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Disenchanted: WandaVision the Rusical

I put a spell on you, and now...eh...you're fine.

As a gay man of a certain age, I have a strong degree of affection for the 2007 Disney film Enchanted. It just connects with me. It’s a perfect combination of comedy, romance, fantasy, and musical. It strikes a skillful balance between loving homage and biting satire of the Disney films I watched growing up. And of course, it features Amy Adams in the role that made her an A-list star in the mold of Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins. So to say that I was very much looking forward to a sequel is an understatement, even if it took 15 years to get here.

Set 10 years after the previous film, Giselle (Amy Adams) and Robert (Patrick Dempsey) are still living in New York City with the now-teenage Morgan (Gabriella Baldacchino) and new baby daughter Sofia. The stress of urban living has worn the family down, so they move to the suburb of Monroeville for a refresh. But Monroeville has its own problems including a home that needs major renovations, Morgan’s growing discontentment, and a town council run by the smiling fist of Malvina Monroe (Maya Rudolph).

Prince Edward (James Marsden) and Nancy (Idina Menzel) visit from Andalasia to gift Sofia an Andalasian wishing wand for her birthday. Desperate and emotional, Giselle uses the wand one night to wish for a fairy-tale life, turning Monroeville into a fantasy kingdom of magic and monsters. While things seem perfect at first, the consequences and cost of Giselle’s wish soon become apparent, slowly turning Giselle into a wicked stepmother and threatening to destroy everything.

Looking back on those last paragraphs, I realize that’s a lot of plot to unpack and a lot of characters to mention. However, it’s all necessary to understand the film. The film’s first act is almost entirely world-building on a microcosm level, and even though there’s honestly not a ton of plot here, it requires a fairly large amount of set-up. After Giselle makes her wish, the rest of the narrative literally takes place in the span of about 12 hours. Even then, there’s not so much a sense of assured movement as there is a feeling of erratic, caffeinated hopping through the story arcs established in the first part of the film.

Your mind’s in suburbia.

A sequel to Enchanted has been in the works since shortly after the first film’s success, but it took years to get the script right. It was allegedly always meant for a theatrical release, but after seeing the film, I find that very hard to believe. Disenchanted has the energy and vibe of a very special, made-for-TV event. It tries very hard to recreate the charm and magic of the original film, but it just comes off as much more restrained and — dare I say it — cheaper. It doesn’t miss the mark as much as something like Hocus Pocus 2, but it definitely isn’t in the same ballpark as the film that came before it.

If anything, the film’s guilty of trying way too hard to match its predecessor. Did you like the musical aspects of Enchanted? Well, here’s a sequel with over twice as many songs! Was it the Disney references that caught your attention? Well, have fun counting all the easter eggs sprinkled randomly throughout the film! Do you like magic? Well, we got magic up the sugar plum wazoo for you! Who cares if it doesn’t make any sense or has no internal logical whatsoever…it’s MAGIC!

It might seem like a strange thing to be criticizing a fluffy, PG-rated Disney musical for its lack of a coherent magic system, but as an avid consumer of genre content, I can’t help myself. The magic in Enchanted also didn’t have much structure, but it hewed very close to established magical tropes we’ve come to know from Disney films: poison apples, talking animals, the importance of midnight, etc. Here, magic does anything the script demands and is basically a plot device to move a jumbled and chaotic narrative forward artificially. New twists in how magic works or what it can do appear randomly, and while that is something we’ve seen in countless Disney works, here it just feels like lazy storytelling hiding behind low-tier satire.

Brigitte Hale’s screenplay is strong on dialogue and characterization, but isn’t as powerful when it comes to structure, pacing, or story. It has a very hard time juggling its dense cast of characters and the multiple b-plots, leading to a confused and chaotic through-line that’s kept above water by several stand-out performances, not to mention director Adam Shankman’s steady (if not spectacular) hand and eye. Ironically, it’s this script that finally got Disenchanted out of pre-production purgatory, but I can’t help but wonder if they should have waited just a little big longer for something a little more fully-formed.

Giselle’s corset is doing more work than the script.

