Quick Takes: Disenchanted and Spirited

OK, there are a lot of new Christmastime movies to watch, and usually I wait awhile to see them. But this time, I saw two of the most promoted ones early on. Here are my quick thoughts:

Disenchanted

My wife and I have a particular connection with the original film, which featured an apartment building just one block from where we lived for a while. This time around, a long shot included that very building, and many of the shots just outside of the Enchanted building (at Riverside and 116th Street) featured the same view of the Hudson River that we enjoyed.

It only made sense to have a sequel of that earlier successful film, and the filmmakers ticked off nearly every box—every box—of how to do a sequel, with limited success. In fact, it seems like the rule of “let’s do something different this time” was taken to an extreme

Instead of working her way through the various challenges of NYC, including the intrusion of fairy tale witches into the Big Apple, Giselle (Amy Adams) is now dissatisfied with her lot in life and wants more magic. The answer is a move to the suburbs, but not into a regular house, but into a castle-like structure that is as “normal suburb” as Mar-a-Lago. Continuing the 180-degree turns that the film embraces, the charming step-daughter is now a very attitudinal teen. Of course, she then (spoiler alert) undergoes her own 180-degree turn.

Giving away too much of the plot is both rude and pointless, as the film combines the real world of so-called suburbia with the fairy tale land of Giselle’s birth, Andalasia. There are three women, dominated by Malvina (a name that perhaps gives away a bit too much at the start), played by Maya Rudolph. Malvina has two sidekicks that complete the “three witches” trope.

The so-called “real world” and the fairy tale world of Andalasia collide in a rather messy ways, and the plot is all over the place. This time Broadway and film star Idina Menzel (Wicked, Frozen), who unaccountably was not given a song in Enchanted, gets her chance to sing (and belt). As a standalone song, it’s fine. But it doesn’t move anything forward other than ticking off the box of giving her a number.

Amy Adams, who apparently worked hard to regain her light soprano, sings beautifully, with a little help from singer-actress LC Powell on the high notes. (I had to look it up–I knew there was no way that Adams could hit those stratospheric notes.) She is delightful throughout, and when she has a certain personality struggle later in the film, she pulls it off like the excellent actress she is. Patrick Dempsey had very little to do, though they gave him about a dozen notes to sing this time.

Maya Rudolph, as she does a great deal of the time, acts in swirls around the character, never completely landing in the center. Her comic timing shows through at times, but is very underused (rather like Menzel not singing in the first film). As the daughter of a great singer (Minnie Riperton), Rudolph has a voice, and she used it well in a “Badder,” a duet with Adams that might be the highlight of the film.

Perhaps the shining light of the film, aside from Adams, is Gabriella Baldacchino as the step-daughter. After Giselle, she is the heart of the film, which develops slowly but surely as the film develops. This could be the beginning of a great career.

I love James Marsden in his comic mode, and am always impressed with his singing. I’m glad he was in the film, but he quickly disappears every time he shows up. He brightened the first film every time he showed up, and does the same thing here.

The music features songs by the legendary Alan Menken (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Hercules, Tangled), so the songs are solidly built and entertaining, if not completely memorable. There is an awful lot of dancing, which doesn’t work as well on the small screens on which we have to watch the numbers. But they are well done and very energetic.

The film might be worth watching if you loved the first and want to see what happens to the characters. But while it throws everything but the kitchen sink into this sequel, the one thing this jam-packed film missed is charm.

Spirited

Spirited, a modern take on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, is another thing entirely. It’s definitely not for children, but it’s also not as crude as it could have been. But what it is is hilarious, inventive, and surprising. The film stars Ryan Reynolds and Will Ferrell, a comic combination that could have bombed but which completely works. The film also features Octavia Spencer as a (spoiler alert) love interest, Broadway star Patrick Page as Marley, and the voice of Tracy Morgan.

Ferrell, Reynolds, and Spencer all sing in the film, but none is really a singer. That doesn’t matter, as they all do well, obviously following every bit of coaching advice to maximize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses. They also “dance,” which is really stretching the word. The real dancers behind the leads are great, and have the same energy and verve of the dancers in Disenchanted. The leads keep moving, but there is nary a real choreographic move among them. Again, that doesn’t matter. Their moves and energy work.

Ferrell and Reynolds each individually pose a comic challenge, as they have different comedic styles, and their acting here combines whimsy with snark, a mixture rife with possibilities of failure. Can a world be created that allows them each to maximize their personal styles? Can that world contain them both working together at the top of their game? The answer is yes.

The plot is familiar if you know the story, but the film keeps taking unexpected turns (right up to the end!) that energize the film and offer delightful alternatives to the usual and predictable. All I would want to tell any reader is that Reynolds is the Scrooge character, and Ferrell is the main ghost. The rest is up for discovery. Ferrell gets the best line in the film, a line so funny we had to pause our viewing to allow for our full reaction. (You’ll know it when you get there).

The phrase that comes to mind in this umpteenth version of the main story is “a fresh take.” Again, this isn’t for kids. But for everyone else, it’s highly recommended.

[To my Christian friends and readers: The main plot of redemption is so very close to truth, but of course, falls into the “good works can redeem us” category. What Ferrell et al. are trying to do for their charges is what Jesus has already done for us. If you want to shout “But Jesus died to do just that!” at your TV, it would be understandable. But if you know you’re watching a version of “A Christmas Carol”, you already know what you’re getting into.]

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About Mark DuPré

Retired (associate) pastor at a Christian church. Retired film professor at Rochester Institute of Technology. Husband for 45+ years to the lovely and talented Diane. Father to three children and father-in-law to three more amazing people. I continue some ministry duties even though retired from the pastoral position. Right now I'm co-writing a book, working on a documentary (screenwriter and assistant director), and creating a serious musical drama (I am writing the book and lyrics).
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