THB #261: I Love Musicals That Don't Suck
So many of my favorite people. So many happy ambitions coming together in unexpected ways. But sadly, both Disenchanted and Spirited seem so happy to be putting on a show in the barn (will anyone under 50 get that reference anymore?) that they forgot to make their screenplays work. They fail differently… though I desperately wanted to love both of them.
What they share is that, for all the fun, they both seem to be looking over their shoulder way too much. They both do stuff that is completely right. But they can’t seem to stop themselves from terrible, complicated choices that take the audience out of the flow.
Both have terrible titles that don’t really even make sense unless you connect the dots. But audiences shouldn’t have to work to get the title. Even “Disenchanted,” aside from the movie not matching the title, is a title that would work 2 years after a big hit… not 15 years later and we’re throwing nostalgia piece on Disney+ because Kareem really has no idea what opens a movie.
Neither one has more than 2 or 3 memorable new songs. But honestly, for these movies with fairly short production windows and no out-of-town try-outs, what do you expect? I certainly don’t expect a Sondheim show or a My Fair Lady/Music Man/Oklahoma run of masterful hit songs. Two is plenty. I love La La Land, but there are only 2 songs that people really walk away with (City of Stars and Another Day of Sun) and another couple that linger with real fans. It’s enough.
Spirited signals that it isn’t confident in its own storytelling skills by adding a distracting voiceover to its first scene, in a graveyard. The idea they were going for is clear… but it’s undermined before they even break their internal 4th wall. (I won’t even get into how they waste Rose Byrne.)
Opening song isn’t bad. Big energy. But they keep cutting away to jokes without then integrating those side voices into the big number. That is how you get big moments in all-cast numbers in musicals… the unexpected adds. When a character says, “If they get me dancing, I’d tear it up,” and the movie doesn’t engage that idea… I mean, it’s basic improv comedy… “Yes, And.”
Next, a story set-up song for Will Farrell on a big CG set. Meh.
Ryan Reynolds finally shows up 14 minutes in. Too late. Way too late.
But worse, we are now in some weird space where their Scrooge is a media consultant who will end up advising The Ghosts. Too clever. Too much work for the audience. And then he has his first number, which is, unlike the Ghost Squad, is completely disconnected from his reality. It’s a gimmick 100% about Ryan Reynolds being charming. Real trees vs fake trees. Fake premise.
I get what excited the team about this kind of number. But it’s extremely soft storytelling. It can amuse the audience for 5 minutes, but then you have been to roped back into the emotion of the story.
All kinds of unneeded excess before we get back to Reynolds, who is somehow the bad guys and helping the niece he barely knows. No. Mushy. Blurry. Inconsistent. What are we supposed to feel?
Then, we get the first really good musical number in the movie. Octavia Spenser singing a ballad. Who knew she could? At first, it isn’t clear she has the voice as she talk-sings. But then she brings it, big. “The View From Here.” That is The song. It will recur, as it should.
But the problem is, we now have a hero who is relatively subtle for Farrell, a villain who is kinda nice in Reynolds, and a victim hero in Spencer, who isn’t really a victim of anything but her unwillingness to break away.
Then, they change the rules of a Christmas Carol kind of movie.
I’m doing way too much play-by-play here… but 30 minutes of 2 hours+ in, we’re in a cartoon that just isn’t that funny. You can see the actor/comics all working on their little schticks. Some of them are fun. This is an A+ cast.
But this thing just wanders and wanders and wanders. Everyone is showing off. Marley finally gets to our “Kinda Scrooge” 35 minutes in and the song is pretty good, the visual is quite good and then, they keep doing the same gag to keep the number from really soaring… the laugh (and I did, the first time) over the musical.
Our “Scrooge” has broken the rules of both Marley and Christmas Past and invaded the Ghost Squad with a lot of time with Farrell’s Christmas Present… and we’re only an hour in!!!!!
