I'm not entirely sure why, but not only didn't I expect to like Disney's Tangled, I almost didn't want to like it.
All Tangled art © 2010 Disney Enterprises, Inc.
Much to my surprise, however, it was big bunches of delight — one of my favorite movies of the year.
(I came very close to putting up a best-of-year list on the blog, by the way, but decided I just wasn't omnivorous enough in my pop-cultural diet to have it mean much. Even more movies than usual have gone unseen lately, partly because I've been laid up just as the Oscar-bait onslaught hit, but hopefully I'll post reviews of flicks older and new in good time, as well as discuss them in the context of awards shows; more comics reviews are on the way, too, and so is a long-delayed post on the 2010-2011 TV season. That said, I did qualifiedly contribute a list of favorites to my friend Stefan Blitz's megablog Forces of Geek, which you can check out there.)
So why the trepidation over Tangled?
I've come up with three interrelated reasons, all of which vaguely feel to me like rejection of the classic, largely princess-based Disney animated musical that dates back to 1937's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and which entered a modern-day resurgence with 1989's The Little Mermaid.
One reason is that the film was produced via CGI. Look, I know that plenty of traditional, cel-style "2D" animation is computer-assisted these days, and that's fine. I also totally appreciate alternative forms of animation, from the stop-motion of Coraline (the blog's first review) to the innovative sequence in the recent Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 to the considerable CGI-manufactured atmosphere in Sin City. And I adore Pixar films from Up to The Incredibles — except, like I wrote in my post on Avatar and still plan to expand upon, insofar as the Uncanny Valley is approached when perfect reproductions of things in Wall-E or the Toy Story films are contrasted with eerily imperfect reproductions of people. (Hmm... I really have to finish that follow-up essay, since I excised more on the subject from the Avatar post than I remembered.) But whereas The Incredibles sprang from a dedicated CGI studio applying its style to the sort of cel-animated superhero tale one might expect from Warner Bros. or even Disney itself, with the experimental melding of approaches highly intentional, the decision to render Tangled in that 3D/CGI fashion felt like crass commercialism infiltrating an artfully timeless lineage with the result, in previews at least, reminiscent of those Stepford-CGI Barbie movies. (If you haven't seen them, [A] you don't have little girls in the family and [B] you're lucky — not because you don't have little girls in the family but because the animation is Creepsville, North Freakistan, Population: Holy $#!%.)
The second reason is that the film had a much-debated name change from Rapunzel to Tangled. All of the Disney movies adapted from a classic fairy tale use the protagonist's name in the title or some version of the name of the fairy tale itself — Cinderella, Aladdin, Sleeping Beauty. I've read that the writers of Tangled themselves agreed with the switch from Rapunzel in part because the spotlight was as much on leading man Flynn Rider as the girl in the tower, but such perspectives didn't stop Disney from from marketing the heck out of Aladdin's Jasmine or even the Genie without changing or expanding the name of that film (whose original story and other adaptations thereof do usually have at least the lamp in the title). It all felt like not only a desire to make sure Tangled wasn't perceived as For Girls Only but to promote it, perhaps truthfully, as the sort of tongue-in-cheek, self-awarely "meta" fairy tales that have been the vogue since at least Shrek.
And the final reason, which is sort-of part and parcel of the above, is that the preceding decisions felt like such a repudiation of the preceding Disney Animated Classic, The Princess and the Frog. (Walt Disney Animated Classic, or some variation thereupon, is an actual fan- and studio-derived nomenclature used to signify features in the official animated Disney canon, even though not all of the films are necessarily acknowledged classics in terms of content or even box-office performance. Tangled is the 50th film in the lineage.) I never gave Frog the formal review it deserved here on the blog, only a quick shout-out plus a mention in the Avatar review, but I loved it; it's entirely worthy of placement in the Disney pantheon. What I hate is that its relative lack of performance in theaters seems to have compelled Disney to shy away from traditionally animated movies with traditional names — ironically so, given some of its dark, surreal sequences; the variation in the set pieces remind one of the experimentation in Fantasia.
When I saw Tangled and began writing this post a month ago, longtime film critic Gene Shalit had recently announced his retirement. I used that fact as an excuse for a torrent of puns — proclaiming Tangled's tale of "the damsel in these tresses" to be less "What the follicle?" and more a true "brush with greatness". Anyone who knows me or has simply browsed through my blogpost titles, though, knows that it was just an excuse; only the decision to rename an upcoming post that would've played off the same Duran Duran song as this one kept us from being, if you will, stranded with the title "Hair, Hair!" or — I'm actually sickeningly proud of this one — "The Big Bangs Theory".
