Songs of Innocence and of Experience

Enchanted is every bit as good as you’ve been hearing. (Spoilers ahead for those who care.) But it is much less of a send-up of classic Disney than some have suggested. “Enchanted” isn’t an exercise in manufactured innocence in the manner of a classic Disney cartoon like Snow White, but neither is it in any way in the business of mocking innocence in the fashion of too many fractured fairy tales. In fact, “Enchanted,” like the best Pixar films, operates on multiple levels of maturity. On the simplest level, it’s a wish-fulfillment fantasy for the six-year-old daughter of the single-dad lawyer/love-interest, who gets a real, live princess for a stepmom instead of Dad’s trying-too-hard girlfriend Nancy. On this level, “Enchanted” is simply a Disney fairy-tale. But for the grownups in the audience, what’s special about “Enchanted” is that innocence and experience run into one another and, perhaps surprisingly, discover their respective true loves in each other.

That’s surprising because, usually, innocence doesn’t get to be enough of a real character to have a true love. The collision of innocence and experience is hardly a new theme; Joe Morgenstern , for example, recalled Big and The Purple Rose of Cairo in his review of “Enchanted.” Looking at things from the perspective of the lawyer, Splash would be another good point of comparison. But while Hanks in “Big” teaches the jaded grownups a thing or two, he eventually has to go back to being a kid, and grow up in his own time. And the end of the day, it’s not clear what innocence has learned from this premature experience, other than to savor innocence all the more. In “Purple Rose”, the movie-screen Jeff Daniels is ultimately rejected in favor of the actor who played him; he’s sent back to his two-dimensional fantasy, while his love continues to suffer in her three-dimensional reality. What the characters have learned is a bit obscure, unless it is merely that reality bites, and that fantasies of being rescued by a handsome stranger are best confined to the movie screen. And in “Splash,” innocence triumphs entirely, which I always found a bit fishy (groan). You can make that movie an allegory of homosexuality or inter-racial romance or what-have-you, but in the end you founder on the problem that Daryl Hannah isn’t really a character.

What struck me as special about “Enchanted” was that innocence and experience genuinely fall in love with one another, and each is as startled as the other to find this happening. This can only happen because the innocent character in “Enchanted” really is a character, not a mere notion or device. But the key to the love story is that each discovers a previously unknown need. Giselle thinks she wants to be saved – swept off her feet by a handsome prince on a white horse. But she actually wants to do the saving – saving the heart of a good man like Robert who is rather beaten down by experience. It’s that desire for largeness of soul that she realizes can never be satisfied by life with Prince Edward. Robert, meanwhile, thinks he’s a savior of a hard-bitten sort – he’s going to save his little girl, not be preserving her innocence but by fully arming her for the trials of experience. Really, though, he’s the one who needs saving, and it’s that – the desire to save him – that he responds to in Giselle. That’s why, although I agree with the universal opinion of the critics that the dragon fight at the end is something of a let-down, I disagree that it’s a swerve away from what the film had been. It’s not a cheap “fymynyst” twist to have Robert grabbed by the dragon, and Giselle be the dragon-slayer – that dynamic is precisely what’s going on at the heart of their relationship.

I suspect “Enchanted” would work much less well if the above were taken too seriously. So to undercut the universality of the above, we have Prince Edward pivoting neatly at the finish to wed Robert’s jilted girlfriend, Nancy, who quite plainly has been waiting for precisely such a prince to sweep her off her feet and take her away to his castle on his white horse. So the whole innocence-and-experience drama is not some universal truth but the private mythology of two lovers. Which, I think, is all to the good for the movie as a whole, and probably true to boot.

Anyway, go see it.

Also: if you’re in New York, go to The Pond at Bryant Park, which is the most pleasurable skating experience the city has to offer. And skip Mary Poppins which is practically putrid in every way. And that pretty much covers the holiday weekend’s activities from my end.