Disenchanted (2022)

Enchanted is a very special movie to me. It came out when I was a freshman in college and immediately became one of my top guilty pleasure films. As a few of my buddies fell deeper into filmbro tastes, a couple of them even mocked me directly for listing it as one of my favorite movies of the year.

The high concept was good — golden age, hand-drawn Disney princess gets sucked into gritty New York City and butts heads with a divorce lawyer. But the execution was better, thanks especially to Amy Adams in a magical performance as Princess Giselle. Seriously, I would have nominated her for an Oscar. (A recent Twitter thread observed that every movie fan seems to have their one Amy Adams revelation movie — the moment they realized that she’s not an ordinary acting talent. Enchanted was my revelation.)

Thus, it was with a mix of emotions that I prepared for Disenchanted. On the one hand, the prospect of revisiting Giselle and Robert with all of the talent returning, including Alan Menken, is enticing. On the other hand, all signs pointed to a streaming dump. “A Disney+ Original” — scary words, indeed. Part of my reservations, specifically, relate to Enchanted being one of the last in-house Disney tribute/parody pieces before cinematic universes came in vogue. The tongue-in-cheek references were done with affection and polish, whereas fan service and Easter eggs and interconnected content are the norm now. It’s hard to explain why Enchanted was delightful without making it sound corny, I guess, and it seemed unreasonable to expect lightning to strike twice.

I suppose I should pivot to actually reviewing the movie at hand, but I confess much of my reaction is still wrapped up in my relationship with the original. And the sequel is such a mixed bag it’s hard to know where to get started.

Disenchanted is far from the worst case scenario. It actually sounds like a proper musical, for one, which is not something that even the original could claim (it had two Broadway-style numbers and a diegetic slow-dance ballad). Menken’s tunes are so far from his peak that it feels like he’s just cashing a check, but even autopilot Menken is quite enjoyable.

Amy Adams hasn’t lost her chipper Giselle spirit, although some of the infectious zest of her performance in the original is missing. But she makes up for it with a new breaking-bad layer where she gets to play an evil queen, which is an unexpected twist, and which Adams nails. She once again is responsible for carrying the movie, and once again pulls it off. (Though I won’t be calling for her Oscar nomination this year.)

The new film’s story is a bit convoluted: Giselle, Robert (Patrick Dempsey), and their family, including a new baby, move to the suburbs after Giselle finds herself growing weary of the urban hustle-and-bustle. Meanwhile, she’s clashing with step-daughter Morgan (Gabriella Baldacchino), who is not thrilled about uprooting to a new town halfway through high school. The family keeps in touch with Nancy (Idina Menzel) and Edward (James Marsden), their exes and the rulers of cartoon kingdom Andalasia.

All of this comes in the first few minutes as an exposition avalanche. But it’s not the end of the exhausting info dump. We also quickly learn about a portal to Andalasia. Then, the baby receives a magical gift from Nancy and Edward: a wand that can grant wishes. This seems absurdly dangerous and a ridiculous thing to give to a baby.

The film’s opening half hour is rough, and I feared the movie was in over its head. Its messy script had me thinking of Disney Channel Original Movies that often rely on overwriting to compensate for deficiencies in production elsewhere.

It’s a long buildup, but the film finally loosens up a bit once the central conflict finally kicks in: Giselle, feeling a growing ennui and disenchantment, uses the baby’s wand to wish that her life was more like a fairy tale. This transforms the sleepy suburban town into a live-action medieval fantasy musical world. But it has the side effect of turning Giselle into a “wicked stepmother,” since all stepmothers in fairy tales are wicked. This is actually kind of clever, and allows Adams to lean into vamping it up as a villain. A few scenes let her play a Gollum/Green Goblin-esque kind vs. evil internal dialogue, which is a lot of fun.

The movie thrives when it leans into its emotional core: The stepmother vs. step-daughter relationship. The rest of the story supports this quite well. There’s some metaphoric content in Giselle’s idealism turned sour as her “fairy tale” doesn’t pan out, and that her hands-on maternal instincts can be dangerously overbearing as much as they are loving. A balance must be found.

Maya Rudolph plays the villain, Melvina. Her performance is a bit underwhelming, and the character (a “queen of the town” gossip and high-drama mom) is completely unnecessary. It makes the thematic impact more complicated and messy, too. My proposed rewrite to this movie is simple: ditch Melvina and give Evil Giselle the central antagonist role. It would trim down the surprisingly long movie (over two hours!) and put the spotlight even more on Adams. (Though it would have deprived us of the movie’s biggest showstopper, “Badder.”)

The film’s second half is fairly strong compared to the first, though it’s weighed down with some heavy CGI and too much plot to resolve. But there are a few emotional gut punches in here: I did not expect this movie to make me cry, but it actually did twice.

The tone of Disenchanted’s Disney princess pastiche is a bit off, too, but not the catastrophe I feared. The references are crammed in and spotlighted a bit too often — the original had woven them in a bit more organically — but it’s not the cheap deluge of winking one-liners I expected. Menken gives the film a rich orchestral score, which helps it feel like its own thing with real flavor, not just cheap knockoff.

It’s all too narratively bloated and uneven, but it’s the appealing sort of mess. Disenchanted is, of course, nowhere close to Enchanted. But the fact that I’m not actively angry and ranting about how they ruined my beloved is definitely a win.

Is It Good?

Nearly Good (4/8)

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