Yet the contorted wordplay shouldn't obscure the sentiment that Tangled is indeed full of that old Disney magic. Animation supervisor Glen Keane, who stepped down as co-director but remained one of the film's executive producers, has a long history of blending cel animation with CGI — as well as a great track record at Disney, having designed The Little Mermaid's Ariel, in many ways the template for the Disney Princess revival, and contributed mightily to other hits. Some cursory Web research reveals Keane's dedication to keeping Tangled's look true to the traditional Disney flavor while using less traditional ingredients, but what surprised me most of all was that Tangled didn't rotoscope its characters [explained on Wikipedia] despite appearances to the contrary. The little gestures — which is where a film like this leaves its mark, at least as much as in the fireworks — are so fluid, intimate, and real that I have a hard time believing even the most skilled pencil or program could've created them without photographic assistance. Far from my fears of plasticity, Tangled is flowingly animated in the best senses of the word.
The story of Rapunzel as lodged in the popular consciousness is probably as brief as any myth, legend, or fairy tale Disney has ever adapted, so it's certainly ripe for expansion and reinterpretation: A fair maiden with astoundingly long, golden locks is trapped in a tower. Suitors or rescuers or a witch or all of the above regularly shout out to her, "Rapunzel! Rapunzel! Let down your hair!" That's about it.
In Tangled there are no suitors until the young man who helps her escape belatedly becomes one. The witch is Gothel, a scheming crone who has captured the infant princess Rapunzel to raise as her own because Rapunzel's flowing hair — for reasons revealed in the lovely opening sequence — has powers of healing and eternal youth as long as it remains uncut. Mother Gothel has tried to poison Rapunzel's mind against the outside world, ensuring that she never leaves their tower through the window from which Rapunzel lowers Gothel to a freedom she longs to experience herself and from which every year, on her birthday, she gazes upon thousands of distant lights floating through the night sky — actually paper lanterns released by the king, the queen, and their people longing for their princess's return. As her 18th birthday nears, Rapunzel has resolved to see the lights up close, one way or another, just as the dashing bandit Flynn Ryder has stolen the tiara that awaits Rapunzel should she ever return to the castle and comes upon the tower that, unbeknownst to him, is house and prison the tiara's rightful owner. Zany hijinks ensue, along with music, merriment, and of course romance, although in keeping with the sometimes grim (if not exactly Grimm) Disney classics so do misunderstanding, treachery, and even death. The death isn't as ultimately poignant as the one in The Princess and the Frog, but I still wouldn't show Tangled to younger viewers without parental comfort on hand.
One of the nicest things about Tangled is that it's found a way for Rapunzel to do more than just pine for the outside world. She doesn't know she's a princess and is utterly unconcerned with being either royalty or a girlfriend/wife, but she's made it a mission to better herself — partly, of course, out of utter boredom — as a voracious reader, self-taught artist, and mistress of a myriad of uses for her unending mane.
The cast is a nice middle ground between the professional voice actors and singers who once exclusively populated such films and the live-action stars who, for their recognizable speech and ideally their marquee value, are generally preferred on big-budget animated efforts today. Rapunzel is voiced by Mandy Moore, who began her career with pop songs and movies I pretty much never heard nor saw until catching her one night on The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn, where she performed impressive covers of XTC's "Senses Working Overtime" and Cat Stevens' "Moonshadow"; shortly thereafter, she was in the fairly well-reviewed satire Saved! with Jena Malone. Flynn Rider is, surprisingly, voiced by Zachary Levi, title character on NBC's Chuck. Gothel is voiced by Broadway vet Donna Murphy, of whom I first became aware on ABC's experimental Murder One. Supporting roles are filled by a variety of character actors with distinctive voices, including Ron Perlman, M.C. Gainey, Jeffrey Tambor, Brad Garrett, and Jaws himself (not the shark), Richard Kiel. Everyone who needs to sing can sing fine, and while they don't sing, speak, or show off in particularly anthropomorphic fashion there are also a pair of prominent critters in the form of Rapunzel's pet chameleon Pascal and a horse called Maximus.
Composer Alan Menken is not only a Disney stalwart but a national treasure, having contributed to several Disney Animated Classics, the live-action cult favorite Newsies, and the superb Enchanted, plus, with the late Howard Ashman, being co-creator of the stage musical version of Little Shop of Horrors. Lyricist Glenn Slater, who stepped into Ashman's giant shoes for the Broadway incarnation of The Little Mermaid and earlier collaborated with Menken on Sister Act: The Musical, joins him again for Tangled. Menken and Slater were in fact probably the deciding factor in my seeing Tangled, and while not as memorable as some of their works the soundtrack is impressively organic and varied. Murphy gets to chew the scenery in grande dame fatale style with "Mother Knows Best" while the company gets an infectious number in "I've Got a Dream"; what really took me aback was Moore and Levi's duet on "I See the Light" — while the visuals were quietly showstopping, the music had a strangely heartstopping melancholy that reminded me of all the Dan Fogelberg I heard as a kid.
I realize that the vast majority of Tangled's potential audience has already made up its mind whether to see the film simply based on it being the next Disney animated musical, but if any of the infinitesimal fraction of that audience that is this blog's readership is on the fence about it, let me first thank you for combing your way through this oversized essay and conclude by saying that it's well worth coiffing up a sawbuck to watch amidst the seasonal glut. (Did I finally just lose you with that one?)