Disenchanted: Adaptation Issues & Tired Tropes.
The movie is fun, kids will enjoy it, but I found the plot setup tired.
A film discussion by Kate O’Brien.
Disney’s Enchanted, the beloved film that brought the charming Giselle to our screens, came out in 2007, so it is safe to say that Disenchanted is a long-awaited sequel. If a sequel was needed at all is a different question altogether.
Before diving into what I liked, and what I didn’t like about Disenchanted, first I’d like to express why I’ve been disappointed with some of the latest Disney releases.
I have made it no secret that I have felt let down by Disney sequels and adaptations recently.
I feel as though something is always missing and the films just don’t hit the mark the way I want them too. Some may argue that I am looking back at the originals with nostalgic, rose-tinted glasses, and while I am the first to admit that the films I grew up watching are not perfect, I feel that there was a sense of overcoming adversity and actually triumphing over evil that is missing from the sequels and adaptations that we see today. Villains are just not villains anymore. They’re either completely watered down, or they’re changed completely. The “villain is not actually a villain because of their tragic backstory” trope is becoming all too common and while yes, backstories can lead to someone becoming a villain, I don’t want every story to be a villain redemption tale. Sometimes we just need a bad guy, and the stakes need to feel real. That is my main problem with some of these newer releases, the stakes just don’t feel real.
I also find that there is a need to correct and modernise the fairy tales of the past, as they’re often dubbed outdated and sexist. I won’t pretend that some of the fairy tales that are called classics are not not outdated and/or sexist in some way, shape, or form. Many of them express ideas about people and about roles in society that are outdated today, but I do think that context is important, and it is important to remember the times in which these stories were written. Thankfully attitudes have changed along with the times, but I still think context is important when reading old fairy tales in modern day, because while one can still dislike and critique the outdated ideas, it is still important to remember that they were written in a different time.
In my opinion, it is too easy to call a female protagonist weak. It is too easy to say “this character waited to be saved.” I think critiques like this too often ignore the fact that these stories were often written in a time where women did not have personal agency. They were not allowed to. They could not just do as they pleased, when they pleased. It is an uncomfortable fact, but a fact nonetheless, that there was a time when women were considered property. There was a time when women were not allowed to vote, and there was a time when a woman had to leave her job if she got married, and of course stories written in this time will reflect those attitudes, this includes fairy tales.
Many fairy tale heroines do the best they can within the situations they find themselves in, and this reality of making the best of a situation that you had no control over would have been very relatable to women existing in those times. Women having personal agency and control over their own lives, and their own minds, and their own autonomy is a battle that is still being fought today in 2022. Some people are of the opinion that they can decide what a woman can and cannot do with her own body. It is frightening to see what is happening in different parts of the world, but the point I am making is that even though times have changed, the idea of people being limited by societal rules is an idea that still exists today, and so to dismiss the outside factors that limit a heroine’s choices and simply say she is weak and has no agency at all is unfair.
This leads me to the issue with modern retellings or sequels trying to “correct” the mistakes of the past fairy tales. There is a huge attempt made to give female characters more agency, to prove they don’t need a man, to prove that “love at first sight” is a notion to be forgotten, and while I am all in favour of giving female characters agency, and portraying more realistic relationships, and of course I want stories that are empower young viewers, I still think it is important to pay attention to the details, otherwise you have stories that contradict the point they are trying to make.
Take the 2015 live-action adaptation of Cinderella as an example. This version wanted to correct the mistake of having Cinderella and the prince fall in love with each other after just one night at the ball – now there are countless versions of Cinderella, many of which involve several meetings, and this adaptation wants to highlight this idea, so the film has Ella and Kit meet in the woods. He meets her as an “honest country girl” instead of as a princess at the ball. He is smitten by her even though she is wearing her rags and has soot on her face so see! He loves her for her! He fell in love with her. Great. Another idea this adaptation had was to give Ella some “spunk.” The shock on her stepsisters’ faces when she answers them in fluent French after they teased her for being unable to speak French is comical. See! This adaptation gives audiences a Cinderella who does not blindly do as her stepfamily says. She’s got spunk. She showed them, except she didn’t, because the rest of the film has her obediently trying to please them. She does not understand why they’re so cruel to her, and despite it all she does her best to be kind.
