“Are there no new ideas in Hollywood?” is a common question thrown around in all social circles, whether you be a film buff or a casual Netflixer. Reboots, remakes, and sequels are not a new phenomenon, but it does seem that with the advent of streaming premiers and the fear of not having a commercial success on their hands, studios have begun to really lean into that dopamine hit of nostalgia. But how far can that rush take an audience, and how much longer can returning to our past feel genuine and necessary?
Dropping the day before A Christmas Story Christmas, Disney’s Disenchanted is one of the most recent additions to a year already full of nostalgia trips. The first installment, Enchanted, premiered in 2007 to much fanfare as an interesting and fun take on the princess tropes Disney helped to build. Amy Adams starred as Giselle, a young woman living in 2D-animated Andalasia, who is just waiting for her prince to come. When he does (Prince Edward, a charmingly daft James Marsden), their plans to marry the very next day are foiled by Queen Narissa (Edward’s stepmother, a wicked Susan Sarandon), who will lose her crown if her stepson is to marry. Narissa ruthlessly pushes Giselle down a magical well that spits her out of Andalasia into a very real New York City, where Giselle quickly realizes that not everyone is so quick to lend a helping hand and her naive way of looking at the world is a virtue at which to be scoffed. Through her journey to be reunited with Edward, she meets New Yorker Robert (Patrick Dempsey), and his daughter Morgan (Rachel Covey), who try to help Giselle adapt by teaching her the rules of the real world: namely, that the real world is not a fairy tale. Giselle’s outlook remains unchanged, however, and in the process, her point of view rubs off on Robert and vice versa, leading them to fall in love.
Enchanted works its magic on a lot of levels. On the surface, it’s got all the makings of a perfect Disney movie: a charming “princess” with a whimsical taste in fashion; great music with impressive choreography; talking animals; and an intimidating villain with a bumbling henchman (Timothy Spall living his best life). But beyond that, Enchanted also has a lot on its mind. It’s a story where all four main romantic leads (Adams’ Giselle, Dempsey’s Robert, Marsden’s Edward, and Robert’s five-year girlfriend, Nancy - played by Idina Menzel) have to question just what it is they see in their romantic partner, and why it might be okay to question how the narratives both fairy tales, and our modern society, influence our own “happily ever afters.” It’s a Disney film that doesn’t take itself too seriously, which works in its favor, in that it can both celebrate its history while also poking fun at it. If this type of film is your bag, it really nails the assignment.
But now, fifteen years later, Disney has finally released the Enchanted sequel (which had been circulating since 2010): the aptly titled Disenchanted. Giselle and Robert, after securing their happily ever after at the end of the first film, have just had a baby of their own, and much to now-teenager Morgan’s dismay (Morgan here played by newcomer Gabriella Baldacchino), they have decided to move out of NYC to the fictional suburb of Monroeville. The move, in theory, is meant to be a fresh start for their new and complete family, but upon their arrival, they find their new home still under renovations, Robert begins to worry his new commute to work will soon become monotonous, and Morgan is instantly embarrassed at school by Giselle’s inability to understand basic social formalities. Additionally, the family has been visited by now-Queen Nancy and now-King Edward who has gifted the new baby, Sofia, with an Andalasian Wishing Wand™, which can grant any wish a true daughter of Andalasia wishes to make. In Giselle’s growing discontent with the tribulations of real-world life, she chooses to wish for a Fairy Tale Life™, which does indeed work, turning Monroeville into a real-world fairytale town. The caveat is that while Giselle’s wish does come true, the Fairy Tale Life™ means that since she is Morgan’s stepmother, as per the Fairy Tale Rules™, she must also turn wicked. And, of course, by the time the clock strikes midnight, the wish will be completely irreversible. And on top of that, the wish is being generated by the magic that powers Andalasia, so if the spell becomes permanent, that means anything that was born in Andalasia will die, including Giselle. Whew, those are some convoluted and high stakes.
