Faith Gong: Holiday film review: ‘Disenchanted’

IN THE NEW sequel to 2007’s ‘Enchanted,’ protagonist Giselle finds herself cast as a wicked stepmother a la Lady Tremaine from ‘Cinderella.’

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, our entire family sat down to watch the new Disney film, Disenchanted. In a rare occurrence, all our children were excited to view the long-awaited sequel to 2007’s Enchanted. The original film, which we’ve seen multiple times, follows Giselle — a stereotypical Disney princess in search of “true love’s kiss” — as she’s transported in modern-day New York City. The film is a smart satire of the more absurd elements of traditional Disney films (including singing rats and pigeons), but of course Giselle’s dewy-eyed goodness wins over the cynical Manhattanites in the end. 

The two films bookend my parenting years: I first watched Enchanted with a visiting college friend while my newborn firstborn slept upstairs; the release of Disenchanted corresponded with that first child’s 15th birthday. 

Disenchanted reunites the stars from the original movie, including Amy Adams as Giselle, Patrick Dempsey as her husband, Robert, and Idina Menzel and James Marsden as the King and Queen of Andalasia (Giselle’s native fairytale kingdom.) Fifteen years later, these actors are all decidedly middle aged. The sequel addresses the question: What comes after “happily ever after?” When it begins, Giselle and Robert are still living in an increasingly cramped Manhattan apartment with their daughter Morgan (a young girl in the original film, she’s now a sarcastic teenager) and their baby daughter, Sofia. In a rather predictable middle-aged move, they decide to relocate to the suburbs, where Giselle is sure that they can make a fresh start. Disney-fied chaos ensues, including talking animals, large musical numbers, and the eventual triumph of goodness and love over evil. 

The movie has received a tepid response from critics. It wasn’t even released in theaters, but was streamed directly to Disney+, which says something. My own children were lukewarm-to-negative in their reviews. A friend who watched Disenchanted with her family said her response was, “What am I watching?” 

That’s all valid if you’re watching Disenchanted purely as a film. But I thought it was brilliant, because about partway through I realized that it wasn’t just a film. That’s when I leaned over and whispered to my husband, “This is the perfect metaphor for perimenopause!” 

The move to the suburbs is not a fairy tale ending for Giselle and her family. They walk into a house that’s still a construction site due to delayed renovations. Morgan, the sulky teenager, is even sulkier because she’s been plucked from her friends and transplanted to a new school where she knows nobody. Robert’s days now involve a long commute. The baby still fusses. And the three women who constitute the town welcoming committee seem more inclined to judgment than to friendship. 

As she watches her dreams of a happy family crumble before her, Giselle panics. In desperation, she grabs a magic wand that the Andalasian royals have left as a gift and wishes for her family’s life to become a “fairy tale.”  

Giselle gets her wish; what she forgets is that if her life becomes a fairy tale, then she is no longer the heroine. Time has passed, life has changed: Morgan is now the heroine of the story, and Giselle is cast as…the wicked stepmother. 

I suspect that Giselle’s horrible realization rings true for most middle-aged women, especially those who have felt the stirrings of their own hormonal changes at the exact same time that their teenage daughters are also beginning hormonal turmoil. Everyone’s a mess, but they’re blossoming while we’re on the downslope.  

In one scene, Giselle — who is attempting to resist becoming a wicked stepmother — utters villainous phrases (“You’re not going anywhere. Get back to your tower!”), and then looks horrified at what she’s just said. I doubt there’s any mother of teenagers out there who can’t relate. Who among us hasn’t allowed things to slip past our lips that we swore to ourselves we’d never say? Things like, “You’re wearing that?!?” or “What are we listening to?!?” or “It’s not that I don’t trust you, I just don’t trust everyone else!” Watching wide-eyed Giselle clamp her hands over her mouth, I thought: Me too, sister.

As Giselle morphs into a full-on Disney villainess, she’s pitted against a second villainess: an evil queen (Maya Rudolph), who, prior to the fairy tale transformation, was the woman who ran everything in town. This plotline was less interesting to me than the mother-daughter drama, but it was a good reminder of how often women fall into the trap of competition when we should be supporting each other. 

My heart went out to Giselle at the film’s climax, when she watches the kingdom literally falling down around her. It all starts with a good desire: wanting our families to be happy and thrive. The mistake — and it strikes me as a particularly middle-aged mother mistake that I’m quite prone to making — is when we think that we can make our families happy, that it’s our responsibility and within our powers. Whether or not we have a magic wand, it all amounts to the same thing: control. We try to control our children, our spouses, our circumstances. And the more we try to take control of the kingdom, the more it falls apart. 

The solution, in Disenchanted, is that Morgan must help her mother remember who she is by gathering memories of their love from the past. This may just be a fuzzy excuse for Idina Menzel to sing the ballad “Love Power,” which is a legitimate reason. But it may also be true: When everything is in turmoil, when we are no longer sure who we are or who our families are, there are worse things to do than to remember how far we’ve come together and how much we love each other. 

I’m not at the end of my own fairy tale yet, but if Disenchanted is right, I take solace that the chapter I’m in is temporary, and that forgiveness is possible. “Only the person who wields the magic ever really remembers it clearly; to everyone else it’s sort of like a dream,” Giselle tells Morgan after everything has been restored to normal. 

At the very least, I figure, once I have grandchildren I’ll transition roles again: Instead of the evil stepmother, I’ll become the fairy godmother. 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, five children, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her “free time,” she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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