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Modern magic While her prince searches for her, a princess banished to Manhattan finds she can brighten world-weary hearts

In the land of once upon a time, beautiful princesses dress in equally lovely gowns; Prince Charming carries a sword and has a song in his heart; and adorable woodland creatures lend a helping hand (or tail, as it might be). Oh, and of course, they all live happily ever after.

Get real, you say? Life is not a fairy tale? People don't live happily ever after?

Take that cynical attitude and head right to the theater to see "Enchanted," the wonderful new Disney movie. Taking the idea of fairy tale characters being thrust into the modern world, the movie runs with it in the most unexpected and brilliant ways making it the best Disney film in years. (How good is this? I forgot to eat the candy I snuck in the movie theater, and I never forget to eat candy.)

The movie opens, once upon a time, in the animated land of Andalasia, where the lovely barefoot princess-in-waiting Giselle (Amy Adams) is singing for her "one true love, my prince, my dream come true." She sings her happy song with all her cuddly forest friends and her voice carries through the forest to the handsome prince (James Marsden).

"I must find the maiden that belongs to that divine voice," he says, riding atop his horse Destiny and dragging an ugly giant troll he has captured.

But the prince is so mesmerized by the voice that the ugly troll escapes and quickly chases Giselle up a tree. Climbing out on a branch, she falls toward the ground and straight into the prince's arms. They lock eyes. "We'll be married in the morning," he tells her before they've barely said hello.

Giselle is ecstatic. The prince is beaming. The audience, on the other hand, chuckles as this illustration of love at first sight seems awfully silly.

But wait. The prince has an evil stepmother, Queen Narissa (deliciously played by Susan Sarandon), who has worked hard for years to protect her queenship by stopping him from meeting his one true love. This Giselle girl, she decides, must be gone!

The next day Giselle arrives at the castle in her storybook horse-drawn carriage and enormous Princess Diana-like wedding gown. Disguised as an old woman, Queen Narissa convinces Giselle to go to a magic well and wish for her heart's desire. Giselle has barely said the phrase "and they both lived happily ever" before she is pushed down the well and drops down so far that she comes up through a manhole cover in Times Square.

What is this strange land? Giselle wonders. Where are her friends? What is wrong with these people? They don't smile -- that is until a little girl and her father find Giselle on top of a billboard trying to get into a "castle." The child, of course, sees the "princess," but Robert, a disillusioned divorce lawyer who doesn't believe in dreams come true, will take a little more convincing. (The fact that daddy is played by Patrick Dempsey will have the romantics in the audience torn over Giselle reuniting with her Prince Edward or realizing she has a Prince McDreamy.)

From there it's an imaginative fish-out-of-water tale as the always positive Giselle tries to impart happy fairy tale ideals on Robert, who just doesn't get it. "It's like you escaped from a Hallmark card," he tells her. "Is that bad?" she asks.

Robert's philosophy about marriage and raising his daughter is based on making practical decisions. "I don't want her to believe in this dreams-come-true nonsense," he says with pained eyes that would make any princess swoon. They have, it seems, much to teach each other.

"Enchanted" is exactly what its title implies. The songs by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz are catchy without being obvious "pop singles." The actors are fantastic, especially Adams and Marsden, who bring these characters to life without losing the nuances of their animated selves. Pick up a book with any Disney princess and look at the way they gracefully hold their hands with fingers extended; then watch Adams do that through the entire movie.

Marsden steals the show as the exuberant prince who never for a moment realizes that he's a bit out of place in this new world. Instead, he runs through the streets of Manhattan attacking big metal monsters (buses) with his sword held high, a seemingly impossible fact given the size of the enormous puffy sleeves on his velvet outfit.

Bill Kelly, who also wrote the whimsical "Blast from the Past," embraces the wonderment of the fairy tale spirit with his script, without being afraid to poke a little fun. Those fluffy gowns -- well they're not very practical are they? Prince Charming (or Edward in this case) sounds like a dork spouting his princely claims of affection. Those cute creatures? Well, when you see "real" rats and birds using their tails to clean, you're not thinking "oh, how cute," you're screaming "eeeeewwww."

"Enchanted" is delightful in every way, including its great sense of humor, inventive script and the clever way it recycles so much of the Disney lore that generations have grown to love (the glass slipper, the stroke of midnight, a poisoned apple). But the best thing of all is the story's unwavering belief in happily ever after and the way it brings out the kid at heart in all of us.



>Movie Review

Review: Four stars (out of four)

Now playing in area theaters. Fairy tale characters are transported to modern-day Manhattan. Starring Amy Adams, Patrick Dempsey, James Marsden and Susan Sarandon. Directed by Kevin Lima. 107 minutes. Rated PG for some scary images and mild innuendo.

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