Most of the time, the movies I watch and review are the ones I’ve been waiting for, either because they looked good or because of who was involved in making them. I rarely watch things I haven’t heard of on a whim because, like most people, I’m busy and there’s already so much I want to see. However, when I do randomly put something on, it’s usually from Netflix because they don’t market their stuff well at all. So, when new shows or movies are unceremoniously dumped on the service, I typically haven’t heard of them. Today, I decided to watch one of these random releases, Charming. I was intrigued by the premise, however, the cast stuffed with pop stars, veteran voice actors, TV actors, and Disney Channel performers is what drew me in. It’s an odd mix, but an impressive one that made me wonder why they didn’t promote this particular movie. Having seen it now, I think I can see why. Let’s have a look.
Charming is a parody of fairy tales, and especially of the popular Disney adaptations of them. Initially released in 2018 (although Netflix says 2021, for some reason), it tells the untold story of Prince Philippe Charming (Wilmer Valderrama). A curse makes all women who see him fall for him. A series of heroic rescues leaves him engaged to three women at the same time: Snow White (Avril Lavigne), Cinderella (Ashley Tisdale), and Sleeping Beauty (G.E.M.). When his father sends him on an epic journey to discover which one is his true love, he inadvertently hires a wanted thief as his guide. His guide, Lenny, is really Lenore (Demi Lovato), the only woman immune to Charming’s charms due to a curse of her own. They must work together to survive three trials and get the Prince to the castle to decide before time runs out.
While I’m not the biggest fan of fairy tale parodies (or modern parodies in general), I actually quite like this film’s premise. I rolled my eyes a bit with all the jokes about how these princesses are engaged to the same man; I’m okay with the story aspect, but they’re not smart for pointing this out. Into the Woods already observed that Prince Charming is the love interest in several fairy tales, and I doubt that’s the only one. It’s just kind of a tired gag, and I wish the film took it more seriously as a problem both for Philippe and the princesses. They freak out when they figure out what has happened (another scene that’s supposed to be funny and isn’t), but they’re never upset with him for lying to them. I get that this is a kid’s movie, but why show this guy two-timing three women and treat it solely as a joke? For that matter, I don’t like a lot of the jokes with these three princesses. They’re clearly designed to look like the Disney iterations of the characters. Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty (who has no real name in this version) wear modern interpretations of what they wore in the Disney movies, down to the jewelry. Snow White has the same colored skirt, but her top is pink instead of blue. However, her hair, jewelry, and makeup are clearly intended to evoke the Disney version like the others in the trio. I get that the Disney versions are ubiquitous and the most well-known versions of these fairy tales. But I would like it if this film strove to build its own believable fairy tale world. Shrek (especially the second one) and Hoodwinked! both managed to do this in unique and creative ways. For that matter, I actually found the modern/casual costumes on some of the female characters distracting. Charming, Lenore, and most background characters wear vague, medieval-esque costumes during the film. To show this and then to have the princesses in trendy mall clothing is very distracting. I wish the film would pick one style and stick with it, preferably medieval/fantasy clothes. I really don’t like modern versions of fairy tales, and I don’t get the appeal. You don’t have to adhere to a strict historical time, and even most Disney movies don’t go hard and fast with this. But the film needs some kind of cohesive look that makes it memorable and gives it a visual identity.
They also make other random, unnecessary references to Disney movies, which are neither witty nor funny. Early in the film, we see a brunette woman in a blue and white dress with her face in a book. Who could this be? More importantly, what’s the point of including it in this movie? Belle has a cameo exactly like this in Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame. That wasn’t distracting because A) both films take place in France, and B) Disney puts lots of visual references to their movies in other movies. A studio (especially the same directors) making inside jokes about their own work is one thing. But a new movie by a different studio frequently showing Disney’s characters for no reason, at least to me, is distracting. They also do this with Ariel and Jasmine, both of whom fall in love with Prince Charming. This makes absolutely no sense with Jasmine, since in no version of her story does she fall for Prince Charming, but this movie has little regard for what makes sense anyway. This sounds like nitpicking, but it’s hard to get into a movie that not only won’t establish its own world and characters but seems dead-set against it. It feels like the filmmakers are going, “Have you seen Disney’s Snow White? Beauty and the Beast? Aladdin?” like this in itself is funny or good satire. Simply drawing attention to superior movies (which my time would be better spent watching) isn’t amusing but distracting. I’m trying to get involved in the story and characters of Charming, but it’s too busy reminding its audience of other movies for no narrative or entertainment purpose. I would have preferred Charming to give Cinderella, Snow White, etc., their own unique personalities and character designs. Distinguish your movie as something special, something memorable. We all know the Disney movies exist and remember them. I hate to say this since I don’t care for the film, but Shrek was much better about this. It parodied Disney and fairy tale musicals at large in ways that made sense and really said something about the medium. Merely saying “All these characters (who we didn’t bother to make our own versions of) are in love with the same guy, lolz” isn’t really satire, or even parody. You’re just drawing attention to something most people have already noticed. Some fairy tale princes are just called Charming rather than given a proper name. That’s it.
