What do you get if you mix together Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella, toss in a dash of Ariel and a smidge of Belle, and drop her into the cold, harsh light of reality? Writer Bill Kelly and director Kevin Lima ask just that question in Enchanted, Disney's newest family film offering, which merges classic Disney animation with live action in bringing fairy tale characters to life.

Animated Giselle (Amy Adams) has been spending her time doing what all good little Disney heroines do -- sitting around her cute little cottage in the middle of a forest, hanging out with all the little forest creatures and dreaming of her Prince Charming coming to carry her off to his castle in the clouds. Giselle doesn't seem to have much purpose or direction in her life beyond that singular goal; after all, she already has the two things every good animated future princess needs in order to snag a royal sweetie: delicate beauty and a lovely singing voice.

Giselle does meet her Prince Charming, er, Edward (James Marsden) when he rescues her from a troll who was about to eat her for a little pre-dinner snack. After bursting into song in a perfectly harmonized duet (actually sung by Marsden and Adams, both of whom have surprisingly good voices), the pair plan do what all good fairy tale folks do the day after they meet someone they like -- get married for ever, and ever, and ever. The one person who isn't thrilled with the happy couples' nuptial plans is the prince's stepmother, Narissa (Susan Sarandon), who, in addition to being secretly evil, isn't about to give up her crown to the sweet Giselle. Disguised as a hag, Narissa enchants Giselle as she rushes to her wedding and sends her down a magic well and into the real world. Giselle pops up -- literally -- in the middle of Times Square (yeah, I bet you New Yorkers were loving Disney when they shut down Times Square to film that scene), resplendent in her big, poufy, fairy-tale wedding dress. Of course, New York being what it is, even a fairy-tale princess come to life in the middle of Times Square is only going to hold the attention of onlookers for so long; a collective cynical shrug later, Giselle finds herself swept along on a sea of humanity into the subway, only to emerge later, lost and scared, in a seedy part of town.

Enter Prince Charming -- no, not Prince Edward, Giselle's husband-to-be in Andalasia, but Robert, a well-to-do lawyer/single father, all wrapped up in the handsome package of Patrick Dempsey. Robert is miles away from "happily ever after;" he's a divorce lawyer raising his daughter alone, and he doesn't believe in love and happy endings, thank you very much. Robert is the kind of guy who softens the blow of telling his six-year-old daughter, Morgan (Rachel Covey) she's going to get a new stepmother by giving her a book on famous women in history. Because what six-year-old girl wouldn't rather read all about Marie Curie and the suffragists than ride her very own pony?

Morgan loves fairy tales, and princesses -- things Robert would like her to leave behind, so she can start dealing with the "real world," which, as he sees it, is a cold, unfriendly place just waiting to slap his baby girl with some heartache. When Giselle waltzes into her life, Morgan is enchanted by her, and Robert finds himself inexplicably drawn to her as well -- and so are we. It isn't long though, before Edward has popped into the real world as well, intent on finding his lady love, accompanied by Pip, Giselle's best friend (a cutesy little chipmunk) and his manservant, Nathaniel, who's secretly serving Narissa and is there, like the hunter in Snow White, to eliminate the competition in a lethal fashion.

What I like most about Giselle as a character is her arc. She starts out the film as a paper doll, a character of one-dimension only, incomplete without her Prince. When she becomes human, though, and experiences human emotion and interacts in our world, she starts to think and get ideas, which rather befuddles Prince Edward, who finds his Disney dream girl now has a mind of her own. Everything is all mixed together deliciously, and the packed house I saw the film with was entranced from beginning to end. It's been a while since I've been at a screening where the audience laughs out loud and spontaneously applauds in the middle of a film (though one of the funnier moments was unscripted, coming when a small child's voice in the darkened theater could be heard saying "Eww, yuck!" in the quiet moment of a kiss scene).

Adams (who charmed in Junebug) breaths life into Giselle, playing her with a believable wide-eyed innocence. The live-action Giselle could have been overplayed and one-dimensional, but Adams captures the subtle nuances of the character and engages us in Giselle's story. Marsden also deserves props for a spot-on performance as the slightly befuddled, somewhat egoistical, but essentially nice prince; he plays the role with just the teeniest touch of camp. Rounding out the cast are Tony-award winning actress Idina Menzel (Wicked) as Nancy, Robert's serious and cynical girlfriend who longs, in her heart-of-hearts, to be swept off her feet, Brit actor Timothy Spall (Wormtail from the Harry Potter films) as Nathaniel, the double-crossing servant, and Susan Sarandon as Narcissa. Sarandon is clearly enjoying getting to be deliciously evil.

Disney pulled out all the stops in making Enchanted, from bringing in makeup guru Rick Baker to design the hag, to getting Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz to do the music. Nods to classic Disney films are sprinkled liberally throughout, from the visual design of Andalasia, to the characters of Giselle and Narissa, to the little touches like magic mirrors and poisoned apples. The music has that classic Disney feel, from Giselle's "Happy Working Song" that she sings while charming the New York City wildlife to help clean Robert's apartment, to the show-stopping song-and-dance number in Central Park, "That's How You Know." The latter is particularly clever; it's not easy to find a natural reason for a person to just burst into song, but here the idealistic Gazelle is an animated character from a world where people really DO that, so it makes sense. As she dances and sings her way through the Central Park, picking up random people Pied Piper-fashion, she gathers the audience as well, and this is largely due to Adams charm and sincerity radiating through the screen.

After a year filled with divisive politics, religious dissension, and more Iraq war documentaries than I care to count, I, for one, was about ready for some fantasy fare to lighten the mood a bit as 2007 wanes away. So many family films these days seem to miss the mark, not quite living up to their promise and potential; too often they have little reason for existing other than as tools with which to encourage the buying of lots of overpriced toys. Enchanted hits every high note, and a great family film that entertains both the kids and adults is something we can all be truly thankful for.

Want more Enchanted? Check out Moviefone's Unscripted interview with Patrick Dempsey and Amy Adams.
categories Reviews, Cinematical