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Princess Giselle (Amy Adams), in a flower tiara and a white dress with gigantic puffy princess sleeves, leans on a balcony and smiles dreamily into the distance, as if waiting for her prince to come, in Enchanted Photo: Barry Wetcher/Walt Disney Pictures

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Enchanted changed how Disney makes movies — and that doomed Disenchanted

Enchanted had a huge impact, and Disney has followed its formula in live-action movies ever since

Being a movie critic in 2022 comes with some creative challenges. With the endless surge of sequels, reboots, and remakes being churned out, there are only a few dozen ways to express “The latest installment in this series lacks the magic of the original movie.” Disney’s live-action fairy tale Disenchanted, a sequel 15 years in the making, is no exception: The critical consensus says it fails to equal the standard set by its predecessor, 2007’s Enchanted. Hey, at least most online word processors have a synonym generator for critics to play with.

Perhaps one reason Disenchanted failed to recapture the public imagination is that it’s trying to succeed in a media landscape heavily shaped by the impact of the original Enchanted. That movie’s success acted as a litmus test for Walt Disney Pictures during a period of dramatic change for family entertainment, and it greatly influenced Disney’s creative choices in the succeeding years. But the formula Enchanted established for Disney has worn a little thin after more than a decade of being constantly repackaged and applied to film after film. There are many reasons why Disenchanted missed the mark. (One being that hearing the name of the fantasy kingdom Andalasia around 500 times in the first 45 minutes can give you a hell of a headache.) But the real crux of the problem goes back to Enchanted’s origin story.

Enchanted began its journey to the big screen in 1997, when budding screenwriter Bill Kelly wrote the first draft and pitched it to executives as a “collision between fairy-tale romance and modern cynicism.” While the finished movie is a family-friendly Disney romp, the early draft of Enchanted was a far more adult affair, combining the spirit of late-’90s raunchy sex comedies with a satirical pastiche of the Disney movie formula. Director Kevin Lima later recalled that version as being “kind of snide” and “more along the line of films like Shrek.” One notable scene involved the oblivious Andalasian princess Giselle (eventually played by Amy Adams) arriving in New York and being hired to pop out of a cake at a bachelor party, where she’s then mistaken for a stripper. There were no animated sequences or big-budget musical numbers in Kelly’s original version.

Princess Giselle (Amy Adams) sits beaming on a rock in a New York City park overlooking a pond filled with boaters, her embroidered princess skirt spread decoratively around her. Bemused love interest Robert (Patrick Dempsey), in a blah brown suit, looks on with confusion in Enchanted Photo: Walt Disney Pictures

Disney was intrigued enough to buy his script, but the risqué content, combined with the film’s blatant lampooning of the company’s entire canon, made producers nervous. At the time, Disney was still riding high on the Disney Renaissance era, which resurrected the fairy-tale musicals of the company’s golden years, reinvigorating a company that had been struggling with its identity and direction since Walt Disney’s death decades earlier. It seemed counterintuitive for the studio’s next project to shamelessly mock the blueprint that saved its neck.

But Disney was also facing serious competition from more self-aware and narratively mature family entertainment. Following a public spat with Disney CEO Michael Eisner, chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg left the company in 1994 to co-found DreamWorks and spearhead the company’s animation department. Four years later, DreamWorks hit Disney with two hugely successful animated releases in the space of six months — Antz and The Prince of Egypt. “Easily a match for anything Disney has released in the last decade,” critic James Berardinelli wrote about The Prince of Egypt, “an impressive achievement which uncovers yet another chink in Disney’s once-impregnable animation armor.” For the first time since the release of The Little Mermaid, Disney’s reign as the peerless ruler of the animation industry was under threat.

Shrek’s release in 2001 was a particularly devastating blow. This subversive tale of a fairy-tale ogre and a rebellious princess who get an unconventional happy ending forced Disney to confront some home truths. Shrek not only handily beat out Disney’s animated feature of that year — the intended company game-changer Atlantis: The Lost Empire but it did it while taking obvious, deliberate potshots at Disney’s reputation and iconography. There’s been plenty of unconfirmed speculation that the villainous, short-statured Lord Farquaad is based on Michael Eisner. But I’m talking about that scene where Princess Fiona uses her Snow White-esque vibrato to blow up a songbird, then fries its eggs for breakfast. Or that sequence introducing Farquaad’s land of Duloc as a saccharine, picture-perfect pastiche of Disneyland, complete with costumed character mascots and squeaky-voiced animatronics, à la the “It’s a Small World” ride. For the folks at Disney, that must have stung.

It was time to address the cultural reset and get with the program. Kevin Lima (director of Disney’s 1999 animated feature Tarzan, widely considered the last movie of the Renaissance era), recalled that difficult period when it became clear that change was needed. “There had to be this level of cynicism,” he told Den of Geek. “It had to perform as Shrek performed in order to connect.” Suddenly, that script gathering dust in a filing cabinet about a Disney Princess being lured into stripping for a bachelor party seemed like a valuable asset.

