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Disney Sundays: Tangled (2010)

          During the 2000s while Pixar and DreamWorks were on fire with CG animated movies, Disney wasn’t doing so well in that form. The kind of movies they were trying to make weren’t quite their own and felt like they were attempting to replicate the identity of those other major studios. Either the comedy and pacing of DreamWorks or the sentimentality of Pixar. But Disney needed to use the form to their own advantage, and unlike those studios, had a long history with a recognizable identity. And so at long last in 2010 appropriately for their 50th animated feature they decided to do a princess story in this new art form.
          But really, Tangled? That was the best title you could go with? Not simply Rapunzel? That title sounds like some direct-to-DVD fairy-tale parody movie!
          Tangled is an adaptation of the Rapunzel fairy tale which for a long time seemed like the only well-known fairy tale Disney hadn’t done yet. The princess Rapunzel has magical golden hair that rejuvenates life. She was kidnapped as a child and raised by Mother Gothel who uses her hair to retain her youthfulness. Kept hidden in a secluded tower all her life she finally leaves when a thief called Flynn Rider discovers her. Unaware of her true identity, Rapunzel goes with Flynn to see the sky lanterns that are raised every year in the kingdom in honour of the missing princess, careful not to be caught by Gothel who’s fearful she’ll discover her secret.
          Whether it was intentional or not, I think it’s a great gesture that Disney for their 50th animated film went back to a classic style. Because Tangled really is that classic pastoral pseudo-medieval fairy tale that Disney’s only really done in Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. But the thing is, Tangled was made at a very different time than Snow White. Because it’s a post-Shrek era fairy tale it’s obliged to treat its source very differently. Now this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it means adding more character and excitement as well as playing down those tropes that the likes of Shrek makes fun of. But it also means there’s more of an obligation to be current and tongue-in-cheek. And Disney has the task of both pleasing the audience expecting this, while also maintaining a seriousness and sense of Disney magic and beauty. And it’s a difficult thing. But it doesn’t keep a number of moments in this movie from coming off as awkward.
          Looking at the story, I think it’s done pretty well. The backstory feels like a proper fairy tale with its quiet ambience and darker development. And while the moment of triumph for Rapunzel traditionally, is her escape from the tower, the movie comes up with a good way around it to keep the story going. The tone feels a little more stable than in The Princess and the Frog, maybe just because the levity is more organic but there are still a number of instances where I feel its trying to appease a certain demographic. There are some very funny moments, great set-ups, some decent slapstick, even a couple of the running gags like the depiction of Flynn’s nose and the frying pan bit are pretty good; but some of the character humour really falls flat for trying too hard to imitate something it’s not.
          One thing I do appreciate is how minimal a cast Tangled has. Therefore a lot of what would make this movie sink or float is dependant on its characters. And the main character Rapunzel, is fine. I think another issue with updating this kind of a Disney fairy tale story is updating the lead but still retaining the personality traits Disney’s reliant on in these roles. Rapunzel is a far cry from Tiana, being an intentionally traditional princess where Tiana was deliberately subverting that archetype. Because of this Rapunzel has that doe-eyed curiosity and dream of something more that’s become standard and let’s be honest, boring at this point. And apart from that, and her over-enthusiasm, she doesn’t independently have much of an engaging personality. There are moments sure, like when she’s bluffing Flynn, and I really like the cuts of her going back and forth on her conflicting feelings about being out of the tower. It’s both telling and funny. Speaking of which, Flynn is kind of divisive for me. On the one hand most of the stuff that’s genuinely funny in this movie comes from him and I like that he’s both a romantic lead and comic relief. Not only does it null the necessity of a pointless side character but also makes him feel more realistic as someone with multidimensional attributes. You can be handsome and have a sense of humour. But on the other hand …the animators really like that eyebrow. Not only is he design-wise really intentionally handsome, but more than any other male love interest in Disney, he feels like a boy band member. He’s too suave. His attitude at times is a little annoying and kinda feels manipulating. He’s definitely of that Shrek mold of a modern