Mapping Contemporary Cinema

Enchanted, 2007

Production companies: Walt Disney Pictures, Barry Sonnenfeld/Josephson Entertainment
Distribution: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Executive Producers: Christopher Chase, Sunil Perkash, Ezra Swerdlow
Producers: Barry Josephson, Barry Sonnenfeld
Animation Producer: Ron Rocha
Screenplay: Bill Kelly
Director: Kevin Lima
Art Director: John Kasarda
Cinematographer: Don Burgess
Editor: Gregory Perler, Stephen A. Rotter
Music: Alan Menken (music, score), Stephen Schwartz (lyrics)
Cast: Amy Adams (Giselle), James Marsden (Prince Edward), Susan Sarandon (Queen Narissa), Patrick Dempsey (Robert Phillip), Timothy Spall (Nathaniel), Idina Menzel (Nancy Tremaine), Rachel Covey (Morgan Phillip)
Running Time: 107 mins.
Rating: PG for some scary images and mild innuendo
Box office gross: domestic $127.8m; worldwide $340.5m
Tagline: The real world and the animated world collide. Continue reading


Plot Andalasia, once upon a time. Animated woodland maiden Giselle is rescued from a giant troll by Prince Edward. They instantly fall in love and decide to marry. Upon arriving for her wedding at the castle the next day, Giselle is pushed into a magic well by an old hag (Edward’s evil stepmother Queen Narissa in disguise), and emerges in live-action form in present-day New York City. Pragmatic divorce lawyer Robert and his young daughter Morgan find her and take her to their apartment. Edward and his unscrupulous servant Nathaniel (who is secretly working for Narissa) also emerge in Times Square, with Giselle’s squirrel Pip. Robert’s girlfriend Nancy is appalled to find Giselle in his flat, and leaves him. Robert attempts to leave Giselle in Central Park after she disrupts his client’s separation settlement. Giselle’s song, encouraging him to woo Nancy, becomes a vast musical number. A disguised Nathaniel sells Giselle a poisoned toffee apple, but she tosses it away. Robert invites Nancy to a kings and queens ball and sends flowers. At a pizza dinner, Pip saves Giselle from a poisoned apple martini that Nathaniel (disguised as a waiter) serves her. Edward sees Giselle on the local TV news and finds her at Robert’s apartment. Giselle is torn between her two suitors. Edward takes Giselle to the ball. Narissa arrives at the ball, disguised as a crone, and offers the fleeing Giselle a magic apple, supposedly to erase her bad memories. After she collapses, Nathaniel turns on Narissa and reveals her plan – without true love’s kiss before midnight, Giselle will die. Edward’s kiss doesn’t revive her, but Robert’s does. Narissa turns into a giant dragon, snatches Robert and scales the roof of the skyscraper. Giselle fights her on the roof, Pip helps, and the dragon falls in flames. Nancy and Edward fall in love, and marry in animated Andalasia. Giselle opens a girl’s fashion business and lives happily with Robert and Morgan. Nathaniel becomes a bestselling self-help author in New York, as does Pip in Andalasia. (Stables 2008: 69).

Film note On the surface, Enchanted appears to be both a playful homage to Disney’s early fairy-tale adaptations and an attempt to repackage the genre for a contemporary audience. The film arguably presents itself as liberal fare, but contradicts itself by alternating between promoting and criticising conservative values. By utilising the quintessential Disney aesthetic and iconography, the film attempts to evoke feelings of nostalgia and reassure its post-9/11 audience that fundamental values of right and wrong still apply, and that there is hope for a better future.

Revival Disney To call Enchanted‘s production history “tumultuous” may be an understatement to say the least. Originally pitched in 1997 as an R-Rated satire of traditional Disney tropes, the script was bought by Touchstone (Disney’s film distributor for more mature content), who then struggled to keep anyone attached to the project. Over the course of the film’s ten year-long journey to release, Enchanted went through four directors, five screenwriters, and at least four re-writes (Daly). One may ask why, after all of the difficulties the project faced, Disney was so determined for the film to be made.

