Walt Disney may be the single biggest influence on twentieth century culture, but the company he founded has in recent years lost its way. For the past seventy years following the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, most American children have grown up on Disney movies. All that seemed to change three years ago, when the company announced that the forgettable Home on the Range would be its last full-length animated feature. Thankfully, neither that decision nor the confusion that prompted it may have been truly final. For the first ten minutes or so of their latest movie, Enchanted, their animation division is back in full force, and it's a good return to form. Then the main characters are thrown into the real world, as if in a Simpsons Halloween episode, and they bring the Disney spirit to New York. In both its animated and its live-action sequences the film is intentionally self-referential to previous Disney movies, but not postmodern, like Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, or mean-spirited, like Shrek (Jeffrey Katzenberg's raspberry to his former employer). Rather, it's a cinematic argument that the old formulas still work. It effectively sends up our modern lack of understanding of emotion without irony, sweetness without bathos. It's a Disney movie that is a fundamental defense of Disney movies, and the best Disney movie in almost two decades.
Disney represents the pinnacle of traditionally drawn animation, which in our technologically enlightened era can seem beautifully anachronistic -- sadly, even to business models. Only fourteen years after Beauty and the Beast, the first Disney movie to feature computer animation, virtually all animated movies were CGI, and Disney left the medium it defined. Disney's exit from the field of full-length hand-drawn animated movies betrayed a fundamental doubt about the company's ability to make the movies that defined it: gorgeously rendered, impeccably styled musicals for the whole family, unabashedly saccharine and, for the modern age, almost unthinkably unironic. Finally, with Enchanted, Disney seems to have regained their faith in, and much of their skill at, what they do best. The script gently reminds viewers that lack of irony and straightforwardness of meaning can actually be a good thing, and until the overwrought conclusion, strikes a nearly perfect tone of casual reverence to the Disney legacy.
Old-style Disney movies didn't need recognizable actors, because the intensely quality-controlled brand was always far more important than the individual pieces. (Aladdin and The Lion King are both fine, but both are marked by an overreliance on screen actors recruited as ringers, especially the histrionic Robin Williams. Neither came close to the high-water mark of Beauty and the Beast.) Enchanted is the first Disney animated film where casting screen actors was essential, because the animated characters enter the real world, and fortunately they got the casting of the main character right. It's a performance that requires the actress to humanize the 70-year old Disney formula princess without teen beat pandering, ironic winks, or the whiff of an anti-hero. In bringing Princess Giselle to life, Amy Adams gives a stunning, Oscar-worthy performance, every bit as gorgeous and adorable as Ariel, Belle, Cinderella, or any of her other forebears. It's Adams's movie from stem to stern -- a live-action actress arguing passionately for the integrity of animated children's movies -- and the rest of movie soars under her, faithful to its many influences, from fantastic Busby Berkeley musical setpieces to animal sidekicks who look straight out of Ratatouille. The rest of the cast is fine as well: James Marsden is also well-cast (and cast to type) as the attractive, well-meaning and dimwitted Prince Edward; Patrick Dempsey effectively transitions to the big screen; Timothy Spall is reliably good as a treacherous appearance-changing servant, as he was in the Harry Potter movies; and Susan Sarandon is fine but mostly wasted as the evil queen.
The tone is relentlessly bright, and it could get wearing if it weren't so infectious. Adams is rarely in serious danger for long; Sarandon just isn't as effectively evil as other Disney evil queens. The songs are amiably forgettable, and work best as setups for the truly superb choreography and dance setpieces, particularly one in Central Park that is really the highlight of the movie. And, as I said earlier, the movie's sureness of tone deserts it in the final ten minutes, where the script finally turns too self-referential for its own good and thuds off to its happy ending. There are no surprises to be found in the plot, only pleasant surprises in the execution.
It is a completely derivative movie, even more than most Disney movies, but unlike much of Disney's recent output, it gets the derivation right. Ever since Snow White, the movie that firmly established the Disney formula for a successful, musical, sanitized, animated fairy tale, many of the best Disney movies have tapped into the familiar forms, and Enchanted winkingly embraces its unoriginality. As a result, it's not quite as good as the movies made at Disney's peak, back when the rules were still being written, as it still closely follows that half-century-old decorum. However, its humor is derived not from poking fun at the old-fashionedness of the sensibility, but in how far we are from it, how far we've gone from a simple belief in the saving power of true love. After all, if we can't appreciate that, in some important way the joke's on us.