You’ve heard it if you haven’t said it yourself: Disney has gone downhill! It’s terrible! Look what they did to Star Wars! Their Marvel movies have become lazy! All the reboots are horrendous!
Is it true, though?
Last week my family watched Disenchanted, the sequel to Enchanted on Disney+. When I first saw Enchanted, I wanted to hate it. I ended up loving it. “How Does She Know that You Love Her” remained in my head for weeks after seeing it. The cast and story charmed their way into my heart. I thought, hey, why not try Disenchanted, then?
I give the movie a B+, personally. It’s not as good as the original movie, but it was still entertaining. Some of the music, particularly “Badder,” has lain eggs in my brain. The relationships between the characters, particularly Edward and Nancy, were solid. It was decent… but not great. Well, why not?
The other day my wife and I pondered the question. This is something we do. What makes a story good? What missed the mark? It helps as we produce stories of our own to see how other stories succeed or fail. And I think, personally, the misses in Disenchanted are fairly indicative of what I think has been going on with Disney lately in general.
First, how does the story go in the movie?
Giselle got her happily ever after… so why isn’t she happy? She’s married to Robert, her prince. Her stepdaughter Morgan and her have a great relationship. She longs for a fairytale life, though. When she sees an ad for a suburb promising “Your fairytale starts here!” she instigates the family to move. Morgan, now a teen, hates the move. The local PTA queen starts making life difficult. When Edward and Nancy arrive from the animated kingdom of Andalasia with a magic wand as a gift, Giselle wishes for a fairytale life. The entire town changes overnight. It’s a fairytale setting now!
The PTA queen is an actual evil queen. Robert is a prince searching for adventure. Morgan is a loyal stepdaughter who loves cleaning. But now Giselle is a stepmother… and stepmothers in fairytales are evil! She begins transforming into a villain, which the evil queen doesn’t appreciate. The two begin a feud. Morgan is locked in a tower. And worse, the wish is draining Andalasia of all its magic, killing its inhabitants!
Morgan is transported to Andalasia where she learns that only a son or daughter of Andalasia can reverse the spell, and it must be done before midnight. To do so, she needs to remind Giselle of all the happy times, turn her good again, and get her to make a wish. Morgan is barely able to do so, and happy endings happen all around.
So, that’s the brief write-up. It… probably makes no sense if you haven’t seen Enchanted, and it may be confusing if you haven’t seen Disenchanted. But maybe you can tell what the biggest problem is:
We don’t know whose story this is. Is the movie about Giselle yearning for a fairytale life and learning that’s not a good thing? Or is it about Morgan and restoring the relationship with her stepmother? Who gets the focus? The movie can’t decide. The first act is all Giselle, and the last act is Morgan. A story needs a primary protagonist. Even in movies with a group of protagonists, there’s usually one primary character. Guardians of the Galaxy is more about Peter Quill/Starlord than the others, for example. Because it jumps protagonists, the story arcs don’t have time to earn their big emotional moments.
Also, a number of the characters simply lift out of the plot. The evil queen? If she didn’t exist, it would barely affect the plot. We’d miss out on the fantastic song “Badder,” but even that song says that there isn’t room for two villains. Why did we need two villains? Oh, also, Giselle has a one-year-old daughter. She does nothing for the story. There are no emotional beats involving the baby. If she didn’t exist, the story would continue in the exact same way. Morgan has a possible love interest. At the climax of the movie, he fights for her. Except… he’s there mostly because the protagonist should have a love interest, not for any other reason. Even though he fights, he also fights with Morgan’s dad. He fulfills no distinct story purposes.
But here’s the thing: Disenchanted has a good movie in it. It needed another revision or two before they filmed it. A few simple fixes would have made it a fantastic movie.
First, pick a protagonist. As good as Amy Adams is as Giselle, let her be the wicked stepmother. Make Morgan the main character. Give us the entire movie from her perspective. That means the emotional beats have time to develop and be earned. We don’t have to split time anymore.
I’d also drop out the evil queen. Let Giselle fully be the villain. I think that also gives her time to develop a good emotional story. It means sacrificing the best song, “Badder,” but I’m betting Giselle would have a catchy villain song without that!
So what do we learn here?
Ask what who the main character is. What’s the main conflict? Focus on that.
Ask the purpose of each character. What do they bring to the story?
And just send it through another revision or two, Disney. You’ve still got some good ideas there… but you really gotta make them shine. Don’t give us “good enough.” Give us something great.