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Movie Review: “Disenchanted”

Out of all the comedy movies out there, 2007’s “Enchanted” remains one of my very favorites. I was originally buffaloed into watching it by a college friend over my protestations, but ended up loving it despite myself. To this day, it’s a surprisingly clever interrogation of the old Disney formula, coupled with a style of fish-out-of-water humor that’s been (deficiently) imitated by various Marvel/DC movies since then.

It also had a near-perfect ending. But the gears of capitalism churn on, and a follow-up/reboot/spinoff was inevitable. Enter “Disenchanted,” now streaming on Disney+.

Picking up roughly a decade after the original movie, “Disenchanted” opens with Andalasian expat Giselle (Amy Adams), her husband Robert (an underutilized Patrick Dempsey) and their teenage daughter Morgan (Gabriella Baldacchino) migrating from downtown New York to the nearby suburb of Monroeville. The transition is painful. Their new home is a fixer-upper, and Giselle’s efforts to bring fairytale sparkle to her stepdaughter’s school are thwarted by dictatorial PTA mom Malvina Monroe (Maya Rudolph). And things soon get worse. Following the birth of Giselle’s daughter Sofia, the royal Edward (James Marsden) and Nancy (Idina Menzel) pop in from their fairytale kingdom of Andalasia to bestow a special gift on the child: a magic wishing wand, boasting powers that can only be invoked by “a true daughter of Andalasia.”

Finding herself down in the dumps, Giselle takes up the wand and wishes to live a fairytale life—a fateful decision that transfigures Monroeville into a neo-medieval landscape. And the consequences aren’t just external. In the wake of her wish, Giselle soon finds herself slowly transforming—despite herself—into the “evil stepmother” of Cinderella and other such tales, a wicked oppressor of her charming stepdaughter. (And I do mean transforming; we’re talking about a magical force that seizes Giselle’s agency and makes her do bad things, rather than an actual character arc.)

I could go on, but the setup tells the whole story. Gone almost entirely is the charm of the 2007 original, which is rooted in the accurate insight that the “real world” is enlivened and redeemed by how one approaches it. Giselle’s utter lack of cynicism is the beating heart of that film: even the most mundane job can be conceived as a noble task, if one chooses to view it as such. Beyond that, though, “Enchanted” contends that the “real world,” in all its pain and tragedy, might in fact be preferable to a “fairytale” life where the rough edges are all sanded away. That’s why Giselle ultimately chooses to stay in New York—and intentionally or not, it’s a haunting thematic indictment of the “adult Disney fan” who refuses to grow up.

This is what makes it so bizarre that “Disenchanted” goes the direction it does. The whole point of the original film is Giselle’s rejection of the Andalasian fantasy and embrace of the real world’s bittersweet joys. In this sequel, she’s reduced to pining for her homeland—and then punished for that out-of-character decision by being stripped of her moral agency altogether.

A better and smarter film would’ve placed Morgan at its heart as the character who actually undergoes a moral journey: rebelling by using the wishing wand to transform her town, and ultimately finding herself in need of rescue by the wiser Giselle. For one thing, it’d be a clever inversion of the old Disney trope that parents and authority figures are always buzzkills. For another, it opens up the storytelling possibility that a “fairytale” world might not actually make selfish people morally better—that real-world vices might end up being ported over into fantasyland, with horrifying consequences. (Yes, Lev Grossman did it in “The Magicians,” but it deserves a wider audience.)

In any case, “Disenchanted” is representative of a larger Disney trend that’s worth exploring. I’m not the first to comment on this, but one of the most curious aspects of recent Disney productions is their discomfort with the idea of villainy as such. Onscreen, virtually no character anymore is allowed to be evil, in the classical way that Scar or Jafar or Claude Frollo was evil. Instead, interpersonal conflict mostly revolves around relational healing and the navigation of past trauma (“Moana,” “Encanto,” “Raya and the Last Dragon,” “Frozen II”) Hans from “Frozen” is about the only real “bad guy” left. What these new “villain” characters need isn’t defeat by the forces of good, but therapy.

Now, from a certain point of view, this can be interpreted as Disney just trying to tell more sophisticated character stories: after all, human beings contain multitudes. But I think the issue runs deeper than that. Specifically, it suggests a broader skittishness on Disney’s part towards traditional forms of storytelling.

No child ever mistook Ursula from “The Little Mermaid” or Gaston from “Beauty and the Beast” for a depiction of anyone in real life. Those villains are archetypes of evil—storytelling figures that represent vice and temptation, and whose defeat conveys the message that the darkness can be overcome through virtue. As a result, the old Disney stories aren’t really stories about interpersonal relationships; they’re stories about the human condition. And that’s why they’re so perennial, and why so many adults still love them.

Fascinatingly, at the same time that it’s neutering its baddies onscreen, the company is devoting vast resources to keeping its best-known traditional antagonists in the public eye—from revisionist live-action films (“Maleficent,” “Cruella”) to TV spinoffs (the rather charming “Descendants” franchise) and even book series. Audiences want traditional good-versus-evil showdowns, and real antagonists, even if they lack the vocabulary to demand them outright.

“Disenchanted” wraps itself around this same axle. The original film featured the wicked Narissa, who becomes a dragon and is shattered into a million crystal fragments at that movie’s climax—but here we get merely interpersonal spats and malign forces that are mostly just bad luck. Like so many other recent Disney productions, the film no longer understands the idea of villainy as such, but is still obsessed with imitating it in superficial ways. Weak stuff indeed.

In short, “Disenchanted” is a bad movie because, like so much of Disney’s recent output, it lacks moral coherence. I’m not saying every movie needs to push a “conservative” or “traditional” party line—“Frozen II” would’ve been a much better movie if the Kingdom of Arendelle had been wiped out in an anticolonialist tsunami, and I do mean that literally—but children’s films need to have real convictions and a clear vision of the good. That shouldn’t be too heavy a lift. Apparently for Disney these days, though, it is.

“Enchanted” didn’t need a sequel in the first place, and “Disenchanted” is decidedly not the one it deserved. Save your time.

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Posted by on November 28, 2022 in Fantasy


Movie Review: “Beast”

Full review at The Spectator World.

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Posted by on August 24, 2022 in Thrillers

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