Enchanted works because the characters get to live and play within very simple parameters while Disenchanted struggles to understand its original character motivations. In the first film, the story is simple: two lost loves are trying to find each other in a world that is more complex than their own, while an evil Queen tries to stop them from reuniting. But our real world is the foil to the typically outlandish fairytale world and tropes. There’s not much fantastic about NYC until Giselle operates within it. That is not the case when it comes to Monroeville. Before the arrival of the Philip family, Monroeville is already populated by characters who live within the tropes of a typical Disney Channel Original Movie. There’s the overinvolved mother and head of the Monroeville town council, Malvina Monroe (a valiant Maya Rudolph, really trying to make the best of a fairly trite script), and her two cronies (Yvette Nicole Brown and Jayma Mays); Malvina’s son, Tyson, who instantly becomes the love interest for Morgan; and an upcoming “Ball” themed school fundraiser in which students (but mostly their parents?) campaign to be crowned “prince and princess.” From the very beginning, Monroeville seems to be a mere skin over which to layer the eventual Monrolasia, Giselle’s Fairy Tale Life™. Because the real world in Disenchanted already appears so fabricated, the jump to the fantastic holds no true weight, especially since within the first act of the film, we’ve already spent a decent amount of time with Queen Nancy and King Edward, who are leaning into their Andalasian natures, HARD. The lack of juxtaposition between what is “real” and what is “fairytale” seems to betray the very spirit of the original film.
Disenchanted, additionally, sets itself up at a disadvantage by implying that Giselle is almost entirely the same character from the first film as if she has been frozen in time for at least a decade. There is no implication of character growth, whether that be in her understanding of social norms or functions, her connection with Morgan, or her decision to treat anyone in her life as if they are capable of being their own main character. Enchanted was written by Bill Kelly, directed by Kevin Lima, and produced by Barry Josephson and Barry Sonnenfeld. The two producers returned for Disenchanted (with Adams getting a producing credit as well) but the film was directed by Adam Shankman (best known for his work on So You Think You Can Dance) and written by Brigitte Hales. Enchanted exemplifies Lima’s knowledge of the Disney machine, as he was the director of A Goofy Movie, Tarzan, and 102 Dalmatians, and he is also married to Brenda Chapman who was the head of story on The Lion King and the co-director of Brave; this couple bleeds Disney. The new Disenchanted team, however, took characters ripe for development and chose instead to place them in a situation where the only development in character was that they’re older now.
The catalyst for the move to Monroeville is the arrival of baby Sofia, and the Philips parents deciding they wish to continue to raise their family somewhere quieter with more space. But, the secondary (and infinitely more interesting) reason for the move is because Giselle is unhappy. She is still searching for her family’s happily ever after, and she thinks she’s going to find it in Monroeville, but she doesn’t have any substantiating evidence to back up that ideation. Yes, she may also be homesick and perhaps she thinks the suburbs are the closest thing she’ll find to Andalasia, but ultimately, she’s seeking a new happiness without truly addressing the real reason why she’s unhappy in the first place. It’s similar to how we find Giselle at the beginning of Enchanted, except in the first film, her eagerness to find happiness is due to a lack of something: her true love’s kiss. Giselle’s unhappiness in Disenchanted begins in the real world, which by the rules of this franchise’s world should mean that her unhappiness holds real-world implications, in contrast to her fairytale unhappiness that was governed by the fairytale rules. Baby Sofia’s arrival seems to be the perfect chance to explore what Giselle might really be going through, postpartum depression, or exploring her ideas of what it means to have a blended family, but the film shies away from what Giselle actually thinks about her current familial state. For the most part, we only know she’s unhappy. We do, on the other hand, see clear conflict within Morgan’s character and her adjustment to her parents finally raising a “true daughter of Andalasia,” and how much everyone’s emphasis on what the word “true” means in this context hurts her. In the end, she is the only character other than Giselle who remembers the events of the spell after it’s broken, so one could argue that she is also a main character, but because the film is being pulled in so many different directions, no one character really gets to shine on their own.
