“Forget about happily ever after; it doesn’t exist.”
Enchanted opens as its requisite cartoon Disney princess heroine, Giselle, falls in love with a random prince who is out hunting trolls. She agrees to marry him after a swift duet (“True Love’s Kiss”), but when she turns up at the castle his Evil Wicked Stepmother pushes her down a well, to a place “where there are no happy endings”, as the EWS explains with a cackle.
Giselle falls, and falls, and ends up –
– in modern-day New York, as a live-action character played by Amy Adams.
It’s a clever conceit; a killer conceit, in fact. Giselle the Disney princess, all True Love and ridiculous dresses and exaggerated floaty gestures, wandering around New York, where the streets are mean and the crowds are huge and True Love is, exactly, a fairytale? Genius.
It’s hard not to read it as a kind of metatext on what we think of as A Disney Film. Look how the princess narrative works in real life, the film says. Look how it is received. It’s no accident that Giselle’s rescuers in New York (of course she has rescuers, she can’t do anything for herself, she’s a goddamn princess) are a father and his motherless child: the impressionable Morgan is Giselle’s (by extension, Disney’s) target audience. Enchanted, we might say, is a study in reception.
This would be interesting if the conclusions the film actually comes to weren’t so reactionary.
Enchanted‘s problem, to a certain extent, is that it begins as self-aware parody and ends as po-faced melodrama. The early scenes in New York draw attention to themselves as thoroughly ridiculous: Giselle making a dress out of curtains, Sound of Music-style; Giselle tidying up Morgan and her divorce lawyer father Robert’s apartment with the help of rats, pigeons and cockroaches, the nearest thing New York has to forest friends; Giselle dancing through Central Park singing the (very catchy) “How Does She Know” to the accompaniment of some random busking reggae band. “Do you know her?” says Robert to the random busking reggae band after they join in with Giselle, because he is a New Yorker and therefore unable to participate in the gloriousness of spontaneous Disney singing. But by the end of the film we’re entering full-on Grimm-brothers fairytale mode: the poisoned apple, the ball, the creepy kissing-a-sleeping-stranger routine (’cause True Love doesn’t need consent. Fuck off, Disney). Barring the sleep-kissing, I’m generally very onboard with those kinds of fairytale resonances, if they’re done well; but Enchanted just can’t decide whether we ought to laugh at or buy into its metatext. At some point, Giselle morphs from ridiculous anachronism to serious heroine, from “out of place” to “breath of fresh air”; New York cynicism, meanwhile, slides from “appropriate response” to “closed-minded and unsentimental”.
There’s also (and herein lies my main problem with the film) some very skeevy subtext going on with Morgan’s relationship with Giselle. Morgan, being Disney’s Target Audience, is, hah, enchanted by this princess who floats into her life, and the earnestness of her admiration, which we’re clearly supposed to identify with, somewhat undermines the film’s overt attempts to ironise Giselle. The problem, really, is that Robert Doesn’t Understand his daughter’s need for fairytale and magic, and the pragmatism he displays in raising her (which the film, predictably, codes as staid and toxic cynicism) is unfortunately aligned with feminism. At one point, Robert gives Morgan a book about famous real-life women: “You’re going to be like these women one day.” The film sees nothing wrong with the fact that Morgan wants instead to be like Giselle, which is to say obsessed with cleaning (“Happy Working Song”), utterly impractical and defined mainly by her clothes. And this is why the film’s slide from parody to melodrama is problematic: if Giselle is a breath of fresh air in a city full of cynicism, then by extension traditional gender roles are a breath of fresh air in a world that has got all these silly ideas about women’s rights from somewhere which is NOT DISNEY.
There’s more. The overt message of the film is “you shouldn’t marry someone after only one day, even if he is very attractive and saved you from a troll”.
Only, you know, that’s exactly what Giselle ends up doing. The fact that he is a divorced divorce lawyer and not a prince, and that they have known each other for two days instead of one, is superficial detail. Giselle leaves her cartoon home, probably forever, for a man she’s known for two days. And Robert’s girlfriend Nancy (who he’s been seeing for five years, by the way, and who gets dumped the moment Giselle appears, except it’s OK because True Love) leaves her city home, again probably for ever, to go live with a cartoon prince whom she has known for literally about four hours. Because this independent, articulate New Yorker with a successful job in a difficult industry (she’s actually a fashion designer, seriously why are all these women obsessed with clothes?) can’t be on her own for more than a day?
That’s fucking bullshit, Disney, and you know it.
Enchanted is a film caught between two impulses: the misogyny of conservative and therefore commercially reassuring narratives like Snow White and Cinderella, and the potentially lucrative cultural move towards feminism addressed more fully if not unproblematically in later films like Frozen and Brave. The metatextual conceit of the film would have been an excellent medium for the latter impulse, but it’s just not sure enough of itself to carry through. Which is a shame, really, because, gender politics aside, it’s quite a lot of fun to watch.