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Story Problems: A Review of Disney's Disenchanted

Fifteen years ago, I sat in the theater watching Disney's Enchanted and loving every minute of it. The movie was unlike anything I'd ever seen before, both celebrating and gently poking fun at numerous Disney tropes, plot points, and moments we'd all grown up with. The acting was amazing, the songs were over the top and delightfully singable, and the concept unique and fun.


Over the years, my girls and I watched it together, loving the special features on the Blu-ray just as much as the film itself.


So when Disney announced a sequel to this beloved film, I was cautiously optimistic.


I did this rough sketch study based on one of the photos released earlier this year, but waited to share it until I'd seen the movie because I was a little worried. Would Disenchanted live up to the original?

I've been pretty disappointed overall with a lot of Disney's recent content, especially the constant live-action adaptations they've been releasing. Honestly, I feel like their live-action remakes have started to become equivalent to their direct-to-DVD sequels in the mid 90s: no more than a quick cash grab. Do we really NEED another version of EVERY SINGLE Disney animated film ever made? Especially when so many of them are just sad, empty shells of the original films? (Especially The Lion King and Pinocchio. I couldn't even finish them.)


But I really wanted to love this movie. I came to it with an open mind, realizing that sometimes I can be a little picky when Disney messes with my nostalgia.


And I loved some of it.


I've been sitting here most of the past few days fighting a bad cold and thinking through what worked and what didn't for me. So instead of keeping it all in my brain, I thought I'd process things here as well.


As a storyteller myself, I want to learn from other stories, good or bad (or in between), so that I can continue to grow. Analyzing what connects with me and what doesn't in a story helps me to do that. And, as I'm not an authority on story structure or plot, you may come to completely different conclusions, which is perfectly fine! I'd love to discuss your thoughts in the comments. :)


I realize that while Disney as a corporation is mainly interested in making money, behind the scenes of each movie they make is a team of people who are passionate storytellers themselves, so I want to be respectful in the way I review things. We live in a world where people love to go online and rant about things they don't like, which rarely leads to anything helpful. As tempting (and fun) as a snarky rant can be, I'd like to avoid that here. My goal is to logically point out things that didn't work story-wise without resorting to insults or unkindness.


Non-Spoiler Version


In order to do the type of review I'd like to do, I'll need to do it with spoilers. So if you'd rather not have spoilers for this movie, you'll want to watch it before reading this post. If you're wanting a quick take on my thoughts with no spoilers, here it is: it wasn't the worst Disney sequel ever made, but it also wasn't the best.


Is it worth watching? Probably at least once. There are some enjoyable parts and some fun homages to the first movie. It's nice to see the original cast back together. Amy Adams is brilliant in the lead role, story problems aside. But I definitely wouldn't say it's as unique and memorable as the first film. In all honesty, I came away with mixed feelings, one of the strongest of them being disappointment for what could have been.


So, with that, on to the spoilery review ... which I've divided into sections with titles because it ended up being waaayyy longer than I originally planned. :D


A Quick Summary


After the birth of their second daughter, Giselle and Robert decide they want to move to the suburbs to provide a better life for their girls. When they get to their new home in Monroeville, however, it's not all Giselle dreamed it would be. Giselle and Morgan are having trouble communicating, and their relationship is strained to the point that Morgan tells Giselle she is just her stepmother. As a result, Giselle makes a wish on a magic wishing wand (we'll go into that later) and wishes for a fairytale life. Her wish is granted, and life becomes exactly like a fairytale, complete with cheerfully singing kitchen appliances, a Cinderella-esque Morgan who now happily sings about doing chores, and an Edwardified Robert who is now determined to go out questing. Everything seems perfect, except for one thing: stepmothers are always evil in fairytales. So, because she's a stepmother, Giselle slowly transforms from her normal, sweet self into someone much more wicked. The rest of the plot revolves around whether Giselle will remember who she is and whether the others will help her save the day before it's too late and her wish becomes permanent (at the last stroke of midnight, of course).


What Worked


I'd like to start with positives, because there definitely were some positive aspects.


Animation

First, the hand drawn animation sequences were gorgeous. They brought back to my mind the days of beautiful hand drawn animation that we used to have. I thought they did a good job with keeping the look consistent with the animation segments from the first film.