One possible reason is that Enchanted provided an opportunity to introduce a new Disney princess to the studio’s existing Disney Princess franchise. Conceived in 2000 as a way of salvaging Disney Consumer Products’ dwindling merchandise sales, the Disney Princess line has now become a multi-billion dollar empire (Orenstein). By 2006, the year before Enchanted‘s release, the Disney Princess line was estimated to have been generating around $3bn a year, compared to $300m in 2001 (Orenstein). The possibility of introducing a new character to a line-up that had not been changed since its inception (with the exception of the removal of Tinker Bell) would likely have been an appealing business decision for the company. Giselle could also have been profitable in terms of boosting the company’s social profile as she could have been promoted as their first feminist princess. By the end of Enchanted, Giselle has chosen who she wants to marry on her own terms, she has bravely rescued Robert from certain death, and has even started her own successful business. This is a far cry from previous Disney heroines such as Aurora (Sleeping Beauty, 1952) and Snow White (Snow White, 1937), who were paralysed until their respective princes came to save them. (As I will later explain however, the Giselle-as-the-Feminist-Princess argument is multi-layered and is often contradicted within the film itself.)

However, the fact that Giselle is the studio’s first live-action princess could have raised some critical issues. It is common for Disney to combine feature film releases with other commercial endeavours, most notably theme-park operations (Krämer 266). Paul Krämer goes as far as to suggest that by the early 1970s “Disney had become a theme-park operator, with a sideline in audiovisual media” (266). In Enchanted‘s case, Disneyland Paris hosted firework displays set to the film’s soundtrack from 2008 to 2011 (DLP Today). The biggest problem involved what is perhaps the most famous attraction at the Disney theme-parks: character Meet-and-Greets. While casting actors and actresses to play real-life versions of animated characters is not particularly difficult, casting multiple actresses to play a live-action princess portrayed by a then-relatively-unknown actress would have been tricky, and would have spoiled the illusion for most guests. In more recent years, Disney theme parks have hosted extravagant, real-life ceremonies to welcome new princesses into the fold, such as Merida and Rapunzel. Hosting such a ceremony for Giselle would have thus been even more tricky. Given the importance of the company’s theme-park empire, which was estimated to have generated nearly $15bn in 2013 alone (Sylt), it seems unlikely that Disney would risk ruining the magic and subsequently jeopardising their ticket sales. Ultimately, the main reason behind Giselle’s exclusion from the franchise was licensing fees. Although some branded merchandise was sold at the time of the film’s release, including Giselle dolls made in Amy Adams’ likeness, plans for Giselle’s “coronation” were dropped when the company realised this would involve paying for the life-long rights to Adams’ image (Marr).

Releasing Enchanted also made sense in relation to Walt Disney Animation’s internal film production cycles. In Demystifying Disney, Chris Pallant separates Walt Disney Animation Studios’ body of work into distinct eras, such as “Disney Formalism” (or “The Golden Age”), “The Renaissance Era”, and “Neo-Disney” (9). Pallant identifies “Disney Formalism” as the initial cycle of films released by the studio, in which “realism in characters and contexts” was highly prioritised (41).  “Renaissance Disney”, beginning in 1989 with the release of The Little Mermaid (1989), saw the studio return to the artistic ideologies of Formalist Disney, and to box office success (Pallant 89). After the departure of one of the studio’s co-heads in 1997, Disney entered an era Pallant refers to as “Neo-Disney”, a period that spans from the late 1990s to the mid-2000s (110).  During this time, the studio experimented with new animation techniques (Dinosaur (2000) & Meet the Robinsons, (2007)), original stories (Home on the Range (2004)), and princess-less fable adaptations (Chicken Little (2005)).

