I just watched Enchanted (Kevin Lima, 2007) again and I’m writing this down right after, while it’s still fresh on my mind. I’ve also been listening to two seasons of Writing Excuses and I want to apply what I’ve learned from it by deconstructing the techniques Disney used in the film. I think it’s a wonderful film. It’s done everything by the book yet is still a great entertainment. This is your spoiler warning about everything in the film.
Enchanted is about Giselle (Amy Adams), your typical Disney princess looking for a prince charming (James Marsden) in the 2D animated Andalasia. Several minutes into the film, she finds him and soon they’re getting married. However an evil queen (Susan Sarandon), prince charming’s stepmother, doesn’t want Giselle to take her crown. So the evil queen throws Giselle away into a land with no happily ever after: New York.
Fish out of the water, live action Giselle tries hopelessly to find her way back to Andalasia, until Robert (Patrick Dempsey) rescues her. At the time, Robert is a single father and engaged to Nancy (Idina Menzel). Through funny misunderstandings and great songs, they realize they’ve fallen in love with each other. But then each of their betrothed reminds them of their commitment.
Narissa, the evil queen, is angry that Nathaniel (Timothy Spall) the lackey fails to kill Giselle. Taking matters into her own hand, the evil queen poisons Giselle, and she can only be saved by a true love’s kiss. We all know whose kiss saves her in the end: Robert’s. Angry, Narissa turns into a dragon and takes Robert away. It’s time for Giselle to rescue her New York prince.
Disney has done this story many times and they’re aware of that. They even littered the film with nods to their iconic princess moments. Most importantly, they know enough how to keep a fresh twist on a storyline they’ve done over and over again. Remember this was 2007. I’d argue it was the beginning of Disney producing tales of princesses without princes. In Lovelace’s words, the princess saves herself in this one.
We’ve all heard about the 3-act structure. It’s the simplest structure of a story: introduction – conflict – resolution. I have to admit, I don’t always get the 3-act structure. Each structure consists of sub-structures that make up the act and often they confuse me. I finally get it when Writing Excuses (I think it was Howard, or could be Bob Defendi) called it the 3-disaster structure. The bulb in my head switches to life. Thinking of it as three disasters, each bigger than the last one, is easier for me to grasp. Now I know what kind of pieces I need to move to get there.
Many pop movies employ the 3-disaster structure. It’s the ultimate formula. It’s pretty easy to deconstruct the disasters in Enchanted: (i) Giselle gets thrown out of Andalasia; (ii) Giselle eats the poison apple; and (iii) the dragon takes Robert away. I bet we can use the structure to deconstruct other popular movies as well.
Brandon Sanderson can simplify the structure even further: the first part of the story, the monster chases the hero; the second part of the story, the hero chases the monster. Distilling the 107-minute film into two or three sentences like this makes it sound simple, and I’m amazed at how they’ve made something entertaining out of it. In lesser hands, it will be just another cliche.
I see foreshadowing as a promise and a path. As a promise, the writer must make sure to fulfill it. As a path, foreshadowing is necessary to get where you want to go. Without proper foreshadowing, a reader or someone watching your film can feel cheated when the main character is saved by some luck that she hasn’t earned. That’s lazy writing. Foreshadowing can also help nudge a character to where you want her to go in the story.
If you fire a gun in act three, you have to show the gun in act one.
-Chekhov’s law as paraphrased by Howard Tayler
Enchanted uses proper foreshadowing since early on. Nathaniel was shaping a bush into the queen’s silhouette. He accidentally cuts the bush head in his excitement when Narissa manipulates his romantic feelings for her to make him do her dirty work of killing Giselle. Later on, watching a soap opera, Nathaniel realizes that maybe Narissa doesn’t really love him, that he is being used. It is the motivation Nathaniel needs to change sides and help Giselle in the end. This change in the character happens gradually, therefore it feels earned instead of a deus ex machina for Giselle and Robert. The decapitated bush itself effectively foreshadows Narissa’s plunge to death.
Also early in the film, Giselle casually mentions that a true love’s kiss is the most powerful thing in the world. It is necessary to establish that rule so Robert can kiss her in act three in an attempt to save her life. My favorite is the one about true love finishes your duet Giselle and prince charming sing in act one, a duet that Giselle doesn’t finish in act two when she realizes that she loves Robert. Does that count as foreshadowing? More like a lowkey plot twist I think. But as Writing Excuses have said, even plot twists need proper foreshadowing for them to be earned.
I do think the characters are two dimensional and that they did it deliberately. Considering the target market and packaging, they ran away with it. The only character with depth is Robert, who has a beautiful arc: the non-believer ends up believing magic. The rest of the characters are satires of what Disney has done in their classic princess films. Knowing this, Disney cast great actors who have the gravitas to perform these satires solemnly. They perform their characters so sincerely it makes me feel bad if I laugh at the silliness. The great thing is they took advantage of the two dimensionality to create situational comedy in modern day New York that’s guaranteed to make people laugh. Think prince charming brandishing a sword against an iron beast that is the public bus.
My favorite is when Giselle breaks into a song in the park and Robert gets really confused that passersby sing and dance along with her. Robert tells Giselle that he doesn’t really sing then. In the end Robert sings for her, just before she eats the poison apple.
I also appreciate the arc that they wrapped for Nancy. In many cases, her character is a plot device: romantic competition to push the main couple into each other’s arms. The main guy will break up with her, she will cry and be mad then disappear from the rest of the film so he can be with the main girl. But Disney wraps up Nancy’s arc. After Giselle and Robert give in to their feelings, Nancy and prince charming find each other. Giselle and Nancy have switched places. Yeah it’s convenient and shallow, I know, but I’m happy that Nancy finds her happy ever after.
If I had my way, I’d love for Giselle’s character to have more agency. But this was before Disney made Frozen and Moana. Talking about the film’s message will warrant another post. Here I’ve only discussed the writing techniques. Disney used the 3-disaster structure and foreshadowing well in Enchanted. They also pay tributes to their old princesses in good humor, it’s heartwarming. Of course there’s also singing and dancing in it. Alan Menken did the songs! He always composes notes that fall into the right place. I’m hoping I can see more of Enchanted. Here’s hoping they’re executing the sequel soon.