The Amazing Amy Adams

Next, we have to talk about Amy Adams. I love watching Amy perform, and she did such a great job with this, especially her descent into wickedness as it took over more and more. She even had a sort of Gollum back and forth scene that was brilliant. I was able to enjoy most of the acting from all of the characters overall. I think most of the problems I had with the story were due to the writing and direction, not the acting itself. But more on that later.


Giselle's Costumes

While I wasn't a fan of some of the costuming, I loved all of Giselle's costumes and Morgan's ballgown.


Giselle and Morgan

One of the things I really connected to in this movie was Giselle's struggle with Morgan. I don't have stepdaughters, and I'm not exactly a Giselle, but I am a sparkly, unicorn-loving person who still loves fairytales and collects toys. I like happy stories and happy music and I hate confrontation. My three teenaged daughters tend to be a little edgier and a little snarkier. They all enjoy scary stories and darker music, so there are definitely times where our tastes and our outlooks on life don't match. Watching Giselle struggle to connect with Morgan felt incredibly relatable. I think just about anyone who's parenting a teenager has had those moments where you feel completely out of your depth. The adorable kids that used to hang on your every word and have problems that could be solved with a kiss and a bandaid are dealing with much more complicated issues now, and sometimes, no matter what you try, it's exactly what they don't need. When Giselle lamented that she used to always know the perfect song to sing, and even cupcakes didn't work anymore, I related on a deep level.


Hooray, No Broken Marriage!

I was also thankful that the screenwriters didn't decide to go with a story of marital discontentment, which I was really worried would be one of the main plot points.


Fairytale Life (After the Spell)

Most of the music didn't really work for me this time around, but I did love the musical sequence right after Giselle makes her wish. The hilarious contrast of regular life with the excessively Disneyfied one Giselle wished into existence was perfect, and watching it was one of the few times I had the same sheer joy I felt when watching Enchanted all those years ago.


Love and Care

The other thing I want to mention is I can tell a lot of love went into this. The cast was obviously having a wonderful time, and that was fun to see. It was also great to see so many of the original cast return.


What Didn't Work


So now, we come to the things that didn't work for me. Most of the issues I had with Disenchanted came down to the writing, from the way characters were portrayed to convenient plot points and resolution that came too easily.


Giselle's Character

As much as I loved Amy Adams' acting in this, I feel like Giselle was not portrayed as believably as she could have been. Disenchanted is supposed to take place ten years after the original movie, but the way they wrote Giselle's character would have made a lot more sense if it had been two or three years after the events of the first film.


One of the things that was so well done in Enchanted is that we saw Giselle slowly changing to adapt more to this world and become more in tune with and connected to Robert, to the point where when Edward came to rescue her and started singing, it felt awkward and she didn't automatically join in. I'm not saying that I think Giselle would become super "normal" and never sing, but I do feel that after ten years in our world, she would have adapted to some extent. The way she was portrayed in Disenchanted, it was as if she'd regressed to her personality at the beginning of Enchanted. I understand that having a cheery, Disney princess mom with a more grounded teenager is a fun concept, but it didn't make sense from a storytelling point of view.


Along that same line, the storytelling wasn't clear on their first morning in their new house in Monroeville, when Giselle struggled in the kitchen. While I'm assuming the writers were trying to show that the old house was causing all the problems, it came across more like Giselle didn't know how to use basic kitchen appliances. Again, after being in our world for ten years, surely she would know how to handle a toaster. This scene in particular would have also been more suited to Giselle and Robert's early years of marriage, as Giselle had to learn about all the new "gadgets and gizmos" our world had that Andalasia didn't.


Robert's Lack of Character

As I stated before, I was relieved that the movie didn't go for marital conflict as part of the plot. But unfortunately, because it focused so much on Giselle and Morgan, Robert became an almost unimportant secondary character. And worse than that, he felt flat and one dimensional.