While the opportunity to experiment creatively was exciting, the box office returns were not. In fact, Pallant’s identifies the era as  “a period of strategic uncertainty, and at worst, a period of extended failure” (124). It is likely therefore that the studio was left longing for their earlier Renaissance era success, and that a return to their Formalist and Renaissance Disney style would be an ideal way to achieve this. With a budget of $85m, Enchanted was arguably a much less risky and arguably perfect next step into a revival of fairytale filmmaking. Since the success of Enchanted, Disney has made a strong return to fairytale adaptations with films such as The Princess and the Frog (2009), Tangled (an adaptation of Rapunzel) (2010) and Frozen (an adaptation of The Snow Queen) (2013).

With its novel blend of animation and live action sequences, Enchanted was both a technical experiment for the studio (ie. compositing the real world and the animated world) and a revival of their previous work. Enchanted acted as a stepping-stone between Neo-Disney and a resurgence of fairy-tale films, which one may call “Revival Disney”. It is interesting to note that the shift between these two eras mirrors the shift from Formalist Disney to Renaissance Disney (Pallant 87-88), suggesting that the studio know that when they are struggling, they have the sure-fire formula of fairytales to fall back on.

No Happily Ever After At first glance, New York seems a perfect contrast to the picturesque fairy-tale world of Andalasia. New Yorkers stereotypically have a reputation for being tough, streetwise, and cynical; they value realism over fantasy. However, the city of New York also connotes bright lights, vibrancy, and wonder, much like a traditional Disney film does. Indeed, when Giselle first arrives in Times Square the brightly lit billboards and the cacophony of voices and vehicles overwhelm her. This sequence is accompanied by uplifting orchestral music, which creates an atmosphere of wonder and anticipation. The music creates a similar effect to the passionate fanfare used in the animated opening shot of the film, which in typical Formalist Disney tradition is of a storybook waiting on a pedestal to be narrated. In both instances the music is designed to generate excitement, and suggest that a thrilling journey is due to take place.

Our introduction to New York, with all of its strangeness and dark corners, also fills in for the threatening woods in which so many Disney heroines find themselves; Snow White (1937) and Alice in Wonderland (1951) being notable examples. Giselle’s first few chaotic moments in New York, for example, are highly reminiscent of the iconic sequence of Snow White getting lost in a dark forest and being grabbed and threatened by anthropomorphic trees. Giselle on the other hand manages to cause a car crash, knocks over a shopkeeper’s stall, and gets caught in a subway-bound crowd. Shortly afterwards Giselle finds herself alone in a dimly lit street and is robbed by an old man. Just as they were with Snow White, the audience is encouraged to will Giselle to survive this new and dangerous environment. It is also worth mentioning that some adult audiences may recognise Idina Menzel (“Nancy”) from her role as Maureen in Rent (2005), set in the East Village of New York City. Given Rent‘s mature subject matter, Menzel’s casting helps to reinforce the idea of New York as a scary, and occasionally threatening, place.

Given the setting and time of its release, it is also important to consider Enchanted‘s role as a post-9/11 film, and how it manages to negotiate its post-9/11 New York setting without ever mentioning the event directly. The scale of 9/11 has prompted commentators to declare the event a defining historical moment, explaining that “in this bleak landscape of personal loss, paranoia, and political cynicism, American culture has been forever changed” (Pheasant-Kelly 8). In response to the fact that the Bush administration had failed to keep its citizens safe (Westwell 101), so began a cycle of Hollywood films which centered on father-child relationships, in particular emphasising the father’s role as a protector. Man on Fire (2004) for example, deals with a former CIA agent who goes to extreme lengths to retrieve a kidnapped girl. Although set in London, Children of Men (2006) deals with a civil servant who must protect a young, pregnant woman in a dystopian near-future where all citizens are thought to be infertile. In both of these films, the father-as-state and child-as-citizen allegory is emphasised by the fact that both father figure protagonists have worked for the government. In a post-9/11 context, children can be seen to represent not only the American citizens, but also hope for a brighter future. These films seek to reinforce the idea that despite the aberration that was 9/11, the state is still strong and will strengthen its efforts to protect its people.

