It’s ok to enjoy schmaltz every now and then. Even critics can’t live on Three Colours alone. Although art-house cinema has its rewards, something about pure, flagrantly manipulative schmaltz is necessary to maintain good movie-mental health. I know there are those who would insist Disney’s Enchanted is an insult to the art-form that gave us Au Hasard Balthazar, but let’s face it, with a choice between manipulative joy and a dead donkey lying in a field – are you really such a stick-in-the-mud? Enchanted might not be art, but it has a sense of fun that few art-house movies’ possess. It’s also impossible not to sing-along to, which is not something you say of, say, Mouchette.
Enchanted begins as a classic Disney animated story, something a bit like Cinderella crossed with Snow White and crammed with as many Hallmark-card animals as possible. A young woman named Giselle lives in a cottage in a forest, patiently awaiting the day a handsome prince will come to marry her. In due course, a handsome prince arrives and a date is set for Giselle to wed. But the prince’s wicked stepmother plots to thwart Giselle’s happiness by banishing her to a world “where there are no happy endings”. On the day of the wedding, the wicked stepmother pushes Giselle down a wishing well… Giselle wakes up in nasty, cynical live-action New York.
To say it helps that they cast Amy Adams as Giselle is like saying it helps they cast a giant gorilla as King Kong. There wouldn’t be an Enchanted without Adams. Anyone who saw Junebug knows that she was the only logical choice to play a cartoon princess. She has an unerring ability to be bright and cheerful without inducing nausea in an audience (something Meg Ryan only intermittently got a handle on). Watching her play an animated character brought to life is a constant marvel on a par with Tom Hanks playing a grown-up kid in Big. Like Hanks (or like Hanks in Big at any rate), Adams is likable. She doesn’t demand that you like her, you just do. Even when she sings. Adams’ plays Giselle as the essence of Disney: innocent, joyful, manipulative, fun. She could charm the pennies out of a piggy bank. Her keynote scene, where she coaxes Central Park into an impromptu sing-along, is giddy with musical-theatre-enthusiasm. Sure it’s fake, it’s schmaltzy and all your other excuses, but it’s also so ebullient that you’d have to be Stalin not to tap your feet.
As the Handsome Prince, James Marsden has the right chin for the job and the right singing voice (if it’s his) to carry off duets with aplomb. Timothy Spall plays The Manservant with a dash of Frankie Howerd and Susan Sarandon does The Wicked Queen like Bette Davis circa Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? That guy from Grey’s Anatomy is fine as the real-world’s answer to Prince Charming, and the cute little girl they cast as his daughter is cute, but this is Amy Adams’ show. Just to watch her: the way she holds herself, as if the world was neverendingly coming up roses; her hands hovering in mid-air, as if conducting some goofball symphony. She is zest personified. That’s how she sidesteps schmaltz (or at least the bad kind of schmaltz); by being quicker, lighter, livelier than you anticipate. Adams’ makes you fall for Enchanted because she makes innocence fleet of foot – she isn’t mired in saccharine, she’s a sugar-rush.
Enchanted is spun from gossamer, but it’s bigger than that somehow. Or maybe it isn’t even that it’s bigger, so much as: it makes you appreciate gossamer. Not every movie can have intellectual weight – some aren’t meant to. One of the joys of movies is that some movies exist to bring joy, and that’s that. It’s unfair to expect Au Hazard Balthazar to be a barrel of laughs because it’s a movie about God’s grace and man’s inhumanity to man. Equally with Enchanted, you can’t ask a fairy princess story to offer philosophical insight because, well, Disney made it. So you switch off your brain for an hour and forty minutes… Joy doesn’t require deep thought.