I get that when Giselle made her wish and he was out questing, that was the point. He was supposed to be rather one dimensional. And that part was actually pretty fun. But when he wasn't in that segment, his basic job was to look at Giselle adoringly, tell her how much he loved her, tell her, "Oh, that's just what teenagers do. Morgan will be fine," and run late for work while feeling overwhelmed. One of the things I loved about Enchanted was the focus it had on both Giselle and Robert and their relationship. Robert was just as beautifully fleshed out as Giselle. And while I was glad I didn't have to watch their marriage falling apart, I was really hoping for more than Robert becoming a boring cardboard cutout. It felt like there was no growth in his character at all. He just kind of stayed static. Though I suppose since he was pretty much portrayed as perfect from the beginning, there wasn't much he needed to learn. It felt like such a missed opportunity. What sorts of adjustments would he have to make living in the suburbs after living in New York for so long? The writers introduced the idea of his struggle with the monotony of commuting so many hours, but instead of delving into that and giving him his own character arc, he spent most of the movie on princely quests that were there more for laughs than for actual character development. And at the end, everything in his work-related plot was resolved with a one sentence voiceover by Pip.


I'd also really hoped to see how Robert and Giselle's relationship had developed after ten years of marriage. But I left the movie feeling like I didn't really know anything more about their relationship than I had at the beginning.


Portal Power

Moving on to Nancy and Edward. They first appear in Robert and Giselle's new backyard, where they explain that they built a portal to Robert and Giselle's new home. This is the first of several examples of previously unexplained plot points that pulled me from the story. Up until this moment, we as the audience had no idea this was something Edward and Nancy could do. It felt like a convenient explanation of why they got to be in the movie.


I have so many questions about this scene. Was this the first time Edward and Nancy had returned since the first movie? That doesn't make sense, because they are Sophia's godparents, which, I'm assuming, would require some communication between them and Robert and Giselle. And if it was the first time they'd seen each other, I feel like Morgan would have been a little more surprised or shocked at their appearance. She would have been six years old the last time she saw them.


If it wasn't the first time, that opens up a whole new set of story issues. Did Edward and Nancy just randomly pop up from the manhole in New York whenever they felt like visiting? Would other people from our world find the portal and visit Andalasia? So many unanswered questions! I need to know the answers! ;)


Baby Sophia

While this isn't my biggest complaint, another thing that I feel could have been done better was the way Sophia, Robert and Giselle's second daughter, was written into the script. Sophia felt more like a plot device than an actual character. I do realize she was only a baby. Still, once she'd served her purpose as the catalyst for Robert and Giselle's move and the reason for Nancy and Edward to give a really bad gift that set the whole plot in motion, she spent most of the rest of the movie off screen with three obvious nods to the three good fairies from Sleeping Beauty.


When Edward and Nancy bestowed their previously mentioned gift of a wishing wand to a baby (seems like a great idea, right?), they (and Giselle) referred to Sophia as a "true daughter of Andalasia," and it was absolutely heartbreaking to see the insecurity and pain this caused Morgan. This plays into the conflict and resolution between Giselle and Morgan later, which should technically be an argument for Sophia's importance to the plot. But here's the thing. I can totally see Edward being this clueless and not thinking about how a comment like this might hurt Morgan. But Nancy? I don't think she would be that insensitive. And Giselle? When you're at odds with your teenager and have a personality like Giselle's (or mine), you're constantly worried about your kid and the things you say around them. In fact, you spend a lot of time thinking about what you're going to say to them before you say it, and the rest of the time rehashing what you should have said after you say things. Especially when conversations with them don't go well.


Even if Giselle and Nancy would have slipped in this manner, when Morgan made an offhanded comment about being a "false daughter of Andalasia," I feel like Nancy or Giselle would have noticed and realized their mistake. A healthy conversation at that point in the movie might have saved everyone some problems later. It's not so much that this happened that bothers me. It's the fact that it feels inconsistent with Nancy and Giselle's characters.


Honestly, with a little rewriting, the plot doesn't even need Sophia. I do understand that babies are challenging to work with and difficult to include in plots involving town domination, but I feel she could have been worked in a little better. But again, this isn't my biggest concern.


I Missed Silent Pip

I also have to say that Pip was one of the negatives about this movie for me. I enjoyed Pip in Enchanted, and I'm realizing after watching Disenchanted that it's largely because he didn't talk for most of the movie.


I get the whole evil cat thing, too, but like most of Pip's jokes, it just felt like it was trying too hard. Amy Adams redeemed all the scenes with Pip.


And Pip's part in the narration was a bit disappointing, too. Of course, he had some pretty hefty competition. Julie Andrews was the perfect narrator for the first film.