This feeling of reassurance is central to the message of Enchanted, which offers hope and escape to its audiences through the appeal of Disney. It is also interesting to note that although a completely different genre to either Children of Men or Man on Fire, some of the ideas in Enchanted are strikingly similar. Robert, Enchanted‘s male lead, can be identified as the film’s primary father figure. Much of the film deals with how he protects and looks after both Morgan, his daughter, and the innocent and often childlike Giselle. Having been previously heartbroken by Morgan’s mother, Robert has a pragmatic approach to relationships, and aptly works as a divorce lawyer. He thus tries to discourage both Giselle and Morgan from believing in fairy-tale romance in an effort to protect them from being hurt in a similar way. At the beginning of the film, Morgan is disappointed when Robert gifts her with a text-book about important women in history, as opposed to “that fairy-tale book [she] wanted”.  When Robert essentially gives Giselle a watered-down version of the dating/sex talk many parents give their children, he scoffs and replies “forget about ‘Happily Ever After’, it doesn’t exist”. This is not to mention the moments Robert protects both daughter-figures from the threat of physical harm. Robert is deeply conflicted the first time Giselle sleeps on the couch in his living room, as his desire to protect Morgan from a “very confused” stranger is contradicted by his desire to protect said stranger (Giselle) from the dangers of “the woods”. With this in mind, I believe that Enchanted fits in well within the father-as-protector film cycle that began in the wake of 9/11.

The idea of bringing the country back together after the tragedy is reinforced by the ‘That’s How You Know’ number, in which Giselle enlists the help of the visitors of Central Park in teaching Robert how to woo Nancy. Citizens of all ages, races, and social class all come together to dance and sing under Giselle’s guidance. The song also helps to cement Giselle’s love for New York; now that Giselle has found people who will sing with her, those that she would have once found scary no longer are. She has no qualms sitting next to a group of old men for example, even though she was robbed by an old man earlier in the film. The all-singing, all-back-flipping workmen in blue overalls and hard hats also look to be Disney-fied versions of the workmen at the manhole Edward jumps out of when he arrives in New York.  New York now reveals itself to be an inviting, friendly place, full of interesting, vibrant people, who all believe in the power of true love and happily ever afters.

The sequence also recalls the daily parades that take place at Disney theme parks, further reinforcing the feeling of being transported to another, happier world. These escapist ideologies can also be linked to the resurgence of science-fiction and fantasy films post-9/11, such as the Harry Potter (2002 – 2011), Lord of the Rings (2001- 2003) and Star Wars (1999 – 2005) series. Frances Pheasant-Kelly suggests that the fantasy genre provided a welcome, guaranteed fantasy in the wake of the horrific events that had previously been confined to disaster movies (13).

Through Giselle’s unwavering optimism the audience is invited to recall the lost excitement and wonder of their city (and country, and maybe even world). It seems that rather than dealing with and exploring 9/11 directly, as the film may have been forced to do had it been released earlier in the decade, Enchanted aims to therapeutically heal the fear and distrust it left behind, while acting as a reminder to New Yorkers to hold onto the resilience they are known for.

Faux parody After the fall-out between Disney chairmen Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg in 1997, the latter left to set up DreamWorks. The new studio scored success with Shrek (2001), a parody of fairytale films that many critics read as a criticism of Disney’s promotion of traditional values (Waxman). The film selects particular tropes and characters, and inverts them: the hero is uncharismatic and unapologetically rude, the princess is a martial arts expert, and by the end of the film they are both far from classically attractive. If Shrek could therefore be classed as a “true parody”, I would agree with Jack Zipes who refers to Enchanted as a “faux parody” (24). Zipes argues that Enchanted presents itself as “a film that pretends to change the Disney model […] while pandering to consumerism” (24). Enchanted can be read as Disney arguing back that the conservative, traditional values that Shrek aims to criticise can and do have a place in contemporary American society, under the guise of a liberal take on traditional Disney films.

