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Enchanted begins with “Once upon a time” and ends with a happily-ever-after. There are forest creatures, a princess in need of rescue, and problems that are readily solved with a saccharine tune. That it’s a Disney production is unmistakable, but the presumption that it’s enjoyable to no one older than 5 is wrong. This modern-day, partly animated fairy tale is a cheery love story, yes, but it’s also a little Scream and a lot of Hairspray, cleverly sending up its shamelessly feel-good genre yet sending you off with a fizzy high nonetheless.
Two elements that worked in this year’s Hairspray also elevate Enchanted: songs whose bounciness hides parodic lyrics, and James Marsden. Marsden, who’s sleepwalked through dramatic roles in Superman Returns and the X-Men series, is proving to be a natural comedian, once again exploiting his shiny good looks for laughs as Enchanted’s Prince Edward (né Charming). He starts off, as most of the main characters do, as a cartoon, but even then his booming “Ha-ha!” and exaggerated, princely delivery perfectly poke fun at the syrup onscreen. The story begins with Giselle (Junebug Oscar nominee Amy Adams), a princess who’s surrounded by a gaggle of cute animal helpers and who dreams of her ideal mate. The next day, she sings for him—a song about his requiring just the right pair of puckers, “for lips are the only things that touch”—and, naturally, they immediately find each other. “Oh Giselle, we shall be married in the morning!” Edward pronounces. But his mother’s the queen (Susan Sarandon), and she doesn’t like the idea of having to eventually give up her throne, so she tosses Giselle into a rabbit hole that whisks her off to a place “where there are no happily-ever-afters.” Giselle emerges, now fully human, from a manhole cover in the middle of Times Square.
Enchanted’s script is a clever surprise from Bill Kelly, whose previous work, this year’s Premonition, was not so clever. Once in Manhattan, Giselle bumbles about, thinking it’s just an unfamiliar version of her home, Andalasia. So she runs into a little person and happily exclaims, “Grumpy!” And climbs up a castle-depicting billboard for the Palace casino and knocks on the door. And after she’s spotted by divorce lawyer Robert (Patrick Dempsey), who lets her crash on his couch, and sees what a disaster his apartment is, Giselle takes her usual action: opening a window and trilling for furry maids. It still works, only this time the creatures that respond aren’t exactly chipmunks and bunny rabbits.
Giselle stays with Robert longer than he (or his cold fiancée, played by Broadway star Idina Menzel) would like, prompted by his enraptured daughter, Morgan (Rachel Covey), and the fact that Giselle is just too clueless to make it on her own until Edward finds her. It doesn’t hurt that she’s also quite endearing: Adams once again does an excellent job portraying a young woman whose smarts peep through her gee-gollyness, and the character, while never quite abandoning her romantic notions, does absorb a bit of Robert’s cynicism. (It’s not spoiling anything to say that Robert is softened by their friendship in turn.) Adams and Marsden outshine the bigger stars, with Dempsey a competent if unremarkable straight man and Sarandon also coming off as a rather quotidian witch.
Kevin Lima, a Disney vet who also directed 1999’s Tarzan and 2000’s 102 Dalmatians, fills the film with touches that are whimsical in just the right doses (for instance, a chipmunk doing charades has no business being as entertaining as it is here). There are an unexpected number of special effects, the spectacular, fiery kind that often makes the movie feel like Spider-Man’s little sister. You may know how Enchanted begins and can guess how it ends, but the fun lies in the formula-twisting that comes in between.