Thursday 8 May 2008

Enchanted (2007)

Thursday 8 May 2008
Director: Kevin Lima
Writer: Bill Kelly

Cast: Amy Adams (Giselle), Patrick Dempsey (Robert Philip), James Marsden (Prince Edward), Timothy Spall (Nathaniel), Rachel Covey (Morgan Philip), Susan Sarandon (Queen Narissa), Idina Menzel (Nancy), Jeff Bennett (Pip, voice) & Kevin Lima (Pip, performance)

A cartoon woman is sent to the real world by a wicked Queen -- where she has to contend with a more cynical reality, and reassess her true love...

There's a fine tradition of "why-didn't-somebody-think-of-this-before?" movies; films that have a brilliant yet obvious premise, in retrospect. Groundhog Day (1994) is perhaps the best example. Well, add Enchanted to the list: a family adventure about an animated Disney princess who's transformed into flesh after she's sent to the real world by an evil queen. Hear that thudding noise? It's the sound of a million people smacking their foreheads in simultaneous anguish...

After an opening narrated by Mary Poppins' Julie Andrews (the first of many, many in-jokes for Disney aficionados*), we're treated to a typically zippy and preposterous fairy tale romance between Giselle and dashing Prince Edward in the forests of Andalasia. They're the kind of wholesomely grinning do-gooders who only exist in cartoons; eternally optimistic, naïve, good-hearted and able to sing to each other without every discussing the lyrics beforehand.

Of course, Edward's evil mother Queen Narissa isn't happy about her handsome son marrying Giselle, so she pushes the betrothed girl down a magic portal – sending her to a "real world" where there are "no happily ever afters". Giselle clambers out of a New York City sewer, transformed into the alluring shape of Amy Adams. It's a great fish-out-of-water scenario, as the innocent and sweet-natured Giselle tries to find her way around this alien concrete jungle, astonished when a homeless drunk tries to snatch her tiara, having to avoid honking traffic, being swept along by bustling commuters, etc.

Eventually, Giselle is taken in by handsome divorce lawyer Robert Philip (Grey's Anatomy's Patrick Dempsey), after his fairy-tale obsessed daughter Morgan (Rachel Covey) becomes convinced Giselle is a real princess in need of help. Needless to say, the romantic aspect is provided by Robert gradually succumbing to Giselle's winsome nature, after initially convincing himself she must be mentally ill.

Matters are complicated by the arrival in NYC of Giselle's talking chipmunk friend Pip (who becomes mute CGI in the real world); her egotistical prince charming Edward (James Marsden) on a brave rescue mission; Queen Narissa's ratty henchman Nathaniel (Timothy Spall), who arrives to kill Giselle with a poison apple; and the fact Robert is already engaged to likeable Nancy (Idina Menzel).

The premise is high-concept brilliance, but it's the actors who really make it fly. Adams has been around for almost a decade now, but this should prove to be her "breakthrough" (not her Oscar nod for Junebug.) She's pitch-perfect as a beautiful, upbeat, optimistic princess-to-be. Essentially Snow White brought to life, scenes like her magically orchestrating wildlife to help clean Robert's messy apartment (whilst whistling a cheery song) leave you with a daft grin. It might stretch plausibility when Giselle likewise inspires bystanders in Central Park to launch into a song-and-dance routine, but it's still entertaining – and that's what matters. Adams finds the heart of the character and Giselle's maturation from one-dimensional cartoon to three-dimensional human being is a delight to watch.

I'm not very familiar with Patrick Dempsey, but he's also very good as the down-to-earth lawyer who has to burst Giselle's bubble of virtuousness, before eventually coming to believe in the power of a fairy-tale ending. It could have been a cynical, sarcastic and smarmy performance, but Dempsey rises above all that. In a story where the road to true love means ditching two fiancée's in the process, Dempsey has decent material to work with, and the inclusion of a non-irritating child actress as his daughter helps too.

James Marsden (emerging from the shadow of X-Men; see Hairspray) is excellent as the dashing, dim-witted Prince Edward. His matinee idol good-looks give him a real Disney-cartoon splendour and swagger, so you believe he's been ripped from animation. His backhanded compliments to "peasants", coupled with his general bumbling around the Big Apple in pursuit of Giselle, is amusing and endearing.

Timothy Spall is fine as the henchman, playing on his rodent-like looks and aptitude for kid-friendly villainy (see Harry Potter). The only big disappointment performance-wise comes from Susan Sarandon, the eventual fleshy embodiment of Queen Narissa. She arrives late in the story, doesn’t get much to do, does it with little flare, fails to deliver any chills, and is quickly transformed into a big CGI dragon to compensate. Sarandon should have been a safe bet as an evil Queen, but she's out-performed by the hand-drawn version of her character.

It's not all sweetness and light, though. The film does begin to crawl in the middle (for a short while), before the unexpectedly FX-laden finale re-energizes things, while you sense more could have been done with the excellent premise. The humour is also gently amusing at best, with none of the post-modern punch seen in Shrek, and an absence of big belly-laughs.

Kids will eat it up, parents will chuckle along in amusement, but nobody's going to be giggling at memories of Enchanted days later. It's a bit of a shame the gags aren't quite there, as everything else fizzes remarkably well and it will have you wondering why Amy Adams didn't make a splash sooner. She's one to watch.

Walt Disney Pictures
Budget: $85 million
107 minutes

PICTURE: 1.85:1 | SOUND: DD5.1 / SDDS

* The nicest touch is how various Disney actresses appear in the film: Paige O'Hara (Belle in Beauty & The Beast) is a soap opera character, Jodi Benson (Ariel in The Little Mermaid) plays Robert's secretary, Judy Kuhn (Pocahontas) is a pregnant woman, and Julie Andrews (Mary Poppins) narrates.