Disclaimer – I have said it before and I’ll say it again, I love the story of Cinderella and I have always interpreted it as a story about a girl who survives being trapped in an abusive household, so even in the story’s original form, I have never thought of Cinderella as a weak character who has no agency. I’ve always considered her to be incredibly brave and strong. Strength comes in many forms, and it does not always involve being permanently sarcastic and rejecting authority.
Ella in the 2015 adaptation has one “spunky” moment as the film wanted to correct previous critiques of the story, by showing an Ella who can speak back. My issue with this is that she only does it once, and it really serves no purpose at all. The frustrating thing is that this film still faced the same critiques. Audiences still called Ella passive, especially because she chooses to forgive her stepmother at the end. I’ve always watched this scene differently, I viewed it as a gracious act. Ella is stating that she forgives her stepmother as she heads off to a happy life with Kit. She will not suffer due to her stepmother anymore, she is free of her, whereas her stepmother who is now banished, will likely think about Ella forevermore.
What is even more frustrating is that the deleted scenes show that the film originally was going to have Ella write a letter to Kit, telling him who she really is. She manages to sneak out, and get the letter to the palace, only for it to be intercepted and thrown into the fire by the Duke.
I still don’t understand why a film that was trying to give Cinderella more agency would cut out that scene. It would have been far more impactful than the French speaking scene. Imagine if audiences could have seen Ella decide to take ownership of the fact that she has feelings for Kit. Imagine how exciting it would have been to watch her boldly decide to act on her desire, because she has decided she deserves to, and write a letter to the man she loves telling him the truth. We could have then watched her sneak out of her abusive home and gallop on her horse to the palace, and the Duke intercepting the letter and throwing it into the fire would have been far more infuriating, because we would have seen all of the effort Ella went to, to try and get to Kit. We would have been rooting for her. Instead that entire section was cut and I will always be disappointed by that. Details are important, and if you want to update a story, or modernise it, you can but it has to be done in a way that makes sense.
This point very nicely brings me to Disenchanted as this sequel became Cinderella for a while, despite the film clearly trying to nod to all fairy tales, another point that I will talk about because while nods to other movies are fun, there is still a way to go about doing them.
Adam Shankman directed the 2022 film Disenchanted. The film follows a disheartened Giselle who is struggling with the stress and realities of everyday life. Giselle misses the ease of her life before New York, and so she wishes for a “fairy tale” life, but her wish goes horribly wrong.
Soon the town becomes a fairy tale, but it is not what Giselle pictured. She is a stepmother now and in traditional fairy tales, stepmothers are evil so now Giselle must fill that archetypal role whether she wants to or not. There is only so much time for the spell to be undone, for if it is not reversed then it will become permanent, and Andalasia will cease to exist for Giselle will have taken all the magic from her hometown and brought it to her new world.
I’m going to start off by discussing all of the things that I would have changed, and while it may seem like I am nit-picking, I really felt like this film had great ideas, but the execution was sloppy.
I think that details are important. Following that, I will talk about what I enjoyed, because despite not being 100% wowed by the film, I did have fun, and while I will always be honest and express my opinions, I don’t want my thoughts to only be somewhat negative, because there is no nuance in that.
I want to talk about the setup. I did not like it. Specifically, I don’t like how the film moves us to Giselle being desperate enough to make her wish. The biggest issue I have is the way the film treats Morgan.
A pet peeve of mine is when stories treat teenagers as if they are just difficult, impossible to understand beings by default. “You know how they are at this age.” “That’s teenagers for you.”
I can’t stand it. Adolescence is a time that is filled with changes and pressures. Puberty, relationships, school pressures, exams, college decisions, job decisions. It can be a difficult, and embarrassing, and stressful time, and yes, mood swings can occur, but it bothers me in stories (and in real life) when a group of grown adults can’t seem to extend any empathy or ask what is going on, instead they roll their eyes and proclaim “Teenagers! They’re miserable!”
Even worse, when adults do ask what is going on, but dismiss the answer as “not that serious.”
The beginning of Disenchanted places Morgan in the stereotypical, miserable teenager role, and I was very disappointed by this. I understand why the writers did this, as it does tie into the movie’s ending, a point that I will get to later.
Warning – there will be spoilers.
Having some tension between Giselle and Morgan was needed for what the writers wanted to do, however I wish they had gone about it in a different way. I feel like the “awful teenager” narrative is overdone and at this point, I find it lazy.
