Be careful what you wish for. That’s the rather rote message at the heart of Adam Shankman’s long awaited sequel to noughties favourite Enchanted. It’s also a warning. A caution that all those that have clamoured for this moment these past fifteen years might well have heeded. Disenchanted is no outright flop and yet it is a film that comes perilously close to living up to its title in all the wrong ways. The poisoned apple doesn’t fall far from the twee. Perhaps a lack of faith behind the scenes at Disney has let the film down. Ambition curtailed. Cinematic potential stifled in favour of streaming and a trimmed budget. Disenchanted is sweet in the moment but little more than the a modern day’s ‘direct-to-DVD’ follow up.
To its credit, the film is well cast. Disenchanted not only reunites the originals but finds trump cards in newbies. It’s pleasing also to see Amy Adams permitted to have fun on camera again. Having made her name in comedy, recent years have seen Adams stuck in a rotisserie of depressing and chronically underwhelming Oscar bait. In the last two years alone, she’s played a mentally unstable drug addict, delusional agoraphobic and the duped mother of a suicidal teen. Adams last bone fide hit was Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival. That was six years ago.
Disenchanted sees Adams return to the role of saucepan eyed Giselle. She’s the fish out of water, would-be Disney Princess who found herself kicked out of 2D toon land and into an unforgiving New York in 2007. A decade and a half on, Giselle is still in the Big Apple and still shacked up with Patrick Dempsey’s twinkly Robert and his daughter Morgan, whom Giselle has now adopted as her own. Newcomer Gabriella Baldacchino replaces Rachel Covey’s original Morgan – who still features in a cameo appearance – and proves a grounding find in an airy fairy feature. There’s something of the Shailene Woodley about Baldacchino and it’s in the dynamics her burgeoning adolescence brings to family life for Giselle and Robert that the film finds its strongest scenes. It’s no coincidence that the film deteriorates when the trio are separated and magic begins to dominate all vestiges of realism.
With the arrival of a new baby into their apartment, Manhattan quickly feels too busy and cramped for the family, who relocate to suburban idyll Monroeville. Here there are cliques and rigid social orders. Obstacles to happily ever after that no only fail to solve Giselle’s original problems but add a whole kingdom of new ones. There can be only solution. With the aid of an Andolasian wand – conveniently wedged into the story by a briefly appearing Idina Menzel and James Marsden – Giselle wishes for her life to be a little more Disney. The result is less narratively invigorating than it is reminiscent of a waning TV show’s publicity grab by randomly dropping a musical episode into its sixth series. Giselle finds herself recast as the story’s wicked stepmother, while local queen b Malvina (a marvellous Maya Rudolph) transforms into a literal Evil Queen. Let battle commence.
Penned by Brigitte Hales, Disenchanted struggles here on with a pervading sense of the same cheesy cheapness that haunted ABC’s Once Upon a Time – also by Hales. An excess of saturation in the production design and the feeling that the cast have been dressed out of a local am dram society’s fancy dress box gives rise to over zealous performances. The ensemble are clearly having a ball but it’s to the detriment of craft and character. With all recast in fairytale roles – Dempsey is sent on futile quests owing to a failure of Hales to know what else to do with him – there’s no countering voice to call out the absurdity of it all. Worse still, attempts by the film to retain its predecessor’s meta playfulness in prodding genre jibes fall flat when they do little more than expose Disenchanted’s own guilt. Watch for the moment Adams walks into the garden for no other reason than to sing her depressed little heart out.
As for the songs, more is less from Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz. Seven new songs were written for the film but only the bad ass bossanova duet gifted Adams and Rudolph in the film’s latter half hits home. That’s not to say the lyrics are lacking wit and verve – there’s an inspired rhyming chain early on that links city lights to suburbanites – but that the tunes themselves feel strangely unmemorable. In the moment, there is pleasure. Once it’s past, it’s as though the moment never were. The wider film is much the same. It’s a pleasant, if contrived and plot whole ridden, couple of hours at the time but the enchantment won’t make teatime, never mind midnight.