In "Enchanted," Amy Adams smiles like the sort of maiden you'd find on a butter wrapper or some fancy heavy cream. She's sweet and charmingly seductive. You may not need any cream, but the woman's so pretty you'd toss a container in your cart anyway. She also demonstrates a real performer's ingenuity for comic timing and physical eloquence (her big eyes pop, and she signals melodrama by swaying her arms like Lillian Gish). The sight of Adams gliding and beaming and chirping in this movie - a self-mocking cartoon that transforms into an inspired live-action musical farce - is just about the happiest time I've had watching an actor do anything all year.
That's partially because I was watching something I hadn't seen in a long, long time: an honest-to-goodness movie star brightening an actual movie. In this case, the occasion is extra-special since before "Enchanted" Adams was simply that nice Oscar nominee from "Junebug." Here she becomes a star before our eyes, and it's like witnessing an entire garden grow in under two hours.
Directed by Kevin Lima and written by Bill Kelly, the movie jabs at the virtuousness of the old Disney cartoons for laughs. It actually happens to be a Disney picture, but the company doesn't bite its own hand. It pats itself on the back for having a sense of humor about the ancient wholesome values of its animated legacy ("Sleeping Beauty," "The Little Mermaid," etc. come in for mild ribbing).
Adams plays Giselle, a fairy-tale heroine who, on her wedding day, is sent down a well and through some kind of wormhole into Disneyfied Times Square. The sender is an evil queen (Susan Sarandon under a lot of dark hair and makeup). Giselle is distraught and confused, galloping in a billowing white gown and pounds of red hair on the bustling Broadway sidewalks trying to figure out what's happened.
I knew the movie was in the right spirit when Giselle, in that immaculate dress, plops herself down on a dirty street at the feet of a bum. The movie maintains a great tension between the sanitation of her cartoon world and the dirtiness of New York. Before Robert, a divorce attorney played by Patrick Dempsey, agrees to put Giselle up in the roomy Upper West Side apartment he shares with his daughter, Morgan (Rachel Covey), he asks her where she'll sleep. Giselle requests a hollow tree or a meadow. (You'll have to hear Adams say it.)
At one point Giselle opens a window to summon her cute woodland critters to help her clean Robert's pigsty apartment. She's expecting ladybirds and fawns. She gets assorted vermin. Without a second thought, she breaks into a blissful song (by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz) and tidies up with her unsavory but effective maintenance crew. That sequence and another even more impressive musical number in Central Park are marvels of assurance. The filmmakers trust us to find the irony funny without once asking Adams or any of the energetic extras to wink at us, the way a Mel Brooks version of the same material might. After she gleefully makes herself clothes out of Robert's curtains and rugs, the cutaway holes shaped like dresses get a big laugh.
"Enchanted" is still fun when it leaves Adams and goes to James Marsden, as Edward, the prince who jumps through the wormhole, along with his crooked helpmeet (Timothy Spall) and a chipmunk, to rescue Giselle. Marsden flings his hair enough for it to be considered a workout routine and wears a jacket with such balloon shoulders you half-expect Richard Branson to commandeer one of them. But with a job as tough as Adams's, he transcends his props, enthusiastically playing this dolt with panache and valiance. Edward doesn't know he's a joke.
Innocence may be the movie's gag, but "Enchanted" isn't a send-up of virtue. Giselle and Edward get mocked but the movie doesn't work if we don't believe that those two believe in stuff like "true love's kiss." News of divorce gives Giselle a conniption. But the movie actually starts to run out of gas toward the finale when it introduces Giselle to the concept of dating and has her embark on a "Pretty Woman" shopping spree (she was better in drapes) then straighten out her piles of hair.
Incidentally, "Pretty Woman" remains the standard by which star-making is measured. That's mostly because since 1990 stardom no longer has much real currency. It's cheap bordering on meaningless. Tabloids, the Internet, and reality television have taken the mystery of out being a star. And would-be movie stars, like Ben Affleck, Jennifer Lopez, and Angelina Jolie, never quite took the "movie" part seriously in the first place. The audience, in turn, has come to distrust it, too - we know far too much about these people to surrender fully to them.
So Amy Adams is breathtaking almost by default: Who is she again? Her mesmerizing lightness seems like a condition of this character and a personal matter of fact: She brings no baggage to the part. The rub, of course, is that while a lot of people walking into "Enchanted" won't know who Adams is, they'll leave clamoring to find out.