The plot is centred around Giselle and her feelings. She is dismayed because life is harder than she imagined it would be. As in fairy tales, finding your happily ever after is the hardest part.
Now Giselle is in the real world, she is married to Robert, they have a new baby. She is exhausted, and her relationship with Morgan is becoming more difficult to navigate. So Giselle is certain that moving house will solve all her woes. There is nothing better than a fresh start after all.
Morgan, naturally, is upset about the move. She is leaving her home, her school, and all of her friends, but none of her feelings are valid, of course not. She is a teenager, and therefore she is moody for no reason. It has nothing to do with her entire life being upended. Not at all.
Morgan has grown up. She is no longer a little girl, and while she still loves Giselle, she finds her constant reference to fairy tale life a bit exhausting, and honestly, I don’t blame her.
A running gag in this movie is the fact that Giselle has no idea what sarcasm is or how it works. This is another reason why she finds Morgan’s teenage years so difficult. She looks back to the days when Morgan was little, when she would ask for princess stories every night. She says it was so easy then. Everyone tries to reassure her that it is just a phase, this is just how teenagers are, and I became quite frustrated by this line. This is not “just how teenagers are.” The fact is that Morgan is not six anymore. She is a young woman, in highschool, so of course her interests have changed. It is unfair for anyone to expect Morgan to be exactly the same as she was when she was a little girl.
I think the scene that I disliked the most was the scene where Giselle sets up a cupcake stall to encourage Morgan’s new school peers to vote for Morgan to be princess of the festival. Giselle has good intentions, but I was still bothered that Giselle could not see why Morgan would not want this. Morgan does not want to be a princess. She just wants to fit in at her new school and make some friends after having to leave her old school and her old friends behind, something that the always chirpy, always singing Giselle does not make any easier. Morgan is laughed at by everyone, but again her feelings are dismissed because “Giselle was just trying to help.”
I think the problem is that the character of Giselle was beloved in the first movie. She is iconic. She was naive, charming, and romantic. She was a real-life princess. This worked so well because the plot was that she got literally shoved from her fairy tale life into New York. She had no idea how anything worked. She was fascinated by everything, and her openness and genuine nature allowed Robert to break out of his cynical box. Naturally Disney wanted to bring that Giselle back to our screens, the Giselle that everyone knows and loves. The problem is that this Giselle does not work anymore. It was as though Giselle did not change one bit despite all the time that has passed. She has lived in New York for years, she has built a life there, but we are still expected to believe that she understands nothing about how the “real” world works.
There is a difference between a teenager being unreasonably snarky, and Morgan being frustrated because her mother has uprooted her entire life, and opened her up to endless ridicule from her new classmates. Morgan is the new kid in town, and the new kid in school, which is hard enough as it is, but Giselle makes this even harder, and then she gets upset when Morgan does not react the way she did when she was little. It was frustrating to watch.
This tension with Morgan, alongside the troubles they face in their new home, is what prompts Giselle to make a wish for a fairy tale life. Her wish gets complicated however, when she turns into an evil stepmother. This was clever, if a little on the nose. In archetypal fairy tales, stepmothers are traditionally cruel. Giselle is Morgan’s stepmother. So when she wishes for a fairy tale life, Giselle unknowingly gives herself the role of the villain, because as time passes, she takes on more stereotypical stepmother traits.
The plot becomes Cinderella for a while. Giselle destroys Morgan’s dress, she locks her in the attic, she forbids her from attending the festival, and she even quotes the famous stepmother speech from the 1950s animation. I enjoyed the nod, but I felt that the plot was messy because it was not clear who the protagonist was. It should have been Morgan, but it wasn’t. Giselle was sort of the protagonist, but the movie wanted a twist so they made her the antagonist, as well as having another villain. So we had two villains, battling to see who could be the most wicked.
I would have preferred it if Morgan was the true protagonist. I would have preferred more screen time with her, as she tries to figure out what is happening, what is going on, why is everyone around her, including her becoming more and more of a storybook caricature?
Funnily enough, despite modern movies trying to stray away from the “damsel” critiques, Giselle’s wish takes away all of Morgan’s bad feelings about the move, and she becomes a permanently smiling, singing, ideal storybook fair maiden who is trying her very best to gain her stepmother’s approval. I’m not critiquing Morgan, I enjoyed her scenes, and I enjoyed her singing, but I just think it is ironic that Disney placed her in the role that so many adaptations constantly try to “correct.”