As for Charming’s original characters, I actually like them, for the most part. It probably sounds like I hated this film, but it’s actually not the case at all. As much as I love Disney fairy tale musicals (which is quite a lot), I want to see something different, which distinguishes this movie. They actually do this pretty well with the title character, who not only gets a first name but a believable personality. In this movie, Philippe is a little arrogant and selfish, but he genuinely means well. He grew up in the lap of luxury, servants and subjects doing his bidding all his life. So while these may not be ideal character traits, it makes sense why he would be this way and leads to some decent character development later in the film. The only Disney reference I actually liked came in the form of Philippe’s christening; it’s the opening from Sleeping Beauty, but Philippe is the one in the crib. He’s being blessed by a fairy when Nemeny Neverwish, his father’s guide who fell in love with him, curses him with irresistible charm. Nemeny and the King have a similar dynamic to Maleficent and King Stefan from 2014’s Maleficent. She’s in love with him, he chose to marry someone else, she curses his baby. The main difference is that in Maleficent, they make it out like Stefan deserves this even if his infant daughter doesn’t. In Charming, the King never misled or betrayed Nemeny; she just exacts terrible vengeance for being friend-zoned. If this seems like a weak set-up for a villain, wait until we get into her actual character.
The King is played by expert voice actor Jim Cummings. You may know him for voicing Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, Pete from the Mickey Mouse cartoons, Hondo Ohnaka from the animated Star Wars series, and more. Basically, if you’ve played a video game or seen a cartoon made between the 80s and now, you’ve probably heard Jim somewhere. I quite like the King, and especially his relationship with Philippe. It reminds me of Kit and the King in 2015’s Cinderella. In that film, rather than focusing solely on Cinderella (as do most versions), they give the Prince a name, a believable personality, and a life with problems outside of the romance. There’s some of that here. Like Cinderella, there’s even a scene with Philippe and his father that got me a little teary-eyed. Why can’t we have more of this and fewer awkward, out-of-place Disney cameos? The scenes Philippe shares with his father, and later Lenore, feel like they’re from a totally different movie. For the most part, these characters have understandable personalities and goals given their circumstances. The King really just loves his son and wants the curse lifted. Philippe wants to find true love, but he isn’t quite sure what that means for him. (Take that, Frozen!) Lenore doesn’t have time for true love or fairy tales. Her idea of happily ever after is to obtain as much money as possible. At times, she’s a bit too much like a female Flynn Rider/Eugene Fitzherbert from Tangled. But when they’re not making blatant references to that movie (her wanted posters are a dead-ringer to Flynn’s), it mostly works. If Charming focused more on building its own characters and fulfilling their story, I actually think this could have been something special. There’s a lot of potential here, and what does work is extremely effective. It’s a shame they decided this movie had to be chock full of references to other films.