…except Idina Menzel. In Enchanted, musicians Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz composed a delightful score with a number of catchy songs that work by the means of characters explaining what they are thinking in the way fairytale characters would. “True Love’s Kiss,” “Happy Working Song,” and especially, “That’s How You Know” are all songs that hold true purpose in the context of the story. But none of them use the talent of Idina Menzel. In Disenchanted, Menken and Schwartz are back but instead chose to write the music more tailored to the characters themselves, rather than focussing on the story as a whole. This results in a film full of songs that are, frankly, unforgettable, save one: “Love Power.” “Love Power” is the ballad of the film where Queen Nancy is singing to Morgan about how her love for Giselle, and the memories of which they share, can remind Giselle of who she truly is in order to break the wicked stepmother's spell long enough for Giselle to break the curse. It is a song that goes on long enough that it feels like the rest of the film was conjured just to get to this point, as if they’re making up for every second Menzel wasn’t singing, in both this film and the original. Every scene prior and every scene after pales in comparison, no matter how much you like Adams and Rudolph singing about how bad they are, or hearing Morgan’s earnest yearnings to find a perfect, non-perfect life. At that point, you’re no longer watching a film, but a very elaborate music video. And perhaps with director Adam Shankman’s dance background, that was where Disenchanted would naturally end up. But an Enchanted sequel it is not.
But Disenchanted isn’t alone in those regards and isn’t even the only Disney film this year that feels like it was merely an excuse to get a group of actors together again. Not many films exceeded the hype generated by those hungry for Hocus Pocus 2, but maybe that’s what made that sequel all the more disappointing. The how and the why of Hocus Pocus 2 gets lost in a Hocus Pocus bingo card of locations, phrases, and unnecessary songs. Why was it time for the Sanderson sisters to come back to Salem? To see Kathy Najimy fly around on Roombas, that’s why. You can’t, however, fault both Disenchanted and Hocus Pocus 2 for the fun their casts seem to be having, but you can fault them for not delivering on anything more than that. Over the course of the past, nearly, two decades, it’s become easier to pick fun at the Christmas classic Love, Actually, but at least those creatives knew better than to make a sequel (barring the fundraiser short film, Red Nose Day, Actually) and instead just gathered the actors, director, and writer for a reunion that dropped on Hulu at the end of November. Would a Hocus Pocus reunion, or a Hocus Pocus live concert be better than the shoddy plot of Hocus Pocus 2? Undoubtedly.
In a position similar to the beloved return of Billy Butcherson, another legacy sequel could have easily disappointed by scraping the bottom of the nostalgia barrel but managed to fly even higher than the original. And that triumph is none other than Top Gun: Maverick. Capping the sequel gap at 36 years, Tom Cruise’s return as Captain Pete Mitchell is validated by the simple plot of the sequel. “Maverick” comes back to Top Gun as a last chance to prove himself by instructing the best pilots the Navy can offer in order to dismantle a uranium plant. That’s it. Other than a side-quest-of-a-love-story between Maverick and Jennifer Connelly’s Penny, the film is fairly straightforward in that it’s exploring the relationship between Maverick and “Rooster,” the son of Maverick’s late best friend, “Goose.” Both men have struggled with their respective losses, and the success of this current mission hinges on whether or not they can reconcile their differences, forgive each other, and respect each other as the complex, multifaceted human beings that they are. No choice in the film leaves a viewer wondering “why?” and the film, while certainly using the nostalgia associated with it, only hammers home that nostalgia when it can be used to emphasize an otherwise coherent beat. Top Gun: Maverick may live in Top Gun, but it doesn’t live in 1986. It’s a movie made for the here and now.
Top Gun: Maverick’s success does pose implications for a future where they take the success of the sequel as a justification for future films that may provide diminishing returns, but that’s a problem for future film reviews. And frankly, it doesn’t seem that Disenchanted’s less-than-stellar reception will affect how Disney continues to pursue future remakes, reboots, and sequels. Most of Disney’s storytelling decisions of the past ten years have already been questionable in regard to their onslaught of live-action remakes, but so long as people are watching and talking, the House of Mouse will continue to make these films. The hope is that in the vast seas of Disney audiences, there will be a new crop of filmmakers that will have grown up knowing what kind of retold stories they don’t want to see. Sequels can be good, we can get to that happily ever after, but not like this. Here’s to hoping the legacy of these terrible legacy sequels will soon be a thing of the past.
Bernadette graduated from DePauw University in 2011 with a Film Studies degree she’s not currently using. She constantly consumes television, film, and all things pop culture and will never be full. She doesn’t tweet much, but give her a follow @BeaGorman and see if that changes.