My four-year-old daughter Anna would love the first 10 minutes or so of Enchanted, an over-the-top animated prologue with a fairy-tale princess named Giselle (Amy Adams) who is Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, the Little Mermaid and Snow White all rolled into one.
To Anna, this would play as straight fairy tale; she wouldn’t recognize the exaggerated sugary sweetness of this opening as a satire of fairy tales in general and the Disney canon in particular. Nor is she old enough to be disappointed that Prince Edward (James Marsden) turns out to be an arrogant, air-headed buffoon. (Hey, at least he has a name — unlike the princes in the original stories.)
When Prince Edward’s evil stepmother (Susan Sarandon) sends poor Giselle from cartoon fairy-land into live-action New York City for the rest of the movie, though, my preschool princess-to-be would become bored. Despite the opening, Enchanted is clearly aimed at tweens, not preschoolers.
Wide-eyed and innocent, Giselle is surprised and disappointed at how mean everyone is to her in the Big Apple. Fortunately, she is spotted by 6-year-old princess wanna-be Morgan (Rachel Covey), whose father Robert (Patrick Dempsey) reluctantly agrees to take the confused woman home to get her out of the rain.
It turns out that the preternatural goodness of fairy-tale princesses can turn to such real-world uses as using animal friends to help clean house (in NYC, means replacing cute woodland animals with pigeons and roaches), sewing clothes out of curtains — and patching up separating couples.
Meanwhile, Prince Edwards’ fairy-tale prince “skills” turn to stabbing at city buses with his sword, talking to TVs as “magic mirrors” and not even knowing that the kiss of true love is what is supposed to wake the princess from her mystical sleep.
Since my own princess wanna-be wasn’t at the theater with me, I did not have to explain to her what a “divorce lawyer” is, or what happened to the little girl’s mommy. Nor did I have to worry that she was wondering what the girlfriend (Idina Menzel) meant when she complains that she never gets to sleep over at the apartment because of the little girl.
Giselle, waiting for her true love to come rescue her, begins to have feelings for Robert. Why? Because he makes her angry for saying that Prince Edward won’t come. She finds this exciting. When her prince finally shows himself and bursts into song for her, she is no longer singing her part of the song.
Where is the real man here? Giselle’s rapport with Morgan and sweet naiveté are endearing; are we supposed to find Edward’s incompetence and arrogance equally so? Do our female hearts swoon when he checks his teeth in his sword, or boorishly flails it about at everything that moves? Why can’t the prince be an idealized example of chivalry, bravery, strength and honor, as Giselle is of sweetness and goodness?
And what of Robert? Divorced from his daughter’s mother, and with his current girlfriend less than satisfied with their relationship, why should he be considered Prince Charming? Giselle even orchestrates a romantic gesture to help Robert to show his love for Rachel, and poor Rachel is so starved for romance that by the end she is willing to take drastic measures.
In the end, all Giselle needs to be the ideal woman in the real world is a skin-tight dress (I liked the big puffy one better) and the discovery of dating. But the ideal man? Is there even such a thing? Prince Edward continues to be consumed with himself, and while I was sure that Robert would have eventually to do something really heroic in order to deserve Giselle’s love, in the end, alas, it is she who must save him. “I guess this makes you the damsel in distress,” quips the wicked stepmother, speaking to Robert.
Sigh. My youngest daughter, like her counterpart in this movie, is still unsophisticated enough to aspire to be the princess, and whatever ideas she may have about as-yet-unknown princes, I imagine she wouldn’t want them to be damsels in distress. I have no problem with princesses being empowered rather than passively waiting to be rescued, but that doesn’t have to mean un-heroing the prince.
Enchanted does have its charming points. We do enjoy Giselle. She’s untainted by cynicism and believes the best in people, and that’s refreshing. She is all things good — her taste in men aside — and people are drawn to her. And I loved the song-and-dance number in Central Park, where the street musicians and other New Yorkers join in the song.
The real problem with Enchanted’s distinctly unenchanting men is that they exist within a larger cultural context that continually assaults us with the joke of bumbling, arrogant, incompetent men. Cynical, you say? If that means critical of our culture’s ideas about manhood and heroism, I plead guilty.
I want my boys to aspire to greatness and nobility, and I want my girls to not just aspire to greatness themselves — that message our culture shouts at them loud and clear — but also to expect greatness in any man that dares to try to capture their heart.
I am enough of a believer in goodness to know this is possible. My family is blessed enough to have a hero for a father and a husband. I long to see real heroes depicted on the screen. Please, enchant me with a real man. Cynic? Call me the real wide-eyed romantic.
Rob Reiner’s great cult classic The Princess Bride is one of those rare satiric gems, like The Court Jester and Galaxy Quest, that doesn’t just send up a genre, but honors it at the same time, giving us the excitement and pleasure of the real thing as well as the laughs of a comedy.
Borrowing a page from Sleeping Beauty, therefore, Levine came up with the central dramatic conceit of her Newbery Honor-award winning book, Ella Enchanted: From her infancy Ella has been under a fairy curse (here bestowed in cluelessness rather than malice) obliging her to obey any imperative statement directed at her, from anyone. The moral of the story, in the author’s own words in interviews and letters to readers, is: "Don’t be too obedient!"
Not only does it terrifically succeed where movies like Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood: Men in Tights miserably fail, The Court Jester also as merry, high-spirited, and wholesome as the adventures it parodies, with none of the cynical, anarchic spirit (or content issues) of the likes of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.