Hollywood serves up something to be thankful for this holiday week with Enchanted, Disney’s endearing story of a cartoon princess thrust into modern-day, live-action New York City. The movie opens with a spot-on sendup of an animated fairy tale--these are, after all, the people who invented the template--in which Giselle (Amy Adams), a comely redhead who lives with her animal friends in the kingdom of Andalasia, pines for the day her prince will come. That day turns out to be today, and after a duet with her royal swain Edward (James Marsden) and some brief complications with a troll, the two are quickly betrothed. But Edward has a, yes, wicked stepmother, Narissa (Susan Sarandon), and shortly before the wedding she pushes Giselle down a magical well to a place where “there are no happily-ever-afters.”
That, of course, would be New York, as the city’s large population of divorce attorneys could attest. Indeed, after the now flesh-and-blood Giselle has a dispiriting wander through the streets, she meets a divorce attorney of her own, Robert (Patrick Dempsey), a single dad whose six-year-old moppet Morgan (Rachel Covey) insists he let the lost princess stay with them for the night. He awakes to find Giselle tidying the apartment, a chore that involves (in a marvelous parody of Snow White’s “Whistle While You Work”) her singing directions to a cleaning crew made up of newfound, Manhattan-style animal friends--pigeons, rats, and a plague of cockroaches. She has also sewn herself a lovely new dress from material she just happened to find hanging on a curtain-rod in front of the window. She’s that kind of houseguest.
Several more tourists arrive from Andalasia the next day: Prince Edward, seeking his bride-to-be; Narissa’s miserable flunky Nathaniel (Timothy Spall), seeking to do away with said bride-to-be; and Pip, a charades-playing chipmunk, seeking to stop Nathaniel. Robert, meanwhile, tries to instruct Giselle in the cynical mores of the modern era, only to find himself gradually won over by her inexhaustible innocence.
In entertainments such as this, aimed, as the blurbs say, at “the whole family,” there is always a tricky balance between earnestness and irony, between jokes intended for the kids and jokes intended for their parents. The makers of Enchanted have clearly opted to err on the side of the former, and while this results in a number of dull and/or groan-worthy gags throughout the film, it is nonetheless something of a relief from the pervasive knowingness and inside-jokery of our Shrek-soaked age. Though the film is full of allusions to the Disney canon, they are generally unobtrusive echoes rather than eager satires. This is a children’s movie at which adults are also welcome, not a cartoon for grownups.
The supporting cast is good, with Marsden in particular showing hammy comic aplomb (and a strong singing voice) as Prince Edward. But Enchanted is Amy Adams’s coming-out party, and she makes the most of it. Anyone who saw her star-making performance as the inveterately effusive Ashley in Junebug (and to those of you who didn’t: shame on you), will be unsurprised by the amplitude of her guileless charm. Her reply when Robert explains to her that divorce is “forever” (“Forever and ever?”), the delight she takes in discovering herself to be, unexpectedly and for the first time, “angry”--these are moments of cinematic confection so sweet they may call for a trip to the dentist. Her singing, too, is a joy; the showstopping ensemble number she leads in Central Park, “That’s How You Know,” is perhaps the high point of the movie.
Indeed if there’s a complaint to be made of Enchanted, it’s that the Central Park scene, which takes place near the middle of the film, is the last time (and just the third) we hear Adams sing. The story concludes--as such stories so often do--with a fancy-dress ball and the appearance of a dragon, and while these spectacles are diverting enough, they make limited use of Adams’s irresistible ingenuousness. After all, if it’s dragonslaying you want, you can go see Beowulf in the theatre next door. A woman who can charm cockroaches into cleaning your bathtub for you, by contrast--well, that’s a kind of magic you’re not going to find anywhere else.
CHRISTOPHER ORR is a senior editor at The New Republic.