Looking to Disney for a provocative satire of fairy-tale princess movies is foolish. I knew that going in, but I was hoping, anyway, for some of the pluck of “Petronella” by Jay Williams or “The Long-Nosed Princess” by Priscilla Hallowell—stories I loved as a little girl for the way they applied the magical just-so quality of fables to stories featuring female characters with agency and personality. I wasn’t fundamentally opposed to happy endings or even to princesses; I just couldn’t get interested in girls who only sat there while the boys had all the fun and made all the decisions.
But Enchanted was a disappointment, both to the adult me disgusted with the whole princess culture and to the child me, hidden underneath the cynicism and doubt, hoping for an heir to Petronella and long-nosed Felicity. The movie makes feints in their direction. It lightly tweaks a few conventions and moralizes that after the whole love-at-first-sight thing, you might spend a while getting to know your Twoo Wuv, but all that is just filigree over a story that, at its core, is indistinguishable from those of the movies it teases: just another passive heroine, another lifeless romance.
Enchanted begins in an animated kingdom where evil Queen Narissa (Susan Sarandon) is doing all in her power to prevent her stepson, Prince Edward (James Marsden), from finding and marrying his princess and ascending to Narissa’s throne. But of course Edward does find the beautiful, sunny Giselle (Amy Adams). They plan to marry the next day, but before they can, Narissa pushes the girl into a magical black hole that takes her to a land “without Happy Ever Afters”: real-world New York City. There Giselle is a babe among wolves, but she stumbles upon Robert (Patrick Dempsey), a divorced single father, who takes pity on her (his young daughter Morgan’s infatuation with the pretty, pretty princess doesn’t hurt) and tries to help her find her prince.
As much as Enchanted annoyed me, I have to admit that the actors save it from being completely obnoxious. Marsden has the broadest role, and he sells it with genial buffoonery. Dempsey does his best to give Robert emotional depth, and in some scenes he succeeds. And Adams is, well, enchanting. Her Giselle is naïve and bubbly, yes, but also genuinely warm, someone who isn’t so much acting sweet as truly being a caring, openhearted person. I didn’t believe for a moment that Robert would have any interest in her as a partner, but as a playmate for Morgan, she’s a doll (pun half intended).
Nevertheless Giselle does end up with Robert rather than Prince Edward (technically a spoiler, I suppose, but hardly a surprise).The movie congratulates itself on this: Giselle has learned that a real, grown-up relationship requires more of a foundation than a single duet, and that’s all well and good, of course, except that Giselle never actually chooses Robert over Edward. She never summons the courage to reject her animated prince or make herself vulnerable to real-world rejection. The choice is made for her while she’s unconscious. Unconscious! Screenwriter Bill Kelly might as well have taken direction from Sleeping Beauty.
That regressive exercise in feminine passivity might lead one to believe that Enchanted is not, in fact, the charmingly contemporary fairy tale the ads would have you believe. But that would be too quick a judgment, for the movie’s outrageous celebration of rampant commercialism is very contemporary. Yes, Enchanted spurns the resourceful fairy godmother for a more modern savior. Who needs a fairy godmother when you have Daddy’s platinum credit card? Bravo!
Perhaps I would have felt differently had any of this been satiric, but the toothless Enchanted ignores the fundamental problems of traditional fairy tales in favor of gently mocking irrelevant details. It’s cute, I guess, that Giselle must make do with pigeons, rats, and cockroaches to tidy when she finds herself far from her familiar woodland friends, but the scene hasn’t any point beyond that simple gag. Kelly gets some mileage out of the fish-out-of-water scenario, but his treatment of the clash between fantasy and reality is so slipshod and erratic that it provides more frustration than amusement. I still don’t understand why New Yorkers react to Giselle with indifference, confusion, and hostility when she pops up in Times Square yet gleefully join her big musical extravaganza in Central Park.
The final straw comes in the Happily Even After montage when we see that Giselle has opened up a pretty, pretty princess shop for little girls—not unlike Disney World’s princess offerings, I’m sure. That brief scene is a shameless marketing ploy, absorbing Giselle into the lucrative Disney Princess franchise and underlining just how unthreatening and synthetic she is. I never should expected more, but I was still dismayed to realize that Giselle doesn’t belong alongside the spirited heroines of my favorite childhood stories. Despite the cheeky story elements and appealing actress, Giselle’s true sisters are docile Snow White, dimwitted Ariel, and comatose Aurora.