My parents weren’t big on fairy tales, so much of what I know of them comes from pop culture references. Before watching Tangled this afternoon, my only knowledge of Rapunzel was the famous “Let down your hair” line, and some business about a girl trapped in a tower. I also knew that movie’s trailer made it look abysmal, full of sub-Shrek buffoonery and the obligatory sidekick animal. I’m really glad I didn’t spoil myself by reading the story, and I’m ecstatic that I didn’t let my preconceived notions keep me from seeing one of the best films of the year.
This is a Disney film like you’ve never seen—and not just because it’s rendered in beautiful 3D animation. It may be that the success of Pixar (officially bought by Disney a few years ago) caused the Disney’s creators to step up their game and deliver a cutting edge take on the studio’s bread and butter, the Princess Movie. Tangled represents not just a rebirth of Walt Disney Pictures, it also signals a threat to Pixar, Dreamworks, and any other outfit with designs on making truly classic family entertainment.
Tangled’s first attention-grabber happens during the tried-and-true origin story flashback, where we learn about a special flower imbued with the power of the sun; it has the power to heal the sick and preserve youthfulness for anyone who possesses it. A king learns of the flower’s powers and sends his armies to find it, in the hopes that the magic will cure his sick, pregnant wife.
The flower is snatched away from an old crone who’d been hording its gifts to keep her young and attractive, and the queen lives to give birth to Rapunzel—who now carries the same powers in her hair. The crone kidnaps Rapunzel and hides her in a secluded tower in the middle of the forest, never allowing her to leave.
We’ve seen lots of Disney movies where a witch places a curse on a princess, but what struck me about Tangled is that the old woman has no super powers; she controls Rapunzel through will and manipulation; she creates a world inside the tower that is complete and safe, and convinces her captive that the world beyond its walls is dangerous and not worth visiting.
On the eve of Rapunzel’s eighteenth birthday, she meets Flynn Ryder, a thief who hides out in the tower while ducking the royal guard (he’s stolen a crown). Rapunzel and her pet chameleon Pascal form a reluctant deal with Flynn: they’ll return the crown that they’ve hidden from him in exchange for a trip outside to watch the annual ritual of the flying lanterns, which the royal family puts on in the hopes of helping the lost princess find her way back home.
You can guess Tangled’s trajectory from here. What may surprise you is the way in which the film sets up genre conventions and selectively indulges and dodges them. There’s lots of material that we’ve seen before, but screenwriter Dan Fogelman tweaks the conventions just so, resulting in enough sidestepping to keep the audience from tuning out. For example, watch the scene towards the end where Rapunzel returns the crown to Flynn; a lesser movie would have gone one way with this development; Fogelman actually takes us to the same conclusion, but he tosses in a couple of story beats to throw us off the scent of the inevitable.
The one weak point in Tangled is the music. Full disclosure: I’m not the biggest fan of musicals, especially musical cartoons, but my cold assessment of this film is that half the songs don’t really work and half the songs really, really work. I would say that the movie would have done just as well—if not better—without the interludes, but “I’ve Got a Dream”, “I See the Light”, and “When Will My Life Begin” are such great numbers that I couldn’t imagine the film without them. So, I guess you can ignore my bullshit detour about the music and return to the review, already in progress…
If Tangled has one advantage over all the movies that have come before it, it’s the brilliant character rendering and animation. I’ve not seen a film of this kind that has ported over the grace and nuance of traditional hand-drawn Disney animation into the realm of 3D. While the Pixar movies have done amazing things with stylized human figures and are second to none when it comes to anthropomorphizing cars, monsters and eager dogs, they’ve never gotten people down in a way that didn’t look askew.
Under the direction of Nathan Greno and Byron Howard, the Disney artists have brought a new caliber of character to the scene. The only nitpick I have about the design is that Rapunzel’s large green eyes look freakish at the wrong angle, but otherwise I can’t find any flaws with the look or flow of anyone in the movie. The latter part is thanks to legendary animator Glen Keane and his co-animation supervisors Clay Kaytis and John Kahrs. They set a marvelous tone of believability for the inhabitants of this world; even when a character takes a comic hit or fall, the exaggerations of form are both true to life and true to the conventions of traditional animation.
I’d also like to give a big nod to Terri Douglas and Cymbre Walk, who cast Tangled. The casting department is often the first group I feel the urge to kill after watching a big-screen cartoon feature; but Douglas and Walk went with great character actors for their supporting cast and not-at-all-distracting stars for their main players. Mandy Moore is both a musician and a movie star, but she’s just under the radar enough that I was focused on her role as Rupunzel and not picturing her in a sound booth. The same goes for Zachary Levi, who voices Flynn. His character suggests a young Bruce Campbell or Chris Evans, but Levi breaks out of the smarmy stud mold and gives a great performance. It was a real treat to see the full cast listed in the closing credits—which, I might add, came several minutes in, following the artists, writers and sound people—and seeing names like Ron Perlman, Brad Garrett, M.C. Gainey, and others; these are gifted actors with distinct voices, instead of random celebrities hired only to fill up space on a one-sheet.
For me, the true test of a great animated feature is whether or not it gets to me emotionally. I cried at the end of Tangled—not convulsive weeping, mind you, but I wiped my cheeks a couple times. Everything about this movie is beautiful; it’s whimsical and scary, hearfelt and heart-breaking. It’s also original even when you think it’s headed down Trope Alley. By the time the inevitable happy ending rolled around, my heart had been completely opened to this adventure, and I couldn’t wait to show the film to my family.
Note: On the slim chance that anyone from Pixar, Dreamworks, Warner Brothers, or the other big-name studios is reading this (quit giggling), you should know that Disney has officially put you on notice. I suffered through the trailers for Yogi Bear and Cars 2 today, and that shit just won’t cut it now that we have Tangled to contend with. It’s time to grow up and pour your hearts into making epic art again; to do something you and your kids can be proud of, instead of Larry the Cable Guy shooting missiles at Michael Caine and the scourge of Jellystone Park taking his billionth pie in the face.