“Enchanted” more than lives up to its title. A full-blown musical that commutes between Disney’s patented cartoon universe and the “real” world with cleverness and grace, this splashy production reminds one of nothing in the Disney canon so much as “Mary Poppins,” not least due to the “star is born” aura that surrounds Amy Adams here, just as it did Julie Andrews 43 years ago. Comparison between the two films will certainly extend to their popularity, as the new one will please nearly all audiences all the time on its flight to the place where B.O. dreams come true.
The central conceit of Bill Kelly’s nifty script is to toss Disney’s trustiest fairy tale characters — the sweet-as-sugar princess, the straight-arrow prince, the evil queen and a menagerie of affectionately frisky critters — from their bucolic natural setting onto the streets of Manhattan and take it from there. This being “New” York, the characters aren’t in danger of being plunked down in the middle of “Mean Streets” or “Across 110th Street”; indeed, when they pop out of a manhole in the middle of the theater district, accoutered in flouncy medieval garb, it’s a wonder the many gawking bystanders don’t just assume they’re refugees from a Disney Broadway production, which “Enchanted” is sure to become down the line.
Opening 12 minutes, which are delightfully animated in vintage hand-drawn style, set the tone of loving send-up by packing in as many of the old Disney cliches as possible. In Andalasia, a land clearly afflicted by severe animal over-population, the ditzily innocent Giselle sings of the “True Love’s Kiss” she expects to receive from the soon-to-arrive Prince Edward, son of Queen Narissa. Unwilling to be dethroned if Edward marries, Narissa transforms herself into a dreadful old crone and pushes Giselle down a well, sending her to a place “where there are no happily-ever-afters.”
Confronting the noise and concrete and congestion of Manhattan, wide-eyed Giselle (Adams) arrives clueless, not to mention penniless. Dithering around town in an absurdly hooped wedding dress, she winds up rain soaked in the Bowery, where she attracts the attention of 6-year-old Morgan (Rachel Covey). Latter’s divorced dad Robert (Patrick Dempsey), a divorce lawyer himself, rescues the damsel in distress and lets her spend the night at their apartment, albeit with misgivings, as he’s about to ask his g.f. Nancy (Idina Menzel) to marry him.
As the gee-whiz, fish-out-of-water reactions of an animation-world alien can’t sustain interest for too long, pic quickly shows what it’s got up its sleeve in a hilarious variation on “Whistle While You Work” called “Happy Working Song.” Confronting the horrible mess of Robert’s domicile in the morning, Giselle summons the city’s animals to help her tidy it up, and the place is soon jammed with wonderfully rendered CGI pigeons, rats, mice and cockroaches, which enthusiastically whip the place into shape.
In short order, vainglorious Prince Edward (James Marsden) arrives in Manhattan, sword in hand, to rescue his beloved, followed by Nathaniel (Timothy Spall), the queen’s portly factotum, who comically bungles any number of attempts to eliminate Giselle once and for all. Another Andalasian transplant is a hyperactive chipmunk who keeps trying, and failing, to communicate to Edward what he ought to do.
As Giselle initially persists in speaking in storybook homilies about her prince and true love, it’s no wonder Robert remarks, “It’s like you escaped from a Hallmark card.” Despite the adversity of her situation, it’s all sweetness and light to her until Robert provokes her by insisting no fairy-tale prince will be coming to rescue her. Roused to anger for the first time in her life, Giselle begins to become a real, more dimensional person, a development soon complicated by the stirring of feelings between her and Robert.
While Kelly’s script and Kevin Lima’s direction may not rep the last word in brilliance, the creative forces behind the film are uniformly alert, cheeky and smart in the ways of popular entertainment. More than Disney’s strictly animated product, “Enchanted,” in the manner of the vast majority of Hollywood films made until the ’60s, is a film aimed at the entire population — niches be damned. It simply aims to please, without pandering, without vulgarity, without sops to pop-culture fads, and to pull this off today is no small feat.
But even with all the other pieces in place — the knowing craftsmanship, Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz’s engaging songs (there are five original tunes), the sharp animation, the spiffy Gotham locations and a couple outrageously unexpected animal gags — the picture wouldn’t be what it is without Adams. Just as Andrews arrived at just the right time for “Mary Poppins” and “The Sound of Music,” so has Adams turned up almost out of nowhere (her wonderful work in “Junebug” notwithstanding) to be crowned the fairest in the land. (In a nice if fleeting touch, Andrews was recruited to provide brief opening and closing narration.)
With the evident instincts of a born musical-comedy performer and a lovely voice to back them up, the red-haired, bright-eyed Adams proves more charming the more disheveled she becomes, and exercises comic gifts in the process that call to mind such immortals as Carole Lombard and Lucille Ball. An utterly convincing spokeswoman for innocence, her Giselle for a long time brooks no dissent from her innately optimistic worldview, so when she blossoms into a real woman, if such she can be called, the opening of emotional dimensions is palpable. Enchanting is the word.
Prominently back on the bigscreen again due to his success in TV’s “Grey’s Anatomy,” Dempsey does a nice, understated job as a harried single dad you don’t mind pulling for. Marsden, who, like Adams, boasts a startlingly good singing voice, has and imparts a grand time as the self-regarding prince, while Susan Sarandon turns up in fully cranked Cruella de Vil mode when the queen comes to New York herself to dispatch Giselle once and for all; Rick Baker’s old-hag makeup for her climactic disguise is flat-out great.
The skillfully produced and mounted picture makes massive use of Manhattan as a glorious backdrop; it may be a touristic view of the city, but this is perhaps fitting, given that it’s about visitors. The extensive scenes involving countless cars and extras must have tied up traffic for days, and the logistics surrounding other scenes on the Brooklyn Bridge, the Upper West Side, Columbus Circle and elsewhere had to have been nearly as daunting.
Most striking, however, is a prolonged production number, “That’s How You Know,” that moves through many sections of Central Park and employs dozens or more musicians, dancers and backgrounders. It’s hard to think of a traditional musical number done on such a scale since the ’60s, so it’s startling to behold. Like the rest of the film, the sequence reaches far back into the past for its inspiration and manages to make it feel like something new again.