Fairy tales and modern-day Manhattan find a way to live happily ever after in this adorable Disney story about the adventures of a prince, an almost-princess, and an evil queen in New York City.
The camera zooms in on the famous Disney castle logo and we’re in an only very slightly cock-eyed version of the classic animated fairy tales, with Giselle (Amy Adams), a big-eyed girl with all the hair singing sweetly about her dreams to an array of adorable woodland creatures, including her talking chipmunk friend, Pip. Prince Edward (James Marsden) rides through the forest with his trusty courtier Nathaniel (Timothy Spall). He is singing, too. He hears Giselle and the next thing you know he is rescuing her from an escaped giant troll and they are in love and plan to get married the next day.
But if Edward gets married, he will become king and his evil step-mother, Queen Narissa (Susan Sarandon) will not let that happen. Disguised as an old crone, she shoves Giselle, poofy wedding dress and all, into a well. She falls and falls until she comes out of a manhole in the middle of Times Square.
She’s befriended by a single father named Robert (Patrick “Dr. McDreamy” Dempsey) and his daughter Morgan (Rachel Covey). Robert, a divorce lawyer, does not believe in fairy tales, princesses, or dreams that come true, and thinks Giselle is deranged, especially after she cuts up his curtains to make her dress and calls on the urban equivalent of woodland creatures — rats, roaches, and pigeons — to help her clean the apartment. And then the Prince, Nathaniel, Pip, and Narissa show up. Giselle learns that reality has something to offer and Robert has to learn that maybe happily ever after is not a fantasy after all.
The film accomplishes three things at once. First, it succeeds as a traditional, well, almost-traditional fairy tale. All of the core elements are there, from the kiss of true love to the gallant rescue. Second, without disturbing the romantic fantasy, everything just gets tweaked a bubble off prime, at the same time allowing us to enjoy the fairy tale and laugh at it at the same time. And third, it makes that all seem effortless and not the least bit ironic or snarky. No air quotes or winks at the audience, just a fresh, sweet story. And that’s movie magic.
A lot of the credit for that goes to Disney, which gives the fairy tale part of the movie the loving care of its biggest and best classic films. Director Kevin Lima worked on hand-drawn animation blockbusters The Little Mermaid and The Brave Little Toaster and it is a pleasure to see the old school animation done with brushes instead of pixels.
Composer Alan Menken is responsible for the brilliant soundtracks of Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast and Steven Schwartz of Pocahontas . They literally hit just the right note. The songs are tuneful and would fit right into a straight-on version of a fairy tale, but every so often they throw an unexpected rhyme and you realize Giselle is warbling about vermin. And who better to provide the impeccably spoken narration than Mary Poppins herself, Julie Andrews?
It was around the time of Aladdin that fairy tales got their first touch of post-modern spin, with Robin Williams wisecracking and adopting the personas of everyone from William F. Buckley to Groucho Marx as the genie. Since Shrek the basic premises of princesses and heroes and wishes and quests have all been a little snark-ified until some have wondered whether even small children remember what a straight, honest story feels like anymore. The unexpected pleasure of this film is the way it tweaks the tweakers with a sort of post-post-modernism that takes us straight back to an unabashed joy that feels almost new again.
The fish-out-of-water interactions are delightful, especially a musical number in Central Park that is both a tribute to “spontaneous” singing and dancing and a gentle spoof as well. But the heart of the movie in every way is Adams’ performance, completely genuine, utterly sweet, totally present. Giselle may switch to live action the moment she climbs up into Times Square, but Adams is simply sublime in showing us Giselle’s gradual coming to life as she begins to think and feel in three dimensions. Sarandon relishes the role of the evil queen, and is simply stunning in all three forms: cartoon, real-life, and Rick Baker-ized crone. When Pip the chipmunk cannot speak in real life, he resorts to extreme gestures and frenzied charades, which is funny. When they are crystal clear to everyone but the very enthusiastic but slightly self-involved and more than slightly dim Prince Edward, it is very funny. And when it turns out that dreams can come true and a kiss can be just as powerful in real life and in fairy tales, it is funny, and sweet, and wise, and thats as happily ever after as a movie can be.
Parents should know that the movie may be too intense for younger children, with a fire-breathing dragon, a giant troll, a mean witch, an acrimonious couple, and some icky bugs. Characters are in fantasy-style peril. There is some potty humor and there are some very mild sexual references. Characters drink alcohol and one gets drunk. A strength of the movie is the reversal of traditional gender roles, with male and female rescuers.
Families who see this movie should talk about what “happily ever after” means. What were the most important things that Giselle and Robert learned from each other? What should people find out about each other on dates? How does liking yourself affect the way other people treat you?
Families who enjoy this film will also enjoy Happily N’ever After, Hoodwinked, and The Shrek Trilogy, as well as some of the Disney classics that inspired this one, like Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella.