This Magic Moment

Among many pseudo-magical flicks, only Enchanted entertains.

click to enlarge GET THE POINT? Patrick Dempsey gets a lesson in how to be a dashing hero from James Marsden in Enchanted. - Buena Vista Pictures
Buena Vista Pictures
GET THE POINT? Patrick Dempsey gets a lesson in how to be a dashing hero from James Marsden in Enchanted.

Magic is afoot everywhere at the moment, or so the movie studios would have us believe. In and around the multiplexes, the stars of the season are enchanted toy-store owners, mystically connected lovers and fairy-tale princesses yearning for a happy ending. It's magic of a milder, sweeter variety than what you'll find during the summer months, when we're browbeaten into CGI submission. But with the holidays upon us, what better way for Hollywood to crawl right into our wide-open hearts?

The season's most shameless manipulator is August Rush, a quasi-mystical fable about the healing power of music and a gushing love letter to the nuclear family. This is one of those movies where twists of fate fall from the sky and where couples are destined to be together because of the alliterative qualities of their names. So musicians Louis and Lyla (Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Keri Russell) fall in love at first sight, then are immediately and tragically separated — but not before conceiving a prodigiously talented child, the eponymous August (Freddie Highmore), who is likewise summarily whisked away. Everyone then proceeds to spend the rest of the movie separated from each other but linked in a magical-mystical-musical way that allows each character to ultimately work his or her way back toward the others.

Positively overflowing with sincerity and cosmic concurrences, August Rush may have unconsciously absorbed a thing or two from Hitler's notion of The Big Lie — that the bigger the fish story, the greater the odds that your audience will swallow it whole. We're obviously not meant to take the film's fish story literally (the characters are clearly ciphers: Russell and Myers are simply supposed to look good together, and Highmore's brave little face is mainly required to cry buckets on cue), but the movie's magical reality unfolds in such a fantastically slick, superficial way that it almost feels like we're watching an extended trailer rather than the movie itself.

August Rush is not without its glib charms, but the cumulative effect is like scanning a series of bumper stickers for New Age churches. The path of the movie's loved ones toward one another is as efficient and inexorable as the trajectories in Sleepless in Seattle and brimming with warmed-over sentiments pilfered from the likes of Mr. Holland's Opus and Forrest Gump. Someone actually yells, "Run, August, run!" toward the end of August Rush, but it's doubtful the movie's even aware of its debt; August Rush knows how to dole out the metaphysical catchphrases, but it doesn't quite comprehend the wisdom in poking a little fun at yourself.

At least August Rush gives us the sense that it's going somewhere, which is more than can be said for the bland and listless Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium. The directorial debut of Zach Helm, who wrote the absurdly over-praised Stranger Than Fiction, Mr. Magorium stars Dustin Hoffman as the wacky 243-year-old owner of a magical toy store wedged amongst the skyscrapers of some anonymous modern metropolis. Hoffman's performance is as lazy as it is irritating — out-of-control eyebrows and an affected lisp are the main things alerting us to his "wildly eccentric" nature — and Natalie Portman seems distinctly uncomfortable as the reluctant employee chosen to take over the store. There's also a lonely little boy (Zach Mills) wandering around acting pointlessly lonely and a straitlaced accountant (Justin Bateman) who can't see the magic all around him. None of it goes anywhere.

The influences here are painfully obvious, but Mr. Magorium never begins to live up to its Willy Wonka meets Toys meets pretty-much-anything-by-Tim Burton prototypes. None of the elements tie together in a particularly coherent way, the characters exhibit little discernable personality, the story plods, and the movie even lacks the visual panache to pull off this sort of thing. Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium constantly seems to be on the verge of simply disintegrating — much like Hoffman's lisp mysteriously vanishing each time he delivers a particularly meaningful line (accompanied by swelling strings, natch). And then the movie finally does disappear, ending so abruptly and incompetently that I actually heard one audience member inquire, with as much outrage as befuddlement: "That's it?"

But magic is afoot, for real, at least in one movie playing in theaters this week. A surprisingly appealing once-upon-a-timer about a fairyland princess (Amy Adams) banished to "a place where there are no happy endings" — modern-day Manhattan — Enchanted reminds us that magic doesn't have to be strictly pre-fab (August Rush) or pathetic (Mr. Magorium).

From its knowingly retro intro (an animated send-up of Snow White and a zillion other Disney classics) to its climactic CGI showdown, Enchanted is a mostly live-action romp that's both preternaturally perky family-friendly entertainment and a sly spoof of all things Disney-fied. Adams is spot on as Princess Giselle, a wide-eyed romantic with perfect diction and an inner circle of animal confidantes who lands on the Upper West Side and progresses from sweetly clueless fish-out-of-water to avid admirer of Madame Curie. The movie has a ball poking fun at its absurdly anachronistic storybook princess, with much comedic mileage generated from her encounters with various jaded real-world-ers. But when push comes to shove, those same hardened souls begin kicking up their heels whenever the infectiously upbeat Giselle is around, as Enchanted makes it clear that it's firmly on the side of anyone who can turn the world on with a song.

Enchanted isn't going to change anyone's life, but the movie gets enough right that it's almost unfair to lump it in with the likes of Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium. Enchanted knows it's ridiculous but wants to believe in magic anyway, a happy duality seen in witty touches like Giselle warbling out the window of her Manhattan duplex as scads of pigeons, rats and other NYC vermin swarm to her side. Even when our heroine comes to suspect that her Prince Charming (James Marsden) may be a bit too impossibly perfect — their glossy but shallow love-at-first-sight wouldn't be at all out of place in August Rush — the movie manages to ultimately find the magic in real life and vice versa. Everyone gets the happy ending they deserve in Enchanted, and that most definitely includes those of us in the audience.

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