Princess Power

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Early in "Enchanted," Disney's good-natured attempt at some satiric jujitsu, divorce lawyer Robert Phillip (Patrick Dempsey) gives his 6-year-old daughter a book about female heroes. When they come to Marie Curie, he extols her dedication to science and contributions to public health until admitting, lamely, that she wound up dying from radiation poisoning.

Such are the invidious choices that "Enchanted" sets up and eventually resolves for women, who in this clever and mostly charming holiday comedy win by getting to be both achievers and princesses. As that rare family movie that really will appeal to the whole family, "Enchanted" also finds the Disney empire celebrating the classic princess genre it virtually invented while simultaneously sending up its most saccharine cliches. After enduring merciless skewering at the hands of former Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg in "Shrek," it's a little late for preemption, but the studio deserves points for some healthy self-parody nonetheless.

"Enchanted" opens with a lovely animated sequence, reminiscent of such vintage classics as "Snow White" and "Cinderella," in which a beautiful and kind peasant girl named Giselle pines for her handsome prince while a menagerie of woodland creatures looks on adoringly. When her prince finally does come, the wedding is scheduled for the very next day, that is until his evil stepmother plots to have Giselle banished from her erstwhile kingdom. And what better purgatory than a place where, as the stepmother puts it, "there are no happily ever afters"? By which she means, of course, modern-day Manhattan.

It's at this point that "Enchanted" switches from cartoon to live action, with the altogether convincing Amy Adams taking on the role of a bewildered would-be princess decked out in an impossibly poufy wedding dress. Scenes of the wide-eyed, innocent Giselle mistaking a businessman of short stature for a dwarf ("Grumpy!" she cries delightedly as he scowls back at her) while she navigates the elbows-out crowd in Times Square set up an amusing and original fish-out-of-water conceit, in which the perennial princess craze among little girls is given a road test in an all-too-real world.

The narrative tension, if that isn't too highfalutin a term for such a lighthearted spoof, comes when Giselle meets Robert, who from personal and professional experience has become cynical in the ways of love. He's about to propose to his hard-charging fiancee (played by the fabulous Idina Menzel in a thankless role), and Giselle's natterings about true love are only pulling him dangerously off message. Meanwhile, Giselle's own brave but hopelessly dim prince (James Marsden) has come to Manhattan to save her, with a computer-generated chipmunk in tow to provide one of the film's cutest set pieces.

In some ways, "Enchanted" is chock-full of such show-stopping scenes, especially some wonderful musical numbers written by Disney house composers Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz. If the chirpily retro "Happy Working Song," which features a chorus of New York City rats, pigeons and cockroaches, is too creepy-crawly for some squeamish viewers, they will surely be transported by the movie's big production number, "That's How You Know," a lavishly staged love song featuring a colorful cast of 150 singers and dancers in Central Park. In a nifty twist, some of the real-life voices behind Disney's animated heroines appear in supporting roles in "Enchanted," including Jodi Benson, a.k.a. The Little Mermaid, as a law firm receptionist.

All of this is given surprisingly uneven direction at the hands of Kevin Lima ("102 Dalmatians," "Tarzan"), who has taken product placement to new lows ("Enchanted" might as well have a continuous ticker shouting "Use Verizon! Drink Coca-Cola! Eat at Planet Hollywood!"), and who too often seems to settle for less-than-spectacular production values. Susan Sarandon has grounds for a lawsuit for the unflattering camera angles Lima uses to film her dramatic third-act appearance as the wicked stepmother.

When Sarandon appears, "Enchanted" briefly goes off the rails, as the filmmakers pack in perhaps one-too-many references to "Snow White," "Sleeping Beauty" and . . . "King Kong"? No matter. This is an altogether winning piece of escapism, in large part due to the stunning Adams, who here gets the breakout role she's long deserved. Best known for her Oscar-nominated performance in the 2005 independent film "Junebug," Adams flawlessly embodies the part of a sincere-but-spunky princess (her delivery of the simple line, "and ever?" is just one genuinely heartbreaking example). Don't be fooled by the delicate, doll-like looks: In "Enchanted," she delivers a subtle and even powerful performance, in this case as a young woman in the throes of discovering her true, heretofore repressed, emotional nature.

But that's just the subtext to a story that is dominated less by sarcasm than by sweetness, light and love. At first blush, "Enchanted" looks and feels like it buys into princess culture with its frills and furbelows, but its real, cake-and-eat-it idea of a happy ending is to be a princess and a successful career woman. Depending on your point of view, that's either progress or just another fairy tale to be debunked in another movie, but for now: Marie Curie in pink tulle, anyone?

Enchanted (107 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for some scary images and mild innuendo.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company