straight-faced performance as Giselle. But only slightly less impressive is James Marsden in an almost Cary Elwes-esque performance as Prince Edward. Marsden is probably most well known for playing Cyclops in the X-Men movies, but he also notably played John Wilkes Booth, the original model/actor in "Zoolander" (2001). Both Adams and Marsden manage the difficult task of acting a part that drips with irony without giving the slightest hint that the character is anything but 100% sincere (like Marsden's line: "I don't know what melodramatic is."). Second rate heartthrob Patrick Dempsey does passably as Robert. Susan Sarandon is a convincing witch and pulls the role off well, other than a poorly executed tongue movement. I think it was supposed to be a serpentine flitting, a foreshadow of her later transformation into a dragon, but it came across more like a canine tail wag in her mouth.

The costuming was for the most part well-done. Particularly nice were the impossibly huge shoulders on both Giselle's improbably big wedding dress and Edward's gored princely tunic. This highlighted the ridiculousness of these characters. The floppiness of Nathaniel's baggy renaissance garb played well, and Sarandon was Maleficent in live action.

But it was marred by one almost fatal costuming flaw. Toward the end of the movie Giselle needs a dress to go the ball but she cannot find a fairy godmother, so she and Morgan go shopping. At this point, you're set up to see a flawlessly arrayed Giselle looking at the top of her game. Instead, costume designer Mona May delivers a purple crepe-looking thing stretched unflatteringly across Adams' bust line, with a too-long 80s era silver necklace and her hair looking flat both physically and chromatically. The point, I suppose, was to make a contrast with her earlier fairy-tale attire, and to show that she does fit in after all in New York. But the hair flattening was an unfortunate decision that largely stripped Giselle of her whimsical character. And the purple was likewise an unfortunate middle-shade, neither light enough to be pretty nor dark enough to be striking. An ivory, champagne, brown, or even black dress would have clashed less with her light-red hair.

My only other complaint is that there were moments toward the end when Narissa's constant explicit pointing out that this plot is a twist on the normal Disney story grows tedious. Yes, this is a twist, and yes, the whole point of the film is to make a witty meta-fictitious spoof, but wit loses its cleverness when it is made too obvious. It's like having to explain the punch line.

So "Enchanted" is not without blemish, but still, it is worth seeing, if for nothing else, for Adams' and Marsdens' straight-faced irony.

19 comments:

The Shark said...

...(Marsden) also notably played John Wilkes Booth, the original model/actor in "Zoolander" (2001).

THANK YOU! I KNEW I'd seen Booth somewhere before!

"But Lee Harvey wasn't a male model!"
"No- but the two guys on the Grassy Knoll were!" (high five)

Thanks for the review -- I have been curious about "Enchanted." Did you feel it would be worth paying East Coast ticket prices to see it, or should I wait for Redbox?

JKC said...

It's worth more than Redbox. We saw it at a $6 matinee, which was well worth it, I think.

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