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.
August Rush Directed by Kirsten Sheridan
August Rush is everything cynics might have expected Enchanted to be—cloying, insipid, straining with fake wonder—but its chief offense is taking itself too seriously. Even its outline is precious: A rock star and a cellist produce a prodigy after a devil-may-care night of making sweet music (on the roof of a Manhattan skyscraper, no less). The cellist’s daddy forces her to give up the child, but mother and son can “hear” each as they live separate lives. A reunion is inevitable.
It doesn’t matter if you love music or inspirational stories or Robin Williams (anyone?)—this is enough to make your teeth ache, and neither director Kirsten Sheridan (2000’s Disco Pigs) nor scripters Nick Castle and James V. Hart fill in the blanks in a manner sufficient enough to cut the sugar. The story is one coincidence after another, often “magical” and more often unbelievable. After Lyla (Keri Russell) and Louis (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) meet at a party and spend that blissful night together, her father (William Sadler) forbids her to see him the next day as planned. Later, Lyla discovers she’s pregnant, but when an argument with Dad ends with her running into traffic and being hit by a car, he takes advantage of her coma and an emergency delivery to have the baby adopted (nice!). Lyla believes she lost the child.
Eleven years later, Lyla’s a schoolteacher, and her son (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s Freddie Highmore) runs away from his orphanage, “following the music” to New York, air-conducting all the sounds he hears along the way. He’s drawn to a child busker who brings him to his Dickensian home: an abandoned theater in which “Wizard” (an abrasive Williams, clearly imitating Bono) pimps out a horde of musical urchins. Now, this kid has never touched an instrument, but as soon as he finds his way to a guitar, he’s a mini Django Reinhardt. Wizard dubs him August Rush and assigns him his best corner. Soon, August discovers that he can compose, too—cutely, he wanders into a Baptist church, where a tiny choir girl with a giant voice teaches him to read music in about five seconds—and before you can say “yeah, right!” August is studying at Juilliard and the New York Philharmonic plans to perform one of his symphonies.
There are more fortuities that boggle the mind—Manhattan may as well be a three-block neighborhood the way these characters keep running into one another. But the script isn’t the film’s only weakness. The cast, assets in their other work, share the blame, too. One can’t imagine an actress with a more appropriately ethereal look to play a cellist than Keri Russell, and her leading turn in this year’s Waitress proved the depth she’s capable of. As Lyla, Russell’s far-off stare does at times make her look the part of a dreamer; more often, though, she looks kinda nuts. Rhys Meyers’ somewhat sinister blankness also may be suited to a rock-god role, but his Louis isn’t exactly the torch-inspiring fall-into-his-arms type. And poor Highmore—he does his best to express the joy August gets from cultivating his gift. But a single giddy, open-mouthed expression can only carry a scamp so far before it makes you want to cram his sense of wonder down his throat, kind of like this movie does to its audience.