Giselle's Memory Tree

I have to discuss Giselle's memory tree. Again and again in the first movie, true love's kiss was described as the most powerful thing in the world. Well, in this movie, memories are the most powerful magic in the world (maybe more powerful than a true love's kiss?), and there's a very important plot point focused on this memory tree that Giselle has in Andalasia that helps break the spell. While there was a bit of setup for this in the beginning of the movie with Morgan's memory tree on paper, it was never mentioned that Giselle had one in Andalasia, too, if I recall correctly. When Morgan traveled to Andalasia and found Giselle's memory tree, it felt like a "yes, this was always here" sort of thing, which seemed too convenient for something so important to the plot. It kind of reminded me of the old direct-to-DVD Disney sequels that always featured a villain who was a convenient previously unknown sibling of the villain from the first movie, ready to step in and cause chaos.


More Convenient Explanation

And then, when the spell is broken, only Morgan and Giselle remember what happened. Giselle tells Morgan, "That's how it works. Only the ones who wield the magic remember. To the rest, it'll be just like a dream." Once again, I was pulled from the story wondering how she knew that. This fact was never shared ahead of time. Was it something she read in the scroll? Probably not. We were there when she read the scroll. Nancy and Edward didn't tell her unless it happened off screen. Again, this feels contrived and put in as an easy explanation. From a story perspective, it would have been better if they could have figured out a way to include this information earlier in the movie.


"As You Know, Bob"

You know those scenes where a character reveals information about the plot by explaining something to another character who would already know what they're being told? (Also known as an "as you know, Bob" scene.) Disenchanted has one of those.


When Edward and Nancy first come, Giselle says, "The king and queen of Andalasia! Edward, Nancy!" First, that's a really weird thing for her to say because you'd assume that Robert and Morgan would already know they were the king and queen of Andalasia, so she wouldn't need to say that to them. And that's not typically the way we refer to our friends. ("The barista of Starbucks!") ;) Not only that, it didn't have any bearing on the story whether they were king and queen or not. Even if the writers felt it was important for us to know, it could have been shared in a more effective and natural way elsewhere. Perhaps when Morgan visited Andalasia, it could have come up naturally in conversation.


Obvious References Abound

I feel like one of the reasons Enchanted worked so well is that most of its references to other films were subtle. While there were some obvious references as well, most of them were just a matter of the way a shot was filmed, or the various cameos from other Disney actors. It was a unique treasure hunt for hard core Disney fans.


This movie felt much more obvious with most of its references. My oldest, who watched part of it with me, even said, "It's so on the nose." It felt as though the writers were saying, "See, see, see? We're referencing this movie. Did you get it?" They even mentioned Cruella and Maleficent by name in one of the songs, and they referenced Be Our Guest and Let it Go as well.


Malvia's cabinet during the song "Badder" had a poisoned apple, Alice's "drink me" potion, the Beast's enchanted rose, and more, but it was done in such a heavy-handed way, it wasn't nearly as enjoyable as the more subtle references.


Disenchanted did have a few of those, such as Morgan walking up the cart the way Belle did in "Belle" and the spray of water behind her that brought back Ariel's rock moment in "Part of Your World." And probably a lot more I wasn't aware of. I just wish they'd done more of that and less of the pointed stuff. Most of it felt as thought the writers were watching us closely saying, "DID YOU GET THAT REFERENCE????"


Less-than-Stellar Lyrics

The music was another disappointment. I actually looked up the lyricist to see if it was the same as the first movie, and it was: Stephen Swartz, the same guy who gave us Enchanted and Wicked. I was surprised, to say the least. In my opinion, these lyrics just really fell flat. The music itself was okay enough, but even though I'm typically a huge fan of Alan Menken, this was not one of my favorite soundtracks from him.


I remember after watching Enchanted, I wanted to go buy the soundtrack right away and listen to the songs again. I didn't have that desire at all after watching Disenchanted. The lyrics felt more like something you'd see on a Disney Channel movie. Some of the choreography felt very Disney Channel as well, especially the "Badder" song. The same goes for Idina Menzel's power ballad, "Love Power." It was lovely that she got a chance to sing in this film. It's just a shame her song was so generic and forgettable.


