It looks like the 2007 holiday season has found its grandma movie, that family-friendly release you can schlep the whole clan to without spending the entire running time regretting your own birth. Enchanted, the Disney fairy tale spoof starring Amy Adams as an animated heroine who’s banished from her cartoon kingdom to live-action New York, earned $50.5 million in its first week, winning the holiday weekend and outperforming every Disney Thanksgiving release since Toy Story 2 (1999).
Adams, an actress who’s dwelt on the edge of recognizablity for the past several years (nominated for a supporting-actress Oscar for Junebug in 2005, she also did a multiepisode stint on The Office and gave Will Ferrell a memorably suggestive pep talk in Talladega Nights), will no doubt become a household name and a hot Hollywood property as a result of Enchanted. As the innocent and indomitably chirpy Giselle, she gives the great female comic performance of the year so far, somehow making her three-dimensional, 33-year-old human body seem as weightless and diaphanous as the outline of a cartoon princess. Adams prances away with the movie, though some fellow cast members—especially James Marsden as a besotted prince and Timothy Spall as a scheming courtier—prove worthy foils. Even the leaden presence of Patrick Dempsey, as the pragmatic divorce lawyer who turns out to be Giselle’s unexpected true love in the live-action world, can’t ruin the movie’s light touch and spun-sugar mood.
But there was something that depressed me about Enchanted, a grim reality that occasionally peeped through the whimsy like New York City glimpsed from the animated fields of Andalasia. This sinking feeling had little to do with what could be seen as the movie’s retrograde affirmation of true love and happy endings—after all, if you’re going to start complaining about marriage as a plot resolution device, you have to throw out every comedy from Shakespeare on down. No, that intermittent sense of yuckiness sprang from the movie’s solemn celebration of a ritual even more sacred than holy matrimony: shopping.
Late in the film, there’s a crisis when Giselle needs to prepare for the ball where both her cartoon-world betrothed, Prince Edward (Marsden), and her real-world crush, Robert (Dempsey), will be in attendance, along with her rival for Dempsey’s affections, Nancy (Idina Menzel). Since her arrival in New York, the stranded princess has been making do with outfits she whips up from curtains and bedspreads with help from her urban animal friends (pigeons, roaches, and rats). But the ball is another matter; for an occasion like this, Giselle needs an outfit only a fairy godmother can provide. So Morgan (Rachel Covey), Robert’s 6-year-old daughter, proposes a solution: “I know something better than a fairy godmother,” she trills, reaching into a drawer for her daddy’s credit card. There follows a shopping montage in which the two dash in and out of a series of Manhattan boutiques (real-life brand names prominently displayed), accumulating an impressive pile of purchases. Finally, we see them getting makeovers at a salon, surrounded by a mountain of shopping bags. Smiling shyly at the lovely young woman who’s just entered her divorced father’s life, Morgan asks, “Is this what it’s like to go shopping with your mother?”
Of course, “shopping with your mother,” specifically for femininity-enhancing, wallet-reducing princess clothes, is precisely the activity that propels the global Disney empire forward. The scene between Morgan and Giselle in the spa isn’t played for irony; these two are truly bonding over the manicure counter, and Morgan’s mission to save the day via retail proves successful. Giselle looks fabulous at the ball, lands the right prince without offending the wrong one, and vanquishes an evil-queen-turned-dragon (Susan Sarandon) on top of the Woolworth Building.
When we last see Giselle (in a clever coda that wraps up each character’s story in pop-up book form), she’s running a successful business called “Andalasia Fashions” that caters to royalty-obsessed (and presumably well-to-do) little girls. Surrounded by seas of tulle, she measures one child as others gather around her in candy-colored frocks. The goodwill Adams has generated for her character at this point makes this feel like a happy, even vaguely feminist ending—at least Giselle won’t be living off her true love’s paycheck! But still, I couldn’t suppress that yuck factor: Does these little girls’ happily-ever-after consist only in getting Mommy to buy the right dress?
Because of the difficulty of securing lifetime rights to the image of Amy Adams, Disney recently decided not to include Giselle in its official lineup of princesses. (Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Ariel, Belle, and Jasmine. As the Wall Street Journal notes, Pocahontas and Mulan remain “largely on the sidelines,” and it remains to be seen where Princess Tiana, the first African-American Disney princess, will land in the hierarchy.) Still, Giselle dolls are on the market for Christmas, and toddlers who want to dress as Giselle brides next Halloween (does the image of a 3-year-old bride make anyone else’s flesh crawl?) can already find costumes on eBay. Disney can afford to poke fun at a lot of things about itself, and in Enchanted, it does exactly that, to largely charming effect. But the marketing of princesshood? That’s serious business.