Unfortunately, Nemeny is another aspect of Charming that doesn’t work for me. We’re told early on that she’s the one who cursed Philippe, and all because somebody didn’t love her back. Girl, that’s a little dramatic and pathetic. Have some self-respect. But in all seriousness, if the execution were there, this didn’t have to be a disaster. Nemeny’s backstory and motivation are weak, but not any more so than Maleficent’s (1959, not 2014) or the Evil Queen’s. Many classic villains have goals that are petty or don’t seem worth the effort, but we get into it because they’re entertaining or down-right scary. Nemeny is just kind of there. She’s played by Nia Vardalos from My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but she doesn’t have many lines in the film. I don’t want to continually compare this film to Disney movies, but it won’t let me forget about them long enough to enjoy its own story, so I may as well. Nemeny shares one feature with Beauty and the Beast’s Gaston; she doesn’t appear and isn’t mentioned for long stretches of the film, so, it’s easy to forget all about her. However, Beauty and the Beast does this intentionally to lull the audience into a false sense of security. Heck, Gaston doesn’t even seem like much of a threat at first. He’s a big, dumb, tough guy who wants to marry Belle, but he doesn’t threaten her with bodily harm or anything like that. She’s well on her way to falling for the Beast before Gaston actually goes beyond the creepy or annoying. With Nemeny, they actually just don’t do anything with her. She is shown intermittently, watching the main characters and assuming Lenore is too cold-hearted to fall in love with Philippe. This plan is so stupid! She could have killed Lenore or actively tried to prevent the curse from being broken like Maleficent or Ursula. But nope, she waits until the kiss of true love is literally happening to do anything about it. Her powers are also kind of vague and just look silly. If she had posed a threat before the literal last scene in the movie, they could have used her mysterious abilities to create a sense of dread and the unknown. But no, she’s just there so the movie can have an antagonist for the climax. That’s it. The only other thing she does that affects the main story is ruin the date Lenore (who Charming thinks is a man named Lenny) planned by making women swarm Phillipe. This scene is dumb, and I hate it when there’s a misunderstanding like this in a movie. Lenore shows up to the date wearing a girly dress to tell Philippe the truth, but she sees he’s talking to a group of girls and leaves. This is just such a lazy way to create conflict. One character misunderstands something they saw/heard. The other person doesn’t understand what the problem is, which all happens to kill time. Lame.
The animation in Charming isn’t bad at all. It’s not Disney or DreamWorks quality, but you know what? That’s okay. I like to see smaller studios do what they can. This is an international production (Canada-US-UK), which is always interesting. I like the actual designs of the characters, aside from some of the costumes I mentioned. Charming has its own unique animation style that doesn’t remind me of anything else, and the characters’ faces are very expressive. The backgrounds and landscapes look pretty good, and there are some genuinely beautiful shots in this movie. The visuals in Charming especially come alive whenever the main characters leave the Kingdom. The voice acting ranges from decent to pretty good. I’m not that familiar with Wilmer Valderrama, having never seen That 70s Show, but he brings humor, charm (tee hee), and even a surprising bit of pathos to Philippe. This character and his relationships with Lenore and his father are the best part of the movie, and I wish we got more of that. Demi Lovato gives a good performance as Lenore, although I’m not sure her voice was a good match for the character design. She can’t really be faulted for that, though; they could have put her in a different role or re-designed the character model. But this isn’t a deal-breaker. As I mentioned, I really liked Jim Cummings in this. The man is a professional voice actor, and it always shows in his work. John Cleese voices two characters, neither of which I want to spoil here. I will say he’s funny, and one of his roles is ironic if you’ve seen Shrek 2. As for the three princesses, they’re okay. I like Ashley Tisdale as Cinderella the best, but I’m willing to admit that may be personal bias talking. None of these characters are given anything funny or interesting to say, so, while G.E.M. and Avril Lavigne are bland and forgettable as Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, it’s not necessarily their fault. Think of Hayden Christensen’s dialogue in Attack of the Clones, but make it boring instead of meme-worthy hilarious. Nia Vardalos is similarly disadvantaged as Nemeny. I can’t even remember any of her dialogue from the movie, and I’m not sure what she could be expected to do with such standard, cookie-cutter villain talk. Sia plays the half-oracle, a half-blind member of this tribe of female giants our heroes encounter. She’s not bad, and this is actually one of the better scenes in the film. I wish they had done more with her, though, as I thought this character would be funnier than she was. I like the idea that, as a half-oracle, she’s right half the time, and you don’t know when. That’s funny. She sings a song I don’t like much, though it probably is the movie’s best song. I don’t like Sia’s music or much modern pop music at all, so your mileage may vary. I wish they went for more of a classical or Broadway sound with the music, but this is one thing they actually did differently than Disney. So maybe I’m being a hypocrite?
Overall, I enjoyed Charming about half the time and rolled my eyes the other half. I liked the matallija giantesses a lot, especially the half-oracle. Philippe, Lenore, and the King, are decent characters. They actually do something unique with Philippe, which is more than can be said for most of the film. The closest thing I can think of is Anna’s arc from the first Frozen. It’s actually much more natural and believable here. What Charming gets right works quite well. If it had developed Nemeny as more of a threat (or left her out), toned the Disney references down, and focused on Philippe and the essential people in his life, this could have been a great movie. I’m not sorry I watched Charming, and I’d say check it out if you have Netflix and need to burn 90 minutes. This is just so frustrating because the parts for a good movie are here; there’s just too much else added in.