This also plays into my issues with the way Giselle's character was written. Some of the songs work really well. The song she sings before she wishes is the typical, "I'm feeling so overwhelmed by emotions right now, the only thing I can do is sing." It makes sense. The song the first morning her wish comes true makes sense because it's showing the contrast between reality and the wished-for world. But most of the other songs feel more like an, "okay, time for another song" moment instead of something that drives the plot forward. And at the end of the movie, Giselle just starts singing and everyone else joins in and dances. It gives the real world this odd fairytale quality, even though in the lyrics, Giselle is singing about how even though life isn't a fairytale, she'll be content. It just doesn't feel as grounded as the first film.


I feel like Giselle's death song was unnecessary as well. Again, because of disappointing lyrics, it felt awkward. I think it would have been better to have her just say something. Or even if they would have had a previously established song Giselle used to always sing to Morgan that she could then sing at that moment, it would have been much more poignant. Instead, it drew out the scene unnecessarily, especially since it was obvious they weren't going to kill Giselle off, so it was hard to take the scene seriously. Though, I will admit, the "only a true daughter of Andalasia" part at the end, where Giselle told Morgan she was her daughter, which made her a true daughter of Andalasia, was one of the parts I did like. I found it a touching way of lifting up adoption and stepfamilies and also a good resolution to Morgan's earlier insecurities.


A Lucky Wish

That being said, I feel like it Morgan got pretty lucky with the wand's generous interpretation of her wish. Wishes are tricky things in stories like these. We saw it with Giselle's earlier wish. So having Morgan wish to be back home with her mom seemed like a risky choice of words. What if the wand had taken her literally and only returned Morgan and Giselle home without Robert and Sophia? What made the wand randomly decide to return everything back to normal because of a very generic wish?


Too Many Plot Points, Too Many Characters

Overall, I think they were just trying to do so many things with this movie that the plot really fell short and we only got to know most of the characters on a surface level. In trying to tell so many stories and add so many characters, we ended up with shallower versions of everyone (except Giselle) instead of focusing on a few characters and giving us real depth. By the time the movie ended, I found myself wishing I'd gotten to spend more time with Robert, Edward, Nancy, and even Morgan. If I'm being honest, I didn't care too much about most of the new characters. It felt like the movie couldn't figure out what story it wanted to tell and who it wanted to focus on.


Convenient Resolution

The resolution to Giselle and Malvia''s conflict felt very convenient and contrived. Really, the entire ending felt too easy. The whole point was supposed to be that life won't be a fairytale, but that's okay. But by the end, Robert was no longer commuting and had opened a small practice in Monroeville, so that was solved. Giselle now fit in with the formerly snooty town boss, Morgan and Giselle were talking, and everyone was having a beautiful picnic in the park, complete with music and waltzing.


Seems pretty perfect to me.


How much more meaningful would it have been if some of Giselle's conflicts weren't resolved? Maybe Robert still commutes but finds fulfillment in the fact that he's providing for his family and making a difference in his job. (Besides, I have to wonder if a small town practice would cover their mortgage payments and remodeling fees.) Maybe things aren't perfect with Morgan, but they've made progress.

Maybe Malvia is still suspicious of Giselle, but Giselle is determined to keep trying to make peace with her. Or, even better, Giselle realizes that not everyone is going to like her and she doesn't have to waste too much time and energy trying to befriend someone who is obviously petty and controlling.


No, you're right. Giselle's too optimistic for that. She'd keep trying to befriend Malvia no matter what.


But I feel like the story would have had a much more powerful ending if it had been a little less perfect.


Conclusion


I realize that a lot of people just want to watch a movie and escape and not delve into things this deeply. And that's totally fine. Stories have always been my passion, though. Stories have power. Stories can uplift, encourage, transport. And when stories are told well, they can leave something more with their audience than just a few hours of distraction and entertainment. The best stories stay with you for years.


Disenchanted wasn't the worst thing I've seen from Disney. I guess I was just hoping for a little more. I wanted the writers to do a bit more justice to these characters I've known and loved for the last fifteen years. I wanted to feel that same magic and, well, enchantment I felt when I watched the original movie. And while this movie had a few shining moments that recaptured my love for Enchanted, it mostly just left me wishing for what could have been.


I wonder where I can get one of those Andalasian wishing wands?


Kidding. I'm kidding.








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I thought it was about time to come back to this poor little neglected blog of mine. Since my last post in ... ahem ... January, I've been thinking a lot about my online presence and what direction I