Live-action Disney Princess Giselle (Amy Adams) and love interest Robert (Patrick Dempsey) sit smiling with their heads together in a purple-upholstered coach riding around a New York City park in Enchanted Photo: Walt Disney Pictures

After several false starts, with multiple directors and rewrites, Disney hired Lima, a trusted studio veteran, to helm the production. Kelly returned to rework the script, pulling from ideas suggested by interim writers during the long rewrite phase. From the outset, Lima insisted on toning down the bawdiness seen in earlier drafts. It could be possible, he argued, to channel the profitability of parody without making Walt turn in his cryogenic grave. “Let’s embrace who we are and make it a love letter to Disney,” he told executives, according to that Den of Geek interview. “There are hundreds of thousands of people who love this material. Let’s not wreck it for them.”

Shrek won its audience’s favor by having the titular character mock Disney’s “storybook opening” trademark by using storybook pages as toilet paper. But it still left room for the filmmakers to reap the dopaminergic benefits of nostalgia. Enchanted invites its audience to remember the childhood wonder associated with Disney movies — but also feel a little smug about being older, wiser, and capable of appreciating the irony of Giselle hypnotizing woodland creatures into performing manual labor.

Enchanted begins with a storybook opening unspoiled by a pessimistic ogre. It’s set to a sweeping orchestral melody, courtesy of Disney Renaissance-era maestros Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz. The prologue, set in the traditionally animated land of Andalasia, celebrates all the classic Disney tropes and characters that can be crammed into 13 minutes, from cottage-dwelling princesses to evil queens with a fondness for poisoned apples. When Princess Giselle is thrust into the neon-lit streets of New York, the spirit of Andalasia goes with her, and Lima and Kelly are careful not to completely discredit the dreams-come-true ethos it represents — that is, the Disney brand.

Save for a few moments reminiscent of the biting satire in the original script, Giselle’s eternally sanguine aura overpowers the stark reality surrounding her. She’s even able to goad New Yorkers into performing an elaborately choreographed song-and-dance routine about love. Lima’s calculated course between adult cynicism and childhood simplicity paid off: The film was a critical and financial success, proving Disney could safely regurgitate time-honored plot themes and imagery like the coma-curing true love’s kiss, so long as it included a dash of subversion and self-awareness that could keep post-Shrek audiences intrigued.

Disney knew it had something useful in Enchanted’s approach, and it’s unsurprising that under the leadership of Bob Iger — the former Disney CEO who recently returned to the position, replacing his appointed successor, Bob Chapek — Disney would fix its sights on acquiring more intellectual properties it could revise and expand for adult viewers. Acquiring Pixar, Lucasfilm, Marvel, and 20th Century Fox gave Disney freedom to resurrect almost any beloved franchise audiences recalled from childhood. Even Disney’s animated features with original stories and characters started to take lessons from Enchanted, countering Disney’s nostalgia upcycling with wink-to-the-camera meta commentaries. Just look at Elsa in Frozen, lecturing her sister Anna about how irresponsible it would be to marry a prince she’s just met — and then, with adult cynicism satisfied, promptly building an entire ice castle with magic, while singing a Broadway-worthy show tune.

Of course Disenchanted isn’t going to pack the same punch as Enchanted did in 2007. We didn’t really wait 15 years for an Enchanted sequel: We got one every time Disney relied on the subverted-fairy-tale-classic recipe that served it so well during the ogre uprising of 2001. It’s not that people won’t watch Disenchantedmixed reviews and disappointed fan reactions aside, the film has become one of the top-streamed films in the U.S. since its release on Nov. 18, becoming the second most-watched film across all platforms a week later. Its nostalgic value, strong cast, and position as new holiday-ready family entertainment guarantees that millions of people will still watch it, just as they consistently watch Disney’s little-loved live-action remakes.

I know how that goes. Just a few months ago, I temporarily subscribed to Disney Plus just to watch the critically panned remake of my all-time favorite movie, Pinocchio. I sat there groaning at the prolonged sequence involving cuckoo clocks with Disney-movie Easter egg designs, seeing clearly enough what cross-branding game the company was playing. (And wondering why they hadn’t yet sent lawyers to Geppetto’s house to issue a cease-and-desist order.) Yet mere minutes later, I was getting teary as Cynthia Erivo launched into the opening bars of “When You Wish Upon a Star.” Because for a blissful, fleeting moment, I was back to being a carefree 5-year-old who didn’t know climate change existed.

Disney has made billions of dollars off remakes and reboots that use the Enchanted recipe, so it still probably has plenty of time to exploit it, to keep those big bucks rolling in. But when Enchanted’s own sequel is exposing early signs of wear and tear in the system, it’s probably time to figure out a new game plan before the wheels fall off completely. Every era has its end. The Disney Renaissance, invincible as it seemed, wasn’t impervious to the shifting zeitgeist. Even Giselle knew when it was time to stop acting like she was in Andalasia and adapt to the world of New York. The day may be coming when Disney has to follow suit.

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