Before anyone says I’ve taken the movie too seriously, I am aware it is a Disney movie. I am aware that it is for children, however I still think the plot was messy, and that kids deserve plots that are well developed. While I was irritated, I did not completely hate this movie. I just wish it was better.
Let’s talk about the positives.
I enjoyed the songs. It was very bright. The costumes were beautiful, everyone looked as though they jumped out of a storybook, as they should. I absolutely loved seeing the Irish locations.
I’m biassed of course, but I am Irish, and I think that Ireland is beautiful, so it was great to see a movie that takes advantage of Ireland’s natural beauty. The cast were fantastic. I love Amy Adams. It is clear that she loves this role, and despite my frustrations with this sequel, I do love her in this role. No one else could play Giselle, however this time around, Giselle’s character didn’t impress me the way she did the first time.
I do want to talk about the final scene between Giselle and Morgan, because despite my issues with the movie’s setup, I really loved this moment and I feel like it is a really heartwarming, and important scene. When it all comes down to it, Morgan is the only one who can undo Giselle’s wish. Morgan fears she won’t be able to, for the magic states that only a “true daughter” can use the wand. Morgan fears all hope is lost. She is not from Andalasia. She is not from a magical world. She can’t use the want. Giselle tells her that yes she can use the wand, she can do it, because she is a true daughter. “You’re my daughter Morgan.”
This is a beautiful moment, and it is an important one. The movie talks about how bonds don’t have to be biological to be strong. In a time where many children have stepparents, I felt that this theme was a very poignant and significant one. Morgan did feel insecure about not being a “true daughter of Andalasia.” She did feel insecure when her father and Giselle had a child of their own. I feel like this would be a very realistic thing, especially when the age gap is so big. Babies get doted on naturally, but this can add to insecurities when the relationship changes in your teenage years. Giselle raised Morgan, she has always been there for Morgan. She loves Morgan. Morgan is her daughter. Their bond is true, and loving, and valid, and Morgan needed to know that. She needed to hear that. All parents need to reassess their relationships with their children as they get older, because as a child grows, they change, and this does not automatically have to be a bad thing. I loved this scene, and I understand why the writers chose to lead up to this moment the way they did, I understand why they created friction, I just wish it was done a bit differently. Very differently.
My ideal version of this sequel would have removed the tired “teenagers, ugh” trope.
I would have had Giselle feel homesick, because having a new baby is tiring, it is hard.
The move could have still taken place, and Morgan still could have felt sad about leaving her friends and school, because those are valid feelings. Robert having to adjust to commuting could have stayed, because that is a realistic stress factor. I would have removed Giselle trying to get everyone to vote for Morgan as festival princess, but left in the other kids scoffing at Morgan and not being overly kind to the new kid, because again, that is realistic.
All of these combined would have still led to Giselle yearning for the ease of Andalasia, because things just are not working out how she expected them to. As for the tension between Giselle and Morgan, I would have removed the constant badmouthing of Morgan and instead, I’d have had her naturally not being as interested in Giselle’s fairytale stories. I would have had Robert reassuring Giselle that Morgan loves her, but it is natural for kids to want to do their own thing more as they get older. Giselle could have still struggled with this change, as that is realistic. It is normal for parents to have to adapt when their kids are getting older. The relationship changes because it has to, so that distance between Giselle and Morgan would still have been there, but it would have been done in a way that was not tired, overdone, and frankly unfair.
After Giselle’s wish goes wrong, I would have had Morgan be the clear protagonist.
I would have liked to see her trying to figure out what was going on, and how to fix it, and this way Giselle could have been the clear antagonist as the curse would have made her more and more wicked as time passed. I feel this would have been really fun, and the clarity of who is the protagonist, and what they are trying to overcome would have made the stakes and triumphs much more satisfying.
Overall I think that Disenchanted was fun. It is clear that the cast had a ball. The songs were great, it was bright and lively. The movie was filled with references to other fairy tales so Disney lovers will appreciate all of these moments. I’m sure kids will enjoy this movie, I just wish it had been written slightly differently. I would have loved to see a tad more nuance, and some fresh stories instead of repeating tired tropes that I’m really getting sick of seeing.
Know who your protagonist is. Know who your antagonist is. Be clearer about everyone’s motivations, and allow characters to mature.
Sometimes movies should be left alone, as a sequel is not really needed, but that is a discussion for another time.