Tangled is something of a landmark for Disney. It’s their fiftieth animated movie. It’s also, according to reports, most likely to be their last “princess” film. I’m still not sure if that’s a shame or not. Mind you, I’m not sure how many other princesses of legend are left to chronicle.
The film also marks a return to the core values and tropes that make your classic Disney films so satisfying. By going back to its roots, the House Of Mouse has made their most successful movie since 2007’s Enchanted; a film which took delight in extracting the Mickey out of the story beats that Tangled embraces and celebrates.
We all know the tale. A girl, imprisoned in a tower by an evil witch, whose only means of entry is by means of her long golden hair, is rescued by a handsome prince. It ties into the myth of the lost princess, one of the main building blocks of yer average fairy tale. Sleeping Beauty. Beauty And The Beast. Cinderella, stuck in near-slavery. Snow White, in exile with a bunch of vertically-challenged miners. It’s a base to build a story on, a solid foundation of myth and legend.
Tangled’s screenwriter, Dan Fogelman (sweetly, IMDB also lists Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm as co-writers) takes that core idea and answers the simple question that everyone asks. What happens if Rapunzel lets down her golden hair and breaks herself out of her prison, rather than waiting for a prince? By making her story a quest, a love story, a rite of passage and a return home, Fogelman does a great job of not just answering the question, but telling a story that bears retelling at bedtime. More importantly, by giving Rapunzel’s ‘do a point and a purpose, the story has an impetus, becoming the engine that drives the tale on.
It’s traditional enough, sure. There’s a happy ending (ok, fine SPOILER ALERT, Disney film has happy ending. In other news, water is wet, the sky is blue, yo’ mama wears an afro with a chinstrap) and cute animal sidekicks. It’s all set in that pleasingly ill-defined land of mittel-European castles, forests and jolly, clean, well-fed peasants that we may as well call HistoryLand. But there are subtle trims to the formula. The animals are unvoiced, letting the character animation do all the talking. Maximus the horse is bold and brave. Pascal the chameleon is loyal and sassy. We get it, and we don’t need a comedy voice to put a wig on it and make it do a shuck and jive. There’s plenty of slapstick and broad humour, but the jokes work on the grown-ups in the audience too. The main characters aren’t limp and lifeless. They’re sharply drawn and inhabit the screen with flair and verve.
And I mean sharply-drawn in all senses of the word. The animation is, as you’d expect, stunning. But it’s not just the vistas, set pieces and special effects that make it special (although yeah, the lantern sequence, something in my eye, I’ll be fine). The character animation is beautifully nuanced. Every little flit of emotion on Rapunzel and Flynn’s faces is exquisitely done. This isn’t performance capture or any of the other cheats in which Zemekis, Cameron and Jackson have decided to base their careers. This is proper, honest to goodness cartooning, showing the magic that happens when talented animators use the best tools the 21st century can offer.
It’s bolstered with great voice work too. Thank goodness, for Tangled the directors plumped for actors with Broadway experience, who know how to project a line and make it sing. I’m so sick of animated films with all-star casts that don’t understand how to act for cartoons. You have to be larger than life. Instead, you so often get a flat, cold delivery that’s not so much “will this do?” as “screw you, pay me.” Mandy Moore, Zachary Levi and the amazing Donna Murphy get it so right that I’m astonished there isn’t a Best Voice category at the Oscars. They bring the gold, the final grace notes of wit and charm, menace and wickedness that make the characters shine. You get to believe in, and root for them.
By bringing back Alan Menken, the talent behind most of the Disney songs you know since The Little Mermaid, Tangled gets another boost. I’d gone off songs in Disney films, (and towards the end of Menken’s run they were kind of jammed on and lacquered into place) but here they do the perfect job – commenting on the inner life of Rapunzel, the relationship between her and Mother Gothel and in the riotous Snuggy Duckling sequence, showing that even hardened brigands and ruffians have dreams. They’re neatly done, don’t overstay their welcome, and move the story forward in graceful ways to which the writers of Glee should be paying note.
The fiftieth Disney animated film shows how far the studio has come since Snow White, and how much they’ve learned. It’s a company that has always been prepared to take risks with their movies, and to learn from them. After the major mis-step of Home On The Range (Don’t. Seriously. Just … don’t.) Disney retrenched, learning with the brilliant Enchanted how to laugh at themselves, and with The Princess And The Frog that it’s the story rather than the CGI that makes the film. Under the watchful eye of Pixar’s John Lasseter I feel quietly hopeful that rather than marking the end of an era, Tangled takes the best of the past and zshuzzes it up into something new and fresh.
Maybe I’m overthinking it. Tangled is one of those films that works as entertainment and history lesson, but ultimately, it’s a fun, smart and extremely pretty family movie. You can just let your hair down and enjoy it.