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In recent years, the zeitgeist of family entertainment has tended to veer away from such straight-faced fairy tales: commercial darling Pixar Studios has specialized in computer animated other-worlds such as those of Cars and Finding Nemo whilst other features have grown increasingly modern in sensibility: earnestly referential like Shrek and The Princess Diaries, or cheekily humored as in The Pacifier and The Shaggy Dog.
After comparatively disappointing box office returns and lukewarm critical reception on Home on the Range, Treasure Planet and The Emperor’s New Groove, Walt Disney Productions has been faced with a rapidly diminishing ability to rely on theatrical animated features for its bread and butter in family entertainment. Perhaps part of the reason behind this is that they have effectively tapped the well dry of fairy tale princesses in features such as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin which, in spite of being moderately indistinguishable, have been the overwhelming source of past box office successes.
It comes as no surprise then that Disney’s greatest critical and commercial rebound arrived last year in Enchanted, an elegantly blended cocktail of urbane romantic comedies and candy coated fairy tale optimism, the latter of which is seldom seen in these modern times. The film accomplishes this hybrid act by making use of intertextual connections to other fairy tale devices established in and out of the Disney oeuvre while applying a broad range of tones – spanning from facetious to sincere – in order to effectively update fairy tale themes such as true love for the 21st century.
The protagonist of Enchanted is Giselle, a princess of cryptically unstated royalty from the animated land of Andalasia, which effectively stands in for any vaguely European fairy tale kingdom ever featured in previous Disney films where woodland creatures help with the housework, would-be suitors are blessed with square jaws and a magnificent baritone and you can identify the evil queens from the good queens based on the extent to which they resemble a transvestite Tim Curry.
The film begins with a brief storybook-style prelude narrated by Julie Andrews, whom clever ears will recognize as the lovingly acerbic Mary Poppins from the Disney film of the same name. This sequence is evocative of the prelude of Sleeping Beauty, in which a similar storybook device leads in to the birth of Princess Aurora, who Giselle most resembles. Giselle is presented as a bit of a pre-modern hippie who eschews a castle home in favor of a tree-shaped house where her squirrel pal Pip helps her build a make shift effigy of her true love, much like the forest animals in Sleeping Beauty cooperated to give Aurora a dancing partner in the woods.
In mere minutes, the innocently narcissistic Prince Edward rescues Giselle from a troll, and the resulting romantic high leads the two to get engaged. However, his stepmother, the villainous Queen Narissa, who resembles the sorcerous Maleficent of Sleeping Beauty, has no desire of stepping down from power to make room for her stepson’s ascension, and thus throws Giselle into a magic portal to a place where there are “No happily ever afters.”
That place happens to be New York City. Giselle soon makes the acquaintance of Robert Philip, a handsome divorce attorney who happens to be a divorcee himself. Robert is the antithesis of Giselle: His job revolves around the temporality of marriage bonds and he lives in a city where romance is fleeting and cynicism reigns supreme. Over the course of the film, much of the action centers around how the personal ideals of Giselle and Robert differ widely and how they are ultimately reconciled. To a lesser extent, the same is experienced by Edward, who cavalierly chases after Giselle through the portal and is accompanied by Pip as well as Nathaniel, the sycophantic henchman who has eyes for Narissa.
In effect, Giselle experiences a radical adjustment in her ideals (and to a lesser extent, so does Edward). Giselle’s firm belief in true love at first sight becomes sublimated by her experiences in New York. Though she resists Robert’s cynicism, most notably in the form of a widely choreographed musical number called “That’s How You Know” – reminiscent of similar large cast musical numbers from Beauty and the Beast such as “Belle” and “Be Our Guest” – Giselle soon recognizes that love at first sight, despite strength of conviction, is also blind love.
When reunited with Edward, Giselle quickly realizes she may not have appraised his character well, especially after a date that reveals him to be a bit hapless: Despite his good-nature, he is fundamentally egotistical. As for Edward, it’s a welcome development that his naïve egotism is eroded by a comedic bit of self-searching during his quest for Giselle, and this prefaces his eventual romancing of the dryly assertive Nancy during the film’s epilogue.
The film’s climax takes place at penthouse ball, where a discombobulating series of events transpire – Giselle is rendered comatose by a poisoned apple handed to her by a disguised Queen Narissa, Robert realizes his romantic compatibility with Giselle, and Narissa transforms into a furious purple dragon in an attempt at dramatic fury – which are punctuated by Narissa’s family friendly demise while Giselle saves the imperiled Robert, in a casual subversion of the damsel in distress scenario.
Robert and Giselle marry and live happily ever after, even if it is in New York. Despite Giselle’s origins in fairy tale idealism, she ultimately embraces the notion of experience and learned chemistry. This development does not contradict her character essence, but rather, her wide-eyed innocence has merely permitted her transition to an inquisitive approach to romance. On the other hand, Robert, who previously took a calculatingly strategic approach to dating, reconciles his values by developing into a person who welcomes commitment into his romantic equation. Ultimately, Enchanted updates the fairy tale ideal not by rejecting one set of values in favor of another, but by reconciling those ideals with the intrapersonal realities of the modern world.