Godmothered, a Disney+ live-action refocus on the understudied role of the fairy godmother, has the foundations of movie magic working in its favor. The first would be timing: just in time for the holiday season, the film, directed by Sharon Maguire (best known for Bridget Jones’s Diary), proffers fresh Disney princess canon at the tail end of an abysmal year, with audiences primed for cheerful, nuclear family escapism. There’s the comedic bona fides of its two leads, Isla Fisher and Jillian Bell, and a winning, suitably modernized premise: a well-meaning yet naively bumbling godmother on a mission to revitalize a harried single mother in present-day Boston, a fairytale trope isolated and reforged for pre-pandemic but still decidedly uninspired times. But where Godmothered should coast, it stumbles – swerving between unwieldy earnestness to something edgier and settling on something duller than it should be.
It’s impossible to talk about Godmothered without comparing it to Enchanted, Disney’s 2007 revisionist fairytale which also plopped a naive, wide-eyed storybook character into a big east coast city, forced to convince a cynical population of the merit of happily ever after and conscript a bevy of urban creatures (for Enchanted, rats and pigeons; in Godmothered, a raccoon named Gary) into Snow White-style sidekicks.
Where Enchanted had a textbook fairytale princess exquisitely grounded by Amy Adams, Godmothered has Eleanor (Bell), the youngest godmother-in-training in the Motherland, appropriately nestled in some mountains a portal and spell away. Despite a lifetime prepping to sprinkle felicity on the lives of young, yearning girls, Eleanor’s career prospects have dimmed; demand for fairy godmothers has plunged in modern America (fair), as has the belief in happily ever after (also fair). Impatient to get on with the makeover and Prince Charmings, put off by the ennui of her classmates and rigid instructor Moira (Jane Curtin), and alarmed at the prospect of the Motherland’s closure, Eleanor impetuously throws a Hail Mary by responding to the letter of a 10-year-old girl outside Boston.
The twist: said girl, Mackenzie (Isla Fisher), is now a thirtysomething local news producer and harried single mother of two daughters who is reasonably skeptical of happy endings after the death of her husband. Eleanor, like Adams’s Giselle before her, plops into our world and the upended lives of her caretakers with all-consuming naivety and the subtlety of a hurricane. In both, the skeptics are won over by her undaunted enthusiasm, though the journey in Godmothered includes far more tonal hiccups and fewer musical numbers.
Not to bring it up again but, as evidenced by Enchanted or other latter-day animated Disney princess films such as Tangled and Frozen, there’s winning potential in subverting an age-old formula while also reminding us of its crystalline sweetness. Godmothered allows some of these buds to bloom – Fisher is strong as a multidimensional single mother, stressed at home and reeling from loss while burnt out at work. The influence of Eleanor’s preternatural optimism on the kids generates warmth, and a moment of comeuppance for Eleanor’s self-centered “helpfulness” feels earned. But Godmothered’s tender moments are overshadowed by its relentless zeal. Bell, a comedian more known for her profane humor than wide-eyed earnestness, gives Eleanor a winsome pluck, but the godmother’s overbearing naivety is applied so thickly that she struggles underneath its weight; the more Eleanor exerts inexhaustible cheer, the more cheerlessly annoying the alien-on-earth shtick becomes.
The resolution, thankfully, does not find Mackenzie swooning in the arms of prince charming (although, this being a Disney movie, there’s one – co-worker and fellow single parent Hugh (Santiago Cabrera) – within reach), but its shoehorned revelation – that true loves comes in many forms – is truth that lands with a clank. The collision of the real world and fantasy can feel snappy, alchemic, the same formula here is fractious – unrealistic in the parts where it’s trying to glom on to pre-pandemic America (Eleanor attending a Bruins tailgate in a ballgown and no one says anything, spells which allegedly set social media aflame but do not actually draw attention to the pair) and at times too determined to plant the story firmly in the non-Motherland (a particularly jarring line from Eleanor about homeless men around a fire offering her needles). Like one of Eleanor’s misfiring spells, Godmothered zings from undiluted sweetness to an attempt at edge and back, landing at an undesirable, uninspiring middle.
Which might not ultimately matter much. Kids are likely to enjoy this movie either way, as it retains enough of the Disney formula: a happy ending, the triumph of love, endearing-enough CGI wildlife, a climactic and heroic musical number as Jane overcomes her stage fright in the most duckling-to-princess style possible in Christmastime Boston. For everyone else, it’s a bumpy, underwhelming ride – not deviant enough to be offensive, but too tonally inconsistent to sustain sparks.
Godmothered is available on Disney+ from 4 December