The film leans heavily on its musical numbers, much more so than the previous film, and not always for the better. The songs are once again written by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz, so there is a relatively high standard of quality. However, there’s nothing quite on the level of either “That’s How You Know” or even “Happy Working Song.” It’s all book numbers, essentially. The closest we get to a breakaway pop hit is Idina Menzel’s big number “Love Power.” Menzel didn’t get to sing at all in the first film, and here she makes up for it with multiple songs including a solo specifically made for her big, belting voice. In the span of four minutes, Menzel demonstrates why she’s a true Broadway icon in a song powerful enough to put the rest of the numbers to shame. Interestingly enough, the soundtrack features demos of two songs that didn’t make the final cut. One, a duet between Morgan and her cute but bland love interest, is weak and forgettable, but the other features a prominent vocal from Patrick Dempsey that’s surprisingly strong and should have definitely have been left in the film.

It’s the cast that makes everything work despite itself, however, including an absolutely awesome turn by Amy Adams. Once again, Adams fully embodies Giselle, making her innocence and optimism appealing and sincere. If possible, her singing voice sounds even stronger than before. Adams really shines after the wish, however, when Giselle is evolving into a wicked stepmother archetype. Evil!Giselle has a deeper voice, narrower eyes, and an entirely different way of speaking, standing, and moving. One scene even has Adams going back and forth between the two personalities in a kind of fairy dust take on a Smeagol/Gollum internal turned external monologue. Adams’ performance by itself is reason enough to watch the film, and there are times when she seems to single-handedly elevate the film far above itself.

But she’s not alone here. She is matched almost equally by Maya Rudolph, who not only seems to be having the time of her life but is pitch-perfect as Monrolasia’s wicked queen. She looks fabulous, acts fabulous, and even gets to sing with Adams in one of the film’s best numbers. Patrick Dempsey, James Marsden, and Idina Menzel are all very welcome and comforting here, all of them turning up with a smile and putting in committed performances. Dempsey in particular is delightful in his post-wish makeover as a hero with more courage than brains. The weakest of the principal cast sadly is Gabriella Baldacchino as Morgan, and she isn’t even that bad. She’s just not on the same level as the rest of the cast, even though she’s clearly trying the best she can with the thinly-written Cinderella knock-off role the script’s given her.

Two queens stand before me…

During the whole film, however, I couldn’t help but feel like I’d seen so much of this before. And not just stuff repeated from Enchanted or other Disney works. Then it hit me: this is basically WandaVision as re-imagined by people more skilled in costume design and hair styling than storytelling. Now hear me out…

Both feature immensely appealing lead actresses playing magical characters who accidentally use their magic to recreate the entire reality of a suburban community to escape their own sadness and stress. In both cases, the people of those communities are forced into new roles against their will in service to well-established tropes and archetypes. In both cases, it’s slowly revealed that the leads aren’t as innocent as we’re led to believe: Wanda does everything she can to keep Westview hexed, and Giselle begins to revel in the nastiness of the wicked stepmother role. Both have their own equally magical nemesis/rival who threatens to usurp their power both in the story and without; Elizabeth Olsen is amazing, but it’s Kathryn Hahn that got to sing “Agatha All Along.”

Granted, WandaVision is a serious exploration of grief masquerading as a vibrant superhero story, while Disenchanted is a soft, candy-coated fable that occasionally goes to some shockingly dark places. But I can’t help noticing the parallels. As someone who watches as many of the million iterations of RuPaul’s Drag Race as I can, Disenchanted has the same desperate, sincere but flailing energy as most of the Rusical challenges. There’s a lot of drive to make something amazing, but the result usually comes out a hot mess that’s made watchable by the performances of a few fierce queens.

Calling Disenchanted a hot mess is a little strong but at the same time sort of apt. It’s enjoyable enough on its own, even if it’s inaccessible to people not familiar with the original. It lacks the charm, sparkle, and heart of its predecessor, even thought it tries as hard as it can to match it, in the end settling instead to powder itself with sugary musical numbers to hide its shortcomings. It’s a sweet treat to be sure, but also one that disappears at the stroke of midnight.

FBOTU Score: 6 out of 10 / B-

Disenchanted can be streamed exclusively on Disney+.

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