The best big group song in the film is, “Good Afternoon.” That is the one that people leave the theater humming. Very Python/Eric Idle. But that is the thing… when it works, it can be familiar, cheesy, silly, whatever. And a big part of working is clarity.
The song is everything in this musical… but it should be the end of the 2nd act, not the middle of the movie. If Spirited was a tight 1:35, it might be really enjoyable. But the extra half hour really saps one’s energy.
The film wants to solve both the “Scrooge” story and the “Christmas Present” story, which is clever and ambitious, but too damned much. Ferrell gets his big number, along with a big chorus, and it barely plays because the emotion of the film is so all over the place. It needed an “adult” to say, “no.” Always leave them wanting more.
Disenchanted, on the other hand, has all the pieces pretty much precut. The opposite of Spirited.
The idea is smart. The Enchanted family is going to move to the suburbs because they think it will be better for their teenage girl. And they find a new set of human challenges… which are not unlike the challenges of Giselle’s cartoon youth.
But here is my problem… exit from New York is murky at best. There is no real motive to leave. I could have just been the husband getting a new job. But instead… a blur.
Where they choose to live… it’s already pink when they get there. Really? Shouldn’t Giselle-ifyinf the place be a number?
Giselle gets her second upbeat Giselle song after he step-daughter is mopey in suburbia like she was in NYC.
Where is the tension? The original film was all about conflict and this positive spirit rising above. But in both of these first songs, she is just being Giselle. Okay… but kinda boring. It’s like they are protecting every character from being something other than perfectly sweet.
The house they are moving into is a firetrap, which is played as comedy. It’s not funny. And the teen daughter’s clothes are all burned. WTF?
Finally, some conflict shows up in the persona of Maya Rudolph and her 2 mean girls.
Then add the two friends from FantasyLand, Edward (James Marsden) and Nancy (Idina Menzel)… for no apparent reason except to deliver a wishing wand into the story.
What the hell is this movie going to be about?!?!?
Amy gets a third song.And somehow, at the end, acting on their own after Giselle wishes, the magic wand and the magic well conspire to change their suburban world into Giselle’s magic home of Andalasia… or some weird version of it, complete with Pee Wee Herman’s kitchen appliances.
But there is a twist. Giselle, who is literally a step-mother, turns into a wicked step-mother whenever see hears a bell.
Now there is this whole side story about villains.
But where does this lead? A big happy number for the step-daughter. Are we now saying teen daughters would be happier in fantasy land?
Naturally, it follows that Giselle now goes full wicker step-mother on her step-daughter.
But the singing showdown with Giselle and Maya Rudolph’s Malvina, Badder, is the strongest number in the movie. And like a negative of Spirited, it takes place at 1:13 in with just 45 minutes left and finally, I have found a version of this movie that I want to watch.
But less than 15 minutes later, good ol’ Giselle is back. Meh.
The movie where Giselle spends at least half the film in a rising tornado of evil is a hit movie. And imagine how much we would love to watch Amy as Giselle overcome her very real hardship and become her perfectly chipper self again.
It’s like they wanted to have the pleasure of evil Amy/Giselle, which she can tear up… and the snide side of Maya Rudolph… but they just wouldn’t make the movie that this wanted to be.
It’s so complicated and unfocused. Let the teenage girl be angry. Let the husband be crabby. Let Giselle find that the only thing that doesn’t come easy for her is being mother to an infant (the kid practically disappears through most of the movie). Something!
Such a great cast. Well directed. Not unpleasant. But Enchanted had a clear voice from the minute Giselle came out of the subway hole. Rats, bums, little people, cockroaches, looking up her dress (she is completely covered)… this was a family movie, but not childish.
Like so many movies that are “made for streaming,” it is like they just are not produced enough. This movie had all the pieces… but it just doesn’t fly because it isn’t focused.
I am still looking forward to Matilda and the animated version of the Leslie Bricusse Scrooge, though Netflix seems to have no energy to expend for either. Sigh…
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