In the final rewrite of the script (written by the original scriptwriter, Bill Kelly) the film became an affectionate, or faux, parody of films of the studio’s Formalist and Renaissance eras (Pallant 9). The influence of these earlier eras is clear in both the animated and live action portions of the film, particularly in the musical numbers. The eager cockroaches, pigeons, and rats Giselle calls upon during the ‘Happy Working Song’ number act as a tongue-in-cheek recollection of the mice and woodland creatures in Cinderella‘s ‘The Work Song’ and Snow White‘s ‘Whistle While You Work’ respectively. However, even though the ‘Happy Working Song’ sequence appears to be a satirical take on these particular numbers, there is still an element of charm and nostalgia running through. The animals are helpful and willing workers, and leave the apartment completely spotless. The fact that the animals come to Giselle when they are called even in the real world strongly suggests that the magic associated with Disney, and thus the conservative, traditional values associated with Disney, are all-pervasive and all-powerful.

Love and destiny are also regarded as omniscient forces that are beyond the control of the characters. When we first meet Giselle, she is dressing a mannequin to look like a prince she dreamt about, much like Aurora does in Sleeping Beauty. Although this mannequin looks nothing like Prince Edward, the audience are encouraged to link the two together through the use of a cross-dissolve from a close up of the mannequin to a close up of Edward. Through this interpretation, it can seem that Giselle’s decision to be with Robert suggests that she, as a liberal contemporary woman, went against the lover she was destined to have. However, this idea is contradicted by the fact that the mannequin is in fact dressed to look exactly how Robert is dressed at the ball, suggesting that Giselle and Robert were destined to be together all along. It is not just Giselle for whom this is true; the other primary characters seem to accept that a higher, divine force controls who falls in love with whom. Rather than being annoyed or upset that her boyfriend of five years has declared his love for another woman, Nancy encourages Robert to kiss Giselle and bring her back to life. This contradicts the concepts of choice and free will, which are vital to a liberal society, and which form one of the key platforms of the feminist movement.

It is interesting to note that the film can also be read as a contemporary romantic comedy as it follows the traditional format: Giselle and Robert initially disagree about fundamental topics, only for them both to fall in love at the end of the film. As Thomas Schatz explains, romantic comedies “may be viewed as a ‘familiar formula’ that “serves to continually re-examine some basic cultural conflict” (14). By interpreting Robert as a representation of liberal values, and Giselle as a representation of conservative values, this adds another political dimension to the film. To begin with, the audience is keen for traditional, conservative Giselle to assimilate with contemporary society. Her naivete sometimes makes for uncomfortable viewing; for example, while some may find it amusing that she mistakes a man with dwarfism for Grumpy of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs fame, others may find her lack of sensitivity to be embarrassing and to reflect unfavourably on her. This also reinforces Giselle’s role as a fish out of conservative water, and adds to the audience’s relief when she appears at the ball in contemporary dress, complete with straightened hair and smoky eye-make up, having seemingly assimilated into the “real world”.

Crucially, Robert, the cynical divorce lawyer who initially rejects romance for a “rational” marriage with Nancy, is ultimately won over by Giselle, and thus the Disney fairy tale format. During the ‘That’s How You Know Number’ he frequently criticises what’s going on, and acts as a stand in for the contemporary audience by voicing logistical concerns they may have, such as, “He knows the song too? […] I’ve never heard this song”. Robert also expresses his apathy to participating in the number: “I don’t dance […] and I really don’t sing.” However, during the ‘So Close’ number near the end of the film, Robert dances with Giselle and also sings softly in her ear, as if telling her privately that she has begun to change his mind and that he now accepts Giselle’s traditional view of love. Although the song is not technically performed by Robert, and rather by a band singer at the ball, the lyrics certainly pertain to Robert’s character development (“We’re so close to reaching that famous happy end/ Almost believing this one’s not pretend”). This nostalgic return to the equilibrium of early Disney happy endings reinforces the idea of the film as not just a faux parody, but as a genuine successor to the original Disney Princess films, and again opens the door to a revival of Disney fairytale adaptations.



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Written by Lara Ibrahim Mubaydeen (2017); edited by Guy Westwell (2017), Queen Mary, University of London

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Copyright © 2017 Lara Ibrahim Mubaydeen/Mapping Contemporary Cinema

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