Utterly Enchanted

24-Aug-08 11:59 AM by
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On a recent first date, I offered a typical probing question: what's your favorite movie? Acceptable answers include TRON, Star Wars (episodes IV – VI only, of course!), Wit, and the like. So I didn't know what to make of someone who responded with Enchanted. A Disney movie? I don't know why I was so taken aback; I count Aladdin and The Incredibles among my DVD collection. I proved more curious in the film than in its admirer, and after renting said movie, I'm happy to report something positive came of the evening.

Enchanted soundtrack coverEnchanted is a 2007 film that draws on the House of Mouse's extensive library to create an original yet familiar tale. It opens with an animated musical sequence that introduces us to a wicked stepmother, her royal son, and an innocent beauty whose friends are the woodland creatures. Desperate to keep the blissful couple apart, the stepmother casts the girl into a foreign land "where there are no happy endings" — New York City. The film then transitions into a live-action story with occasional glimpses back into the cartoon world.

From here, the story is somewhat predictable: Giselle (Amy Adams) wanders around the Big Apple until native New Yorker and divorce lawyer Robert Philip (Patrick Dempsey) takes her under his wing until her Prince Edward (James Marsden) can come to the rescue. In the meantime, both Giselle and Robert have the values of their worlds to teach each other, producing some comical pairings. Yet the predictability does nothing to deter the joy of the experience.

The star of the film is without a doubt Amy Adams, whose wide-eyed naivet&#233 is captured in her every nuanced movement. Her poise, carriage, and inflections make it believable that she really is a Disney princess stuck in a real person's body. When other characters from the magical land of Andalasia arrive in New York, their performances are amusing, but nowhere near as detailed as Ms. Adams'.

James Marsden is almost unrecognizable as the over-the-top, single-minded, valiant prince. I'm familiar with the actor's work only as brooding characters, such as Lois Lane's husband in Superman Returns and the mutant Cyclops in the X-Men trilogy. To see him acting so goofily was a welcome contrast. Susan Sarandon gets little screen time but is a wickedly wicked witch.

It's not just the transplants who are bewildered by their surroundings, as their behavior befuddles their New York friends in many amusing scenes. Giselle's animated proclivity to randomly burst into song embarrasses Robert, who doesn't want people to stare — and when the song explodes into a full dance number, he's astonished to see Central Park overtaken with choreography as he finds himself in one impossible scene after another.

Disney's heritage is evident in more than just the 13 minutes of cel-animated, non-CGI animation, or in the catchy, upbeat soundtrack and colorful musical numbers. We have clich&#233 and tropes from every past film, including talking animals, poisoned apples, and bumbling henchmen, but updated and even lampooned enough to make them enjoyable. Not all the allusions are so obvious; multiple shots and scenes are set up exactly like their cartoon ancestors, as shown in this side-by-side image gallery. Even just a simple but effective twist freshens what otherwise would've been a hackneyed climax.

Enchanted is both classic and modern Disney. It's a traditional tale that young audiences will enjoy, but pays homage to the predecessors that adults grew up with. Like any excellent family film, Enchanted has something for everyone.

Today's Lesson: The Pen Is Mightier

23-Feb-08 12:09 AM by
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As a former teacher, I'm intrigued by the classroom drama genre. My exposure to cinematic classrooms may lack such staples as Dangerous Minds, but I have seen Mr. Holland's Opus, To Sir With Love, Lean on Me, The Substitute, and High School High. Though I personally had very cooperative and intelligent pupils, it is not a stretch for me to imagine how woefully inadequate my private school upbringing would've left me for the rigors of a public classroom. Fortunately, thanks to the magic of Hollywood, I can imagine that experience without living it myself.

I'm speaking specifially of the 2007 film Freedom Writers, which I'd not heard of, nor the 1999 nonfiction book it's based on, until some recent research of The Diary of Anne Frank referenced this movie. Our protagonist is Erin Gruwell, an idealistic, fresh-out-of-college first-year teacher. Her students represent a variety of racial backgrounds, integrated after then-recent recent Rodney King riots. With students who fear each other and don't respect her, and an administration and husband that won't support her, Mrs. Gruwell unexpectedly finds herself rising to the greatest challenge of her life.

Mrs. Gruwell and her students come to know each other through a series of diaries that the teenagers keep and share; it is these records that serve as the basis for both the book and film. But the diaries themselves are not the story's focus, instead following the personal lives and tribulations of all the characters. There is much activity outside the classroom as in as we come to understand the politics and cost to all the school's residents. But my favorite scenes come from the classroom, where the interactions are the most tense. When the kids are on field trips, they're preoccupied with learning; when they're at home, they're among their own. It's in the classroom where racial and class tensions are palatable, with the physical war the kids wage amongst themselves as vital as the intellectual one Mrs. Gruwell needs to win.

Her opponents are outside the classroom, too — and though her co-workers and superiors are often made out to be villains, I find it easy to identify with their perceived mission: get the bad kids out of the classroom, do your best with the ones you can, and move on to the next year. Teaching is hard enough in even the best circumstances; the selflessness that Mrs. Gruwell's situation calls for can be almost self-destructive (as she finds out). Should all teachers be so giving? Maybe… but I have to wonder if her administrators are portrayed in this film as caricatures.

Hilary Swank, who I'd never seen in a lead role other than Million Dollar Baby, was entertaining to see as this not-so-tough character. Though Maggie Fitzgerald could've easily knocked any one of these ruffians — ah, the days of corporal punishment — Erin Gruwell runs for the hall monitor to break things up. Her castmates play their teenage roles effectively, giving a sense of depth that justifies their behavior to both their superiors and their racial rivals.

I can't say Freedom Writers is all that original; you can imagine how the film ends, and unlike Million Dollar Baby, there aren't too many surprises along the way. But that doesn't mean it isn't a fun or inspiring lesson that we can't all learn from, and the fact that it's based in truth gives us all hope for the next generation of students and teachers.