guy transplanted in a fairy tale environment. As for now he’s still okay, but he can take you out if it, and I get the feeling he’s not going to age well. Also, is it just me or does his backstory sound like Cider House Rules? Mandy Moore and Zachary Levi don’t bring a whole lot of their own to the characters, but they’re alright. Though I do hate Flynn being the narrator. It comes off as the filmmakers trying to find a middle-ground between David Ogden Stiers in Beauty and the Beast and David Spade in The Emperor’s New Groove but every time a serious piece of exposition is introduced he gets jokey and its cringing. Worse, he spells everything out and the audience isn’t treated with much intelligence, particularly when he reminds us Gothel’s going to be important. 
          And that brings me to Mother Gothel who I’m similarly split on. Broadway actress Donna Murphy is good and is really enjoying herself, but that sarcastic former diva attitude of hers seems a little too ripped off of the Fairy Godmother from Shrek 2 or judging by her design, Cher. She has lines about being “the bad guy” that are pretty awful and is just generally over-the-top a lot of time, particularly in her song sequence. But the character of her villainy and her relationship with Rapunzel is possibly the most interesting and certainly darkest part of the movie. This is the relationship between Aurora and the fairies from Sleeping Beauty, but twisted! It also hearkens back a little to Frollo and Quasimodo, but as flawless a villain as Frollo was, he didn’t raise Quasimodo as his own, or masque his true vileness behind loving words and closeness. Rapunzel’s grown up as Gothel’s daughter which makes the nature of their relationship, being that Gothel’s just been using this girl all her life for her own selfish needs, more disturbing. Most of the time she acts like a caring mother too, Rapunzel says “I love you” to her unaware of how unreciprocated that sentiment is. What I like even more is that Gothel has no magical powers of her own, yet she’s still intimidating to Rapunzel when she finds her outside of the tower, purely through the psychological power she has over her. Yeah, this movie subtly touches on the psychological damage of abusive parentage. Hell this is almost the Disney equivalent of Carrie. And to me this raises the film’s quality above average.
          At the time it came out, Tangled was definitely the best looking CG animated movie Disney had made. There are some pretty nice looking backgrounds and locations, I like how they try to make sense of the tower’s isolation, and the palace has a cool Minas Tirith thing going. A lot of the comedic animation looks really good and there’s some fun action sequences. There are also a couple moments, like when Rapunzel’s hair glows underwater and when she and Flynn are watching the lantern lighting from the boat that are perfect Disney. Though the character animation is what really shines. Yeah some of it isn’t that impressive, like the gang of How to Train Your Dragon rejects at the pub and the anachronistic chameleon who’s there just because Rapunzel needs a pet. But I was very surprised at how expressive the main characters were. For as simple a part though she is, Rapunzel has some very detailed expressions that I haven’t seen often captured in animation. And also, has Disney ever given a princess an overbite? I like that! It helps make her feel even more like a teenager. That being said, her hair length which was a pretty big factor in selling this movie, is incredibly inconsistent coming off in the tower as endless but outside as only a few metres. Also I can’t help but nitpick how much pain she should be in when people climb her hair. Though Flynn’s attractiveness is overly emphasized, he’s still allowed a degree of over-the-top reactions, like his passive aggressive attempts to steer Rapunzel back to the tower and his responses to Rapunzel’s magic. Gothel looks pretty great as well. And Maximus the law-abiding obsessed horse who’s one of the funniest characters, looks terrific while also being pretty entertaining. But for that good animation, there’s less than stellar music. None of the songs are really terrible but you’re not going to remember them (Flynn’s face throughout “I’ve Got Dream” is an accurate representation of the audience). 
          As a turning point for Disney rediscovering themselves and for CG animation at the studio, Tangled is a pretty good accomplishment. It’s also a nice tribute to Disney’s roots as their 50th animated feature. It’s got some good characterization and humour half the time, some pretty good animation, and a really dark almost discomforting relationship driving a lot of the drama. It’s not a great movie by any means, still borrowing a little too much from other brands that are popular, but if you want to see a somewhat classic kind of fairy tale with a dark side and some good humour, it’s certainly worth checking out.

Next Week: Winnie the Pooh (2011)

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