“Enchanted” isn’t a perfect Disney film, but it’s the closest thing to a live-action classic that the studio has produced in a very long time. Most of the Mouse House’s recent films have been minor trifles like “The Pacifier” or “Underdog,” comparable to the fondly remembered but not particularly good ’60s and ’70s goofs like “The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes” and “The Barefoot Executive.” “Enchanted” is more on the order of “Mary Poppins”: magical, endearing, funny to both kids and adults, and featuring a star-making performance.
That would be Amy Adams, already an Oscar nominee and winner of many critic groups’ awards for “Junebug,” which not enough people saw. “Enchanted” should be her mainstream breakout. She plays Giselle, a cartoon fairy-tale girl cut from the same cloth as old-school heroines like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. She’s interested primarily in meeting a handsome prince who will sweep her off her feet and marry her immediately. She meets the guy, Prince Edward (James Marsden), but before they can wed his wicked stepmother, Queen Narissa (Susan Sarandon), pushes her into a wishing well that sends her into another dimension — the third.
The movie has been animated up to this point; now it is live-action, with Giselle in flesh and blood in New York City, completely baffled and frightened by the real world. Where is the castle? Where are the handsome princes to catch her when she falls? Why does the midget she runs into not answer to the name Grumpy?
She is rescued from the rain by a Good Samaritan named Robert (Patrick Dempsey). He’s a divorce lawyer who views romance from a practical standpoint. He and his girlfriend, Nancy (Idina Menzel), have been dating for five years, and he’s just now thinking of proposing. He has a 6-year-old daughter, Morgan (Rachel Covey), who loves fairy-tale princesses. Dad bought her a book of biographies of historical women instead.
They let Giselle sleep on their couch, stymied by her naive behavior and concerned for her safety if she’s allowed to wander the streets. (She was planning to sleep “in a nearby meadow, or a hollow tree.”) She’s waiting for Prince Edward to come rescue her — which, in fact, he’s trying to do, having cast himself into the same wishing well, popping up out of the same New York manhole. Joining him are Giselle’s chipmunk friend Pip (who cannot talk in the real world like he can in cartoonland) and a royal adviser named Nathaniel (Timothy Spall), who secretly works for the evil Queen and is trying to kill Giselle.
Many delights follow. The screenplay, by Bill Kelly (“Premonition”), is rife with references to classic Disney cartoons, some subtle and some not. I absolutely adore the scene where Giselle summons her animal friends to help her clean up Robert’s apartment — which, since it’s New York, turn out to be rats, pigeons, and cockroaches. (“Well, it’s always nice to make new friends!”) What’s more, she sings a song while she does it, with clever lyrics mentioning the words “toilet,” “hairball,” and “vermin.” (I heartily recommend watching the clip of this scene at the film’s MySpace page. It’s called “Happy Working Song.”)
As Robert guides Giselle around the city, looking for Edward, they teach each other a thing or two. He learns to be a little more romantic and spontaneous, while she learns about this thing called “dating,” where the prince and princess actually get to know one another before getting married. In her world, of course, all the prince has to do is wake someone up or put someone’s shoe on, and bam! They’re married the next day.
Essentially, Giselle evolves from an old-school character like Cinderella (who really didn’t have a lot of depth) to a modern heroine like Belle (who did). And while this isn’t the kind of movie that gets nominated for acting Oscars, Amy Adams’ performance is one of the most completely convincing of any movie this year. She has the walk, the voice, and the gestures of a cartoon heroine — and then somehow, on top of all that, makes her believable as a person, too. “Enchanted” is a rather generic title for this movie, but you can see why it stuck. Adams is absolutely enchanting.
Prince Edward is also a lot of fun as he jaunts around Manhattan in search of his bride-to-be, calling out to her in song when he spots her, just in time to be run over by a bicyclist. The character gently satirizes the blandness and vanity of fairy-tale princes. When Pip does charades to try to get Edward to understand Narissa’s evil plan, Edward’s guesses are along the lines of “You can’t believe how handsome I am?” and “You’re honored to be in my presence?”
Susan Sarandon only gets a few minutes of live-action evil, but she appears to be having a blast camping it up. Unfortunately, her subplot with Nathaniel isn’t developed very well, nor is her motivation for wanting Giselle dead exactly clear. (If Edward marries, somehow that means his bride becomes queen and Narissa is dethroned?) I’m also disappointed by the short shrift given to some of the secondary characters, whose happily-ever-after endings don’t quite add up. The presence of a cheap fart joke and a cheap poop joke doesn’t exactly thrill me, either. I guess no matter how otherwise smart and respectable a kids movie is, if it’s Disney, it’s gotta have flatulence.
But overall, director Kevin Lima (“Tarzan,” “102 Dalmatians”) does a fantastic job with the film’s many-layered story and subtle homages, never letting the references become strained or obvious. He focuses on the story, like he ought to, and generally avoids pandering to the young audience. Classic Disney actresses Julie Andrews (Mary Poppins), Paige O’Hara (Belle), Judy Kuhn (Pocahontas’ singing voice), and Jodi Benson (Ariel) have cameos. The songs — some clever, some cheesy and pop-ish — are by Oscar winners Alan Menken (“The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast”) and Stephen Schwartz (“Pocahontas,” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”).
This is a film Walt himself would have been proud of, a family flick that’s marvelously gratifying no matter what your age.
B+ (1 hr., 47 min.; )