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Puzzled by Enchanted

November 30th, 2007     by Megan Griffith-Greene     Comments

Enchanted, the new Disney kid-flick, is being sold as a kind of post-modern fairy tale, inverting the stereotypes that Disney has helped construct about femininity. Sound progressive? Well, it’s still more enchanted than empowered.

The first scene paints a familiar Disney picture. Our classic heroine is singing to the forest creatures in her living room and dressing a dummy like Prince Charming so that all the animals can recognize her one true love. Her waist is the size of her neck, her eyes are wide and doe-like, and she’s pluck and perky as she trills about dreams and true love and her perfect prince.

One can’t help but picture the scene in YouTube parody: how completely insane-o, desperate and sad such a scene would seem un-animated. Which is, as it turns out, exactly where this is headed: into live action (and into parody).

Giselle (Amy Adams), our Disney-perfect princess, is dumped (by a wicked step-mother queen) into the real world — or as real as Times Square gets depicted in Disney films — in a huge, pouffy, wedding dress. She quickly falls into the life of a divorce lawyer named Robert (Patrick Dempsey) and his young daughter, and everything Giselle says is hilariously inappropriate. She cries when someone explains to her what divorce is, she bursts into song, and constantly talks in grandiose terms of love, true love, and forever love. She’s also hyper domestic, calling to the animals to help her clean the lawyer’s apartment, which means a fun, choreographed dance number of pigeons, rats and cockroaches.

But the family dynamic between the lawyer and his young daughter, Morgan, presents some odd subtext. He pushes her away from fairy tales and toward more meaningful pursuits. When he gives her a book, it’s not Cinderella, it’s a book about amazing women, from Rosa Parks to Marie Curie. The daughter is unimpressed, and his efforts to explain deteriorate when he’s forced to concede that Marie Curie died of radiation poisoning. Morgan is also not terribly keen about the Robert’s girlfriend Nancy, who is described as being like one of the women in the book. Nancy is smart and sarcastic, but Robert’s effort to draw Nancy and Morgan closer together — called grown up girl bonding — is thwarted by Giselle, who Morgan excitedly exclaims is a “real life princess”. The term “grown up girl bonding” feels significant: Giselle, who Morgan takes to immediately, does not aspire to anything “grown up.”

Now, any adult who sees the film knows that two things will happen: Giselle and Robert will fall in love, and Giselle will have have some kind of feminist epiphany. But the latter is disappointingly mild: true, in the end, she saves the Robert from a dragon, (who snidely chides him “I guess this makes you the damsel in distress). But her only revelation elsewhere in the film is to assert (once) that she’s angry — and then be delighted and very satisfied by herself. She’s angry because Robert has been patronizing to her.

The film has a touch of My Fair Lady about it — as though Robert is her teacher. He takes the tone, in a few places, of a caring father, trying to help her understand the world. This seriously undercuts her already mild awakening.

The reviews for the movie have made much of how Disney pokes fun at itself (“‘Snow White’ as redone by John Waters,” the New York Times pronounced.) It’s true that Giselle is constructed almost entirely to send up the girlish stereotypes that have fed so many Disney pictures. But there’s still something fundamentally unsatisfying about the construct. I still prefer the Paper Bag Princess any day.

Tags: film fridays

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